Academic journal article Journal of Australian Political Economy

Recognition and Work in the Flexible Economy

Academic journal article Journal of Australian Political Economy

Recognition and Work in the Flexible Economy

Article excerpt

Close to a third of workers in Australia are now employed as casuals or independent contractors (ABS, 2009a: 3). (1) These workers have no legal expectation of ongoing work, are excluded from paid leave entitlements, and receive only minimal protection against unfair dismissal. Moreover, the proportion of workers employed under these non-standard employment contracts has been growing steadily in recent years, with casual employment and independent contracting growing by 7.6 percent and 14.8 percent respectively between November 2008 and November 2010, compared to less than six percent growth in jobs with paid leave entitlements (ABS 2008; ABS 2009a; ABS 2010).

The shift towards employing workers via casual employment and independent contracting is celebrated for enabling businesses to 'react quickly and efficiently to fluctuating market conditions' (Lenz 1996:556; Aronsson, Gustafsson, and Dallner 2002: 152). At the same time, it is argued that the increasing number of workers employed under such arrangements reflects 'workers' preference for flexibility' (Tsumori, 2004: 1); that these employment arrangements provide workers with 'more freedom to choose working hours, to decide when they take their holidays, who they work for and what type of work they undertake' (DEEWR 2005:8). Hence, these arrangements 'not only offer businesses a way to more effectively manage their work forces [they] also afford employees flexibility [and] independence' (Lenz 1996:556, 558). These claims are hotly contested by critics, who worry that the lack of job security means that workers 'now bear the burden of organizational and economic performance as never before' (Scott 2004: 145). The ease with which employees can be dismissed, for example, puts pressure on workers to come to work sick, to avoid taking time off, and even to take on more hazardous jobs for fear of losing shifts or future employment contracts should they refuse (Facey and Eakin, 2010: 335).

These are important criticisms that go to the heart of the issue of whether casual employment and independent contracting gives workers more or less freedom and control over their work. However, in this article, I develop an alternative line of criticism that focuses on what these changes to the social organisation of work mean for the role of work as a vehicle the development of subjectivity. Subjectivity is the consciousness of ourselves as self-efficacious agents capable of shaping the world around us. Work can play an important role in the development of this subjectivity because it involves both our social and practical agency (Dejours 2006: 56) and it is through practical and social self-realisation (or recognition) that we come to firmly grasp our identity as agents who not only live the world but who also are capable of shaping it. This is a profoundly Hegelian idea, and the argument developed in this article owes much to Hegel's philosophy of recognition; in particular, to his discussion of the relationship between work and recognition.

I argue that the changes in the social organisation of work being wrought by casual employment and, to a lesser extent, independent contracting, threaten work as a vehicle for the development of subjectivity because these forms of employment erode workers' opportunities to experience practical and social recognition of their identity as persons capable of shaping the world around them. In making this argument, I draw on the experiences of 47 casual employees and 11 independent contractors who were interviewed in late 2009 as part of a larger study on insecure work and its effects on worker's health and wellbeing. (2) A brief description of the profile of these workers is included below.

Research Method

The majority of those interviewed--including casuals--were men. The proportion of men included in this study is higher than their share of casual employment nationally, as indicated by ABS statistics. This atypical gender pattern is explained by the particular focus of the larger study on the experiences of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery workers (industries historically dominated by men). …

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