POLITICAL ECONOMY OF AGENCY EMPLOYMENT: Flexibility or Exploitation?

By Sheikh, Abdullah Z. | World Review of Political Economy, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

POLITICAL ECONOMY OF AGENCY EMPLOYMENT: Flexibility or Exploitation?


Sheikh, Abdullah Z., World Review of Political Economy


Introduction

Politico-economic viewpoints grounded in sociological literature suggest that firms are often economically and politically stronger than workers and thus are in a better position to impose their terms and conditions on workers (Streeck and Crouch 1997). Firms are often rationally acting entities guided by the economic opportunism to maximise their profits by any feasible means, especially in situations where workers do not have much freedom in the determination of their conditions of work (Streeck 1992; Weber 1978). Given the normally more pressing economic needs of the workers, the uneven balance of power between employers and workers can result in social injustice (Burawoy and Wright 2002; Fox 1974). This imbalance of power can result in exploitation where the material interests of exploiters causally depend on the material deprivations of the exploited (Wright 1989).

Traditionally, agency employment is a "three-way" or "triangular" relationship involving a worker, a company acting as a temporary work agency and the client organisation, whereby the agency employs the worker and places him or her at the disposition of the user company. The term "client organisations" will be used to denote these employing establishments (user companies) who hire workers through employment agencies. The role played by employment agencies is both complex and dynamic (Cetinkaya and Danisman 2011; Druker and Stanworth 2006; Sankaran 2007; Wynn 2009). This three-party employment relationship often generates ambiguity regarding the employment relationship and raises questions as to who bears the responsibility of an "employer" in terms of providing employment rights and responsibilities (Autor 2003; Connell and Burgess 2002; Davidov and Langille 2006). This question arises in part due to the blurring of organisational boundaries and the lack of clarity surrounding the position of these workers in labour laws (Dickens 2004; Fudge 2006).

Theories and arguments in the political economy literature are mostly rooted implicitly or explicitly on the case of the full-time worker with a permanent employment contract. The emergent evidence, however, suggests that secure employment is declining across the board and that employment contracts have, in various ways, become a comparatively negative source of regulation and discipline (Barker and Kathleen 1998). The breakdown of expectations of security has been precipitated by numerous factors, including economic restructuring, downsizing, the demolition of internal labour markets and employers' beliefs that permanency, stability, and lifelong employment are liabilities to business competitiveness and flexibility (Okafor 2012; Osterman 1996; Wilkin 2013). Hence, this ideal-typical work arrangement has dramatically weakened. The burgeoning forms of workers' exploitation derived from emergent forms of intermediated work arrangements (such as the temporary agency employment phenomena of the past two decades) has rarely been discussed and analysed in explaining the political economy of this increasingly growing and vulnerable workers' class hired on non-standard work contracts (Kalleberg, Hudson, and Reskin 1997) of which agency employment is a variant. In order to describe the influence of power structure at contemporary workplaces, an additional dimension must be specified: the employment contract as a mechanism that guides employment relations.

Nested within this theoretical agenda, this study sought to explain a perhaps novel tactical nudge by opportunistic employers characterised with lopsided financial and political powers to exploit weak and vulnerable agency workers of Pakistan, and thus increasing class disorganisation. Against this backdrop, this study endeavoured to explain and interpret the conditions of agency labour in the selected case study organisations in Pakistan. Pakistan has been chosen for this study primarily because of indications of, attention grabbing, dubious forms of agency employment practices prompted by the preliminary, anecdotal, evidence (Samad and Ali 2000; Sayeed et al. …

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