Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Critical Review of Flexible Labour: Gender, Race and Class Dimensions of Economic Restructuring

Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Critical Review of Flexible Labour: Gender, Race and Class Dimensions of Economic Restructuring

Article excerpt

In this article, the authors comparatively analyze and synthesize some of the recent academic literature that examines new flexible employment arrangements emerging in the rapidly expanding service sector economy, such as employers' use of flexible labour, and its exploitative impact on women. The centrality of women's labour in the restructured workplace and the racialized-gender stratifying effects of paid work, demands that our conceptions and definitions of work, and flexible work in particular, be critically re-examined, if current labour processes are to be understood and the persistence of complex hierarchies and gender divisions challenged.

Dans cet article, les auteures entreprennent une analyse comparative ainsi qu'une synthese de textes universitaires recents examinant les nouveaux arrangements d'emploi flexible issus du secteur de service, tels que l'utilisation par l'employeur du travail flexible, et l'exploitation des femmes qui en resulte. La centralite du travail des femmes dans un milieu de travail restructure et la stratification selon la race et le sexe qui resulte du travail remunere exige que nous posions un oil critique sur nos conceptions et definitions du travail, et en particulier, du travail flexible, si nous comptons mieux comprendre les procedes de travail et remettre en question la persistance d'hierarchies complexes et les divisions selon le sexe.


"Since the 1973 world recession, new patterns of "flexible accumulation" have come into play as corporations struggle in an increasingly competitive global arena. Flexible labour regimes, based primarily on female and minority workers, are now common." Aihwa Ong, 1991, pp. 279-280.

There is mounting evidence within advanced industrialized economies that organizations, occupations, production and services have been significantly transformed over the past three decades. Several critical factors have generated these processes in the international economy. These include the economic crisis of the 1970s, the recessionary environment of the early 1980s, and the subsequent consolidations of national economies. Greg Bamber (1989, p. 49) has hypothesized that countries in general, and employers in particular, that are faced with such transforming environments are likely to respond by introducing various workplace flexibility strategies, such as pan-time work, temporary/casual work, contract work and telework, referred to under different terms such as "flexible specialization" (Piore and Sabel, 1991), "nonstandard or flexible work relationships" (Zeytinoglu, 1999a), or "flexible accumulation" (Ong, 1991). This emphasis on flexibility at the micro-level is intended to create firms that are "capable of rapid expansion and contraction with a small number of permanent employees and the remainder employed as temporary and casual workers, outworkers and subcontractors" (United Nations, 1995, p. 28).

The transformations in the workplace have been accompanied by the increasing entry of all races and classes of women into the flexible labour market, particularly into the service sector, which utilizes low waged and pan-time labour as an effective way of saving costs (Acker, 1992; Duffy and Pupo, 1992; Glenn, 1992; Gottfried and Hayashi-Kato, 1998; ILO, 1998; Kainer, 1998; Mitter, 1986). The effects of restructuring labour on women are complex and diverse. Some recent studies are beginning to reveal that the employment choices and opportunities that women have, even in the traditionally female dominated service sector, continue to be crucially shaped by their citizenship status, class, race, ethnicity, age, ability and family circumstances (Amott and Matthaei, 1991; Daenzer, 1993; Glenn, 1992; Hanson and Pratt ,1995; Lucas, 1997; Neal, 1994; Neysmith and Aronson, 1997; Zeytinoglu and Muteshi, 1999).

In this article we are primarily interested in comparatively analyzing and synthesizing some of the recent academic literature that examines employers' flexible labour strategies in industrialized economies, in light of restructuring's exploitative impact on women. …

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