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Monday 22 July 2013

Michael Quinlan, Claire Mayhew and Philip Bohle




International Journal of Health Services, Vol 31 Number 2 - 2001



-                                  abstract

-                                  introduction

-                                  a review of recent research on the OHS effects of precarious employment

-                                  regulatory problems, the emerging policy response and new strategies

-                                  placing current problems in comparative historical perspective




The paper is divided into two principal sections. The first part of the paper reviews a range of studies of the health effects of precarious employment in industrialised societies undertaken over the last ten years. The part of the paper examines methodological issues, findings and areas in need of further research. Of the more than 50 published articles and monographs identified all but a handful found precarious employment was associated with a deterioration in occupational health and safety in terms of injury rates, hazard exposures or worker (and manager) knowledge of OHS and regulatory responsibilities. It also identifies a need by researchers to more clearly link the health effects to particular business practices and neo-liberal policies and to explore the regulatory implications of the growth of precarious employment. This section also tries to draw some general conclusions as to how to conceptualise the association between precarious employment and occupational health. The Second section of the paper tries to place this research in a comparative historical context. It is argued that extensive use of precarious employment is not essentially new. It was a characteristic feature of most if not all industrialised societies at an earlier period, namely the 19th and first part of the 20th century. Without claiming the both phases are identical, historical comparisons are instructive in terms of understanding recent experiences and ways of addressing them. This section of the paper also makes comparisons with the third world where the informal sector typically accounts for over the half the workforce. Again, it is argued such comparisons are instructive in indicating the consequences of a shift to more precarious patterns of employment and disorganised work settings. Further, there is good evidence that precarious employment is expanding in the third world. Growing precarious employment in both industrialised and developing countries are not coincidental but connected and the paper identifies a number of these mechanisms that are impacting on workers’ health.




This paper focuses on the association between precarious employment and the health of workers although we recognise that the expansion of contingent work arrangements can have wider health effects for the community. For example, outsourcing maintenance in the transport industry and healthcare can have serious consequences for commuters and patients respectively. Equally, it is arguable that the low income, long hours and production pressures on contingent workers such as self-employed truck drivers or home-based workers (such as those sewing garments) can - in as much as it effects nutrition, accommodation, healthcare and domestic relations - have not inconsequential implications for the health and well-being of family members.



Recent Research on the OHS effects of precarious employment




In the main we have confined our review to refereed articles published by journals in the fields of health/medicine, work sociology, work or health psychology, industrial relations, management and law. We have also a number of research monographs (most notably by French scholars) which are based on substantial empirical work but for which we were aware of no journal publication. Although we have tried to avoid double counting, we have included more than one publication based on the same empirical data where each presents substantially new information or analysis (including cases where a number of surveys are combined).


The survey does not include studies that only consider the impact of organisational change on job

satisfaction. While job satisfaction is relevant to worker health and well-being this literature is vast, making meaningful comparisons difficult. Here we have chosen to focus on studies that include other and generally more direct measures of health effects, or measures of legal and other knowledge specifically tied to OHS. The survey does include studies of OHS in small business. Small business has been included for several reasons even though this literature seldom makes a explicit connection to precarious employment. First, micro-small business in particular can arguably be regarded as a form of precarious employment (including many self-employed workers and subcontractors). Second, its growing significance in terms of employment has been a direct consequence of outsourcing/competitive tendering and organisational restructuring. Third, small business tends to employ more than proportionate number of temporary, part-time, home-based and other types of contingent workers than larger enterprises (for the USA see Wiatrowski, 1994).


Insert Table 1: Summary of Published Research on the association between precarious employment and occupational health and safety



Results and Discussion


The most immediate observation that can be made is that, notwithstanding the wide array of methodologies employed and diversity of countries where the research too place, almost all studies find an association between precarious employment and a negative indicator of OHS.


One area of omission in most the research is a failure to explore the consequences of the expansion of precarious employment for work/non-work relations. The growth of precarious employment can effect the balance of work and non-work activities in a number of ways. First, for particular categories of precarious workers, most notably home-based workers and their self-employed, there is (as has always occurred for women, see Messing), a progressive blurring between private and public spheres of activity. Second, the job and income insecurities associated with precarious employment, the excessive hours associated with some jobs (like truck driving) or the incompatibility of specified work schedules with family commitments (including part-time workers, see Dwyer, 1994) can impact on domestic roles and relationships of workers.

Table 2: Risk Factors Associated with Precarious Employment


Economic and Reward Factors
Competition/under‑bidding of tenders
Taskwork/payment by results
Iong hours
Under-qualification and Iack of resources (ie like small business)
Off-loading high risk activities


Ambiguity in rules, work practices and procedures
Inter-group/inter-worker communication
More complicated lines of management control
Splintering of OHS management system
Inability of outsourced workers to organise/protect themselves
Increased Likelihood of Regulatory Failure
OHS laws focus on employees in large enterprises
OHS agencies fail to develop adequate support materials
OHS agencies fail to pursue appropriate compliance strategies
Problematic coverage by labour minimum standards laws
Problematic coverage by workers' compensation



Of course this is a crude typology (crude typologies can still be useful!) and there may be other ways of conceptualising the link between precarious employment and OHS. One possibility in this regard is the large and growing body of medical and psychological research which has linked work organisation to health outcomes using Karasek’s job strain model or some derivative of this. Measuring job demands on and the decision latitude of precarious workers would seem to have real potential, especially in terms of explaining health effects beyond traumatic injuries and in debunking misleading legal interpretations of the degree of independence and control exercised by most self-employed contractors. …Levels of control


Unfortunately, until comparatively recently most studies using this model failed to differentiate employment status or focused on full-time and relatively secure workers. A study by Brisson et al (1998) did differentiate by employment status (ie permanent/non-permanent) and found


More recently, a number of researchers prominent in this area including Aronsson and Netterstrom have already undertaken either new research on precarious employment or have extended their earlier work into new studies which take explicit account of this aspect (see Netterstrom’s study comparing CVD for outsourced and non-outsourced bus drivers). Further, some researchers involved in the Whitehall studies are beginning to look at this aspect while a growing interest in management systems amongst US researchers involved in studying bus drivers is indicative of a similar shift (see Landsbergis et al 1999).


Another protential link is the body of research on new ‘production concepts’ (like just in time, lean production) and methods of managing workers (such as business process re-engineering, engineered standards). Unfortunately the bulk of research in this area has focused on industries with still relative conventional employment structures (such as automobile manufacturing) and has either ignored or made only limited reference to the OHS outcomes of such systems (see Landsbergis et al 1999). Equally, for their part OHS researchers have only recently begun to look at management systems.  One study to make the link between precarious employment, new management methods of work organisation and OHS is Wright and Lund’s (1996, 1998) studies of the introduction of engineered standards into grocery warehousing in the USA and Australia. Their study shows that the employment of temporary workers was an integral part of a new intensified work system with these workers being used as rate-busters and setting performance levels which NIOSH studies found to be unsustainable. Unfortunately, the examination of the OHS effects is insufficient to be included in Table 1 although their offers some important leads for future research.  precarious employment and the new Taylorism (Wright & Lund on warehousing) and Toomingas et al on telecall centres and work specialisation (see also Aronsson et al, 1994).


Professional, Institutional and Regulatory Effects


In addition to affecting basic indicators of worker health, safety and well-being, it seems clear that the growth of precarious employment also has a series of effects on various groups of OHS professionals, institutions and regulatory apparatuses. Unfortunately, until very recently these aspects went unrecognised or were ignored by researchers. What evidence we do have indicates these effects compound problems already identified and also make it increasingly difficult for practitioners, policy-makers and others to manage them using conventional devices. The remainder of this section will briefly summarise this evidence and indicate a number of areas where further research is required.


The presence of contingent workers can create problems for OHS professionals in a number of ways. For example, the existence of large and volatile temporary workforce, including contractors coming on and off-site, or workers employed at home and in other remote locations will make it more difficult for OHS managers or professionals like OHS medical practitioners and nurses to ensure adequate safety training and induction. Similar logistical problems may arise in relation to pre-placement medical examinations and surveillance, undertaking risk assessment of all work processes and maintaining adequate injury, incident etc records – including those required under legislation (Gyi et al, 1998; Morris, 1999:477). The problems arise not simply from workforce volatility associated with precarious employment but also an increase reporting problems identified by existing research (Morris, 1999; Quinlan and Mayhew, 1999). 


Effects on OHS Professions


It is now becoming clear that the growth of precarious employment has implications for OHS practitioners and professions such OHS manager, occupational physicians, ergonomists, rehabilitation counsellors and occupational health service providers more generally. Unfortunately, this area has been little research. However, a number of effects can be identified.


First, change processes may directly affect OHS services within an organisation where the OHS unit is reduced, splintered or in other ways reorganised in tandem with downsizing, devolution or other forms of restructuring by the employer concerned. In some cases all or part of the OHS function (including rehabilitation) may be outsourced.


Second, quite apart from their own restructuring internal units and individuals primarily responsible for managing OHS will need to address the challenges if not additional burden of dealing with the morale etc problems of workforce reductions and loss of experienced workers, the risks associated with an increase in temporary workers or contractors to give but two examples. These problems will also impact on outside OHS service providers as well as other firms and agencies dealing with injured workers (such as insurers and rehabilitation providers). For example, those involved in rehabilitation will need to confront issues of how to help a injured worker employed on a temporary basis where the employer has no real interest in their fate or future prospects. Even where OH services are mandated as in parts of the EU, there coverage of smaller workplaces and firms has been problematic and the growth of more disorganised work-settings is almost certain to amplify problems of both coverage and the quality of service provided.


At the very least these problems will present new and significant challenges. Some (see Gibson, 1999) suggest OHS specialists and practitioners will need to develop new skills and competencies if they are to exert an impact and retain their relevance. These include a greater need to understand business strategies and integrated management systems, to deal with special groups such as contractors and home-based workers, to assess and respond to changes in technology, work systems and workforce demographics; to simultaneously deal with long latency hazards and a transient workforce and to involve themselves in other areas affecting OHS such as collective bargaining.


Methodological Issues and Problems


One obvious methodological question that these findings raise is why a serious deterioration in health indices identified has not been apparent in official OHS statistics. There are number of possible (and not necessarily mutually exclusive) reasons for this. At the general level, it could be that the deterioration may have been masked by an overall improvement in OHS due to inter-sectoral shifts in employment (notably from manufacturing, mining and construction to the service sector). At a more specific level, it could be suggested that the way OHS statistics are constructed in most countries does not just ignore differences in employment status but may actually disguise these effects (see below). Further, in some countries the matching of OHS statistics with data on employment status is made difficult because government statistical agencies have only recently tried to identify the extent of these employment arrangements through irregular surveys. Thus, data-matching is difficult and in the USA, if not elsewhere, this problem is compounded by the arbitrarily narrow definition of contingent work and temporary jobs used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (see Quinlan and Mayhew, 1999). It should also be noted that until recently researchers simply did not look for these effects although when they did, as Foley’s (1998) study shows, a significant effect was discernable.


It is also possible that reporting effects have masked the deterioration. Official OHS statistics are often based on workers’ compensation claims that are known to significantly understate the actual incidence of occupational illness, including substantial omissions in relations to disease, acute and chronic injuries. A growth in precarious employment will almost certainly compound these omissions. For example, identifying a disease related to occupational exposure becomes immensely more difficult where a worker has held a series of relatively short terms jobs in a diverse range of work-settings. In a similar vein retrospective epidemiological studies will become more difficult because it is less likely that an occupationally related disease will be recorded on a death certificate. For workers having held a series of jobs it will even be difficult to record ‘usual occupation’ (a requirement for death certificates in the USA and other countries) with any degree of accuracy. The problem is liable to be most acute for male workers, given the already high error rate for working women whose occupation is entered as ‘housewife’ (Zahm, 2000:443).


There is also a suspicion in at least some countries that the gap between incidence and claims may have widened over the past decade due to changes in workers’ compensation regimes, the introduction of managed care etc. Hence, the apparent improvement in OHS statistics may be, at least in part, an artefact of reporting. More to the point, in many countries the expansion of precarious employment has meant an increasing number of workers (like self-employed subcontractors) who are either formally excluded from compensation coverage or subject to voluntary (rather than compulsory) cover. For a much larger group cover is uncertain or workers are reluctant to make claims for fear of interfering with income flows or future employment prospects (Quinlan and Mayhew, 1999). Clearly, to make meaningful comparisons using official data requires better knowledge of the employment status and claims behaviour of particular categories of workers (say between hospital-based nurses and those in nursing homes or home-based health care).  Available evidence indicates those occupying precarious jobs are more reluctant to report injury, delay reporting or only report severe injuries. This means that identified associations may understate frequency or produce a bias towards serious injury amongst the contingent group. A recent USA study (Meyer and Muntaner, 1999) using compensation data found home-based health nurses/nursing aides experienced fewer injuries than their counterparts in nursing homes, but more than hospital-based staff and their claims also resulted in more lost time and costs than both nursing home and hospital staff. Knowledge of reporting effects as well as work practices may help to understand why home-care workers appear to have more severe injury. Further, information on the employment status of nursing home personnel might indicate whether there was under-reporting in relation to this group (due to a higher level of temporary employment than hospital staff). While it is impossible to indicate all the permutations here researchers need to be aware of these issues in both constructing studies and, equally importantly, interpreting their findings.


-          fragmented research using different methodologies and different definitiions

-          reporting and measurement problems (in some industries there is no comparitor)

-          problem with cohort studies where no cohort

-          limits/strengths with self-reported health effects

-          ability of surveys to assess historical changes, institutional and regulatory effects


It is important to put criticisms of the methodological problems facing research into precarious employment into context. Indirectly if not explicitly, this research has highlighted some important methodological flaws in previous research. Research into precarious employment is leading to a greater recognition of reporting effects. This includes an increased questioning of the use of workers’ compensation-based data – at least without considerable and explicit reservations. There is also growing recognition that the health impacts of organisational downsizing may be masked or complicated by the over-representation of older and less health workers amongst those displaced and a reluctance of surviving workers to report illness or take absence for fear this will endanger their job. It may also lead to increased claims amongst those whose fate has already been decided.


Further, it is now increasingly clear that the exclusion of temporary workers from the survey population (based on a particular workplace, company or group of employers) – a practice often at best only glibly acknowledged by researchers (usually on the basis of inadequate medical records. See van Poppel et al, 1998) could constitute a serious source of bias to any interpretation of OHS indices or intervention measures designed to modify this or worker rehabilitation. While it is acceptable, indeed useful, to express injury or disease incidence in terms of equivalent full-time workers (requiring a recalculation where workers are employed for shorter hours) the findings of research on precarious employment indicate that dis-aggregated comparisons are also warranted. I am also unaware as to whether similar conventions are devised where workers are employed well-beyond the hours normally ascribed to full-time work. But even if they were it is well known that excessive hours can pose particular risks. Given this, and the clear connection between very long hours and some groups of precarious workers (like long distance truck drivers, home-based garment makers etc), there is another ground for dis-aggregating groups so any significant disparity amongst them in terms of incidence can be clearly identified.


In some cases methodological bias appears less accidental than a reflection of dominant managerial interests. For example, it seems more than coincidental that while there are relatively few studies on the health impacts of downsizing and other forms of organisational restructuring (de-regulation, privatization etc) there is an extensive psychological literature on interventions (like counselling, social support etc) to moderate worker dissatisfaction and ‘non-compliant job behaviour’ associated with these same practices or job insecurity more generally (see Lim, 1997 – a study also based on MBA alumni which, as Platt et al, 1998:23 point out is hardly representative of workers affected by labour market change).


The growth of precarious employment may also require modification of other research agendas, including the growing bodies of research on the OHS implications of an ageing workforce, and women’s OHS (where insufficient recognition is given to the fact that the majority of women occupy contingent jobs). It should also cause us to question the occupational focus and orientation of the extensive research shiftwork and occupational stress. In both cases we would suggest researchers have tended to focus on occupations that are unrepresentative of the workforce undertaking shiftwork or at risk of occupational stress either in terms of the type of work (this has been recognised) but also, and perhaps more importantly, in terms of employment status. Virtually all the shiftwork and occupational stress literature examines full-time workers in jobs that are presumed to be ongoing (although the occupational stress literature is now examining downsizing). This can be seen in the selection of occupations for studies. Even where, some popular targets of shiftwork research, such as nurses, have experienced a significant growth in casualisation, part-time employment and outsourcing, with rare exceptions these changes have gone unrecognised. More important perhaps, we can readily identify a number of industries such as hospitality and retailing that employ substantial number of workers in shift arrangements and where many of these hold part-time or temporary posts. In other industries involving shiftwork, like road transport and mining, the use of contractors is already widespread or is growing (depending on the countries involved) and outsourcing/labour-hire arrangements is extending this to other areas (like stevedoring, rail and air-transport). Even where there has been a significant shift to casualisation, part-time work and outsourcing  It is worth noting in passing that the connection between ‘flag of convenience’ shipping has created a precariously employed maritime workforce (fishermen are another precariously employed group working non-standard hours) and similar trends are emerging in other sectors (like airlines).


3.0 The Regulatory Implications of Labour Market Changes


Overall, evidence is fragmentary, especially when definitional and methodological issues are taken into account (see Platt et al 1998 and Aronsson, 1998). Nevertheless, there are increasing grounds for concern that the growth of precarious employment is having an adverse effect on OHS in industrialised societies even if the extent of the problem varies between countries. Most studies deal with injuries although there is some evidence on disease (Netterstrom and Hanson, 1998). There is also some evidence that the shift to precarious employment may increase the risk of various forms of occupational violence (including harassment) or at least make this issue more difficult to manage (Mayhew and Quinlan, forthcoming).  It should be emphasised that these effects may be masked in official statistics because the same labour market changes affect workers’ compensation/health insurance claims data as well as other data sources (Quinlan, 1999, Quinlan and Mayhew, 1999). These changes also pose direct and indirect challenges to prevailing regulatory regimes concerned with safeguarding workers and it is to this that attention will now turn.


Historically, the OHS regulatory regimes of most industrialised countries focused on full-time employees in large workplaces. While laws purported to cover all workers little compliance activity was directed at smaller workplaces, subcontractors or more casualised forms of employment. The same applied to the provision of preventative services, with the impact of the European Framework Directive being mainly confined to large firms (Walters, 1997:267-8). From the late 1980s government agencies in the EU, North America and Australia increasingly recognised that that lifting OHS performance in small firms required specialised materials and strategies (OSHA, 1997; Lamm, 1995; Hassle and Limborg, 1997; and Mayhew et al, 1997). However, only in exceptional cases like Denmark was small business comprehensively incorporated into compliance programs (Jensen, 1996). In the USA, Wiatrowski (1994:34) reports that establishments with 10 or fewer employees are not required to keep OHS records and are not subject to inspections. Even in countries without formal exemptions, inspectoral activity continues to focus on large workplaces. Risks to younger workers have also begun to attract recent attention, backed in some cases by community group and union initiatives (see Ontario Ministry of Labour, 1997). Articles 6 and 7 of the European Directive on the Protection of Young People at Work (94/33/EC) require employers to take account of young workers, lack of experience, awareness and maturity when assessing risks and allocating tasks. Parents of school-age children are also to be informed about risk assessment outcomes and control measures.  However, the best that can be said is that implementation of these provisions by member countries has varied widely.


The OHS problems of outsourcing have evoked a generally muted response. In a number of countries OHS agencies produced employer guidance material on managing contractors (see Victorian WorkCover Authority, 1996 and Health and Safety Executive, 1997). These initiatives are still exceptional and often restricted to a particular industry like construction or local government. Some agencies have made increasing use of the general duty provisions in OHS legislation to prosecute employers, major contractors and labour hire agencies for failing to provide a safe system of work for outsourced workers. This activity has had a limited effect and in areas like road transport safety enforcement continues to ignore subcontracting (Mayhew and Quinlan, 1997b). In the EU recent efforts to extend the Working Time Directive (93/104/EC) to include road transport (that employs around 3.5 million workers) were opposed by employers, partly on the grounds that many drivers were self-employed. An existing European Regulation (3820/85) stipulated maximum driving hours for both employed and self-employed drivers but this did not cover activities like loading and unloading that often formed an important part of driver’s tasks (European Commission, 1997). Following considerable consultation involving the European Trades Union Congress (ETUC) and the Union of Industrial and Employer’s Confederations (UNICE), the European Commission proposed to guarantee rest-periods and limit maximum annual hours for all mobile workers. UNICE opposed this measure, arguing all member states already had some form of working time regulation and advocating a voluntary/non-binding sector-specific approach. Yet, as the 1997 White Paper had noted, there was no consistency in member-state regulations (almost certainly exacerbated by variations in compliance) and the competitive advantages derived from perpetuating such differences warranted a Community-wide approach.


In some countries at least the regulatory apparatus dealing with subcontracting is either ambiguous, not enforced or actually discourages major contractors from taking an overriding responsibility for OHS (see Rebitzer, 1995:56). It is also a moot point as to whether OHS agency initiatives are being overwhelmed by the promotion of competitive tendering/outsourcing as part of the microeconomic reform agenda being pursued in many industrialised countries. In Britain and Australia, for instance, OHS problems were largely ignored during the development of competitive tendering/outsourcing programs (Tombs, 1996:321 and Industry Commission, 1995:189). Tombs (1996) concludes that while the conservative Thatcher government abandoned a direct assault on OHS regulation its pursuit of privatisation/competitive tendering and other de-regulationist policies undermined the ability of the OHS agency to carry out its mandated functions.


There has also been limited recognition of the need for new regulations and compliance strategies on part-time and temporary workers. In 1990 the European Commission adopted a draft Directive on the protection of health and safety for part-time, temporary and seasonal workers. It is unclear how far this measure has been implemented and there have been no comparable steps in countries like Australia with comparatively high levels of part-time and casual labour. In 1997 the Italian Ministry of Labour and Social Insurance prepared a report (Synthesis, 1997) on the relationship between temporary work, ‘accident’ prevention and security. The report (1997:20-2) identified a number of familiar risk factors (isolation, poor communication and training, disorganisation and inexperience) and called for a significant re-fashioning of regulatory intervention (not simply the laws directly governing OHS) and reconsideration of EU Directives (such as 91/383/EU). Looking at Britain and France, the report (1997:3) argued French law demonstrated the only way to protect temporary workers was to ensure parity of treatment between this group and permanent workers. It therefore advocated efforts to bring the submerged world of precarious employment into the mainstream of labour regulation. Other proposals included the identification of jobs requiring special surveillance measures, inclusion of OHS in various levels of education/training and a separate law establishing norms of health and security protection for ‘unusual’ workers. Most of these proposals have yet to be implemented although in June 1997 a bill regulating temporary agency labour was introduced into the Italian parliament.


Governments have been equally slow to respond to the growth of home-based work and telework (de Vries, 1996:69-105). Both the European Union and several member countries have commissioned preliminary reports on the OHS problems and regulatory issues raised by telework and home-based work (Huuhtanen, 1997; de Vries, 1996; and Westberg, 1997). In the Netherlands, the Dutch Working Environment Act covers employed but not self-employed teleworkers (de Vries, 1996:91). Regulatory coverage means little without compliance activity and inspecting home-based workplaces remains the logistical nightmare it was 100 years ago (Mayhew and Quinlan 1999). The European Commission has called on member states to ratify the 1996 ILO convention on homeworking. More recent Commission documents have identified the difficulty of using conventional regulatory solutions in relation to small business and contingent workers (European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, 1998:12,35).


Overall, governments and international agencies have only recently responded to the challenges posed by changing labour market structures (for a discussion on Europe see Walters, 1996b). A recent ILO report on contract labour contained only a brief reference to OHS (Egger, 1997:8). Neo-liberal governments in Canada and elsewhere have even used the growth of small business to justify a more de-regulated approach to OHS, arguing that existing regulation is being rendered irrelevant (Witmer, 1997). In Britain a Health and Safety Executive (1996) discussion paper on the regulatory implications of labour market restructuring rejected the wholesale exemption of self-employed workers from OHS laws (although change in construction regulations had this effect. Mayhew and Quinlan, 1997a:199-200) but also failed to recommend initiatives on contingent workers. In the USA a recent paper by Rosentock (1998) on emerging research issues for NIOSH identified problems associated with an aging and more diverse workforce, more unconventional working hours and changes to work organisation but there seems little prospect of regulatory initiatives on contingent work. Although most governments have ignored the cost/benefit implications of labour market restructuring. However, a report prepared for the Netherlands Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment (van Waarden et al 1997) raised the spectre of a serious deterioration in OHS performance and increased costs unless regulation was re-fashioned to address the growth of contingent workers and other workplace changes.


Labour market changes pose problems for worker and union input into OHS regulation. In many industrialised countries unions make an important if not always apparent contribution to OHS. Unions are pivotal to the collective labour law regimes that establish a baseline of employment conditions (wages, hours etc) – and these minimum standards affect OHS – as well the framework for workers raising and negotiating safety issues without fear of losing their job. They also exert influence through political lobbying on OHS laws, representing injured workers in compensation proceedings and providing logistical support for the worker involvement mechanisms (representatives and committees) established under OHS laws or industry agreements. Reforms to OHS legislation in many advanced industrialised societies (especially northern Europe and Australia) since the 1970s were predicated on a collaborative approach based on informed employees and a high level of union organisation. Participatory mechanisms such employee health and safety representatives and joint workplace committees usually entailed establishment procedures/requirements which meant they were unlikely to occur in small or non-unionised workplaces. Even where laws grant participatory rights to non-unionists this has proved problematic in practice (James and Walters, 1997:35-50).


Union membership is significantly lower amongst contingent workers such as the self-employed, those in small business, part-time and temporary workers (Lettau, 1995 and Campbell 1996) and the growth of precarious employment has arguably contributed to a decline in union density experienced by many industrialised countries (exceptions include Sweden and Austria).  Falling union membership levels have, in turn, weakened worker input into OHS regulation and this gap has not been filled by alternative forms of employee representation (Walters, 1996a). Rather, in countries like Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the UK the declining scope for union involvement in OHS has been exacerbated by changes to labour law restricting union rights to enter workplaces, recruit or bargain. There is evidence that the combination of labour market change and decentralised or de-collectivist industrial relations regimes have facilitated work intensification and an erosion of OHS standards (see Nichols, 1997), and these effects are liable to be most pronounced amongst contingent workers with little bargaining power.


Finally, (see Quinlan and Mayhew, forthcoming), labour market changes can pose a particular challenge to more elaborate OHS management systems/internal control regimes that have become increasingly popular amongst OHS policy-makers in the last decade. The growth of precarious forms of employment and smaller more volatile employment units can weaken these developments by:


·      reducing the number of workers employed by large organisations where these systems are most applicable;

·      increasing the number of workers in isolated or inadequately planned work-settings and encouraging competition amongst workers;

·      making it more difficult to address insidious health risks of exposure to hazardous substances;

·      creating enclaves of contingent workers in large organisations whose incorporation in OHS management/internal control systems will be problematic; and

·      making it more difficult for unions to monitor or vet systems performance


At the same time it could be argued that OHSMS provide a vehicle for meeting these very challenges, especially where it is embedded in a pervasive regulatory framework. Countries, which would seem to meet these criteria are Norway and Sweden with their strong level of union organisation and mandated OHSMS. It was for this very reason that a recent inquiry into OHS regulation in my state of New South Wales sent a delegation to Sweden and Norway in 1998 to explore these aspects with local experts. In the case of Sweden there is the added interest of examining to what extent the system of regional safety representatives has helped to meet these challenges. Unfortunately, as far as I am aware there has been far more research assessing internal control in Norway than in Sweden.


4.0 A Proactive Regulatory Response


While the fracturing of labour markets appears to be a general trend the extent of regulatory problems in any given country will vary according the level of casualisation, outsourcing etc, government policies and the nature of employment legislation. However, at the risk of over-generalisation a number of regulatory responses can be identified.


1. Altering the form and implementation of existing OHS regulatory regimes


This represents the most obvious starting point for a regulatory response. Indeed, in many industrialised countries such initiatives have already commenced.  These initiatives include the development of new codes or regulations relating subcontracting/labour hire, casual or young workers and small business together with changes to enforcement methods and targeting (such as prosecutions directed at major contractors). This approach has merit, especially where legislative contains general duty provisions that can be used to develop of pervasive web of regulatory responsibilities and one which also targets those parties with the greatest capacity to affect OHS outcomes (such as major contractors rather than subcontractors). There is also some possibility to use overlapping webs of contractual obligation (such as those found in franchising arrangements) to strengthen regulatory controls (see Johnstone, 1999). Nevertheless, this response suffers from a number of problems.


First, it is largely reactive rather proactive, seeking to remedy problems as they are identified and arguably lagging well behind in a game of ‘catch-up’ that cannot be won. It fails to address the economic pressures on some groups of workers to not report injury, the churning problems of workplaces with high labour turnover, the turnover of contractors and small business or the capacity of medium to large firms to use business law to re-engineer their legal identity. It also fails to address the forces driving the shift to precarious employment, notably neo-liberal policies of promoting competition (competitive tendering, outsourcing, corporatisation/privatisation, removal of trade and transport barriers, purchaser/provider models of service delivery etc). Even where these occur within particular countries or economic blocks with an apparently strong and comprehensive framework of regulatory protection there is a basic imbalance in regulatory impact. That is changes to business and commercial arrangements will tend to overwhelm corresponding responses from OHS regulators. In the EU for example the first cabotage regulation on road transport introduced on 1 July 1998, enabling any lorry to drive anywhere in the EU (including domestic or intra-country trips on an as yet undefined ‘occasional’ basis) has set a number of significant changes in motion. This includes a growth in the number of self-employed drivers, relocation of transport companies to countries with more ‘sympathetic’ regulatory regimes, pressure on employed drivers to accept wage cuts in order keep their jobs, the growth of legal and illegal employment practices (including engaging eastern European drivers at ‘flag of convenience wage rates), a regional refocusing of transport activities to meet the new competitive environment and pressure on union membership and inter-union competition for jobs. These changes in turn have flow through effects onto OHS (in terms of driving practices, drug use etc) that OHS regulators and unions in countries with superior working conditions and OHS standards will have difficulty addressing especially. Governments have resisted defining ‘occasional’ for fear of sacrificing jobs to other member states. Further, the fact that there are significant disparities in the level of implementation (both formal and in terms of actual enforcement activities) amongst EU members (see Lampinen and Uusikyla, 1998) will tend to compound these effects in high compliance countries like Sweden. The entry of new EU members from Eastern Europe is almost certain to exacerbate this situation. Where, as with NAFTA, there is even less recognition of the need to safeguard employment standards in conjunction with new trade and competition policies the effects are liable to be even more profound.


Second, to be even partially effective this approach requires the commitment of considerable resources at a time where public expenditure on OHS regulation is stagnant or declining in many industrialised countries (Walters, 1997:266-7). Some categories of contingent workers, notably home-based workers and child-labour (which has re-emerged as an issue in industrialised countries in Europe, the USA and Australasia. See ETUC, 1998), exist in a shadow-land of informal and often clandestine employment. Identifying and locating these workers represents a daunting exercise and attempts to address their OHS problems without other forms of regulatory intervention are unlikely to prove effective (Kinney, 1993; NIOSH, 1996 and Mayhew and Quinlan, 1999). For example, Australian studies of clothing outworkers and road transport workers indicated that the primary source of OHS risk was the combination of low pay/incentive payments and excessive hours of work. In the clothing industry several state governments are working on strategies to locate primary OHS responsibility with retailers (who tend to drive the outsourcing of work), together with a system for registering outworkers and ensuring they work according to minimum wage and working hours standards (including union access to records). In road transport there is a complex interchange of separate road transport, OHS and industrial relations laws and mooted solutions include a similar registration system for all drivers, requiring freight forwarding companies to prepare written work plans and the appointment of inspectors empowered to enforce all three bodies of law. In construction, where similar problems exist, one response has been the development of a memorandum of understanding amongst 20 major firms as to the minimum requirements to be met by subcontractors incorporated into a package known as subbie-pack. However, this only applies to commercial buildings not the housing sector where subcontracting is even more pervasive. The responses have strengths in addressing the contours of the use of contingent labour that are specific to an industry. At the same time, there is a real question as to the feasibility of developing and implementing such packages for every industry.


Third, implicit in the foregoing is the observation that the growth of precarious forms of employment do not simply alter OHS regimes. They can also often effect union density (since precariously employed workers, especially self-employed and home-based workers, are often more difficult to recruit and service) and industrial relations (collective negotiations and the ability to enforce minimum labour standards). Hence, a strategy tied to OHS regulation alone is unlikely to succeed.


2. More over-arching regulatory solutions


A more comprehensive and cost effective solution would to modify regulatory regimes in a way that discourage contingent forms of employment or (the French approach) to try and ensure precariously employed workers receive exactly the same employment conditions (this is also liable to discourage contingent work arrangements). This could involve:


·         Changes to labour regulation to minimise any gap in conditions between precarious and non-precarious workers. To be effective it would need to deal with actual rather than formal disparities in entitlements and this is likely to prove difficult;

·         Changes to business law to restrict the ability of firms to reconfigure their legal form in order to evade statutory employment requirements (probably more a problem in English speaking countries such as the USA and Australia);

·         Changes to taxation law to remove incentives for employers to re-designate workers as self-employed contractors rather than employees; and

·         Ensuring regulatory liability (environment, OHS, labour standards etc) focuses on the top of the ‘food chain’ (i.e. large corporations) irrespective of how these organisations choose to arrange the production of goods and services.


Most if not all of these measures are liable to prove controversial as they directly confront the twin policy mantras of globalisation and microeconomic reform. Yet apparently radical steps can be supported on the grounds that OHS has not only been ignored in the debate over microeconomic reform (Purse, 1997), but these policies (including privatisation) are compounding the economic, social and human costs of occupational injury and disease.


Placing the debate in a comparative historical perspective


In order to understand the current shift to precarious employment in advanced industrial societies and its implications for OHS it is essential to place it in a comparative historical context. There are two clear parallels. First, a substantial level of what would now be seen as precarious employment (such casual labourers) and disorganised work settings were characteristic feature of most, if not all, industrial societies around a century ago. Second, insecure employment and a large informal sector is a characteristic feature, indeed dominating, feature of so-called newly industrialising countries (third world remains a more accurate descriptor and we will continue to use it henceforth).


These parallels have not gone completely unrecognised. For example, in reviewing Thomas Legge’s legacy to modern occupational health in Britain, Harrington (1999:2,4) notes hazardous exposures to employees in small metal workshops similar if not identical to those that concerned Legge 100 years ago could still be found. Indeed, small to medium enterprises were a major focus of current Health and Safety Executive activity. In looking to future challenges, Harrington (1999:5) notes the role of multinational corporations in establishing global production and distribution networks, and the very polarised consequences this can have for OHS in third world countries (ranging from first world OHS management systems to highly exploitative wages and dangerous working conditions). He also points to critical changes employment within industrialised countries, especially the growth of short term contracts, job instability, the bipolar trend to both part-time work and longer hours, as well as the shift to smaller workplaces and home-based work. While Harrington (1999:5) makes reference to the impact management ‘delayering’ and ‘downsizing’, technology is seen as a driving force in the growth of home-based work and there is no suggestion that these trends are integrally tied to changing business practices and regulatory policies. Apart from small workplaces, Harrington cannot see that there are other parallels with the late 19th/early 20th century – namely significant levels of insecure employment or that the growth of home-based work can, to some degree, be viewed as the re-emergence of a very old employment practice. Indeed, occupational health/medical texts of the time, as well as government inquiries in Britain, Australia and elsewhere make extensive and detailed reference to the problems posed by insecure and ‘sweated’ (often via piecework payment systems) employment of women, men and children, especially home-based work (not to mention long hours). Telecommuting is only one part of the recent growth in home-based work documented in a number of industrialised countries. Some areas of growth (like home-based garment making) in north America and Australia amount to little more than the re-emergence of an old practice (including middlemen and child labour. Mayhew and Quinlan, 1999). Even in new areas (like home-based telemarketing) the payment system (simple contract, piecework or bonus systems) and other employment practices are essentially similar to older forms of home-based work.


In a similar vein, a number of writers have noted that the incidence of work-related injury (and to a lesser extent disease) being experienced in newly industrialising or third world countries countries are similar to those found in advanced industrial societies during their phase of rapid industrialisation. One such writer is LaDoue (1992:224) who attributes this to the limited education, training and skills of workers, old and poorly designed workplaces, an absense of safety protection equipment and under-resourced regulatory agencies. Likewise others have argued that the transfer of manufacturing (and to a lesser extent services) to third world countries as well as increasing foreign capital penetration of commodity production has entailed a migration of occupational hazards and hazardous processes. It many instances it has entailed a shift to forms of work organisation and working conditions that are well below minimum regulated standards (on employment, OHS and environment) in the first world. This literature often refers to high unemployment/little job security, poor bargaining power of third world workers, suppression of unions and weak forms of protective legislation (usually in little detail and ignoring workers compensation altogether). However, the direct parallels with the expanding precarious workforce in industrialised countries is seldom made let alone explored. It is referred to in some recent research on OHS within the informal sector in third world countries such as Zimbabwe and Brazil (see Santana, 1997 and Loewensen, 1998,1999). However, again these parallels have failed to attract serious attention from those examining precarious employment in the industrialised world, including the connections between the processes that expanding precarious employment in both the first and third world.


Overall, the observations are useful (and need to be made more often) but the accompanying analysis is either entirely missing or under-developed. In the remainder of this paper we shall try to address this by doing three things. First, to look at the historical parallels in more detail. Second, to look at the factors driving the renewed growth of precarious employment in industrialised countries. Third, to examine the processes expanding precarious employment in third world countries and, where possible, to identify evidence as to its consequences for OHS.


Rediscovering the lost history of precarious employment and OHS in industrialised countries


Insecure or fluctuating employment, small workshops, home-based work, self-employment and other arrangements that would now be labelled as contingent work or precarious employment were widespread even pervasive in most if not all industrialised countries in the 19th and early 20th century. A number of occupations, including sweated trades like tailoring (with a combination of irregular employment, fierce competition for work and low remuneration) attracted the attention of early writers on occupational medicine, official inquiries (such as those preceding factory legislation), inspectors reports and other observers. Since precarious employment was so widespread it was often not seen as a remarkable or distinguishing characteristic. Nevertheless, a number of early writers on capital/labour relations clearly demonstrate its importance. In Industrial Democracy (1914 but first published in 1897) Sidney and Beatrice Webb devote a separate chapter to continuity of employment and union struggles over this, as well as discussing the ramifications of casual work, subcontracting, outwork etc at many other points. Similarly Atkins and Laswell’s Labour Attitudes and Problems (1924) has a chapter on casual labourers as well as separate discussions on home-based work, disorganisation in the labour market and irregular employment. Further, it is not difficult to find contemporary observers making a connection between insecure employment or overwork and OHS. Interestingly many observers also refer to one or more of the three features of precarious employment identified in much contemporary literature as having adverse effects on OHS, namely economic/reward pressures, disorganised work and ineffectual regulatory protection. To briefly illustrate these points we will look at several categories of workers, beginning with home-based garment workers.


Elizabeth Rogers, a home-based needlewoman gave evidence to the 1892 South Australian Royal Commission on Shops and Factories as to how the subcontracting system led to excessive competition for work, long hours, low wages and endangered health.


I could mention six (young girls) now whose lives are worked through working so hard at the shirt trade. It is hard work to make a dozen shirts in a day and some have to work, oh, so hard. One girl is at home now, and is being attended by the doctor. She had to make a dozen shirts in a day to get her wages (Minutes of Evidence cited in Williams, 1997:37).


Alice Milne, another shirtmaker and witness to the same inquiry, later became an inspector and in a 1904 report on sweating advocated regulatory intervention to:


…prevent a few in the struggle for crumbs to become a means of not only making their own lot worse, but also dragging others down to the same level. That is what the small unregistered workplaces and homeworkers are doing for the general body of wage-earners in the clothing trade in Adelaide (cited in Williams, 1997:39).


Writing two years earlier, a British writer (Ballantyne, 1902:98-99) cited a number of strikingly similar cases and, highlighting institutional and regulatory problems, argued home-work was:


…practically the No Man’s Land of the industrial world. Here treads not the foot of the labour agitator, for home-workers are largely composed of “casuals” – dreary phantoms, who come and go, whence and whither no man can tell, and no organising sectretary of any trade union, however enterprising, would waste time or effort inducing them to join its ranks. Each worker is a sort of industrial Ishmael, working only for his or her hand.


Nor has the home-worker been much better off in respect of Government protection. For while the factory and workshop hand has had the conditions of her work regulated by law, the home-worker…has been left outside the protecting pale of the Factory Act.


At the same time, Ballantyne (1902:99) stressed that far from being an anachronism or aberration, home-work was a logical extension of the factory-work, a subcontracting mechanism for meeting fluctuating demand and other contingencies. In describing payment and hours Ballantyne (1902:101-2) not only reinforces the issue of regulatory failure and disorganised work settings but also point to critical externalities affecting the whole community:


The evidence collected in respect of out-work by expert investigators in these and other cases seem to prove conclusively that is usually accompanied by very low wages, inordinately long and irregular hours, and distressingly insanitary conditions… And there is double ground for interference here, in that the making of clothing and other articles for public use in insanitary dwellings is not only a danger to workers themselves, but also to the public generally…


Out-workers are often used as a lever for reducing the rate of wages. They are not restricted by any law to a specified number of hours per day as in factories, and they are often found working from early morning till late at night… It may be interesting to note that a large number of outworkers met with during these inquiries were in receipt of parochial relief, although they were working full-time for their employers.


Essentially identical comments about the subcontracting system and excessive hours of home-workers and small employers can be found in government inquiries carried in Britain, Australia, the USA and probably elsewhere over the preceding 30 years if not earlier (for reports of British inquiries in the 1860s see Hutchins and Harrison, 1926:164. See also Aves, 1908:12).


Through these observers we can also find a recurring link drawn between home-based and some other types of insecure work with the employment of children by parents to supplement meagre family earnings (McMillan, 1902:90-7; Piddington, 1912 appendices A & B). Thus, for example, New South Wales Factory Inspector Annie Duncan told the 1912 Piddington Royal Commission (Appendix A:liv) about the use of children as part of family based production units as well as the diversity of working conditions, concluding:


The conditions of the rooms is as various as the type of workers, but the essential note struck everywhere amongst those who are dependent on the work for their living was “drive”.


In the USA the situation was similar a decade later, with an investigation by the Pennslyvania Department of Labor citing cases of children as young as five working at home and stating:


Nineteen percent (209) of visits to 1113 families revealed 401 cases of child labor, an average of two children in each household. Child labor is even more prevalent than this percentage indicates for women are apt to conceal from an investigator the industrial work of children since they know the public sentiment looks with disfavor upon the gainful employment of children under fourteen years of age (cited in Atkins and Lasswell, 1924:151).


Although the situation subsequently improved we are now witnessing a deterioration in tandem with the re-emergence of widespread home or small sweatshop-based garment making in industrialised countries along with a growth of home-based employment more generally.  At the turn of the next century the regulation of OHS in home-based work remains largely ineffective in many countries, beyond the scope of over-taxed inspectorates even where they have rights of entry. Our recent study of home-based garment production in Australia (Mayhew and Quinlan, 1999) found a remarkably reminiscent pattern of exploitive subcontracting and middlemen ‘sweaters’, long hours under pressure, low payments, injury rates three times factory-based workers (none received workers’ compensation). It also revealed cramped and inadequately ventilated work areas, widespread child-labour (as young as seven years) and other externalities (including tax evasion and social security payments). While home-based work represents a shadow-land where exploitation and child labour can flourish it is by no means the only area where contemporary instances of child labour can be found (see for example the use of children in immigrant family groups of fruit and vegetable pickers in the southern USA).


Home-based garment makers were the exemplar for policy debates over ‘sweated labour’ encompassing a much wider array of workers that can be found in Britain, Australia, Canada and many other countries from the 1880s into the first decades of the 20th century. ‘Sweating’ referred to the process whereby groups of workers received remuneration so low that the hardest and longest duration of work secured to barest existence. The sub-letting tasks - what is now called outsourcing/subcontracting - was seen to be a leading causal factor in ‘sweating’ (Aves, 1908:79). A report by Ernest Aves (1908) to the British parliament on the operation of wages boards/concialiation and arbitration in Australia and New Zealand highlighted the importance establishing effective minimum labour standards by regulation to address ‘sweating’ and it social, economic and health consequences. One hundred years later a debate over the establishment and enforcement of minimum labour standards has re-emerged in a number of industrialised countries in response to growth of precarious employment and the weakening of pre-existing legislative protections in the name of enhancing labour market ‘flexibility’. It is of some little irony that these pre-existing laws were in part a response to the ‘sweating’ debate. However, the sweating debate is also a powerful reminder that the protection afforded by OHS legislation is predicated on a broader basis of institutional and regulatory controls on wages, hours of work and the rights of workers to organise. What is also of some interest in terms of our purpose here is the explicit link Aves (1908:69-71) makes between ‘sweating’ and disorganised and exploitive work arrangements. In a section entitled ‘Disorganisation in Industry’ Aves argued that rather than seeing ‘sweating’ in terms of employer morality, attention needed to focus on structures and processes, namely the economic competition and dependency associated with sub-letting led to under-cutting of payment and other exploitive practices. Aves (1908:71) concluded that regulation was a necessary solution (and Australasian experience with wages boards indicated regulation worked) and given that there was ‘no clear line of demarcation between the organised and the disorganised trades’ there was no reason why this form of regulatory intervention should not apply to all.


In addition to home-based workers it is also worth briefly considering the casual/temporary workers and particularly those employed as longshoremen, stevedoring or dock workers. A dedicated dock labour force emerged in the 19th century (previously seamen carried out this activity). Dock-workers were employed of casual basis with men being selected for work by foremen on an arbitrary, demeaning and potential corrupt basis known under various labels including the bull system (named after the ‘bulls’ who set the pace for other workers). Competition for selection and a desire, once selected, to maximise the chance of future work was conducive to low and irregular pay, intense work rates, disorganised work practices and an authoritarian labour management regime (Webb and Webb, 1914:433). From the late 1880s onwards the direct and indirect effects of these employment practices on living conditions and health were the subject of some recognition and public inquiry in countries like Britain. Inquiries revealed that low and irregular earnings translated into malnutrition (for both workers and their families) and an inability to budget, cramped and unsanitary accommodation. The combination of overwork and the hiring system often left older workers unable to obtain any employment (Court, 1965:304-12). Poverty and the casual system often meant inadequately clothed workers handling dangerous cargoes (like soda ash, treated hides or frozen meat) or exposed to cold and damp (Tull, 198715-29 and Webb and Webb, 1914:588). Even some dock company managers were prepared to concede this and to point out that hunger-induced exhaustion often forced workers to leave a job prior to its completion:


The poor fellows are miserably clad, scarcely with a boot on their foot…and they cannot run, their boots would not permit them…These poor men come to work without a farthing in their pockets…and by four o’clock their strength is utterly gone; they pay themselves off: it is absolute necessity which compels them… (cited in Webb and Webb, 1914:588).


The heavy and intensive nature of dock work, the rushing induced by the bull-system and the disorganisation associated with turnover/instability in terms of work gangs, management inattention to work processes and other consequences of casualisation contributed to a high rate of injury. Evidence of these connections is easier to obtain for the early 20th century than the 19th century when inquiries appear to have spent more time describing living conditions and the struggle for work than the work process itself. While the very casual nature of employment made data collection difficult the evidence we have for injury rates amongst dock-workers in countries like Australia place it amongst the most dangerous vocations in the first part of the 20th century (see Tull, 1987:23-26).


Available evidence makes it clear that dock work was not conducive to longevity. Ogle’s analysis of deaths amongst males aged 45 to 55 years reported to the UK Registrar General’s Office in 1890-92 found dock/wharf labourers had the third highest death rate (at 40.71 per thousand) of the 40 occupations measured, just behind pottery workers and well ahead of chimney sweeps and miners (cited in Wohl, 1983:279-81).  


Casual employment of dock workers lasted well into the 20th century in many countries and we can therefore find more contemporary accounts of its effects on health. In 1942, for example, a specialist physician named McQueen undertook an examination of 130 Australian wharf labourers for the Stevedoring Industry Commission that identified the long term effects of these employment practices, exacerbated by the Great Depression. Admitting he expected to find malingerers or men disabled by alcohol, McQueen instead found men prematurely aged and seriously disabled by their work and concluded:


Their endless search for the infrequent job which would keep them and their families from the precarious borderline of malnutrition had taken its devastating toll. The feverish high tension work performed when the job is secured in order to ensure its repetition had been paid for at the shocking high price of premature old age and physical calamity (cited in Nelson, 1957:119).


It is worth noting that the subsequent de-casualisation of the industry had little to do with technology (predating containerisation, roll-on/roll-off and other major changes in Australia and other countries with which we familiar) and a lot more to do with union pressure and resulting institutional/regulatory changes. Equally, employer efforts since the 1980s to re-casualise the industry have relied on the managerial mantras of globalisation and labour market flexibility. Indeed, the only explicit evidence of technological facilitation was employer’s capacity to ‘secretly’ fly strike-breakers to train in Dubai in preparation for the 1997/98 maritime dispute in Australia and, more recently, a global terminal operator establishing a ‘flying dockers’ unit (ITF Circular No.295/D.70/SS.55/1999).


Our discussion has barely scratched the surface of potential comparisons between employment arrangements a century ago and many of those increasingly associated with the misleadingly labelled ‘new economy’. Many other industries, issues and outcomes are worthy of further exploration. For example, some though by no means all of the supposedly new forms of labour flexibility and management practices actually represent very old forms work intensification, with obvious examples including pyramid subcontracting and home-based work. More detailed comparisons would be useful in identifying exactly what is new about the contingent work arrangements that emerged in the last decades of the 20th century. Equally, both contemporary reports and later research on industrial societies a century ago identify the problem of injury and disease reporting amongst economically vulnerable workers afraid of losing their job. Some research, such as Harrison’s (1995:20-41) study of the match-making industry in 19th century Britain, point to active measures by employers and health professionals to conceal the problem. A century later we are in the process of rediscovering that there are reporting problems in relations to vulnerable workers such as self-employed subcontractors those employed casually or in high turnover or disorganised work-settings. Labour leasing provides opportunities to conceal or re-badge injured workers. Further, the downsizing and outsourcing have affected the provision of occupational health services both directly and indirectly, reversing some of the gains in terms of identification and treatment built on permanent employment in large workplaces. Thus, downsizing and outsourcing of OHS has opportunities for direct workplace inspections by occupational physicians as well as imposing subtle pressure on subcontracted physicians not to ‘make waves’ that might jeopardise renewal of their contract. Another avenue for further research relates to outcomes for workers. In The Hygiene Diseases and Mortality of Occupations Arlidge (1892:133) identified an abnormally high suicide rate amongst small self-employed traders. Some recent studies of isolated groups of contingent workers (see Thebuad Mony, 1999 and Mayhew 1999) have also pointed to a possible connection with abnormally high suicide rates which may be worthy of further investigation.


If nothing else, comparisons with OHS amongst workers who are precariously employed or disorganised work-settings a century ago should disavow any expressions of surprise at the consequences of the more recent trend to these forms of work arrangement. It should also drive home what is being lost in conjunction with the dismantling of institutional and regulatory safeguards.  As far as we are aware, there is no compelling comprehensive account of the shift away from precarious employment most industrialised countries during the first half of the 20th century. It is clear from what we have said already the process was not a direct or even accidental by-product of technology and did not occur uniformly across all occupations. We can point to a number of possible and probable explanatory factors. One possible factor was the introduction of mass production that enhanced the advantages of directly hired and ongoing employment although the Japanese case show extensive subcontracting was still compatible with mass production. Another set of factors was immigration, tariff, cabotage and other trade policies restricting product and labour market competition. A number of the latter, as well as other institutional and regulatory changes, were connected either directly or indirectly to the rising industrial and political influence of organised labour. The most apparent examples of the latter include the growth of unions, collective bargaining and the common rule (preventing workers from under-cutting each other) as well as specific union de-casualisation/permanency and anti subcontracting campaigns. Other examples include changed employment practices away from using casual or contract workers (as in the case of labourers employed by local government, road and sewerage authorities). Further examples, include the enactment of laws restricting child labour, regulating factories and other workplaces (including home-based work), establishing minimum wages and other labour standards (including specifically invoking these in government contracts and providing workers’ compensation. Finally, the development of a pervasive welfare network in relation to the provision of healthcare (excluding the USA), social security in case of sickness/disability or unemployment and old-age pensions clearly reduced pressure of persons otherwise forced to eke out a living under the most disadvantageous circumstances.


Overall, it appears the decline of precarious employment/growth of permanent employment in industrialised societies during the course of 20th century to the point where the latter not the former was seen as typical (always an exaggeration, especially for women) was not an inevitable outcome of market forces or technology. Rather, it was an outcome shaped by regulatory/institutional pressures. Given this, we are sceptical about contentions that the present trend is economically determined, inevitably and irreversible. We are not suggesting that there are no important differences between the periods (the welfare state, for instance, while battered remains in place). Nevertheless, reference to an earlier era of precarious employment provides powerful portents of the socially dislocating consequences of existing trends and even some clues as to how these problems might be addressed.


Re-inventing the 19th century: The re-introduction of precarious employment to advanced industrial societies and OHS


The current dominant policy discourse over much of the industrialised world would have us believe flexible employment structures are an essential component of the ‘new’ global economy. However, neo-liberal economics and the policies currently promoted under this banner do not constitute the only, inevitable or ‘real’ discourse or understanding of socio-economic relationships. Rather, it is an arrangement that serves particular interest groups and seeks to justify the expropriation of wealth, power and humanity from others by portraying this process as inexorable and tied to objectified ‘market forces’. In essence, the explanation is and has to be ideology recast as science. This means the growth of precarious employment should be seen as the outcome of specific and reversible actions by key interests groups, most notably large (often multinational) capital and complicit organs of the economic profession, financial community, management consultants and government.


The growth of precarious employment is connected to a number of international developments that impact on both developed and so-called developing countries. Indeed, these processes are connected. Policies in the developed world are contributing to the growth of precarious employment in the developed and developing countries.


While this paper cannot provide a comprehensive explanation of the growth of precarious employment in industrialised countries it is important to identify a number of arguably critical factors and, provide a few brief examples, of how these impact on OHS. For convenience we will group these factors under four headings although all overlap and arguably flow out the neo-liberal economic policy agenda (the precise transmission mechanisms are important but beyond the scope of analysis here).


1)      Changes to management employment, production and service delivery practices in the private and public sector that are design to cut operating costs or enhance shareholder value have directly and indirectly promoted a shift to precarious employment. The tools of achieving this have gone under a range of labels including corporatisation, privatization, outsourcing, downsizing/organisational restructuring, competitive tendering and managed care/case management. Practices like outsourcing almost always amount to a direct transfer of workers to a more precarious position (even when subcontract workers are employees) and associated effects including work intensification may also contribute to additional workforce volatility (including burnout). The effect of downsizing on precarious employment is also unambiguous. However, as the health service industry shows, precarious employment (including home-care workers) has also grown more subtly through policies of de-institutionalisation and case management (often ultimately designed to achieve greater through-put in the use of hospital beds). It is worth noting that large management consulting firms have acted as one key transmission belt for these ideas.


2)      Neo-liberal ideas have also exerted a critical influence on government revenue and expenditure policies including reductions in direct income tax (and increases in regressive sales and service taxes), the pursuit of balanced budgets and critical changes to government transfers to the poor. These changes have promoted precarious employment in a number of ways. The environment of budgetary constraint has placed pressure of government agencies to cut costs and embrace the ‘new managerialism’ which has commonly resulted in cuts to staffing (one of the few ways of ‘measuring’ the productivity in the provision of complex services), competitive tendering/outsourcing and so on. These pressures have been intensified by demands that agencies should deliver productivity bonuses over time – something normally measured in terms of reduced costs/expenditure or direct cuts to the workforce. In some countries at least, the appointment of private sector managers and consultants and changes to senior management appointment and remuneration structures have reinforced this process. The winding back of welfare regimes (cutting or tightening access to unemployment relief, workfare/work for the dole, a return to prison labour) and cuts to workers’ compensation benefits/entitlements, public health, disability and other pensions in many industrialised countries over the past decade or more have had important effects. These include lowering the effective wage/employment floor and increasing the number of workers forced to take the most menial, low paid and insecure jobs.



3)      In many though by no means all industrialised countries the growing influence of neo-liberal ideas has also been manifested in alterations to industrial relations regimes, weakening union input and collective regulation (if only through decentralisation but at worst through individual employment contracts and altering employment relationships by manipulating legal boundaries). In Australia recent legislative changes have removed the formal right of unions to include limits of casual or part-time workers in awards or collective agreements and have introduced options for non-union and individual agreements that employers have used to promote more contingent work arrangements. n New Zealand the changes have been even more extreme. Even in countries where such changes have not occurred the push for more decentralised collective bargaining/enterprise agreements (for example, by the government agency responsible for productivity and competition in Sweden) will make more difficult for unions to limit precarious employment or protect workers occupying such jobs.  Examples of the deliberate altering of legal forms include the growing use of labour leasing and employer attempts to re-designate their workers associates or contractors rather than employees (as highlighted by the recent Microsoft case in the USA). In Australia and the USA if not elsewhere batteries of law firms have facilitated this process, assisting with the manipulation of legal forms and providing ongoing advice to counter the response of regulators.  Again, we would note that in least some countries with which we are familiar neo-liberal competition/productivity agencies in a number of countries have become increasingly active in transmitting and implementing these ideas.


4)      Finally, it is important to acknowledge the implications for precarious employment of business interests increasingly capturing domestic and global policy agendas. In essence this has amounted to the increasing subordination of labour and related standards to the investment and trade interests of business, and with it a push for more ‘flexible’ workforce. It can be noted that the world’s two leading regional trade blocks, NAFTA and the European Union have both endorsed promoting numerical flexibility in the labour market and neither has sought to restrict the growth of temporary employment (Vosko, 1998). Unlike NAFTA the EU has made some attempt to regulate these arrangements, although - leaving aside the efforts of several member countries, most notably France – the effectiveness of these measures is open to question.  


At the global level, bodies involved in this process include the International Monetary Fund (whose impact has been most direct on third world countries, see below) and the OECD which has continually pushed for labour market flexibility. Perhaps the most explicit attempt to subordinating labour to the trade and investment interests was the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). The Business and Industry Advisory Committee (representing some of the world’s largest transnational corporations) promoted the MAI to the OECD and 29 OECD member countries spent three years negotiating its adoption. In 1998 negotiations lapsed in the face of mounting international protests and French government opposition although a year later the World Trade Organisation was considering a new version despite explicit opposition from developing countries including India (Bridges Weekly Trade News Digest 3(4) February 1999 cited in Ranald, 1999). The World Trade Organisation has already been active in promoting trade arrangements and government policies that encourage the growth of precarious employment in both developed and developing countries, most recently in the service sector – the largest and fastest growing area of employment in developed countries. Thus, it has pressed for the removal of monopoly arrangements or other restrictions in postal and courier services and the removal of cabotage and other labour restrictions on land and maritime transport (WTO, 1998a). It has also advocated the freer international movement of labour (or what it labelled as natural persons) in distribution, environmental health and social services (WTO 1998b,c&d). For example, a background paper on distribution argued:


Given the high labour intensity of distribution (especially in retailing), the sector is affected by limitations on the movement of natural persons.  Nationality requirements for staff prevent firms from minimizing labour costs through international recruitment.  Residency requirements for managers and directors de facto disadvantage foreign suppliers even when the requirements are imposed on all distributors.  Immigration policy, visa restrictions, and levies and charges for social security also impact on the sector (WTO 1998c:10).


       In a similar vein, a background paper on health services argued:


the most significant benefits from trade are unlikely to arise from the construction and operation of hospitals, etc., but their staffing with more skilled, more efficient and/or less costly personnel than might be available on the domestic labour market (WTO, 1998d:18).


In background note devoted entirely to ‘natural persons’ the WTO (1998e) secretariat developed its views on the advantages of freeing up international labour movements, including temporary migration, to meet short-term exigencies and long term labour shortages. It is important to observe that evidence on projected shortages was limited to a narrow band of occupations (most notably information technology) and the paper effectively conceded that the major shift of labour would be from developing to developed countries. In other words, the rationale for the policy is less than demonstrable except in terms of altering the supply situation and bargaining power of service sector labour in developed countries.


In terms of the international movement of labour, business groups within particular countries or trading blocks have mounted essentially analogous campaigns to those of the WTO. In Australia, for example, – the Business Council of Australia – the major organ of big business – has led a campaign to re-introduced higher levels of net migration (and achieving bipartisan political support) and reverse a discernible trend towards historically smaller intakes. As in Europe, the case for immigration is supported by reference to the age ‘time-bomb’ (ie an ageing workforce) and skill shortages. These contentions mask an array of critical assumptions, not the least of which is the high level of unemployment, not to mention under-employment, already prevailing in much of the European Union and Australia.


A few examples highlight the OHS implications of the purportedly neutral neo-liberal policies and practices just identified. In Australia, the implications of the impact of competitive tendering policies on government agencies was highlighted in mid 1990s when one state government introduced legislation requiring local government authorities to open up at least half of their work activities to competitive tender. Leaving aside the downsizing and work intensification that resulted, it soon became clear that local governments could not manage contractor safety (for which they remained legally responsible) and the government was obliged to produce a special guide on contractor OHS management for this sector.


Another example of the implications of competition policies, this time also involving the removal of international ‘trade-barriers’ can be seen in the introduction of the 1998 European road transport cabotage regulation.





Insourcing and labour hire (legge 34)


New production networks, old forms of employment and dependency, and OHS in developing countries



International investment/subcontracting networks, the migration of jobs and hazardous work organisaton


Much of the shift of production and industries from developed to developing countries is a direct consequence of policies pursued by corporate capital. As LaDou (1992:223) has observed foreign firms account for most investment in manufacturing in developing countries and their decisions are based on implicit calculations about the lower costs of labour, health (including workers’ compensation) and environmental infrastructure. What needs to be added is that these investment flows often entail elaborate subcontracting networks rather investment in ‘independent’ entities. This shift can effectively entail a movement of these activities to more disorganised work settings with a contingent workforce. In some instances third world countries have become centres for hazardous activities such as the breaking of ships in India. It can also involve a quite deliberate attempts to evade a regulatory controls and achieve a cheaper solution even though a technically superior and safer method for undertaking this task exists (as in the case where used lead-acid batteries are exported to India rather than being recycled locally). In both cases the workers involved are employed on a piecework or incentive basis lacking security, set hours or even the most minimal conditions. In short, what is involved here is not simply a shift of employment but also a change to work organisation and jobs.


Outsourcing of production and service delivery occurs at both a national and international level and indeed the two processes may occur simultaneously and result from similar pressures. For example, the development of global production networks and the reduction of tariff barriers in the developed world relating to toys, clothing, textile, and footwear etc has facilitate firms in developed countries relocating production activities to developing countries. Direct employees of factories in developing countries receive wage rates, OHS and other labour standards far below those for comparable workers in developed countries. Further, these companies use subcontracting networks of suppliers to obtain components and, as in developed countries, workers employed by these subcontractors experience working conditions inferior to those found in the parent factory. This subcontracting not only cuts labour costs but also helps to evade ethical codes on product production developed by retailers in the USA and other industrialised countries). The result is a complex international web of subcontracting where commercial exchanges are closely articulated but the corresponding social relations of production and ethical responsibilities are disarticulated or obscured.  Thus, parents in Europe purchase soccer balls for their children that have been stitched by children of the same age or younger in Asia (where the piece rates take no account of age and family pressures drive children to work. Legge, 2000) and unions made similar allegations were in relation to rugby balls used for the 1999 Rugby World Cup. Equally, their counterparts in Australia buy the multinational brand footballs or cheap wooden picture frames produced the same way.


As has been noted for the clothing industry (Mayhew and Quinlan, 1999) the combination of competition from third world imports and retailer concentration/pressure to reduce costs in developed countries then puts pressure on remaining domestic producers. This leads to increasing insecure employment marked by job losses, factory closures, more flexible and intensified work arrangements in factories as well as the growth of outsourcing to smaller factories including backyard/illegal operators and home-based workers (and the re-emergence of child labour in family production units). This crudely exploitive apparatus may include an elaborate network of pyramid subcontracting with as many as seven stages between the retailer and the often immigrant woman or child who actually sews the garment.


Pyramid subcontracting establishes a descending pattern of dependency and work intensity that can be identified in far more technologically sophisticated industries such as car manufacturing. Moreover, subcontracting is more than just a means of evading employment standards etc in the core firm but also a means of transmitting social relations of production as defined by discipline and quality (Rutherford et al, 1996) and re-configuring power relationships in ways that may have serious consequences for OHS. Outsourcing has become a means whereby multinational firms can direct investment, production and marketing activities on a global level and scale with a minimum of directly-employed workers and a number of stages in the supply chain that distance and obscure the conditions of those ultimately making the product (Legge, 2000:34). In several areas like toy, clothing and footwear manufacturing serious incidents (like the fire at a Kader International in Thailand in 1993) as well as campaigns by child labour/worker defence or human rights groups in first world countries (like the Clean Clothes campaign in the European Union) and third world countries (like the Hong Kong-based Coalition for the Charter on the Safe Production of Toys) have exposed these inter-linkages and brought consumer pressure to bear on multinational producers and retailers. However, it is fair to say these dedicated efforts only address some of the harmful subcontracting networks and their impact even in these areas has been limited. Some organisations have been able to hide behind ‘holding firms’ that obscure their links to production and supply network. Responses to criticism include public assurances that the firm meets all employment and OHS standards of the host country (hardly the point given the low level where these are set and the even lower level of enforcement activity).


Another increasingly common response is for multinational suppliers and retailers to establish ethical codes of conduct meant to apply to all their dealings. The problem with these voluntary codes is that they are largely symbolic, seldom being accompanied by vigorous monitoring and enforcement (for evidence of these problems see Bureau of International Labor Affairs, 1996). Code compliance remains outside the public domain except in rare instances – instances that tend to reinforce questions about the efficacy of these measures. For example, an internal inspection report by Nike found workers at a subcontractor’s factory near Ho Chi Min city, Vietnam were exposed to carcinogens (in some parts of the plant exposure exceeded the local legal standard 177 times) and 77% of the workforce suffered respiratory problems (Safety News December 1997). The employees worked a 65 hour week for $US10. While the hours aspect may not have breached local legislative standards the consequences of prolonged hours for exposure to hazardous substances, fatigue and other OHS risks are probably at least profound as the breaches just mentioned. Further, half-hearted attempts to enforce voluntary codes may simply lead to more extensive stages of pyramid subcontracting of dangerous or highly exploitive activities.


Increasingly complex patterns of global subcontracting also present significant problems for OHS regulators. In the third world regulators operate in a framework where governments are acutely sensitive to threats of relocation and evasion. In 1996, for example, Thai factories owned by the Austrian-based Eden group producing clothing for Walt Disney were accused of widespread breaches of OHS standards and subcontracting work to firms breaking child labour laws (South China Morning Post 28 September 1996). When the Thai Ministry of Labour ordered the closure of the printing section due to hazardous chemicals the company responded by moving machinery and equipment to a subcontractor, leaving 200 workers without jobs. While it would be more effective to target the economic drivers, namely the firm at the peak of the outsourcing pyramid, the jurisdiction of OHS regulators in developed countries is confined to their own borders. In other words, global subcontracting creates effective gaps in regulating employment and OHS standards. Attempts at co-ordinating standards via the International Labour Organisation have proved largely ineffective especially in a context where the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is delivering judgements on the movement of goods, services and labour that threaten existing labour standards (see below) and efforts to incorporate minimum labour and OHS standards in  WTO trade agreements has been fiercely resisted by an alliance of third world and some developed countries (such as the UK and Australia).


The precise configuration of outsourcing (like that described in relation to garment manufacturing) will vary from industry to industry (for example the incentive to retain some domestic production in the fashion component of the clothing industry may not apply to toy production). It may also vary from region to region (for example, access to immigrant workers including illegal immigrants) may facilitate some highly exploitive forms of outsourcing or home-based work. However, we may find essentially parallel process apply across a range of industries as the ‘race to the bottom’ on labour conditions ratchets its way through various productive and service markets globally.


The restructuring of production in developing countries


The shift of production and to a lesser extent service activities (like software development in India) to developing countries might be seen as contributing to a growth of precarious employment in developed countries but not necessarily increasing and perhaps even reducing the extent of these types of work arrangement (usually referred to as informal employment) in developing countries. However, while such work arrangements were already for more extensive in developing countries it appears that the informal employment is expanding in these countries. Even in some of the more industrialised developing countries like Brazil the informal sector is seen to account for more than half the workforce.


The restructuring of trade via trade agreements, free trade zones and cuts to protection, as well as increasing multinational penetration, capital flows/patterns of lending, financial dependency/colonisation and intervention in policy by international agencies (most notably the IMF) have resulted in changes to the organisation of production which to some extent mirror but also amplify effects seen in the developed world. For example, the opening of the Mexican economy to international trade was accompanied by the government privatising many of its productive holdings, including the sugar industry where it led to a wholesale re-organisation of production (Lemez-Ruiz, 1999). This included breaking down old styles of paternalistic management, mill closures and reducing union influence. Rising job insecurity went in tandem with a dramatic increase in the pace of work, intrusive forms of performance measurement and declining real incomes. The result has been heightened worker insecurity and sacrificing safety for continued employment that has also been identified in connection with privatisation and other forms of organisational restructuring in developed countries. Lemez-Ruiz (1999:60) also identifies pressure on local government for further concessions to retain employment in the region as well as the impact of changed use of pesticides and cane burning practices on the health of both animals and workers in the neighbouring cattle industry.


- add Asian crisis and economic restructuring in S Korea


The undercutting of international OHS standards and agencies


The same interest groups that are pressing for more flexible labour markets world wide - meaning labour markets which facilitate precarious or contingent work arrangements by reducing the extent of regulatory or collective worker intervention to circumscribe employer choice over the duration, hours, accrued benefits and termination conditions etc of jobs – are also looking to reduce or manipulate other regulatory controls that effect the profitability of conducting business.


As Castleman (1999:61-4) has observed, a number of large corporations pursue double standards in relation to occupational and environmental health in terms of the production, export and use of particular materials such as asbestos. This included the ongoing manufacture of asbestos products and use of asbestos components (for the automobile industry) in countries like Brazil by French and US companies which had been obliged to cease such practices in developed countries. It also involves the use of bodies like the World Trade Organisation to try and slow if not defeat moves a growing number of countries to ban asbestos products as well as the attempted manipulation of international agencies like the ILO and WHO responsible for developing standards on exposure to hazardous substances as well as scientific and professional bodies like ICOH. Significant disparities in OHS standards world wide, and weakening existing international standards, provides a climate more conducive for contingent work arrangements in both developed and developing countries.



5.0 Avenues for Further Research


1. Identifying and Measuring the Extent of the Impact of Precarious Employment on OHS


            - labour hire agencies, international contracting networks in particular industries, temporary workers

            - role of work organisation and management practices


2. Researching Regulatory Effects and Externalities


Thus far, most research has focused on trying to assess the impact of precarious employment on the conventional indices of occupational illness (injury and disease rates etc). Although most researchers are aware that these changes also have effects on the conventional apparatuses used to regulate injury/disease prevention, compensation and rehabilitation these aspects have been little explored in detail. On the preventative side Johnstone (1999) has argued the growth of precarious employment undermines existing paradigms of OHS regulation and raises critical issues about the intersection of OHS law with other bodies of law, especially business law. The precise indices will depend, of course, on nature of business and employment law within particular countries.


There is also some evidence internationally that the growth of precarious employment is having profound effects on the coverage and administration of workers’ compensation and rehabilitation regimes (see Quinlan and Mayhew, 1999). It has been argued that this growth is reducing both the formal and effective coverage of workers’ compensation regimes and adversely affecting worker knowledge of their entitlements and their capacity to make claims. It creates additional administrative problems for agencies in terms of determining coverage, establishing a work-relationship to injury or disease, identifying the relevant employer (especially in the case of leased or subcontract workers). Declining job security also has critical implications for both short-term and (more especially) longer term rehabilitation.


3. Better Identifying the Causal links in terms of Government Policies and Business Practices


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