Precarious work: definitions, workers affected and OSH consequences

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Aditya Jain, Nottingham University Business School, United Kingdom, and Juliet Hassard, The Centre for Sustainable Working Life, Birkbeck University of London, United Kingdom

Introduction

In recent decades significant changes have taken place in the world of work due to increasing globalisation, development of information, shift from the manufacturing to the service sector and significant demographic changes. These changes can be most predominant in contractual arrangements, working hours, use of new technology, atypical and flexible work arrangements, and changes in the workforce; which, in turn, have caused the decline of the standard employment relationship and led to a dramatic increase in precarious work. This article reviews the definitions of precarious work, identifies those most affected, and discusses its consequences to workers’ safety, health and wellbeing.

What is precarious work

Even though the term precarious work is being increasingly used at the European and international level, there is no universally accepted definition for this term and concept. This is mainly due to the multidimensional nature of precarious work and the differences in its understanding; which typically depends on the country, region, the economic and social structure of the political systems and labour markets. Thus, a variety of terms have emerged from particular national contexts, such as: contingent, atypical or non-standard work [1]. However, measuring precarious employment through atypical employment is problematic, because there is no common understanding between the countries of how “atypical” or “non-standard” employment is defined [2].

To distinguish precarious work from ‘standard work’ and facilitate its characterisation, Rogers and Rodgers proposed four dimensions of precariousness [3]:

  • Temporal – low certainty over the continuity of employment
  • Organisational – lack of workers’ individual and collective control over working conditions, working time and shifts, work intensity, pay, health and safety
  • Economic – poor pay (insufficient pay and salary progression)
  • Social – legal, collective or customary protection against unfair dismissal, discrimination, and unacceptable working practices; and social protection (access to social security benefits covering health, accidents, unemployment insurance).

Taking into account a multidimensional nature of precarious work (e.g., as illustrated in Figure 1) and the aforementioned four dimensions of precariousness, a large scale European study on precarious employment (ESCOPE), provided a holistic definition of precarious work. On the basis of the findings of the study, precarious work can be understood as: “a variety of forms of employment (e.g., temporary employment, underemployment, quasi self-employment, on-call work) established below the socially accepted normative standards (typically expressed in terms of rights, employment protection legislation, and of collective protection) in one or more respects (the four dimensions), which results from an unbalanced distribution towards and amongst workers (towards workers vs. employers; and amongst workers, which leads to the segmentation of labour) of the insecurity and risks typically attached to economic life in general and to the labour market in particular (p. 9) [4].

Figure 1: Understanding Precarious Work[5]

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), in the most general sense, precarious work is a means for employers to shift risks and responsibilities onto workers. It is work performed in the formal and informal economy, and is characterised by variable levels and degrees of objective (legal status) and subjective (feeling) characteristics of uncertainty and insecurity [1]. On the basis of this, a precarious job is defined: “by uncertainty as to the duration of employment, multiple possible employers or a disguised or ambiguous employment relationship, a lack of access to social protection and benefits usually associated with employment, low pay, and substantial legal and practical obstacles to joining a trade union and bargaining collectively” (p. 27) [1].

In the EU, precarious work has been defined as a combination of a low level of certainty over job continuity, poor individual control over work (notably working hours), a low level of protection (against unemployment or discrimination), and little opportunity for training and career progression [6]. This has also been referred to as employment with ‘low quality’ [7]. Low quality jobs include, for example, ‘dead-end jobs’ and ‘low pay/low productivity jobs’ [2]. It includes temporary, seasonal, part-time, on-call, day hire, casual or short term contracts; as well as self-employment, home working and multiple jobs [8]. Precarious work can also include standard employment contracts where the workers are subjected to organisational change, such as: restructuring, downsizing, privatisation or outsourcing [9].

Prevalence of non-standard work

Over the past decade, the number of workers employed under non-standard arrangements has risen quite significantly, coupled with a relaxation of legislation governing employee dismissals in various countries [6]. Changing global employment trends, marked by increased calls for a ‘flexible workforce’ [10], have led to an increase in the number of temporary workers, including those on: part-time contracts, pseudo self-employment, subcontractors, and on-call contracts [11]. The European Commission in its Green Paper on modernising labour law highlighted that these non-standard forms of employment represented 25% of the workforce [12]. The 5th European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) indicated that between 2007-2010, nearly a third of European workers experienced substantial restructuring or reorganisation at their workplace [13].

A recent ILO report highlighted that temporary employment has increased steadily in OECD countries since the 1980s: reaching 12% of overall paid employment in 2007, a noteworthy increase from 9.4% in 1985. While overall permanent wage employment increased by 21% in OECD countries during that period, temporary work for its part increased by 55%. However, as can be seen in Figure 2, the rise of temporary work, in contrast, was far more pronounced with an increase of 115%, as compared to 26% for overall employment. As a result, the share of temporary work in overall paid employment increased from 8.3 to 14.7%. During this period, temporary work represented 30% of all new paid jobs created during that period. As temporary work increased in Europe, its incidence was also increasingly viewed as “involuntary”, as workers would have preferred more permanent employment [1].

Figure 2: Growing prevalence of temporary work in OECD countries[1]

The data from the 5th EWCS also indicates that the proportion of workers on temporary or non-permanent contracts has risen over the last 20 years, from 10% in the EC-12 in 1991 to 14% of the EU-27 employees in 2010. While precarious employment is found throughout the EU Member States, it more common in some Member States in Southern and Eastern Europe than others in Western and Northern Europe. Also it is more common amongst working women than men (see Table 1) [13].

Table 1: Key labour market indicators in Europe in 2010 (%) [13]

Most affected workers

Some groups of workers are more vulnerable, because they are more likely than the general population to be employed in precarious work or non-standard contracts. Young, female and migrant workers are overrepresented amongst temporary workers; which means that they are more exposed to the psychosocial risks associated with temporary work [7] [8] [11].

The evidence suggests that women work slightly more often under temporary contract than men do. In 2005, 15% of women and 14% of men had a temporary job in all EU-25 countries. There are, however, differences when data is aggregated at the national level. For example, in 2005, temporary work was more prevalent amongst women in: Cyprus (19% women vs. 9% men), Finland (20% women vs. 13% men), and Italy (15% women vs. 10% men). However, amongst men temporary work was more prevalent in: Latvia (11% men vs. 6% women), and Lithuania (8% men vs. 4% women) [7]. Data from the 5th EWCS in 2010 indicates a rise in temporary work, where 22% of women and 18% in EU-27 counties work on temporary contracts. The data also indicates that more women than men hold part-time jobs (31.9% for women compared to 8.7% for men); and more young, disabled and migrant workers hold part time jobs in comparison to the general population [13].

In many countries temporary contracts are more prevalent among migrant workers than among national employees [14]. A review carried out by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work on migrant workers [15] indicates that these workers often have part-time jobs with high work uncertainty, low wages and poor working conditions. Temporary work is also widespread among young employees (which is, to the same extent, related to training and probation periods). Statistics show that, in 2005, over 30% of workers under the age of 30 were employed on temporary contracts, in comparison to 12% in the total working population in the EU-25 [16], while in 2010, the number of workers under 30 employed on temporary contracts increased to nearly 40% as compared to 21% in the total working population in the EU-27 [13].

Most affected sectors

Precarious or non-standard employment is more common in some sectors than others. For example, the 4th EWCS [17] showed that (in 31 European countries) temporary or agency contracts were the most prevalent forms of contracts in hotels and restaurants (21%), education (15%), health care (15%), the wholesale and retail trade (14%), and followed by the construction and agricultural sectors. It is important to note that a larger proportion of young, migrant and female workers are employed in the hotel and restaurant, education, and wholesale and retail sectors; which are associated with a high level of precarious employment [7]. The same findings were reported in the more recent 5th EWCS, where the results further highlighted that low-skilled work tends to be more precarious in nature; and lower skilled manual workers are typically more worried about losing their job and less confident about finding another job than clerical workers [13].

Impact of precarious work on occupational safety and health

The expansion of temporary forms of employment has been associated with fears that it may promote the creation of dual labour markets, where employers would increasingly provide permanent status to only ‘core’ employees; whilst maintaining workers perceived as easily replaceable on precarious contracts [1]. Precarious and atypical employment arrangements and non-standard working times are associated with a disadvantaged status in the labour market, which makes workers in such employment vulnerable to unsafe and hazardous working conditions. The increasing numbers of temporarily employed workers has been found to be associated with a fragmentation of legal responsibilities, and are typically under-represented in health and safety committees [18]. Potential consequences for the health and safety of workers is not just limited to precarious contracts; but even permanent contracts can potentially pose a threat to workers’ well-being due to other 'atypical' features, which they may have [11].

Non-standard forms of employment are often related to job insecurity [4] [5]. Job insecurity and increased work-related stress due to precarious work can negatively affect workers’ health and safety. Additionally, workers in these types of contracts are more vulnerable than permanent workers, as they usually carry out the most hazardous jobs, work in poorer conditions, and are the subject of less occupational safety and health (OSH) training that may increase the risk of occupational accidents [6]. Furthermore, temporary workers also have less access to OSH professionals, elude health monitoring over longer stretches of time, and may be overlooked by workers’ representatives in matters of OSH policy; which might explain the relatively poor OSH situation of those workers [19].

Consequences for the individual worker

The evidence suggests that in comparison to standard forms of employment contracts, precarious employment is associated with deterioration in workers’ health and safety, as well as with increased risks of a number of psychosocial issues [8] [11] [20]. A growing body of research indicates that changes to work organisation associated with outsourcing can adversely affect OSH for outsourced workers, as well as for those who remain at a company [18]. Workers in precarious employment are twice as likely than those in more fixed employment to experience sexual harassment [21]. A further consequence of non-standard forms of working is the impact on social security and pension coverage. If workers are working a small number of hours each week or are in precarious employment that is not continuous, this will have a negative impact on their social security coverage and entitlements. Finally, the transient nature of non-standard contractual arrangements has a negative impact on workers’ overall financial capacities, beyond the employment sphere [5].

Although temporary work arrangements can be used as a way to create more jobs opportunities during periods of high unemployment in most European countries, this has been found to have had a detrimental effect on health. Research indicates that under equal working conditions such types of employment tend to be associated with several health problems [22] [23] [24] [25], such as: distress, fatigue, musculoskeletal disorders [22], poor self-perceived health [26], liver disease, mental disorders [27], absenteeism and work-related stress [24][26]. The risks associated with temporary work include: increased occurrence of alcohol-related causes of death in both genders, and an increase in smoking-related causes of death in men [28]. Mortality risks have also been found to be substantially stronger if temporary work is continued on an involuntary basis or in combination with feelings of dissatisfaction [29]. Job insecurity and increased work-related stress due to precarious work has demonstrated to have a negative impact on workers’ health [20]. Particularly exposure to job instability due to [[Protecting worker health during restructuring | restructuring] has been shown to increase health adverse behaviour, musculoskeletal problems [30], work-related health symptoms, and mortality [31].

Nevertheless, the effects of different forms of precarious employment vary in some regards, and are not always negative. Self-employed workers, for example, enjoy greater control over working time and have a higher level of autonomy. However, at the same time they have very little social support. Part-time employees also show less health related absenteeism and report less stress, particularly when they chose voluntarily to work part-time [32]. These findings are possibly due to effects of different labour market regulations in different countries, or the heterogeneity of circumstances in which people take on temporary work [32].

Consequences for the organisation

A large number of studies have found negative relationship between job insecurity, [[Job satisfaction: evidence for impact on reducing psychosocial risks | job satisfaction], motivation, job performance [7] [33]. The evidence also indicates that job insecurity in the long run can lead to increased long term sickness absence, disability pension [31] [34]; and that creativity and problem solving ability decreases with job insecurity [35]. This preliminary evidence ultimately suggests job insecurity, as one aspect of precarious work, to be detrimental to an organisation’s performance.

Consequences for society

At the societal level, the impact of precarious employment on social cohesion and birth rates should not be underestimated [5]. For example, non-standard contracts lead to discontinuous careers and low earnings, which, in contributory regimes, lead to impaired access to unemployment benefits and pensions and/or to low entitlements. Thus, employment precariousness directly links into social precariousness, which will become particularly evident when the current generation of young people reaches retirement age. Experts suggest that not enough thought has been given to this serious problem [4]. A short job tenure and low income (corresponding to few work hours) have an impact on unemployment subsidies, pensions and workers’ rights. In addition, precarious work can jeopardise people’s capacity to pay rent, ability to obtain bank credit, and opportunities to build a family.

Calls have, therefore, been made for social policy to include, a generous, egalitarian and consensually managed system of social protection; which can prevent the possible permanent installation of precarious employment, including the special social protection schemes to address the needs of specific groups of workers potentially affected by precariousness due to the nature of their jobs. There are groups of workers who have not secured a proper system of social protection adapted to their specific needs [4]. Legislation that enables the never-ending carrousel of fixed-term contracts; which not only causes precariousness among the workers, but also threatens solidarity in society and hampers fair competition. More flexible work arrangements may have a clear financial impact on society in future years, for instance because a large proportion of the population will not have appropriate savings for pensions [36].

Initiatives to prevent and manage precarious work

A number of initiatives at the organisational level can be taken to manage precarious work. Workers are able to deal with job insecurity in a better way if they are informed about planned restructuring as soon as possible. It is recommended that realistic and honest communications during restructuring processes, as well as the use of restorative strategies are used [19] [37]. Good interpersonal relationship at work and provision of social support is also useful to deal with job insecurity, as support has been found to buffer the negative effects of job insecurity on health [7]. Precarious employment is closely related to various psychosocial factors such as job content, workload and work pace, work schedule (shiftwork), job control, organisational culture and function, interpersonal relationships and support at work, therefore [[Interventions to prevent and manage psychosocial risks and work-related stress | interventions aimed at preventing and managing psychosocial risks] and promoting a good psychosocial working environment at the organisational level will also prevent and manage precarious work [7] [23].

Policy initiatives (such as EU regulations and their transposition into national norms in each EU Member State, ILO conventions) allow for the recognition and development of employment rights of workers on non-standard forms of contract, bringing them closer to those of standard workers. Furthermore, workers in non-standard employment who feel that their employment rights are being breached, usually have access to the same mechanisms for redress as workers in standard forms of employment through employment tribunals, labour courts and other support mechanisms, however, in many cases workers are not aware of or informed of such support mechanisms [5].

Overarching EU strategies are also relevant to policy initiatives aimed at addressing precarious employment. This is because such strategies guide actions at the Community, as well as at the national level. In 2000, at the Lisbon summit of the Council of the European Union, the Council launched the Lisbon Strategy; which highlighted the need for Europe to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion.

In the context of generating more and better jobs for Europe, the Strategy called on the Council and the Commission to address:

  • improving employability and reducing skills gaps, in particular by providing employment services with a Europe-wide database on jobs and learning opportunities;
  • promoting special programmes to enable unemployed people to fill skill gaps;
  • and by exploiting the complementarity between lifelong learning and adaptability through flexible management of working time and job rotation.

Various policies on occupational safety and health also seek to addressing challenges posed by precarious employment. For example the 2007-2012 EU OSH strategy includes commitment to provide better protection for vulnerable groups, which are often over-represented in precarious employment. A number of policies on lifelong learning, promotion of equal opportunities, work-life balance, flexicurity and social inclusion have been also developed and implemented which seek to address precarious employment [38]. Flexicurity is an integrated strategy for enhancing flexibility and security, at the same time, in the labour market. Integrated flexicurity policies seek to reconcile employers' need for a flexible workforce with workers' need for security. Such policies are meant to provide employers flexibility in contractual agreements while at the same time provide confidence to workers that they will not face long periods of unemployment, by enhancing their employability (through provision of training and skills development) and social security. Flexicurity policies are projected to play a key role in modernising labour markets, and contributing to the achievement of the 75% employment rate target set by the Europe 2020 Strategy [39].

However, labour market policies based on the concept of flexicurity may lead to more workers in temporary positions [11]. According to the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the current flexicurity debate favours business at the expense of workers, placing greater emphasis on: relaxing rules for hiring and firing; on dismantling labour standards and job protection; and imposing tough conditions for social support. Thereby providing business with the opportunity to downgrade the quality of jobs and work contracts. The ETUC, therefore, insists that labour market reform must focus on: creating better jobs; protecting vulnerable workers and reducing precarious work in Europe; on major investment in lifelong learning; gender equality and social dialogue at all levels [40].

Conclusions

To remain competitive in a situation of global competition, companies are becoming more and more flexible. Outsourcing or new forms of flexible employment (such as, part-timework, temporary work, telework and on-call work) have been increasing. The rise in precarious employment can led to a significant negative impact on workers’ health and safety, but also on the performance and sustainability of organisations. In general, it can have a significant detrimental impact on social cohesion, solidarity and equality: pillars of the European social model.

While a number of policy initiatives have been implemented, the need for good working conditions for all workers, irrespective of type of contract needs to be emphasised within the European Employment Strategy, if the social and economic problems of "low quality" jobs or "precarious" employment are going to be faced. Furthermore, in reforming social policies, the impact in terms of precarious employment (positive or negative) should be taken into account, and additional efforts should be made to further reinforce [[Monitoring new and emerging risks | monitoring and assessing] all these aspects through a system of employment indicators. With the aim to focus specifically on: a wider range of job characteristics that aim to identify "low quality" jobs; analysing more extensively the concept of "employment quality" and the relationships among its different aspects; and improving the data quality, particularly in relation to indicators for temporary employment, constrained part-time employment, and quasi self-employment [4].


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Links for further reading

Benach, J., ‘Precarious work and new forms of employment. Concepts, evidence and impact on health.’ EU-OSHA Seminar on Emerging psychosocial risks related to OSH, 8-9 April 2008, Brussels. Available at: [22]

Eurofound – European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, ‘Precarious Employment and Working Conditions in Europe’, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg, 1998. Available at: [23]

ILO – International Labour Organization, ‘From precarious work to decent work. Policies and regulations to combat precarious employment’, International Labour Organization, Geneva, 2011. Available at: [24]