Academic journal article International Journal of Employment Studies

Independent Contracting in Low Skilled, Low Paid Work in Australia

Academic journal article International Journal of Employment Studies

Independent Contracting in Low Skilled, Low Paid Work in Australia

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The construct of the precarious worker is not new; but it may be applied today to a growing segment of the labour market in developed and developing countries (Fevre, 2011). This is particularly evident in the spread of contracting in low skilled, low paid work (Burrow, 2008). Precariousness in work, which has been an unfortunate collateral consequence of the capitalist project, connotes much more than marginality or atypicality. It is a form of disadvantage in the labour market that is associated with high risk and, arguably, exploitation (Leighton & Painter, 2007). The problems of child labour and some forms of domestic work date back centuries (Cox, 2006). More recently, precariousness has been associated with homeworkers performing repetitive tasks for next to nothing; youth; workers displaced from gainful employment due to technology or the economic fortunes of enterprises (Leighton & Painter, 2007); unemployed workers in developed countries whose jobs have been off-shored or outsourced in some other way to low wage, developing countries; and workers made redundant only to find their retirement nest egg almost totally wiped out by the impact of the global financial crisis on pension and superannuation fund returns.

This paper examines the growing use of self-employment through independent contracting in low paid, low skill work, sometimes under sham contracts, and often within asymmetrical power relationships in the workplace. This type of contract work fits oddly into a set of work arrangements that were once occupied by consultants and relatively highly paid self-employed professionals in management, IT, accounting and finance, and engineering (Flecker & Meil, 2010). Today, in Australia and in other developed countries, there is a growing group of independent contractors who are engaged as cleaners, delivery drivers, construction workers, beauticians, call centre workers, and technical, scientific and maintenance workers (ACTU, 2011a). Amidst claims of exploitation by employers seeking to externalize risk and reduce input costs (ABCC, 2010), the status of some low-skilled, low paid contract workers may be aptly described as precarious, or insecure, because of their exposure to disadvantage and discrimination in the labour market (Ryan, 2001; Campbell & Peeters, 2008; Russell & Thite, 2008; Knox, 2010). How has this occurred? How do we locate these developments within existing theoretical frameworks? This paper makes a contribution to answering these questions.

The availability of data is a significant hurdle encountered in researching independent contract work among the low-skilled. There is no systematic collection of data on this segment of the labour force, and the best available information comes from government reports and union investigations, such as the recently launched ACTU investigation into insecure work (ACTU, 2011a). The reality is that workers engaged in contract work, in low-skilled areas, do not press their cause, and employers who are applying contracting arrangements do not readily grant interviews to researchers or journalists, let alone union officials. There is a relatively limited line of studies in Australia on independent contracting in low-skilled tasks; for example, Campbell and Peeters' (2008) work on contract cleaners. However, the difficulties in gaining access to individual and small group level data continue.

The first section of the short paper backgrounds recent developments in independent contracting in Australia, highlighting increasing concern by government and unions regarding a tendency towards insecurity and precariousness amongst low skilled, low paid contractors. These developments are located in the available industrial relations and labour law literature on independent contracting, with particular reference to Australia. Next, the growing use of independent contracting is explained using two theoretical frameworks: HR architectures, positing relationships between modes of employment and modes of HR governance; and dual labour market theory. …

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