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Critical review of flexible labour: gender, race and class dimensions of economic restructuring.

In this article, the authors comparatively analyze and synthesize some of the recent academic literature that examines new flexible employment arrangements emerging in the rapidly expanding service sector economy, such as employers' use of flexible labour, and its exploitative impact on women. The centrality of women's labour in the restructured workplace and the racialized-gender stratifying effects of paid work, demands that our conceptions and definitions of work, and flexible work in particular, be critically re-examined, if current labour processes are to be understood and the persistence of complex hierarchies and gender divisions challenged.

Dans cet article, les auteures entreprennent une analyse comparative ainsi qu'une synthese de textes universitaires recents examinant les nouveaux arrangements d'emploi flexible issus du secteur de service, tels que l'utilisation par l'employeur du travail flexible, et l'exploitation des femmes qui en resulte. La centralite du travail des femmes dans un milieu de travail restructure et la stratification selon la race et le sexe qui resulte du travail remunere exige que nous posions un oil critique sur nos conceptions et definitions du travail, et en particulier, du travail flexible, si nous comptons mieux comprendre les procedes de travail et remettre en question la persistance d'hierarchies complexes et les divisions selon le sexe.


"Since the 1973 world recession, new patterns of "flexible accumulation" have come into play as corporations struggle in an increasingly competitive global arena. Flexible labour regimes, based primarily on female and minority workers, are now common." Aihwa Ong, 1991, pp. 279-280.

There is mounting evidence within advanced industrialized economies that organizations, occupations, production and services have been significantly transformed over the past three decades. Several critical factors have generated these processes in the international economy. These include the economic crisis of the 1970s, the recessionary environment of the early 1980s, and the subsequent consolidations of national economies. Greg Bamber (1989, p. 49) has hypothesized that countries in general, and employers in particular, that are faced with such transforming environments are likely to respond by introducing various workplace flexibility strategies, such as pan-time work, temporary/casual work, contract work and telework, referred to under different terms such as "flexible specialization" (Piore and Sabel, 1991), "nonstandard or flexible work relationships" (Zeytinoglu, 1999a), or "flexible accumulation" (Ong, 1991). This emphasis on flexibility at the micro-level is intended to create firms that are "capable of rapid expansion and contraction with a small number of permanent employees and the remainder employed as temporary and casual workers, outworkers and subcontractors" (United Nations, 1995, p. 28).

The transformations in the workplace have been accompanied by the increasing entry of all races and classes of women into the flexible labour market, particularly into the service sector, which utilizes low waged and pan-time labour as an effective way of saving costs (Acker, 1992; Duffy and Pupo, 1992; Glenn, 1992; Gottfried and Hayashi-Kato, 1998; ILO, 1998; Kainer, 1998; Mitter, 1986). The effects of restructuring labour on women are complex and diverse. Some recent studies are beginning to reveal that the employment choices and opportunities that women have, even in the traditionally female dominated service sector, continue to be crucially shaped by their citizenship status, class, race, ethnicity, age, ability and family circumstances (Amott and Matthaei, 1991; Daenzer, 1993; Glenn, 1992; Hanson and Pratt ,1995; Lucas, 1997; Neal, 1994; Neysmith and Aronson, 1997; Zeytinoglu and Muteshi, 1999).

In this article we are primarily interested in comparatively analyzing and synthesizing some of the recent academic literature that examines employers' flexible labour strategies in industrialized economies, in light of restructuring's exploitative impact on women. In order to map the gendered, classed and racialized dimensions of flexible labour arrangements, we present a conceptual framework of duality within which current flexibility approaches can be located. Duality is understood here as being enacted hierarchically, through gender-differentiated labour markets. These markets have also been split along traditional racial and class lines, creating further divisions in dual labour markets.

We contend that duality proceeds interactively and dynamically at the level of gender, class and race, giving shape to the processes and locations of women's labour in contemporary restructuring workplaces. As Evelyn Nakano Glenn has pointed out:

[T]o represent race and gender as relationally constructed is to assert that experiences of white women and [racial minority women] are not just different but connected in systematic ways (Glenn, 1992, p. 34).

The premise of our review is that gender, race and class are interconnected dimensions of restructuring and that "the `intersectionality' of gender, race and class are interactive terms, mutually constructing or reinforcing each other" (Bannerji, 1995, p. 121). By "gender" we mean the separation of women and men as social constructs influenced by social values (Fleras and Elliott, 1996). Because "women" is traditionally understood as "uncontaminated by race, class, or social situation" (Razack, 1990-1991, p. 441), we caution that this homogeneous term refers to White, middle- and upper-class women's experiences as representative of all "other" women. As Himani Bannerji (1995) also argues, "other" women, such as racial minorities and Aboriginal women, are variants to the norm White women. And as Sherene Razack suggests,

although all women share a core of gender oppression, when white middle-class women have argued in court, it is from their own experiences as women that they have spoken, obscuring in the process the complexities of oppression as it is experienced by poor women and women of colour. (Razack 1990-1991, p. 442)

We use the term "racial minority" to refer to persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-White in colour. Regulations to the Employment Equity Act specify the following groups as racial minorities: Chinese, South Asians, Blacks, Arabs and West Asians, Filipinos, Southeast Asians, Latin Americans, Japanese, Koreans, and Pacific Islanders (Statistics Canada, 1998a, p. 9). The term "racial minority" is used Synonymously with "visible minority" (though the literature also uses "coloured people," "minorities" or "immigrants" for these individuals), keeping in mind that, as discussed in Augie Fleras and Jean Leonard Elliott (1996, p. 278), "the `minority' term, socially speaking, is not a numerical value but a social relation in which one party lacks power or access to scarce resources."

In discussing class, we refer to economic class as played out in workplaces and the Canadian economy and social life. According to Tania Das Gupta,

workplaces are located within a capitalist political economy where class relations and class straggle fundamentally shape the everyday lived relations of human beings. These lived relations are also shaped and mediated by racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.... There is a web of relations based on class, gender, race, age, nationality and other socially constructed variables which are inter-related and mutually reinforcing. (Das Gupta, 1996, p. 2)

In this article we present a review of the literature that is organized around these critical conceptual understandings of the gender, race and class dimensions of flexible labour in restructuring economies and the duality of labour markets and workplaces. We argue that flexibility in the labour market is primarily employer driven; at the same time, as constructed within labour unions and by male workers, it is fundamentally segmented and stratified along gender, race and class lines, and driven by policies that are imbued with male biases.

Restructuring end the Dualism of Flexible Markets

Beginning in the 1980s, in the face of spreading unemployment, fiscal deficits, recession and inflation, slow economic growth, declining market shares, inefficiencies in production and inventory processes, and increased global competitiveness (ILO, 1998; UN, 1995), employers instituted labour practices that supported their desire to "influence their locational decisions, [in] creating distinctive labour markets and literally mapping labour market segmentation into place" (Hanson and Pratt, 1995, p. 158). The trend for employers in all countries, as Guy Standing writes, has been

to reduce reliance on full-time wage and salary workers earning fixed wages and various fringe benefits. Companies and public sector enterprises in both the developed and developing countries are increasingly resorting to casual or temporary workers, to part-timers, to subcontracting and to contract workers (Standing, 1989, p. 1079).

In Canada, the Labour Force data shows that since 1976, 44 percent of total job creation was due to growth in nonstandard jobs such as part-time, temporary, contract jobs (HRDC, 1996). The latest census (Statistics Canada, 1998b) shows a large increase in individuals working on a part-time basis, accompanied by a decline among those working on a full-time basis. Similarly, temporary/contract work has been on the increase since the late 1980s, with a growing number of individuals working under contract (Zeytinoglu, 1999b).

The service sector, which employs the majority of flexible labour, has been the engine of growth for more than four decades in Canada (Bernier, 1996; Statistics Canada, 1998b) and worldwide (ILO, 1998; UN, 1995; Zeytinoglu, 1999a). For example, in Canada between 1991-1996, job growth was the strongest in the service sector with employers creating a large number of jobs in the nonstandard/flexible labour category (Statistics Canada, 1998b).

Using General Social Survey Cycle 9 data of Statistics Canada, Isik Urla Zeytinoglu (1999b) examined permanent versus temporary/term work, and full-time versus part-time work. The data showed that although the majority of workers were in permanent jobs, about 10 percent were in temporary/term employment. Similarly, a large proportion was in full-time jobs, but about 14 percent of workers were in part-time jobs. Overall, data showed that although a large percentage of workers are in permanent full-time work, 20 percent of the workers are in some form of flexible labour. When she examined the data according to gender, males were more often found in full-time permanent or temporary/term labour contracts whereas females were in part-time permanent and temporary/term labour contracts. Women were primarily employed in the service sector, which has lower paying, less secure jobs that provide little training and promotion opportunities. About three quarters of part-time permanent and temporary/term jobs were in the service sector.

Similarly, Brenda Lipsett and Mark Reesor's 1998 study, using Survey of Work Arrangements data of Statistics Canada, showed that about 10 percent of the workforce in Canada was employed in temporary jobs. Census data showed that home-based work has increased (Statistics Canada 1998b); and as James Gauthier and Richard Roy (1997) have shown, the growth rate of self-employed-without-employees who work in contract jobs have surpassed the growth rate of paid employment (5.3 percent and 0.2 percent, respectively). This growth rate was primarily due to employers' restructuring and forcing their workers out to create self-employment and then hiring them back as term/contract labour. This scene was common both in Canada (Zeytinoglu, 1999b) as well as in the UK (Druker 1999), the USA (Nollen 1999; Osterman et al. 1996) and Australia (Quinlan and Mayhew 1999), and started to catch up in Continental Europe as well (Delsen, 1999; Meulders and Plasman, 1999).

In her analysis of flexibility, Diana Elson observes the move on the part of employers to "use measures such as dividing its workforce into a core with secure jobs and a periphery which can be dismissed and redeployed at will" (Elson, 1996, p. 36; Smith, 1993). Employers are using part-time, temporary and contract labour for savings on labour costs (Cappelli et al., 1997; House-man, 1997; Nollen, 1999). The dualistic tendencies of labour markets has shaped and defined workers in unequal arrangements to each other, with peripheral groups often allocated to dead-end, insecure, and low status jobs with low wages, often in divisive workplaces (Acker, 1992; Brodsky, 1994; Dagg, 1997; Forrest, 1996; Levitan and Conway, 1992; Smith, 1993; Zeytinoglu, 1994, 1999a) and with limited mobility from the secondary periphery to primary core sector (Amott, 1993; Duffy and Pupo, 1992; Forrest, 1993). Furthermore, the jobs offer few or no medical and other benefits, have low unionization, and subject workers to arbitrary supervision (Glenn, 1992; Hinton et al., 1999; Lipsett and Reesor, 1998).

Much of the literature suggests that employers within the dual labour market have engaged in practices of exclusion and the creation of advantages for the dominant groups (Acker, 1992; Amott and Matthaei, 1991; Elson, 1996; Glenn 1992; Gottfried and Hayashi-Kato, 1998; Mitter, 1986; Neal, 1994; Pyle, 1990; Smith, 1993; Statistics Canada, 1995). As Elizabeth Higginbotham (1997) discusses, and Teresa Amott (1993, p. 52) notes, "for decades, the majority of women of all racial-ethnic groups, along with most men of colour, were found in the secondary sector" in the US, and relegated into insecure, poorly paid jobs.(1) Similarly, in Canada, racial minority women are more often found in semi-skilled jobs in the peripheral labour market (Statistics Canada, 1995).

The Gendering of Flexible Labour Markets

The focus in this section is to explore the literature more specifically for women's differential insertion into, and their position within, the dualism of the flexible labour market created by employers.

The labour market is a social construct, it is human made! Consequently it bears the imprint of the structure of power relations in society (Clark, 1983, p. 369, cited in Hanson and Pratt, 1995).

In much of the feminist scholarly literature, paid work has been described primarily as a terrain upon which gendering is a key structuring characteristic (Acker, 1992; Duffy and Pupo, 1992; Meulders and Plasman, 1999; O'Reilly, 1994; Smith, 1993; Pfan-Effinger, 1993; Pyle, 1990; Zeytinoglu and Muteshi, 1999). Acker's critique outlines how "assumptions about gender underlie the documents and contracts used to construct organizations" (Acker, 1990, p. 139). Acker asserts that:

Abstract jobs and hierarchies, common concepts in organizational thinking, assume a disembodied and universal worker. This worker is actually a man; man's bodies, sexuality, and relationships to procreation and paid work are subsumed in the image of the worker. Images of men's bodies and masculinity pervade organizational processes, marginalizing women and contributing to the maintenance of gender segregation in organizations (Acker 1990:139).

However, in the current movement towards restructuring and flexible labour markets, Brodie argues that "it is women who have moved into the growing sales and services sector and it is women who have adjusted to the decline of full-time employment" (Brodie, 1994, p. 51). Indeed, one cannot understand the growth, nationally and internationally, of contemporary flexible labour contracts such as part-time, temporary, and contract labour, the intensification of low wage employment, the re-emergence of home work, and the increased employment of live-in domestics without situating those labour processes in existing gender divisions of labour at home and paid work (Cohen, 1994; Forrest, 1998; Hanson and Pratt, 1995; Holdsworth and Dale, 1997). These flexible jobs, particularly part-time temporary jobs, are gendered in the youth labour market as well (Lucas, 1997; Zeytinoglu, 1999b).

Additionally, much feminist research has argued that employers are seeking flexible labour that is already ideologically constituted by gender as secondary, disposable, temporary, less valuable and semi-skilled (Acker, 1990; Dex, 1985; Duffy and Pupo, 1992; Forrest, 1998; Gottfried and Hayashi-Kato, 1998, Rogers, 1995; Hossfeld, 1990). Feminist scholars (Briskin and McDermott, 1992; Cobble, 1993; Forrest, 1993,1996,1998; White, 1990, 1993; Zeytinoglu, 1994a; Zeytinoglu and Muteshi, 1999) offer critiques that also emphasize the place of unions in accepting, shaping and perpetuating the gendered segmentation in these restructured labour markets. Linda Briskin and Patricia McDermott (1993, p. 7) articulate the process as "union complicity in the gendered segmentation of labour markets, union support for traditional ideologies about women's work, breadwinners and male headed families; union resistance to broader-based bargaining; patriarchal, bureaucratic and anti-democratic union structures and practices that marginalize women." Ann Forrest (1993) demonstrates how union benefits have favoured long term service workers, leaving many women "stranded," because generally women's historical participation in the workforce has not always coincided with the traditional model of long and continuous service.

For example, as Julie White's study of part-time and casual women members of the male-dominated postal union showed, the union bargained for equality on behalf of part-time workers, partly to protect full-time jobs, but more importantly, because part-time workers "voiced their displeasure when they felt their interests were not being dealt with" (White, 1990, p. 100). Similarly, in studying unionized part-time workers in the service sector, Zeytinoglu (1993) showed that unions negotiated equal treatment for part-time workers while at the same time they called for restrictions on the employer's decision to create part-time jobs. Jan Kainer's 1998 study of retail food stores in Ontario illustrates the systemic gender inequities in this sector, particularly employer strategies in creating a dual labour market with further segmentation of the periphery, and the ineffectiveness of business unionism to deal with such challenges. While recognizing that retail unions are under pressure from management to accept workplace flexibility initiatives, Kainer argues that "unions are not opposing the implementation of new wage tiers which are dividing the workforce between the predominantly male full-time and predominantly female part-time categories" (Kainer, 1998, p. 184).

Certainly under restructuring, "the gendered rigidities in the labour market have been maintained" (Cohen, 1994, p. 114).(2) It is thus important to recognize not only the ability of unions "to constrain capital's capacity to pursue a rational labour market strategy" (Dex, 1985, p. 137) but the role of unions to collude with men to define skills and thereby exclude women (Forrest, 1993; Rees, 1992; Reskin and Roos, 1990).

In the new global restructuring process employers draw upon sexist ideologies that presuppose that "women don't mind doing unskilled, monotonous jobs" (Forrest, 1996, p. 2). Concepts of gender structure jobs that are appropriate for women and men, and become both cause and effect of women's disadvantage in labour markets. Thus the fact that women make up the substantial number of workers in the flexible service sector has not arisen out of women's preferences as is so often maintained by employers, governments and unions (Acker, 1990, 1992; Gottfried and Hayashi-Kato, 1998; Negrey, 1993; Wilson, 1996). Hossfeld (1990), for example, provides an excellent illustration (supported by others such as Neal, 1994; and Hanson and Pratt, 1995) of the relationship between patriarchal discourses, employers practices, capital accumulation, racial minority women's crucial role in the restructuring of production, and why corporations are inclined towards hiring particular groups of women. Karen Hossfeld argues that "management seeks to devalue women's productive worth," and "draw on and exploit preexisting patriarchal and racist ideologies and arrangements that have affected these women's consciousness" (Hossfeld, 1990, p. 157). Moreover, while labour market participation is occupationally segregated by gender, with women already situated unequally vis-a-vis men in the labour market, restructuring has had differential impacts on women: women are not situated within that unequal labour market in the same way as are men (Glenn, 1992; Hanson and Pratt, 1995; McDowell, 1992) but are segregated by race, citizenship and class.

The Implications of Race and Class in Gendered Flexible Labour Markets

The "heterosexist assumptions" (Forrest, 1996), gendered social practices and racial understandings about the family and men's and women's roles within it have been extremely influential in organizing how and where women will sell their labour. What is also now undoubtedly clear is that this peripheral secondary labour market is particularly exploitable, given that marginalized groups, such as racial minority women, have come to dominate this more precarious labour market (Acker, 1990; Amott and Matthaei, 1991; Higginbotham and Romero, 1997; Smith, 1993; Zeytinoglu and Muteshi, 1999). Sedef Arat-Koc and Wenona Giles have elucidated these relations of differences more specifically. They note that:

Some capitalistic societies have provided such sites where ethnic/racial minority women, who are often migrants or immigrants, provide one type of labour that is devalued as opposed to the more highly valued work of white women (Arat-Koc and Giles, 1994, p. 6).

Similarly, other studies show that the burdens of structural adjustment are being largely borne by "working class, less educated and immigrant women" (Brodie, 1994, p. 51). Such differences among women are made evident by employer decisions regarding who gets to be employed, the type of work done and the places of that labour. Drawing upon the empirical work of Colclough and Tolbert (1992), Vicki Smith (1993) argues that employers formulate, refigure and even shift production locations, employee contracts and economic processes by using flexible labour. Colclough and Tolbert (1992) have argued that employers profit by

geographically shifting production to take advantage of various types of labor, deskilling or automating work to lessen dependencies on particular types of labor, hiring part-time or temporary workers, using easily replaced minority labor that must settle for low-wages and that demand less in benefits or working conditions, and finally, contingency management of different work groups with techniques that serve to segment and divide labor markets. (Colclough and Tolbert, 1992, p. 132, cited in Smith, 1993)

Tania Das Gupta (1996), focussing on Toronto's garment industry, also shows that in their search for lower production costs, particularly under the competitive environment of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, Canadian retailers and North American manufacturers resort to the use of homeworkers who are, and have historically been,

non-English or French-speaking immigrant women, and more recently, women of colour. They have no [job] security, no promotions, earn super-exploitative wages, often paid by the piece, and work in unsafe health conditions. (Das Gupta, 1996, p. 55)

In addition, Susan Hanson and Geraldine Pratt have argued most cogently that the differences in women's experiences of work, the gender segmentation in occupations and variations in women's participation in the paid labour force must be better understood as grounded and constituted in and through the places or environments in which they live. They have argued, in addition, that "employees' perceptions and responsiveness to class preferences about desired hours of work, leads to variations between middle-class and working-class areas in the scheduling of part-time and shift work" (Hanson and Pratt, 1995, p. 18). Their study outlines how firms construct work along the trajectories of class or race and how different groups of women came to be seen as appropriate for permanent versus temporary work schedules. Employers in their study cast clerical work assignments as temporary work that would be largely occupied by low-economic class, primarily non-White women from a nearby public housing project.

In Canada any large scale data on gender, race and class dimensions of flexible labour is not as yet available, though the latest Census data on visible minorities and recent immigrants suggest the trends of these dimensions of flexible labour (Statistics Canada, 1998a). Using 1986 to 1996 Censuses and focussing on those in prime working ages of 25 to 44, Jane Badets and Linda Howatson-Leo (1999) show that while a high level of part-time employment is not a new phenomenon for immigrants since many were also in this situation in the 1980s restructuring environment, still, the incidence of part-time and temporary work has become more frequent for them in the 1990s. Their study also shows that recent immigrants are not only more likely to be working in temporary, part-time jobs, they are also likely to be stuck longer in this type of work. And three quarters of these recent immigrants are racial minorities.

Systemic barriers to education and/or hiring of racial/ethnic minorities (Denton and Zeytinoglu, 1996; Denton et al., 1998), and the presence or absence of unionization for racialized-minority women, often explains their over-representation in some jobs and under-representation in others that provide flexibility to employers (Glenn, 1992; Leah, 1993; Neal, 1994). Women's jobs, which on the whole are perceived as low status and secondary, get "resegregated" along racialized-gender lines (Amott, 1993; Glenn, 1992; Higginbotham and Romero, 1997; Neysmith and Aronson, 1997), even as new opportunities are opened up at the same time for individual women (Levitan and Conway, 1992). In any case, as Teresa Amott has noted:

In virtually all resegregated occupations, wages, benefits, and skills fell ... so the new entrants failed to realize any meaningful economic gains. (Amott, 1993, p. 80)

In fact, as racialized women have entered into segregated occupations, tasks performed on the job might stay the same but the perceived value of the tasks performed decreases, giving the impression that those jobs are low-skilled jobs.

Thus, women as a racialized and gendered group have different degrees of access to "feminized" jobs. Glenn (1992, p. 20) has noted that when "we look more closely at the composition of specific jobs within the larger category (of service work), we find clear patterns of racial specializations" that create exploitative experiences grounded in the differences among women. Indeed, Glenn asserts that "a dualistic conception of women ... provided ready-made categories for casting White and racial-ethnic women as oppositional figures." These categories are then reconstructed in the service sector labour force through the definition of skills, access to training and education (Glenn, 1992, pp. 33-34).

While the sexual division of labour structures women's work as low-skilled, what is especially exploitative for racialized women is that the division between skilled and unskilled jobs replicates racial divisions (Glenn, 1992). For example, in Canada, with regards to the structure of paid home-care work, studies found that White women were more likely to be in the core, skilled jobs of visiting nurses or therapists, while racial minority women were employed in the peripheral, lesser skilled jobs of home support workers (Denton and Zeytinoglu, 1996; Denton et al., 1998; Neysmith and Aronson, 1997). Another study on ethnic differences in employment in Britain 0toldsworth and Dale, 1997) showed that, overall, racial minority women were more likely than White women to be in full-time work, though they filled manual semi- or unskilled occupations with secondary market characteristics. Such constructions of skill divisions among women also explain the occupational segregation of racial minority women into the worst labour markets, making them vulnerable to the flexibility strategies of employers.

How such differences consolidate segmented labour markets and play out in the lives of women situated differentially with respect to class and ethnicity is also examined by Rusty Neal (1994) in a study of employer strategies of subcontracted cleaning in two public sector Canadian institutions. Neal provides evidence of the existence of a two-tiered system of wages, tasks, and working conditions in the secondary market that divides cleaners in the same building. This study found workers bifurcated into the less privileged, non-unionized, racially and ethnically divided, subcontracted, female office cleaners, who as low status employees work at night and are all immigrants, and the more privileged male carpet cleaners who are unionized, work the better paid day shift, and are rarely immigrants or racial minorities. In this way employers create and sustain a dualistic and gendered structural hierarchy in the labour market, constituting women's labour as unskilled in order to hold down wages and at the same time maintaining gendered and ethnically differentiated working conditions. Hanson and Pratt (1995) came to similar conclusions:

Employers ... understood their local labor force in terms of skill, gender, household assets, and work culture of the area.... The owner of a cleaning service ... explained: "We are looking for cheap labor, unskilled labor. It is a simple job, it just takes a lot of commonsense. You can mould an unskilled person to what you want. All of our labor force are women and all are part-time. It's attractive to them because ... you can get home before the kids get back from school. (Hanson and Pratt, 1995, p. 161)

It is through such ideologies and practices that women have become differentially incorporated into, and "structurally divided" (Neal, 1994) by, the flexible labour markets of restructuring economies.

Women and Part-time/Temporary Labour Markets: Diversity in Flexibility

Part-time work is the largest category of flexible work under current restructuring economies in which service sector employment accounts for at least 60 percent of jobs (Drew 1992). Indeed, part-time work is becoming a permanent characteristic of employment in industrialized economies and is also the most typical flexible labour market arrangement being offered to women (Brodsky, 1994; Delsen, 1999; Drew, 1992; Gallagher, 1999; Gornick and Jacobs, 1996; ILO, 1998; Lipsett and Reesor, 1998; Tam, 1997; Zeytinoglu, 1999b). Globally, in the occupationally and sectorally segregated labour markets, women are more likely than men to work in part-time and temporary jobs (ILO, 1998). It is also generally considered that part-time jobs "respond to the mutual desires of both employers and employees for greater flexibility -- and indeed flexibility has been a key to retaining: women with family responsibilities in the workforce" (ILO, 1994b, p. 10). This view has been particularly dominant among employers in industrialized countries.

The reality for women is much different and rises from the dual roles and expectations of women. Although more and more women are working outside the home in paid jobs, they are also fully or primarily responsible for unpaid work at home. Faced with the dual workload and few alternatives to change their situation, women (particularly those of childbearing/rearing age) are forced to "choose" jobs which allow them flexibility in hours worked, but provide lower earnings and fewer lucrative career paths (Lim, 1996; Zeytinoglu, 1999c). Ideally both female and male workers should enjoy the flexibility in work hours and types; they should both engage in the unpaid work at home and the paid work outside the home (Zeytinoglu, 1994). The reality is that the global world of work is moving towards labour market flexibility, and the proliferation of atypical or non-standard work forms are eroding the employment security for all workers but particularly for female workers (Lim, 1996). As the United Nations' Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women notes, for female workers the labour market flexibility and the non-standard employment trends have meant

low wages, little or no labour standards protection, poor working conditions, particularly with regard to women's occupational health and safety, low skill levels, and a lack of job security, in both the formal and informal sectors. (United Nations, 1995b, para. 158).

A comparative look at some recent case studies on part-time and temporary work highlights differences in women's insertion into the flexible labour market.

Focussing on part-time work for women, studies such as those of Eileen Drew (1992) and Jacqueline O'Reilly (1994) noted that the absence of state provisions that would help offset the cost of child care in the UK effectively determined that British mothers would favour part-time work that paralleled school hours. Whereas as Drew argued that in France "extensive networks of childcare facilities existed for mothers with young children" (1992, p. 612) and thus they were more likely to be in full-time employment, in a later study Thornley et al. (1997) showed that in the banking sector in both France and Britain, full-time permanent jobs with better pay and benefits were created mainly for the male minority, while the growing number of part-time, temporary, contract jobs were created for females.

In contrast, Birgit Pfan-Effinger's (1993) study of part-time work, found that in Germany,(3) state ideologies and constructions of women as mothers discouraged maternal full-time employment. In fact, the length of the school day and the nature of childcare provisions in Germany have reflected this dependency on mothers. Part-time work was thus the only paid job option for many German women. Pfan-Effinger also explored the differential work experiences of Finnish women and showed that for Finnish women there is a cultural consensus about gender relations that defined child rearing/caring roles as not the sole and private responsibility of mothers. Rather, parents are supported by paid family leaves and systems of affordable childcare. Finnish women thus enter the labour market on a permanent full-time basis, because women are perceived as autonomous individuals, whose "own employment is the source of their individual social insurance."

Again focussing on flexible labour of women, there have been studies suggesting that the increase in flexible work, especially part-time work, is partially reflective of women's preferences for the flexibility offered by part-time employment (Blossfeld and Hakim, 1997; Zeytinoglu, 1991, 1993). In a Canadian study by Linda Duxbury, Chris Higgins and Catherine Lee (1993), part-time professional women workers in a federal government department reported higher job satisfaction compared to full-timers, and better ability to cope and minimize the stress of accomplishing the demands of waged work and household work. Nevertheless, this same study and others examining women in management in industrialized countries (Antal and Izraeli, 1993; Zeytinoglu 1999b) found that most career women did not prefer to use the flexible work arrangements. Zeytinoglu (1992; 1994) has argued that the reasons lie with corporate culture, and employer's unfavourable perceptions of part-time workers as not committed to their jobs, less efficient, and with higher quitting rates than their full-time counterparts. The failure here to accommodate professional women's needs will have negative repercussions on women's economic lives. For example, when women have no choice but to restructure their working hours, it is used to sustain discourses that justify the dominant belief that women are "temporary workers who choose not to invest in their human capital" (Forrest, 1996, p. 4).

Nevertheless, there is differential access to part-time arrangements for women. Focussing on race and gender dimensions, several studies have showed differences among women employed in flexible labour markets. For example, Sar Levitan and Elizabeth Conway's study of US workers (1992, p. 51) showed that White married women continue to choose flexible work schedules of part-time work more often then Black female heads of households. Stanley Nollen (1999), focussing on temporary workers, also showed that in the US, casual/agency workers are more likely to be women, many of them Black women, while contract workers (i.e., independent contractors) are more likely to be male, mostly White. But in the part-time workforce, White women are more likely to be found than Black women. Similarly in the UK, more White women are in part-time jobs than all other racial minority groups despite evidence of childcare difficulties for all racial/ethnic groups (Holdsworth and Dale, 1997).

Indeed, Zeytinoglu's (1991, 1992,1994) studies show that the permanent (regular) part-time work is more often a White, middle-class employment pattern. These workers can afford to choose such employment, whereas racial minority and/or lower economic class women's jobs tend towards casual work. On a larger scale data analysis, Statistics Canada also found that employed racial minority women were less likely than other [White majority] Canadian women to hold part-time jobs (Statistics Canada, 1995). As Clare Holdsworth and Angela Dale note for the UK,

There is evidence that employers have continued to make part-time jobs preferentially available to White women (CRE, 1991) and that full-time employment [of racial/ethnic minority women] may sometimes be the result of discrimination rather than choice (Holdsworth and Dale, 1997, p. 453).

Paying attention to the complex inequalities that women face in the labour force, Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis have noted that the dominant "division of domestic labour" debates have completely failed to account for how certain racialized women have never been constituted "outside the parameters of capitalism either in distinct domestic work or as only servicing the male force" (Anthias and Yuval-Davis, 1992, p. 110). By way of example, Anthias and Yuval-Davis argued that West Indian immigrant women's labour participation in advanced industrialized economies such as Britain's, was necessarily full-time rather than part-time, though precarious, given the exigencies of their lives. The reality of women grounded in difference has shown that minority women and working class women have had consistent economic participation over their lifetimes, have been expected to work outside the home and have been more systemically positioned as wage earners in full-time domestic work, field work and industrial work. The full-time work was a financial necessity, not a choice, for themselves and their families.

It is also well-known that within the New World countries of the US, Canada and Australia, an ethnically diverse array of immigrants, i.e., primarily racial minorities, are heavily located in peripheral, temporary/casual jobs (Dagg, 1997; Higginbotham and Romero, 1997; Quinlan and Mayhew, 1999). In many European Union member states, those so-called "guest workers" or "foreigners" from the Middle-East, Africa or East European countries are an invaluable source of flexible labour for employers. For example, Germany depends on the non-citizen residents (guest workers) for the labour market flexibility of temporary and subcontracted work (Zeytinoglu and Muteshi, 1999). In addition, Drew (1992) argues that a significant factor accounting for fewer part-time workers in France in comparison to other European countries is the use of migrant or "non-nationals' for labour market flexibility.

Clearly, an investigation of gender processes in the service economy and in particular in flexible labour is not adequate on its own as an explanation of all women's actual working lives in advanced industrial countries. For although gender discrimination undoubtedly affects all women, intensifying their subordination in the workplace, its articulations within racial, class and citizenship locations produce very specific effects for different and individual women.


The feminist literature reviewed here highlights the unprecedented rise in the use of women's labour in flexible labour markets. The tendency in current literature is to point to the discriminatory and harmful effects in the recruitment of women into flexible labour markets in industrialized economies. Flexible labour has been generally described as insecure, low waged jobs, and with minimum access to customary employment benefits. The vast majority of these workers remain outside of legislated worker's rights and the union movement (Engberg, 1993).

While it has been appropriate and crucial to recognize the gendered terrain of restructuring labour markets, it is equally relevant to be attentive in a more complex way to how race, class, and citizenship have been underlying forces in the constructions and arrangements of flexible work, and how that work is differentially experienced by women along the trajectories of difference in industrialized countries. Thus, the supposition that it is mostly women who are in "bad jobs" in the secondary labour market eludes the problematic divisions among women. There is increasing evidence that it is mainly racialized minorities, immigrants, and women in low-economic classes who are found in the poorly paid, insecure jobs of the flexible workplace. Broadly speaking, however, there remains an under-representation of the complexity of the articulation of gender, class, and race under "flexible accumulation" particularly in feminist scholarly work on restructuring in industrialized economies.

The meanings of "work" and "worker" must of necessity also be moved away from the dominant norm of the full-time White male worker, a notion that has inscribed duality along hierarchical, racial, classed and gendered lines. The idea of "real work" has contributed to a whole body of work practices and work expectations that function to construct some non-normative types of paid work, such as flexible work hours and flexible workers, as secondary and thus "marginalized" as "nonstandard" workers (Zeytinoglu, 1994a). The work of women that is frequently manifested in secondary and/or nonstandard/flexible work arrangements remains devalued as we in effect continue to theorize and comprehend flexible work from within the dominant views of full-time work. This is the case "even when non-standard workers perform exactly the same tasks as full-time workers during their hours of employment" (Zeytinoglu, 1994a, p. 444).

That these labour arrangements are of immense social and economic policy concern is beginning to be well articulated. The focus should therefore be on redirecting policy, for supportive public policies can provide the foundation for building new employment relationships, and alternative relationships between the home and paid work. In addition to universal child care and the more recent universal eldercare proposals to support workers to manage their personal lives, the need to find ways to respond to and shape labour policy and legislation remains an important imperative. Accepted legal norms and concepts have to be revised to allow for new legislative models to provide protection to workers. As Marie-Therese Chicha (1999) and Guylaine Vallee (1999) have argued, the reality for workers in nonstandard jobs has been that they rarely meet the continuous working hours, the permanent or stable relationship with the employer, or the length of employment needed to access benefits and rights in the workplace.

As a starting point for legislative protection, we recommend individual employment laws to be amended to show sufficient flexibility in providing coverage for these workers. As seen in some unionized work environments, such as in the teaching and nursing professions, there should be prorated benefits and pension coverage for flexible labour, and more importantly the accumulated benefits such as pension contributions, should be tied to the worker, not the workplace, and be transferable from one workplace to another as the worker moves from one job to another. We also recommend employment insurance to be provided to workers in proportion to the hours worked rather than based on a set number of hours to be eligible. Another recommendation is that the implicitly understood "bilateral work relationship concept" in employment standards and labour legislation be amended to allow coverage for workers in the trilateral work relationships (Chicha 1999; Zeytinoglu 1995,1996), such as casual work, contract work and telework. For example, Zeytinoglu's (1994b) study of teleworkers in a company in Ontario showed that although workers were called independent contractors, they were essentially bound by the technology they rented from Company A and the call-answering service they provided to Company B. Although they were dependent on Company A and B for the continuity in their work and earnings, they were considered as self-employed -- not employees -- under the employment law and thus left outside its coverage. Therefore, we recommend the legal definition of employee to be amended in employment standards and labour laws to allow for a variety of employee-employer relationships and protection for a larger group of workers.

We also recommend legislative changes to allow for broader union representation and coverage by collective agreements. In Canada, under the current legislation, it is difficult for unions to access flexible labour, let alone organize these workers. It has been easier to organize part-time permanent workers, but in those cases Labour Boards in Canada have been consistently deciding, or required by law to decide, that part-time workers have a different "community of interests" than full-time workers and should be in separate bargaining units. Casual/temporary workers have been almost exclusively left out of union representation. In addition, contract workers have been considered "not an employee" and thus not included in union coverage. This divide-and-conquer strategy has worked for the benefit of employers, without its being strongly contested by union leaders.

It is generally accepted that unionized workers have better working conditions, higher earnings and more job security than those who are unorganized. Unions have been so successful in collective bargaining that their members now primarily form the middle-class, not the traditionally termed working-class, i.e., poor, vulnerable, exploited workers who need protection. In this context, flexible labour is not well represented by the unions. For a more equitable work environment and better representation of flexible workers, we recommend laws to be amended to allow union representation on an occupational, type-of-service-provided, or regional basis. There are already working examples of this type of unionization in a male-dominated sector in Canada -- the construction sector. If labour laws are enacted with special clauses for the construction sector and if they allow collective agreements based on occupation, service provided and on a regional basis, why not for the flexible labour that is dominated by women, particularly the racial minority and poor women?

Employer policies could also be conceived that help create enabling workplaces allowing workers to thrive. Effective policy is needed that would be responsive to the specific needs of female and male workers, for example, their demand for flexible work structures that do not compromise their wages, career possibilities, and employment benefits. Employers should also provide an equitable work environment for both genders, all races and people from all economic levels, whether they work in flexible jobs or in permanent full-time jobs. If equitable work environments are to be created in Canada and in other industrialized countries, the power that individuals have due to their gender, race and class has to be shared equitably. These recommendations can be implemented only if society accepts that these are basic human rights and that we should all work towards achieving them.

The centrality of women's labour in the restructured workplace and the racialized-gender stratifying effects of paid work, demands that our conceptions and definitions of work, flexible work in particular, be critically re-examined, if current labour processes are to be understood and the persistence of complex hierarchies and gender divisions challenged.


(*) This study is supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Canada.

(1.) The fact that not all women are entering the labour market equally is also provided by the example of African-American women. While Black women with college education may participate in the US labour market more readily the similarly educated White women, it has been projected that the largest source of employment for most African American women will continue to be in the relatively low paying, lower status service sector work of the secondary labour market (US Department of Labor, 1993). Such labour includes nurses aides, retail sales, secretarial work, cashiers, cooks, elementary school teachers, janitors, cleaners (Glenn, 1992; US Department of Labour, 1993). In fact, it is the existence of such service work that has accounted historically for the shift from paid domestic work to the service sector for Black women in the United States (Levitan and Conway, 1992, p. 50).

(2.) Also, see Barbara Cameron (1996), who offers a Canadian study that highlights how contradictory effects emerge even when government labour market policy seeks to accommodate women's training needs. For example, the "Canadian jobs strategy" was adopted in 1985 as an "affirmative action" to enable access to federal training programs for groups such as women, visible minorities, people with disabilities and aboriginal peoples. However, these four equity-seeking groups came to be concentrated in primarily low skill training jobs with little or no opportunity to participate in higher skill acquisition. Women were being trained for the stereotypical female occupations, in ways that continued to reflect historically gendered divisions of labour, and were being "geared to meet the gendered demands of the labour market" (Cameron, 1996, p. 76).

(3.) At the time, West Germany.


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Author:Zeytinoglu, Isik Urla; Muteshi, Jacinta Khasiala
Publication:Resources for Feminist Research
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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