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Precarious work

Precarious work is a term used to describe non-standard employment which is poorly paid, insecure, unprotected, and cannot support a household. In recent decades there has been a dramatic increase in precarious work due to such factors as: globalization, the shift from the manufacturing sector to the service sector, and the spread of information technology. These changes have created a new economy which demands flexibility in the workplace and, as a result, caused the decline of the standard employment relationship and a dramatic increase in precarious work. An important aspect of precarious work is its gendered nature, as women are continuously over-represented in this type of work.

Precarious work is frequently associated with the following types of employment: “part-time employment, self-employment, fixed-term work, temporary work, on-call work, home working, and telecommuting.” All of these forms of employment are related in that they depart from the standard employment relationship (full-time, continuous work with one employer). Each form of precarious work may offer its own challenges but they all share the same disadvantages: low wages, few benefits, lack of collective representation, and little to no job security.

There are four dimensions when determining if employment is precarious in nature: “(1) the degree of certainty of continuing employment; (2) control over the labor process, which is linked to the presence or absence of trade unions and professional associations and relates to control over working conditions, wages, and the pace of work; (3) the degree of regulatory protection; and (4) income level.”

Deviation from the Standard Employment Relationship

The standard employment relationship can be defined as full-time, continuous, employment where the employee works on his employer’s premise or under the supervision of the employer. The central aspects of this relationship include an employment contract of indefinite duration, standardized work hours/weeks, and sufficient social benefits. Benefits like pensions, unemployment, and extensive medical coverage protected the standard employee from unacceptable practices and working conditions. The standard employment relationship emerged after World War II with the men who worked in the manufacturing industries and this soon became the norm. At the completion of their education, most men would go on to work full-time for one employer their entire lives until their retirement at age 65. While women during this time would only work temporarily until they got married and had children, at which time they would withdrawal from the workforce.

The Gendered Nature of Precarious Work

When the standard employment relationship dominated, women would take on precarious work merely to supplement her husband’s income. In the last two decades, the standard employment relationship has declined, and more men are taking jobs that were previously associated with women. Despite this fact, women continue to make up the majority of precarious workers, and this has led to the growth of precarious employment being referred to as the "feminization of work.

Feminization” refers to not only the increase of women in the workforce but also the increase of forms of employment that were previously assigned solely to women (low wages, part-time or temporary, and without benefits). As more women entered the workplace in developing countries in the 1990s, there became deteriorating employment opportunities for men, while women workers were challenged by unequal treatment. Despite women “joining” men in the workforce, there is widespread segregation of the genders in different occupations. Additionally, women have higher rates of part-time employment, earn less than men do for the same work, and face a glass ceiling that prevents upward mobility in their organization. For example, in Australia, one in three women are non-permanent employees and they are paid 21 percent less than permanent employees and are without benefits like holiday and sick leave. In Canada, 40 percent of employed women hold precarious jobs, while in Korea this rate is even higher where 69 percent of women are engaged in precarious work.

The differences in work performed by men and women in the paid labor force have been historically explained by women’s care responsibilities in the home. Neoclassical economists reject the feminist theory that the relationship of the public and private spheres is not separate, rather interdependent. The separation view taken by advanced industrialized economies, of production from reproduction, creates an extreme tension in the economy. Scholars argue that this tension could be eased with the government’s involvement in social reproduction (with immigration, providing health services and public education, and elder assistance) as well as institutionalizing a new gender order (to help lift the large burden of unpaid care work off women).

The Regulation of Precarious Work

Globalization and the spread of information technology have created a new economy that emphasizes flexibility in the marketplace and in employment relationships. These influences have resulted in the increase of women in the workplace as well as the rise in precarious work. Regulation of precarious work differs between each country. These regulations can either reinforce the differences between standard and precarious employment or they can serve to lessen these differences by increasing the protections afforded to precarious workers.

Changes in the nature of work in developing and developed countries have inspired the International Labor Organization (ILO) to develop standards for atypical and precarious employment. The ILO began to expand its policies to include precarious workers with the Convention Concerning Part-time Work in 1994 and the Convention Concerning Home Work in 1996. While, the Organization’s more recent initiative, titled "Decent Work," began in 1999 and attempts to improve the conditions of all people- waged, unwaged, those in the formal and informal market, by enlarging labor and social protections.

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