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RecensionsBook Reviews

Nonstandard Work in Developed Economies: Causes and Consequences edited by Susan Houseman and Machiko Osawa, Kalamazoo, Michigan: W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, 2003, 513 pp., ISBN 0-88099-263-8.[Record]

  • Kenneth Hudson

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  • Kenneth Hudson
    University of Oregon

For some, nonstandard work connotes substandard employment on multiple dimensions: low pay, the absence of health and pension benefits, and a lack of job security. For others, nonstandard work is seen as a way to increase flexibility for firms and individuals, a way for firms to keep down cost and a way for workers to balance the demands of work and family. Which view is correct? The collection of articles in Houseman and Osawa’s Nonstandard Work in Developed Countries goes a long way in helping us to answer this question. At the heart of this debate is a fundamental conundrum. How can firms maintain a flexible workforce while providing high quality reliable jobs to their employees? Each of the developed economies examined in this collection of articles represents a more or less satisfactory attempt to resolve this conundrum. In the last 30 years, most developed nations have seen work arrangements change in ways that afford firms more flexibility. In developed economies, this flexibility has been achieved by increasing the relative number of part time, fixed-term, and temporary jobs. Laws and regulations protecting the employment rights of workers have been relaxed to allow firms to terminate workers more easily. Rules requiring that standard and nonstandard workers receive equal compensation and treatment have also been weakened. These changes were based in part on the belief that they would ameliorate high levels of unemployment, especially in Europe. But many European countries decided these changes went too far, and the 1990s saw a period of re-regulation. The European Union has been a force for progressive change, recognizing and attempting to protect the rights of workers in nonstandard jobs. But the process of solving the basic conundrum is ongoing, and there is significant cross-country variation in the solutions being worked out by governments, firms, and workers. While firms generally employ nonstandard workers to cut cost, the specific type of work arrangements that are utilized depends greatly on the local political, economic, and legal context. In Germany high unemployment and strict employment protections have led to an increase in part-time and fixed-term workers. In contrast, part-time employment in Denmark actually declined, the result of low unemployment and tax advantages for dual earner families. Of all the EU countries, Britain is the one country where the quality and use of nonstandard work most resembles the United States. Here, nonstandard work is concentrated in low skill jobs and is poorly compensated. This is partly the consequence of deregulation during the Thatcher years and weak re-regulation under the current Labour government. While some parity between standard and nonstandard work is required, its effect is limited by occupation segregation between the two types of work. Nevertheless, there has been an effort to protect workers with fixed term contracts. After four consecutive fixed term appointments, workers are regarded as permanent employees. In the United States, temporary and fixed term workers have no such protection. Of all the developed economies examined in this volume, Spain has the highest rate of temporary employment. One out of three workers in Spain is employed in a temporary job. This results to a large extent from a perverse relationship between job security and the use of nonstandard work, a relationship that has also been observed in Germany, France, and Japan. In these countries, strict regulations that protect workers from being fired or laid off have had the consequence of increasing the demand for temporary employment. In Italy, this has also spurred the growth of self-employment and the informal sector. Nowhere is this relationship more evident than in Japan. In Japan, very strong employment protection laws and …