Academic journal article International Journal of Employment Studies

The Inequality of Part-Time Workers in the UK Retail Industry

Academic journal article International Journal of Employment Studies

The Inequality of Part-Time Workers in the UK Retail Industry

Article excerpt

This article draws on case study based empirical evidence to examine the equality between part-time and full-time workers in the UK retail industry. The empirical data was gathered through a series of interviews with retail managers in three UK retail organisations. It illustrates how a combination of organisational policy and line management perceptions perpetuate inequalities between part-time and full-time workers in the UK retail industry and confines part-timers to the UK's secondary, peripheral labour market. In addition, the research found that part-timers working shorter hours appear to be a more marginal segment of the labour market, highlighting the need to segment the part-time workforce more comprehensively than in previous research.

INTRODUCTION

Retailing accounts for approximately 11 per cent or one in nine of the total UK workforce (British Retail Consortium, 2004a). Over the last five years, employment in retailing has grown by over 190 000 and the industry continues to be one of the biggest providers of net new jobs in the UK economy (British Retail Consortium, 2004b).

Since the 1980s there has been a growth of all forms of flexible employment internationally (Ozaki, 1999; Storey, Quintas, Taylor and Foyle, 2002). In the UK this is evident by a growth in the use of part-time employment, particularly in the retail industry (Sparks, 2000). The UK retail industry currently employs 1.6 million part-timers, compared to 1.1 million full-timers (British Retail Consortium, 2004c). During the course of the twentieth century the retail industry in the UK has changed from a predominately full-time workforce to employing large numbers of part-time workers (Broadbridge, 2002; Freathy and Sparks, 2000; Shackleton, 1998). UK retailers now rely to a greater degree on part-time workers for their labour supply, which has resulted in a fragmentation of working hours.

Key trends in the UK retail industry over recent years include increasing concentration and competition, rapidly changing market conditions, more selective customers, longer opening hours, increases in the average size of outlet, technological innovation and a rationalisation of labour use (Ogbonna and Whipp, 1999; Shackleton, 1998; Walters and Hanrahan, 2000). It has been argued that retailers in the UK have increased their employment of part-timers in order to reduce costs and cope with fluctuations in demand and increasing competition (Neathey and Hurstfield, 1995; Storey et al, 2002).

There has been some debate in the UK about whether part-timers should actually be classified as flexible or peripheral workers. According to segmentation theorists (for example, Atkinson, 1985; Doeringer and Piore, 1971; Loveridge, 1983), part-timers are considered to be 'secondary' and 'peripheral' labour. Yet, it has more recently been contended that employers now regard part-timers as essential and not peripheral labour (IDS, 1994; Kalleberg, 2001; Walsh and Deery, 1999). Despite these challenges to traditional segmentation theories, flexibility of labour deployment is still firmly on the employers' agenda. It is clear that the UK retailing industry has been at the forefront of devising, then implementing, employment strategies which increase the proportion of part-time working. As such this warrants further investigation in order to gain a more advanced understanding of the UK retailing labour force.

This article draws on case study based empirical evidence to examine the equality between part-time and full-time workers in the UK retail industry. It outlines how part-time workers can be subject to inequality and discrimination at work, in comparison to their full-time counterparts, thus contesting the view that part-timers are treated as key workers by their employers. It also puts forward the view that within the part-time workforce itself there is a segment which appears subject to even greater inequalities.

BACKGROUND

In the UK, 'it is undeniable that retailing is an important sector' (Sparks, 2000:13) and that major multiple store retailers are critical in economic terms. …

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