Precarious Work and the Degradation of the British Labour Market

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
TW2.3.03 (Tower Two)
Damian Grimshaw, Manchester Business School, Manchester, United Kingdom
David Holman, Manchester Business School, Manchester, United Kingdom
Arjan Keizer, University of Manchester, Manchester, United Kingdom; University of Manchester, Manchester, United Kingdom
Jill Rubery, The University of Manchester, Manchester, United Kingdom
The financial crisis and subsequent austerity policies appear to have exacerbated social and economic disparities within the British labour market. Economic and sociological research has investigated the multiple forms of precarious employment, its related outcomes (pay, insecurity, etc.) and the association with workforce and organisational characteristics (e.g. Broughton 2010; Frazer 2011; Pollert and Charlwood 2009; Shildrick et al. 2012). The wider international literature offers two interpretations for growing precarity of employment. On the one hand it is said to be symptomatic of an inevitable erosion of the rules and conventions underpinning the standard employment relationship given transformations in technology, globalization and new management strategies (Stone and Arthurs 2013). On the other, precarious work is interpreted as the outcome, in part, of labour market regulations aimed at shoring up standard employment; labour market dualism in this view results from insiders’ claims, via trade union representation and/or political interest groups, against those of outsiders so that deregulatory policies target the weaker outsider groups in the labour market (Emmenegger et al. 2012; Rueda 2006).

This paper contributes to these debates by investigating the changing nature of protection for both standard and precarious employment forms. It develops the notion of ‘protective gaps’ –defined as the net result of gaps in regulation, representation, enforcement and social protection. Our analysis allows for the possibility of blurred boundaries between employment forms; new employment practices, sometimes designed to evade legal responsibilities (Doellgast et al. 2009), place even those working in a full-time, permanent job covered by a collective agreement at risk of falling real wages, of outsourcing, or of limited prospects beyond a low minimum wage even after acquiring experience and skills. Our analysis also allows for the closing and opening up of protective gaps as a result of actions occurring at multiple levels including policy reforms, workforce resistance, collective agreements, social clauses in procurement and management strategy.

Drawing on statistical analysis and interviews with expert informants, the paper argues that left unchecked protective gaps risk promoting and reinforcing the spread of precarious working conditions among both flexible and standard forms of employment. The aim is to illuminate how protective gaps have changed in the years since the economic crisis, which employment forms are affected and what actions appear to have closed gaps, thereby slowing the trend towards dualism and fostering greater labour market inclusiveness.


Broughton, A. (2010) ‘UK: Flexible forms of work’, EuroFound.

Emmenegger, P. et al. (eds.) (2012) The Age of Dualization, OUP.

Frazer, N. (2011) ‘UK: tackling poverty in a flexible labour market’, in N. Frazer et al. (eds.) Working Poverty in Europe, Palgrave.

Palier, B. and Thelen, K. (2010) ‘Institutionalizing dualism: complementarities and change in France and Germany,’ Politics&Society, 38(1):119-148.

Pollert, A. and Charlwood, A. (2009) ‘The vulnerable worker in Britain’, WES, 23(2):346-362.

Rueda, D. (2006) ‘Social democracy and active labour-market policies’,British Journal of Political Science, 36(3):385-406.