Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

"The Staircase Model" - Labor Control of Temporary Agency Workers in a Swedish Call Center

Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

"The Staircase Model" - Labor Control of Temporary Agency Workers in a Swedish Call Center

Article excerpt


This article focuses on the structural use of contracting through temporary work agencies (TWAs) as an extended selection and recruitment procedure in a call center. The call centers, as well as TWAs, are relatively young industries that have grown rapidly since the mid-1990s and constitute examples of organizations whose activities are direct responses to increasing demands for flexibility in the labor market. This makes research on these industries of special interest and, as Doellgast et al. (2009) argue, call centers offer useful settings through which to study 'the politics of restructuring' because of their high proportion of labor costs, which makes it important for them to find ways to cut down labor costs. Furthermore, in both industries, young people and women are overrepresented, and these industries offer many young people their first real job opportunity (e.g., Åberg and Funseth 2009; Storrie 2003). One explanation of this could be their difficulty in finding jobs because of high unemployment rates: youth unemployment rates are as high in Sweden as in the rest of Europe (Eurostat 2001). This highlights the fact that these industries can give women and young people in particular a chance to establish themselves in the labor market. It is therefore important to study their experiences of working in these industries. This study will contribute to an understanding of the flexible staffing strategies and the controlling practices that are implemented in a call center with extensive use of contracted workers from TWAs and the consequences for their working conditions. The study is based on interviews with temporary agency workers (TAWs) as well as regular employees and a manager in a call center.

In Sweden, temporary agency work is seen as a form of employment which, like other forms of employment, should follow general employment legislation that provides significant protection to all workers, including TAWs (Bergström 2005; Coe et al. 2009; Knox 2010; Storrie 2003). The weak labor market regulation and strong social protection have affected the development of the TWA sector in Sweden. Growth and restructuring in the context of Sweden's 'social democratic welfare regime' (see EspingAndersen 1990) have produced a 'managed flexibility' quite different from development under 'neo-liberal conditions' (Coe et al. 2009:67).

The TAWs work in client companies, but are employed by an agency (Bergström 2005; Connelly and Gallagher 2004; Houseman 2001). TAWs, as other forms of 'temporary' workers, may have varied skills or different educational backgrounds. They may also be working full time or part-time and have short- or long-term employment (Doherty 2009; Olsen and Kalleberg 2004). The most common terms used to describe the two most common employment relationships present in the Swedish labor market are 'contract until further notice' and 'limited duration contract.' These terms are not common outside Sweden so I will henceforth use the terms 'open-ended contracts' and 'fixed-term contracts' instead. Since TWAs in Sweden are treated like any other business, it is common for TAWs to be employed with open-ended contracts after a sixmonth probationary contract (Håkansson and Isidorsson 2007).

The TAWs are covered by collective agreements and their trade union membership provides a guaranteed salary of 75%-90% of their salary when they have no assignment (Knox 2010; Storrie 2003). The guaranteed salary implies that agencies need to be efficient in matching TAWs who have no current assignments with jobs, in order not to be forced to pay the guaranteed salary (Bergström 2005).

The overall aim of this article is to examine the flexible staffing strategies and the labor control practices implemented in a call center with extensive contracting of TAWs. More specifically, the article focuses on how structural and ideological power works in this setting and the effects of this control for TAWs' working conditions. …

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