Rise of Part-Time Work in Industrialized Nations Could Signal Slow Recovery

Article excerpt

PART-time work may once have been the domain of college students and housewives. But no longer. In the past decade, it has become a crucial - and troubling - component of many industrialized economies.

The growth in part-time work has its advantages. Businesses can fashion a more flexible labor force. Workers who want shorter hours can find meaningful jobs. But the part-time trend causes many labor experts to worry that:

* Part-time workers, most of whom are women, have fewer benefits and less job protection than their full-time counterparts.

* They are probably more expendable in a downturn.

* Even during an upturn, like the current one in the United States, the number of involuntary part-timers is too high for a strong recovery. Involuntary workers are those forced to take part-time jobs because they cannot find full-time positions.

Part-time employment is on the rise in most industrialized nations. One out of seven workers in these countries - 60 million people - now works part time, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva, which released a study last week on the topic.

"It's a growing phenomenon," says Vittorio Di Martino of the ILO. "Our concern is how to combine the needs for flexibility {of the employer} ... with a minimum level of protection for the workers concerned."

From 1983 to 1988, part-time jobs grew 27.7 percent in the European Community. Full-time positions there only rose 2.4 percent. Part-time workers now constitute a third of the labor force in the Netherlands, a fourth of the workers in Norway, and a fifth in Britain and New Zealand.

The growth has been less dramatic in the US, but economists worry that the trend here toward involuntary part-time work signals an anemic recovery.

"The character of recent job growth may even be inferior to that of the 1980s, since the wage deterioration appears to be more widespread and the shift to part-time and temporary work is sharper," concludes the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute in a report released last week.

For example, the temporary-help industry has created an unusually high 27 percent of all the new jobs since March 1991, the institute says. Moreover, the number of involuntary part-time jobs has not decreased even though a rebound is under way. That is the first time that has happened since at least the 1960s.

Since the report was written, the US Department of Labor has released figures for August that offer little consolation. The number of involuntary part-timers went up by 42,000. That means that these workers now account for 30 percent of all part-timers. And part-time work as a whole represents 18.3 percent of the nation's nonfarm, civilian employment.

These figures may actually understate the problem, argues Philip Braverman, chief economist at DKB Securities Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Japan's Daichi Kangyo Bank. In making its estimates, the federal government may be counting the number of part-time jobs as opposed to part-time workers (since one worker could have more than one job). …