Insecurity in the New World of Work
Kendra Strauss and Judy Fudge
In the last decade, studies of labour market change, especially in the industrialised global North, have theorised and provided evidence of a number of interlinked processes related in different ways to the breakdown of the postwar normative model of paid employment. This model of employment, although differentially articulated, embedded and enforced, nevertheless provided key threads of continuity that bound nations to a common understanding of the employment relationship. These threads of continuity included the standard contract of employment, the male breadwinner gender contract (encompassing the family wage), and the “classical” labour law regulatory regime grounded in a triangular relationship between companies, trade unions and the state (Supiot 2001) through which the benefits afforded by the standard employment model were institutionalised and enforced (Fudge and Owens 2006). The standard contract of employment itself conveyed a model of risk sharing in which fidelity to an employer over the life course was rewarded with continuous, full-time employment, on the employer’s premises or under the employer’s supervision, with adequate occupational welfare benefits (e.g. a pension, health insurance, sickness and holiday pay entitlements), a standardised working day and week and often (although not universal) union representation (Vosko 2000). Moreover, as the work of economic and labour geographers has highlighted, this normative model constructed, and was influenced by, geographical, spatial and scalar configurations of the space-economy that have been disrupted and reconfigured along with the standard employment relationship (Herod 2001).
The processes related to (both driven by and driving) the breakdown of the standard employment relationship include the generalised but uneven deregulation (or, more accurately, reregulation) and flexibilisation of labour markets (Peck, Theodore and Ward 2005), discourses and policies of neo-liberal globalisation (Herod 2000), increased—although vastly unequal— mobility of capital and labour and deindustrialisation and the rise of the service economy, with concomitant declining union power and density ( cf
Cumbers, Nativel and Routledge 2008). Macro-level outcomes of these processes have included a shift in the power of global capital relative to the power of (national and international) labour and more localised policies attacking the power of national working class and labour movements (see e.g. Wills et al. 2009). In this sense these processes are illustrative of new formations of state-capital relations because as Fudge and Owens (2006: 5, emphasis added) point out in relation to globalisation and the “new economy”: “the market has assumed a central place in the global order, dominating and driving it, but forged by interdependency of capital and the state
But the new economy has been remade socially as well as economically: women’s increased labour market participation is (although again uneven) one of the most significant transformations of the postwar period, entailing shifting (and often blurring) patterns and norms across public and private spheres. Women’s widespread entry into paid work is, contentiously, associated with the expansion of nonstandard work within core labour markets. Standing (1989) has called this the “feminisation” of employment because what was nonstandard work for men was in many liberal capitalist countries standard paid work for women; in theories of labour market segmentation, these were the jobs in the secondary sector. The concept of feminisation also overlaps with trends identified in, for example, Fudge’s (1997) and Vosko’s (2000) explorations of the rise of “precarious work”: part-time work and self-employment, temporary work, contract work, on-call work and homebased work, all of which tend to be poorly paid, lacking in security, with few occupational benefits and an absence of collective representation. In the industrialised economies of the global North these jobs were traditionally on the margins of the labour market, at the core of which was the normative model of the standard employment relationship, and were performed by women, people of colour and ethnic minorities and others who did not conform to the (white) male breadwinner/worker identity. Now, however, nonstandard forms of work are becoming the “new normal” for workers and sectors previously associated with the primary sector (see e.g. Peck and Theodore 2007 on US employment trends).
A less explored dimension of the rise of nonstandard work is the increasing importance of labour intermediaries, especially temporary employment agencies (TEAs; also called temporary staffing agencies, or TSAs). A key milestone was the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) passage in 1997 of Convention 181, which reversed its traditional opposition to labour intermediaries and recognised the “constructive” role of private employment agencies in “well-functioning” labour markets. In the fifteen years since the ILO’s about-face, temporary agency employment has increased dramatically, albeit from a low base, especially in those countries with tightly regulated but liberalising labour markets (Coe, Johns and Ward 2007). While some of that expansion reflects the hypermobility of highly skilled, highly paid professionals and “knowledge economy” workers (Carnoy, Castells and Benner 1997)—Beck and Beck-Gersheim’s (2001) “individualized”
employees—it also reflects the incursion of “feminised” forms of employment into blue- and white-collar sectors traditionally defined by the standard employment relationship. As Wills and colleagues (2009: 26) point out, in what has become known as neoliberal economic management, subcontracting is used to push down the wages and conditions of work in jobs like cleaning, care and construction; large parts of the low-wage economy are “sweated” through subcontracting, a mode of the organisation of work that has its roots in pre-Fordist production practices. Moreover, evidence suggests that “sweating” at the bottom end of the labour market (increasingly populated by migrant workers, both documented and undocumented, in many countries) often involves labour intermediaries who exploit the ways in which processes of racialisation and the construction of new categories of social difference, instigated by immigration regimes, render some workers extremely vulnerable—including to forced and unfree labour (Theodore 2003; Brass 2011; Strauss 2012a; 2012b).
2. Aims and Objectives
While these processes—the numerical and normative rise of nonstandard work, the de- and reregulation of labour markets to achieve “flexibility,” the increasing importance of temporary employment agencies and the (re)emergence of conditions of extreme exploitation and unfreedom—have been explored individually, there has been relatively little work to date that has attempted to explore the linkages between them. This volume utilises a bifocal lens to focus, on the one hand, on linking up disparate literatures on, and debates about, different regulatory approaches, new and expanding institutions of labour intermediation and the coevolution of precarious temporary work and unfree labour; on the other, it grounds this contribution in a series of empirically rich and geographically diverse case studies. We thus aim to make a distinctive contribution to the body of research on temporary employment agencies in the following three ways:
- By bringing together new empirical and theoretical contributions that integrate agency, worker and regulatory perspectives.
- By grounding this integrative approach in a cross-national comparative framework, which highlights how the processes implicated in the rise of temporary work are both global and multi-scalar.1
- By using this approach as the basis for assessing how, and to what extent, temporary agency work represents a particular kind of reconfiguration of the standard employment relationship. In particular, we are interested in its interrelationship with new and evolving patterns of migration and the ways in which it challenges the normative and ideological model of “free” wage labour (and can thus, conversely, be understood as unfree labour).
Our overarching theoretical framework is grounded in a feminist political economy approach that shares with labour geography and feminist legal studies a relational understanding of wage labour that “connect[s] work and the reproductive sphere, class and non-class identities, local affairs and global forces, and so on” (Castree 2007: 859). These domains, however, are mediated by institutional and social arrangements that shape labour markets and regulate employment relationships: the legal regime is a significant configuration of these arrangements, and it tends to operate to naturalise power relations, but in highly uneven ways. In this sense our approach has affinities with the “continuum” approach to understanding the context of forced and unfree labour (see e.g. Skrivankova 2010). What we seek to explore is how the particular constellation of economic, social and legal norms, institutions and practices differentially positions workers within particular labour markets in relation to this continuum of labour exploitation and how this constellation either reinforces or challenges what could be called, to paraphrase Melissa Wright (2006), the myth of the disposable temporary worker.
In what follows we first explore the rise of new institutions of labour intermediation and their regulation. We then explore how these phenomena relate to the expansion of precarious labour and the overlap between precarious temporary labour and unfree labour. We conclude with an exploration of the links between precarious work and precarious lives, making the argument for an analytical framework and theoretical lens that facilitates an understanding of temporary agency work from a standpoint grounded in the interrelationship of production, the labour process and social reproduction (see also Strauss 2012b).
3. New Institutions of Labour Intermediation: Temporary Employment Agencies and their Regulation
Like Peck and Theodore (2010: 87), we have a heterodox understanding of what labour markets are and how they function: “site[s] of conflicting power relations, enduring regulatory dilemmas, necessary but problematic forms of institutionalisation, embedded path dependencies and systematic uneven development . . . institutionally cluttered zone[s] marked by successive waves of restructuring and re-regulation.” This heterodox understanding also highlights the role and agency of multiple actors rather than focusing solely or predominantly on one (e.g. capital, and especially firms, in “traditional” economic geography; workers and unions in labour studies and labour geography) or framing all as the autonomous, rational, profit-seeking agents of mainstream economics. This volume thus conceptualises temporary employment agencies, the socioeconomic and regulatory contexts in which they operate and the workers they employ as active
but differently positioned constituents of the larger process of the ongoing social construction of labour markets (see also Ward 2004; Coe, Johns and Ward 2007).
Two of the key trends in contemporary labour markets are the rise of nonstandard—contingent or precarious—work and new and increasing forms of labour intermediation.2
What this means in practice is that more and more workers are no longer employed directly by a single employer, but rather are in intermediated
employment relationships that in some context strain the bounds of what is understood by “employment.” Employment has traditionally been understood as a bilateral contract between an employer and an employee who is under the control and direction of the employer. Intermediated employment is a subcategory of nonstandard employment, and temporary agency workers are a subset of temporary or contract workers. Not all intermediated work is temporary; for example, subcontractors in production chains may employ workers on an ongoing and indeterminate basis. Nor are all temporary workers employed through intermediaries. However, there is a close relationship between intermediated and temporary employment. For example, in countries like the UK, temporary agency workers, in particular those at the bottom end of the labour market, have little power over their terms and conditions and typically no access to collective representation, making them some of the least secure and most exploited nonstandard workers (McDowell et al. 2008). The precarious nature of the employment of these agency workers is related to the ways in which labour intermediation is entangled with new regimes of labour market governance: as Rittich (2006: 32) states, the marginal status of those engaged in precarious work is not something “that can be attributed to the nature of investment, production and exchange in the new economy alone. Rather they are intimately linked to the institutional structure in which work takes place and the choices states make about the structure of legal entitlements; the distribution of resources through taxation and income transfers and expenditures on public goods; and the sharing of risk through legal and social institutions.”
3.1 Labour Intermediation
Labour intermediaries are “economic agents who co-ordinate and arbitrate transactions in between a group of suppliers and customers” (Wu 2004, quoted in Harrington and Velluzzi 2008: 171), whereas brokers are a kind of intermediary who provide coordination services without themselves buying and selling goods. Thus labour market intermediaries (LMIs) are institutions, mechanisms or actors that intervene between job seekers and employers. In orthodox economic thinking, LMIs reduce labour market inefficiencies by redressing gaps and inefficiencies in information: thus their relatively benign “value added” is in increasing the efficiency of employers’ and employees’ searches, creating economies of scale in searches, providing
specialised skills and reducing uncertainty (for example, on the part of the employer, the risk of a mismatch between demand for a product or service and the labour needed to fulfil that demand).
This understanding of labour intermediation of course ignores power differentials between labour and capital and downplays the fact that intermediaries generate a profit from the services they provide. For TEAs this profit often derives from the difference between the fee charged to the employer for supplying labour and the wage paid to the worker who supplies that labour. Thus, as Harrington and Velluzzi’s (2008: 174) typology of LMIs illustrates, internal labour markets are the only type of labour market intermediary to transfer risk from the worker to the producer whereas TEAs transfer risk from the firm to the employee. As Ciscel and Smith (2005) point out, LMIs shift responsibility for working conditions from the primary producer, and even from the contract producer, in production and commodity chains to a labour supplier or individualised contract worker.
LMIs, including TSAs, have historically done the bulk of their business in industrial and clerical occupations, although in many countries they are increasingly present in almost all sectors of the economy (especially hospitality and, as Wills and colleagues 2009 point out, where the contracting out of formerly public services such as cleaning and social care has occurred). LMIs provide quantitative (or numerical) flexibility and the ability to avoid regulatory constraints (especially related to occupational welfare and social benefits), as well as economies of scope for specialised workers. Organisational forms interact with the structure of markets to influence work arrangements. Some organisations and markets are structured in ways that increase the vulnerability of workers to poor outcomes and labour market risk. Thus, the actual use of LMIs often reflects their regulatory capability to shift risk and lower wages, rather than the heralded role of matching skilled and mobile workers with flexible and highly paid contract work. Harrington and Velluzzi (2008: 176), for example, note that in the US all industrial and clerical occupations had lower hourly average wages in TEAs than in the economy overall: the five occupational titles with higher wages included computer programmers and specialised nursing staff. In the UK, research by Forde, Slater and Green (2008) has shown tha...