Academic journal article International Journal of Labour Research

Establishing Rights in the Disposable Jobs Regime

Academic journal article International Journal of Labour Research

Establishing Rights in the Disposable Jobs Regime

Article excerpt

KEYWORDS precarious employment, temporary employment, temporary work agency, workers rights, role of ILO, role of OECD, multinational enterprise

How elastic is the concept of precarious work? Elastic enough in some hands for the Employer spokesperson at the ILO s October 2011 Global Dialogue Forum on the Role of Private Employment Agencies in Promoting Decent Work and Improving the Functioning of Labour Markets in Private Services Sectors to introduce his presentation by asserting that agency work "was neither precarious nor atypical".1

Unions, for whom combating the spread of precarious work has emerged as a major priority, would strongly reject the first of these assertions and insist on probing the meaning of the second. Agency work is precarious by nature. And its rapid expansion and invasive presence in virtually all economic sectors have overturned received notions of what is "typical".

The ILO's core Conventions defining trade union organizing, representation and bargaining rights are built on the assumption of direct, open-ended employment - the "standard employment relationship" against which all other contractual relations are "atypical". It is of course true that at no time in history has even close to a majority of the world's workers enjoyed permanent employment status. Agriculture, with the world's largest labour force, has always been dominated by precarious work. Work in the rapidly expanding hotel and tourism sectors remains predominantly precarious. In manufacturing, even high union-density sectors often sit atop a wider pyramid built on long chains of outsourced, precarious labour. Now even these nodules of permanent direct employment are succumbing to growing casualization.

The labour movement has historically been based on organized workers in a standard employment relationship. In the public and private sectors, in wealthy countries and in poor ones, trade union organization among these workers has been a driving force for social progress, including the elaboration of the rights set out in ILO Conventions and their development through ILO jurisprudence. These rights have in turn served as a lever for further union advances. It is precisely these rights, along with living standards and social security, which are being corroded by the growth of precarious work.

In today's disposable jobs regime, the assumption of direct, open-ended employment has been undermined by the expansion of all forms of precarious work relationships, including agency staffing, in all sectors of economic activity. Precarious work can no longer be seen as a deviation from the norm as it (again) becomes increasingly widespread, even typical, leaving workers again searching for a platform of rights for protecting workplace organizing and bargaining.

Do we all mean the same thing by "precarious work"?

We might begin to answer the Employer spokesperson at the ILO's Global Dialogue Forum by enquiring whether we all mean the same thing by "precarious work". For trade unionists, precarious work encompasses the range of employment relationships which deny workers essential job security, embody unequal treatment with respect to the wages and benefits of permanent workers and deny them the same protection permanent workers have through their collective bargaining agreements.

Precarious work relationships include direct "temporary" contracts (which can become "permanently" temporary), "seasonal" contracts (which can flourish year round), agency work and other forms of outsourced, indirect, third party or "triangular" relationships which obscure the relationship with the real employer; bogus self-employment as "independent contractors", abusive "apprenticeships", "internships" and "training" schemes; and the transformation of employment contracts into commercial contracts through, for example, the creation of "cooperatives", as in the Brazilian and Colombian sugar, palm oil and banana sectors.

We can arrive at a definition of precarious work which unifies these diverse forms by defining it as the negation of the ILO's definition of the "standard employment relationship", described as full-time work, under a contract of employment for unlimited duration, with a single employer, and protected against unjustified dismissal. …

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