Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Contingent Work and Gender in Australia: Evidence from the 1995 Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Contingent Work and Gender in Australia: Evidence from the 1995 Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey

Article excerpt


The decreasing prevalence of the standard model of employment embodied by the 'typical male full-time employee on a permanent contract' (European Commission 1997: 1) can be seen both as risking the erosion of hard won labour rights and as offering the potential for a more flexible, less 'male' model. This paper addresses some of the ways in which this tension is played out, drawing on data from the 1995 Australian Workplace Industrial Relations (AWIRS95) Employee Survey to examine the implications for women workers of recent trends in contingent employment in Australia. We begin with a brief overview of trends in, and forms of, contingent employment, and an outline of the main debates over their implications for gender equality in employment.

Contingent Employment: Trends and Implications

A great deal of literature has highlighted the magnitude of the overall trend away from full-time permanent employment and the changing gender balance in labour markets evident in most industrialised nations. In spite of significant cross-national variation in the extent and type of contingent employment, erosion of the 'standard' model appears ubiquitous. (1) By the mid-1990s, males in permanent full-time jobs accounted for less than half of all employees in a number of European countries (2) (European Commission 1997: ii). In Australia, a similar situation was evident by the late 1980s, and by 1997 permanent full-time males accounted for only around 42 per cent of all employees (ABS 1997; see also Campbell 1998: Table 6.1). (3)

A wide variety of'contingent' forms of employment has taken the place of permanent, full-time jobs. These include all forms of temporary and casual employment (full-time and part-time non-permanent jobs including fixed-term employment), part-time employment (whether permanent or casual), and some forms of contracting out and outwork. Women predominate in some, but not all, these forms of contingent employment. Our paper focuses specifically on part-time work and casual work, as well as fixed-term employment, as the main categories of non-standard work for which suitable data are available. These types of employment (particularly casual part-time employment) are most commonly analysed in terms of their risks for deteriorating conditions of employment, especially for those sections of the workforce considered to be most vulnerable. For women, whose disadvantage in the labour market may be partly.explained by their (on average) more tenuous labour force attachment and the associated difficulties of career progression, forms of employment outside the traditional permanent full-time model may well exacerbate labour market divisions and reinforce their location outside the primary, career linked sections of the labour market. As noted above, however, there may also be the potential for a more flexible, less 'male' model

of employment that remains within, or permits access to, primary sections of the labour market. Debates and evidence to date on these contrasting possibilities are examined below with respect to part-time and fixed-term employment.

Part-time employment provides a clear example of the contrasting possibilities within contingent forms of work. For example, working arrangements involving shortened, or greater flexibility and control over, hours of work hold some positive potential. Such arrangements may enhance prospects for advancement by facilitating the combination of work and family responsibilities without distancing workers from training programs and career ladders. (4) Clearly this positive potential will be limited where the 'control' factor is absent, and working hours flexibility involves uncertainty and irregularity of hours, and/or separation from career progression within the organisation.

Variation in the conditions attached to part-time work will reflect the goals of employers and overall approaches to work organisation. …

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