Faculty, Labour Studies

Traversing the Disciplines and Reaching Precarious Worlds: Labour Studies Professor, Dr. Kendra Strauss, on “work” in the 21st Century

October 14, 2014

Before she came to her permanent position in Labour Studies at SFU, before her postdoctoral positions with the Interuniversity Research Centre on Globalization and Work and the University of Glasgow, and before she completed her PhD in Geography at Oxford University, Dr. Kendra Strauss was a creative writer. While enrolled in the Creative Writing Program in her hometown’s University of Victoria, Vancouver Island, Strauss says that a shift in focus lead her to follow her interests in cultural and critical theory and enroll in the Cultural Studies BA program at McGill University.

With a passion for critical inquiry, and a desire to understand how inequality and exploitation operates in modern society, Strauss says she wasn’t sure about turning her attention to graduate school after completing her undergraduate degree. Many sharp young graduates might naturally gravitate towards graduate school, bust Strauss says—at the time—it didn’t feel right and she spent the next five years working outside the academic sphere and taking some time to travel.

When Strauss did return to academia, she found a multi-disciplinary home in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. She completed a Master of Science in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance and in 2008—supervised by economic geographer Dr. Gordon R. Clark—completed her PhD thesis on the economic conditions of UK occupational pensions.

While Strauss’ dissertation research focused on UK pensions and the context of workers who were British, her current research interests in undocumented and migrant workers came about while she was living in the UK in 2004. One particular event that drew her attention was a tragedy now ten-years-old: the Morecambe Bay Cockling Disaster, where 20 undocumented Chinese workers drowned while picking cockles.

Strauss explains, “The terrible deaths at Morecambe Bay spurred a number of legal and regulatory innovations and heralded an intensifying political and policy interest in forced labour, trafficking and ‘modern slavery’. At the same time, broader economic and social trends have seen increasing precariousness in work through labour market de- and re- regulation (often in the interests of employers) and the expansion of part-time, temporary and low-paid work.”

Although the deaths did provoke changes to some industry regulations and guidelines, as several anniversary stories on Morecambe Bay have reported just this year, the safety and human rights of migrant workers has not improved and workers embroiled such modern forms of “slavery” are increasingly exploited. At the time of this particular migrant worker story, Strauss says she became interested in these contradictions as they played out “especially since labour trafficking has been under-researched relative to trafficking for sexual exploitation.”

Delving into the issue of labour trafficking and beyond, Strauss’ co-edited collection with Dr. Judy Fudge (Kent Law School), Temporary Work, Agencies, and Unfree Labour: Insecurity in the New World of Work (Routledge 2013), takes on a variety of contemporary contexts where precarious and nonstandard labour are prescient. Some case studies in the book look at Filipino caregivers in Canada, the emerging market of temporary work in China, and the increase in temp agencies in South Africa and Namibia, to name a few.

Strauss says the collection takes on what she calls the “implications of criminal law/human rights approaches to extreme labour exploitation that often elide enhanced labour and employment rights.” Among several accolades given to the collection, book reviewer and geography, Dr. Ben Rogaly (University of Sussex) notes that the book does a good job of showing how labour precarity in various forms has become normalized in several contemporary contexts.

Strauss has another co-edited collection, with political ecologist Dr. Katie Meehan (University of Oregon) forthcoming with University of Georgia Press in 2015. Precarious Worlds: Contested Geographies of Social Reproduction is a collection Strauss says “brings together quite different approaches to the question of how to theorize and operationalize social reproduction in relation to feminist politics.” This is partly due to Meehan’s background in political ecology, a relatively new approach in political economy that insists upon including environmental and ecological perspectives.

Strauss says the book’s contributors “explore differentiated and contested relations of social reproduction through geographical case studies” while also drawing on “diverse theorizations of materiality.” Strauss goes on to say that the editors aim for this book is to “be a spur to debate how theorists of social reproduction can grapple with ‘big issues’ like climate change.” Researchers and topics covered in the collection include: a study of ‘mobile care’ in South African migrant households by Dr. Khayaat Fakier (University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg), a study of gender and the “dirty work” of municipal waste collection in the urban setting of Dakar, Senegal by Dr. Rosalind Fredericks (NYU), and an inquiry into the livelihood of shrimp fishermen in the Mississippi and Mekong deltas by Dr. Brian Marks (Louisiana State U).

While the topics of these edited collections span the globe, issues of precarity are also evident closer to home, within post-secondary education. The scarcity of tenure-track, academic jobs and challenge of precarious adjunct labour has oft been addressed in such forums like the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education. Strauss says while it is a “good sign” that precarity in higher education is finally receiving some attention, potential answers are complex; in the Canadian context, for example, she says “current provincial and federal governments are ideologically opposed to funding most public goods, including healthcare and primary and secondary education.”

That said, Strauss says it is “significant” that there are efforts to organize labourers in post-secondary institutions (e.g. SFU or University of Victoria) and build coalitions across labour movements (e.g. the 2015 MLA Subconference in Vancouver). She says these kinds of efforts are “essential” if the labour movement is going to survive and continue to challenge threats to “workers’ security, pay, benefits and conditions and the increasing concentration of income, wealth and power in Canada.”

Collectively engaging these problems of precarious labour will be of relevance during the 2015 4th Global Conference on Economic Geography, at Oxford, UK. The conference, of which Strauss is a chief convener, is aimed at geographers and non-geographers alike to share “diverse perspectives on labour, work and economic geographies.”

Strauss is the organizing member of the “Work Economies” section of the conference which asks whether or not we are “on the cusp of the end of work as we know it?” Strauss admits that while we may not be seeing the actual end of work as we know it, “one’s perspective on this differs hugely depending on one’s position, and if you have been laid off at 55 years of age after a lifetime career in the public sector in Greece it probably feels that way.” Alternatively, she explains, if you are someone in a secure position in the financial sector, you might see the more recent sub-prime mortgage crisis and credit crunch as “relatively unchanged; in fact, your pay may well have gone up. If you’re a ‘low-skilled’ elder-care worker providing homecare in Canada or the US, you are probably a racialized woman and your wages are still amongst the lowest in the labour market.”

Strauss stresses that these kinds of discrepancies in how different classes of workers experience changing labour conditions demonstrate the need for “more nuanced ways of studying and theorizing changes in labour and work across diverse contexts that don’t privilege the experiences of ‘advanced industrial’ economies and then generalize them, and that don’t ignore unpaid and informal work.”

As events like the conference at Oxford or the MLA Subconference in Vancouver suggest, scholars like Strauss are not only eager to engage in research and come up with new methodologies, they are connecting across labour sectors to inform and construct relevant, impactful questions—questions that both value casual, low-paying, or informal work and that are invested in upholding the rights of workers at-risk within those precarious contexts.