High Involvement Work Systems and Job Insecurity in the International Iron and Steel Industry

Article excerpt


The different factors behind globalization and the emergence of high involvement work practices do not necessarily carry similar implications for labour. The purpose of this paper is to examine the effects of high involvement work systems upon workers in the steel industry. The authors present results from a series of cross-national surveys conducted in 1998 with 39 national trade unions from over 30 countries measuring issues such as job security, ownership changes, numerical flexibility, and union density. The findings are consistent with U.S. data reported by Osterman (1998) indicating that new work practices provide no defense against an environment of heightened insecurity.


Les differents facteurs qui encouragent la mondialisation et le devoloppement de nouvelles pratiques de travail, dues "high involvement" (travail en equipes, rotation des fonctions, plus grande autonomie des employes) n'entrainent pas necessairement des consequences semblables pour la main d'oeuvre. Nous examinons dans cette etude les effets de ces pratiques "high involvement" sur les travailleurs metallurgiques. Les auteurs publient les resultas de sondages internationaux effectues en 1998 aupres de 39 syndicats dans plus de 30 pays, permettant de mesurer la securite d'emploi, les changements de proprietaire, la flexibilite num,rique et la concentration syndicate. Leurs resultats s'accordent avec des donnes provenant des E-U lets que dans Osterman (1988), et demontrent que ces nouvelles de travail ne sont pas une defense contre un environement plus hostile que jamais.

In the study of work organization and work change, a focus of debate in recent years has been the extent to which new forms of work practices are being implemented in the search for reduced costs and heightened levels of labour performance and flexibility. Much of the evidence so far, however, has been drawn from single-country studies, and overwhelmingly from studies undertaken in the United States. The picture from these is one of considerable diffusion during the 1990s of practices which Osterman (1998) and others refer to as high performance, high commitment, or high involvement work systems (see also Becker & Huselid, 1998; Huselid, 1995). In comparable studies in 1992 and 1997, for example, Osterman (1998) identified a considerable increase in the use of three out of four practices studied-job rotation, Total Quality Management, and quality circles/off line problem-solving groups-to a point where each of these was present in depth (that is, involving at least half the core employees in the organization) in a majority of establishments. By the 1997 survey, over 7 out of 10 establishments operated two or more practices of high performance work systems (HPWSs), compared to 26% of establishments in 1992. This picture of the growth of new workplace practices in the United States is reinforced by other similar USbased research (Gittleman, Horrigan, & Joyce, 1998; Lawler, Mohrman, & Ledford, 1995) and also in Europe (Brewster, 1998; Cully, Woodland, O'Reilly, & Dix, 1999). In studies of related issues such as developments in job training, again the picture is one of increased training taking place to accommodate changes in working practices such as the introduction of teamworking (Gallie, White, Cheng, & Tomlinson, 1998; Leigh & Gifford, 1999).

In his longitudinal study, Osterman (1998) also points to a second trend occurring alongside the diffusion of high performance practices-a growing insecurity of work as evidenced in increased layoffs, greater use of sub-contracting, and more employees engaged on contingent (non permanent) contracts (see also Gallie et al., 1998). The coincidence of these two trends may seem surprising, given that one might expect employees to support practices that call for greater commitment only if they perceive a reciprocal exchange in terms of, for example, increased security, greater employee influence over their jobs or enhanced opportunities for advancement (Kochan & Osterman, 1994). …