Eichhorst and Marx (eds), Non-Standard Employment in Post-Industrial Labour Markets

Werner Eichhorst and Paul Marx (eds), Non-Standard Employment in Post-Industrial Labour Markets: An occupational perspective, Edward Elgar, 2015, xii + 435 pp, 1 78100 171 4, hbk, £105, 1 78643 432 6, pbk, £35

At the time of writing this review, an employment tribunal has recently determined that Uber drivers are workers with rights to the National Minimum/Living Wage, holiday pay, etc., and that they are not self-employed. The case was brought by a group of drivers, but it would appear that other drivers regret the decision. The case raises precisely the kind of issue that this excellent book is all about: the diversity and complexity of the employment field.

There has been much discussion – including in a number of recent books reviewed in the Citizen’s Income Newsletter – of the future shape of paid employment. The two forces of globalisation and automation are seeing jobs moving from one country to another, jobs disappearing – and new jobs emerging, a small number of which have traditional employment rights attached to them, but a large number of which do not. A lot of generalisations have been offered, and in particular the generalisation that we are seeing the emergence of a ‘precariat’. This book is not about generalisations: it is about diversity, complexity, and detail.

The editors’ introduction explores the nature and causes of employment market change. Traditional industrial employment is decreasing, and in service sector jobs it can be difficult to increase productivity, so the employment market is bifurcating into continuing highly regulated and highly paid employment, and a lot more poorly paid and poorly regulated employment. While differing regulatory regimes in different countries are one driver of employment market diversity between countries, the book finds that more significant variations exist not only between different sectors within each country, but also between different occupations within each sector. The editors suggest that the two factors that most influence what happens in a particular occupation in a particular country are ‘the replaceability of workers’ and ‘the flexibility of hiring practices’ (p. 5). A further constraint on employers is the availability of the kind of skilled labour that their particular industry requires: which means that two firms in the same field, but with different production models, can face different constraints, and might therefore exhibit different employment patterns. So diversity can be found not just between countries, between sectors, and between occupations, but also between firms in the same industry. Additional factors will be labour market regulation, the coverage of trades unions, and market conditions ( – rapidly fluctuating demand making more flexible employment patterns more likely).

The first half of the book contains country-specific chapters on Germany, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy, Denmark, the USA, and the UK. There is not room in this review to discuss in detail all of these chapters, so in line with the likely interests of this Newsletter’s readers we shall discuss the chapter on the UK.

Perhaps wisely, the editors leave the different country chapters’ authors to define ‘non-standard employment’ for their own contexts: so Koslowski’s and McLean’s chapter about the UK employment market begins with an understandably somewhat inconclusive discussion of what is meant by ‘non-standard employment’. One important conclusion is that because the UK’s employment market is relatively unregulated in comparison with the employment markets of other European countries, there can be little difference in practice between ‘standard’ and ‘non-standard’ employment. In particular, because redundancy is relatively easy to achieve, there can often be little more flexibility in a fixed-term contract than in one that looks permanent. Similarly, there is no standard working week in the UK; and now that agency workers experience employment rights, there is little difference between being employed by an agency and being employed by the company in which the employee is working. When the authors study the prevalence of fixed-term contracts (as a proxy for non-standard employment, even though they have already recognised that such contracts are not in practice very different from ‘permanent’ ones), they find considerable occupational diversity. Case studies of particular occupations generate the conclusion that employees in the public sector are more likely to be on temporary contracts than employees in other sectors. This is explained as a function of employment protection being generally higher in the public sector.

The authors also discover that the employment market share of temporary contracts has remained fairly consistent for the past twenty years (p. 223). (A later chapter, which ought to have been among the country specific chapters, finds an upward trend in part-time employment in both Germany and the UK, and a decline in fixed-term employment in the UK.) However, what Koslowski’s and McLean’s chapter does not study is the growth in so-called ‘zero hour’ contracts: contracts that do not guarantee to the worker a minimum number of hours of employment. Because they have chosen to concentrate on temporary contracts rather than the detail of contracts ( – zero hour contracts need not be temporary), the authors appear to have missed an important trend represented by the following table:

Table 1: The prevalence of no guaranteed hours contracts (NGHC)

Reference period Total NGHCs where work was carried out (millions) Percentage of contracts that are NGHCs (%) Percentage of businesses making some use of NGHCs (%)
Jan-14 1.4 5 13
Aug-14 1.8 6 11
Jan-15 1.5 6 11
May-15 2.1 7 11
Nov-15 1.7 6 10
Source: Office for National Statistics Business Survey.


Following the different single-country chapters, the reader will find a set of comparative chapters. These chapters find: diversity between subjective perceptions of job security between occupations ( – where job security is generally low, the ‘insecurity gap’ is higher); higher mobility from insecure to secure employment in less regulated Northern European employment markets than in the more regulated Southern and Continental countries, alongside occupational differences in such mobility; overlaps between part-time employment and low-wage employment, which particularly affects women ( – with Nordic countries being something of an exception because of better childcare provision); a diversity of training regimes across Europe, and an accompanying diversity of young adult employment experiences; and that trades unions are now more interested in non-standard employment than they used to be, partly because they now understand that employers can use non-standard employment to put pressure on the conditions experienced by ‘standard’ employees.

The book’s major findings will be found in the editors’ introduction rather than in a concluding chapter. The overall message is one of diversity, and of comprehensible but sometimes surprising connections. For instance, both elementary service occupations and university teaching now exhibit increasing non-standard employment. The explanation is that both university teaching and elementary service occupations experience greater labour supply than demand, meaning that in both occupations workers can be easily replaced. But, as the editors emphasise, diversity is ubiquitous, and every country and every occupation needs to be studied separately for employment patterns and their explanations.

The index could have been more thorough, which is one reason for reading the book itself as thoroughly as possible. Another reason would be the wealth of detail with which this book is packed. The editors and authors are to be congratulated on a most useful volume which will confirm some of its readers’ assumptions about Europe’s changing employment market and will demolish a few others.