For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"“I choose to be here”: Tensions between autonomy and precarity in craft market vendors’ work"

by Kovesi, Caroline; Kern, Leslie (2018)


Outdoor markets have emerged as key nodes in cities’ attempts to revitalize downtown areas through culture and consumption. However, few studies have investigated urban markets as sites of labor, or explored work conditions from the perspective of vendors themselves. As self-employed creative workers in a seasonal industry, artisan vendors experience various forms of economic insecurity related to precarity inherent to their line of work. This article investigates the experiences of artisan craft vendors in Ottawa’s popular ByWard Market. Through interviews with vendors, we explore themes such as artisan identity, relationships in the market, and economic and labor conditions. We argue that although precarity seems to be inherent in the vendors’ work conditions, it does not undermine their identities as artisans, in part because of the strong value attached to autonomous, creative work. This attachment may, however, hinder artisan vendors’ abilities to organize for structural changes that would mitigate their economic precarity.

Key Passage

For many, the major draws of artistic labor and self-employment are autonomy, freedom, and flexibility. Vending at the craft market offered a relatively low-cost and lowcommitment opportunity for artisans to sell their own products and reach a large customer base without having to invest in retail space or commit to set days and hours of work. However, as scholarly research on flexible, creative, non-standard self-employment shows, these qualities almost invariably come at the expense of security, income, benefits, unionization, and stability. Stress, long hours, and self-sacrifice may become an accepted standard in casualized creative labor, as the individual “autonomous” worker bears the brunt of labor risk, uncertainty, and vulnerability. Such precarity has been described as the new norm of modern labor, and the working conditions of artisan vendors at the ByWard Market are no exception. Here, we have tried to pay careful attention to vendors’ lived understandings of their own work. As Penelope told us, “I think . . . the people who call the shots need to be really aware of down on the street where we all are, what’s really going on.” In trying to make sense of knowledge produced “down on the street,” we offer some insights on the relationship between autonomy and precarity for creative workers, with the intention of learning how we might better their working conditions, without compromising what they value most about their work. (p.182)


Crafts, Creative Work, Seasonal Work, Gig Economy, Autonomy


Precarious Work, Goods of Work

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