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As many historians of women’s paid work have argued, the working conditions women have experienced throughout the capitalist industrial age have always been considerably worse than those experienced by men. Job precariousness can be considered a distinctive and persistent feature of their working conditions, even though the forms of precariousness affecting the female workforce varied in intensity along with the changes in the organization, regulations and structuring of work .
Nowadays, job precariousness is a highly controversial topic in the political and economic debate within national and European institutions over labour matters. Although not a new occurrence in the history of industrial capitalism, job precariousness is considered by most economists and sociologists a distinguishing feature of post-industrial society from the late 1980s after the break down of the Fordist system.
In a long-term perspective, the category of job precariousness has often been used to describe the conditions of workers during the Industrial Age, even though the term itself has not always been applied in this way. Job precariousness was perceived as one of the major issues for industrial workers in the first phase of industrialization, when labour relationships were negotiated on an exclusively individual basis and workers could be dismissed at any moment.
In the second phase of industrialization, from the end of the 19th to the beginning of the 20th century, in spite of the generalization of fixed-wage payment, the outcry against job precariousness increased constantly, revealing how unskilled and interchangeable labour was making workers’ conditions more unstable. The definition of precariousness and the protest against it became more visible with the rise of the so-called ‘social question’ at the end of the 19th century. Both the concepts of precariousness and its denunciation were to be found repeatedly in the inquiries into workers’ social conditions promoted, on the one hand, by the ruling classes and government authorities and, on the other, by workers’ associations and their political leaders.
After the fulfillment of the Fordist system in 1930s United States and in post-war Western Europe, employment conditions became more stable and job precariousness ceased to be an important topic in the study of working conditions. The thirty years of greatest economic growth, the so-called Golden Age (1945-1975), were actually considered by many commentators as the period of greatest job stability in the history of industrial capitalism.
Despite the opinion of these commentators, even in the Golden Age women’s working conditions were worse than men’s and can be considered precarious. In the various areas of industrial production and economic development in Italy, female labour terms of employment were both quantitatively and qualitatively inferior to those of male workers. In most cases pay scales were lower, the periods of qualification and dequalification more unfavourable, and contract terms generally less secure than those of male workers. The combination of these aspects of women’s paid work resulted in what was to be called ‘job precariousness’.
Statistics, among other sources, indicate that during the Golden Age women workers were subject to a number of precarious forms of work in the industrial sector. Short-term contracts, piece-work and work at home provided the worker with no continuity of tenure, nor any fixed minimum wage. In the worst cases these women workers were deprived of any forms of security or safety. The Parliamentary Commission inquiring into workers’ conditions pointed out that women workers were especially weak and precarious in the 1950s and early 1960s labour market, since the short-term contract was chiefly used to get rid of them if they decided to marry or have children.
In the last years of the economic boom (1958-1963) a first set of laws was passed in order to solve the problem of women being ousted from the factories, or workplaces in general after marriage. In 1962 a law was passed to tighten up on short-term contracts to try and remove the abuses that the parliamentary inquiry had brought to light. In 1963 a law was introduced to ban the dismissal of female workers for matrimonial causes, thus overruling the preexisting spinster clauses. Other important laws passed in those years addressed the topics of work at home, regulated by the law of 1958, and equal pay, promoted by a 1960 agreement in industry. Nevertheless, until the so-called Worker’s Statute in 1970, dismissals were often arbitrary and discrimination against women was very common. For details see the article: E. Betti, Women’s Working Conditions and Job Precariousness in Historical Perspective. The Case of Italian Industry during the Economic Boom (1958-1963), in I. Agárdi, B. Waaldijk, C. Salvaterra (ed. by), Making Sense, Crafting History: Practices of Producing Historical Meaning, Plus Pisa University Press, Pisa, 2010.
Eloisa Betti is a post-doc researcher at the University of Bologna. Her research interests deal with women and labour in a gender perspective.