Non-standard work and unfree labour

Researcher: Dr. Kendra Strauss, University of Glasgow

This project is part of an ongoing research project on new and evolving forms of unfreedom in contemporary labour markets.  In other words, it is trying to understand how increasingly prevalent forms of non-standard work – in particular self-employment and temporary agency work – are the result of employers’ attempts to push down the level of pay and conditions in a variety of sectors, and the extent to which this results in conditions identified as unfree by the ILO.  I am also interested the interrelationship between these trends the UK’s migration regime and how they play out in Scotland.  Does the current migration regime make migrant workers more susceptible to non-standard work?  Why and how?  What are migrant workers’ perceptions of these arrangements, and what forms of agency do they have in resisting them?  What are the implications of the low pay and poor conditions resulting from these conditions for the families and communities of those workers affected?

Types of non-standard work I am interested in include:

  • temporary agency work
  • temporary or contract work organised through some other form of labour intermediary or agent
  • self-employment, where the worker is nevertheless placed by an agent or labour intermediary (for example where an agency offers to place a worker provided they treated as self-employed)
  • self-employment, where the worker is nevertheless employed indirectly by a firm or organisation (e.g. where self-employed workers are employed by food processors, for example as butchers) 

Types of behaviour classified by the ILO as possibly (or together) denoting unfreedom include:

  • withholding wages or documents (passports, birth certificates)
  • withholding wages 
  • restricting the movement of workers (confining them to quarters provided by the employer)
  • the use of tied housing whether this results in restrictions on workers’ movements or unjustifiable deductions from ages
  • unjustifiable deductions from wages for other purposes (e.g. equipment, recruitment or placement feeds, etc)
  • intimidation, violence or bullying

Between now and June 2012 I am hoping to conduct interviews with migrants’ organisations, workers, NGOs and other agencies to document experiences in these areas.  Interviews will meet strict ethical criteria including a collaborative understanding of informed consent and conditions of anonymity, unless this is not desired.  I can provide more detail about the interview process, and the project in general, to anyone interested; my email address is