Corps de l’article

The topic of flexible work arrangements, involving “non-standard” employment status and a variety of flexibility practices (working time, functional and numerical flexibility, etc.), is sometimes referred to in the literature as non-standard jobs, atypical employment contracts or contingent work. It has elicited much interest among academics (this review has devoted several articles to non-standard work, and vol. 59-3, 2004 was almost exclusively devoted to this topic, though mostly concentrating on Canada), policy makers and practitioners as the phenomenon has tended to expand over the past three decades as a result of increasing pressures exerted on governments, companies and individuals resulting from globalization, high and persistent unemployment (H. Sarfati, Flexibilité et création d’emplois: un défi pour le dialogue social en Europe, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1999), the growing “popularity” of a liberal (or “neo-liberal”) approach to regulation, and … growing demands from the workforce, particularly women, for more flexible work arrangements to reconcile work with family or other pursuits (education, community work, etc.). Much has been written on this phenomenon, which still contains a number of unexplored areas, blurred definitions and scope, diverse practices across companies, sectors and countries. These deserve close scrutiny for the sake of ensuring a better mutual outcome for the different parties concerned: policy makers, managements, trade unions and individuals, particularly to avoid a zero-sum game in the context of exacerbated competition.

This book, edited by Zeytinoglu, constitutes a timely contribution to this debate by attempting to clarify the global concept that underpins the flexibility phenomenon and provides insights into firm-specific, sector-specific and either country-specific or cross-country experience. The book consists of four parts of very different lengths. A one-chapter part for the introduction and for the conclusion, a short section (three chapters) devoted to the “conceptualization of the phenomenon,” and a substantive section containing the empirical studies ranging from workplace to macro level (11 chapters). The geographical coverage includes Australia, Canada, US, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, which have a long-term experience of flexible employment practices, and Finland, Germany, Italy and Sweden, which have introduced such practices more recently.

The book offers analysis of diverse issues related to flexible work arrangements, such as the increased use of unpaid overtime to influence management flexibility and allowing some employee control over working hours (Australia), the extent to which regulation can provide career paths to flexible workers (Netherlands), problems associated with the introduction of annualized hours (UK), how functional flexibility works in practice and how it impacts both on organizations and employees in the hospitality and retail sectors where such flexibility is particularly relevant due to the unpredictable nature of demand (UK), the labour market social mechanism to accommodate a quasi self-employment with a fixed-term contract—a special kind of atypical work contract that recently emerged in Italy, assessing the extent to which household income can ensure income stability to precarious workers (Italy), how working time flexibility is implemented with strong sectoral unions vs. strong works councils (UK vs. Germany), how part-time work affects employee access to workplace participation, particularly among women (Australia), how the psycho-social work environment affects differently fixed term and “core” employees (Finland), the link between flexible work practices and employee-friendly corporate human resources policies (Finland), the importance of labour market segmentation among contingent and non-standard workers (US), and how member States implement the European Union directives on part time and fixed-term employment.

Whereas much of past analysis of employment flexibility seems to have focused on manufacturing and some labour intensive services sectors (retail trade, temporary work agencies), this book includes examples from the public health sector (UK), accounting professionals (Canada), banking sector (Germany and the UK), quasi independent workers (“collaborators” in Italy).

The authors suggest a typology which assesses flexibility in relation to customary work schedules and continuity of work relationship, pointing out four major categories of employment contracts—full-time permanent, part-time permanent, full-time temporary and part-time temporary. Such contracts can, in turn be divided into “core”, limited to full-time permanent contracts, and periphery, which relates to part-time temporary workers who have the least desirable working conditions. The part-time permanent and full-time temporary are considered as “semi-core” but they tend to have lower wages and benefits coverage, less job security and fewer promotion opportunities. The authors do not include in the typology temporary work agencies or self-employed contractors, though some of the chapters deal with this phenomenon (notably in Italy).

The authors include a broad literature review, showing that non-standard employment contracts are found in all industries and sectors, though they are more common in the service and retail trade sectors. They tend to increase in industry where global and domestic competition lead to economic restructuring and result in business strategies aiming to cut costs. They recall that the impact of the use of technology on non-standard work contracts is not clear: some analysts found more frequent contracting out of work in enterprises using much information technology (NTIC) and that such technology limits the opportunities of part-timers to move into full-time jobs. The authors test the hypothesis of heterogeneity of conditions and segmentation between “core” and “periphery” workers, as well as among different types of non-standard work contracts. While the authors found evidence that such segmentation exists between core and periphery, notably in access to training and promotion, pay levels and benefits as well as working conditions, they pointed to a greater differentiation among the different kinds of atypical workers. This hypothesis was tested in Canada on the basis of the Workplace and Employee survey. This has important implications for the strategies developed by policy-makers and the social actors in terms of “mainstreaming” or identifying problem areas.

Interestingly, though, the empirical studies show that flexible work arrangements, in spite of a number of prima facie more demanding or less favourable conditions, are favourably accepted by the employees. For example, the increased work intensity resulting from functional flexibility is positively accepted by employees because of greater job variety, the opportunity to acquire new skills, better pay and job security. While all too often, non-standard jobs are entered into involuntarily for lack of other options, there are instances where people wish to remain in non permanent status, either in order to acquire broader experience (particularly in the case of young people), to be able to retain autonomy for creative work, or to reconcile work with family responsibilities, though in this latter case it often results in remaining stuck career and status wise (particularly women, after child bearing, in the Italian case study). Also, all too often, despite the announced aim of family friendly working time schedules, the outcome in practice may be more to suit the interests of the organization rather than the individual. This appears to have been the case with the annualized hours introduced by the National Health Service in the UK, and the part-time schedules introduced to facilitate recruitment and retention of talented women professional accountants in Canada. The analysis of the Italian experience with “collaborators”—quasi independent contractors who have a fixed-term employment contract is an interesting topic, but would have deserved a more extended scope as there seem to be close to 2 million workers in some kind of quasi-self employment—some highly-paid professionals but also many low-qualified workers. One of the main reasons for this practice is to avoid paying high social contributions and the Italian law (as the German) has tried to better define and limit the possibilities of this peculiar status. As flexibility and precariousness grow, fewer people are covered by social protection. Besides the social inequity that this involves, this phenomenon needs to be better understood in the context of declining active population, demographic ageing and increasing future liabilities of the State towards these unprotected workers.