Ann Cecilie Bergene – Temporary work agencies

Ann Cecilie Bergene – Temporary work agencies

Temporary work agencies constitute a qualitative change to the employment relation of groundbreaking potential. While the process of primitive accumulation freed workers of feudal bonds to enable the selling of labour power as a commodity on the labour market, the commodity form is now achieved in a purer form in a process which seems to finalize primitive accumulation. In the words of Barker and Christensen (1998:14), employment itself is converted “from a relationship to a commodity”. Temporary work agencies may, in other words, be regarded as “merchants of labour” as they “profit upon handling the commodity labour power” (Endresen 2010:218). However, as when Marx wrote Capital capital, as a social relation, was not very widespread. Temporary work agencies have not yet been able to dominate a large share of the labour market. As pointed out by Barker and Christensen (1998), although the number of workers recruited through temporary work agencies is still quite small, we might be observing that “something much more profound is happening to the basic contract between employer and employee”.

The growth in the number of temporary work agencies and in their power poses the trade union movement nationally and globally with some new challenges, both when it comes to the effect of their operation on regularly employed workers and to the conditions under which work is performed by workers engaged through such agencies. First and foremost, the presence of temporary work agencies in the labour market substitutes the traditional employer-employee relationship for a triangular relationship between worker, temporary work agency and client company in which both employment and commercial contracts are involved. In addition, temporary agency workers might also prove more difficult to organize, and they must be specifically guaranteed the right to join a union.

Furthermore, temporary work agencies play an increasingly important role in migration flows as part of a triangular arrangement whereby an agency intermediates between the worker and the client in arranging temporary employment assignments abroad (Olofsdotter 2008). Temporary work agencies thus act as catalysts in the globalization of the labour market both in terms of labour migration and transnational regulation. Temporary work agencies are thus in several ways a global concern for the union movement.

As temporary work agencies permeate new sections of the labour market, workplace fragmentation and complex employer networks pose obstacles to political efforts to coordinate, mobilize and build solidarity between workers (Coe & Jordhus-Lier forthcoming). But as this form of employment are becoming commonplace in new national labour markets, labour movements are also starting to formulate more sophisticated responses to temporary work agencies.  Policy positions on temporary work agencies differ somewhat in the union movement, locally, nationally and globally. In the proposed project, research will be undertaken on the strategies the global union federations have devised in relation to temporary work agencies.

The sub-project will study this through the lens of the strategies of the International Transport workers’ Federation (ITF) in the aviation industry. Liberalization of international regulations, privatization of government-owned airlines and globalization have all necessitated new operating practices and management concepts, such as the low-cost, no-frill model often associated with Ryanair (Doganis 2010). This model preaches cost reduction, including reduction in wage costs. Additionally, the strategies of UNI, the global union federation meant to organize temporary agency