Precarious Work

Companies worldwide are shirking their legal obligations to workers by replacing permanent jobs with contract and temporary work.  

This is known as "precarious work."  

Precarious workers are those who fill permanent job needs but are denied permanent employee rights.  Globally, these workers are subject to unstable employment, lower wages and more dangerous working conditions. They rarely receive social benefits and are often denied the right to join a union. Even when they have the right to unionize, workers are scared to organize if they know they are easily replaceable.  Women, minorities and migrant workers are much more likely to fill these kinds of jobs. Permanent employment across a number of sectors has shifted to precarious jobs through outsourcing, use of employment agencies, and inappropriate classification of workers as “short-term” or “independent contractors.” 

"Precarious work" is not a short-term tactic to reduce costs or defeat a union organizing drive, but a long-term strategy for shedding accountability to workers and eliminating employee rights based on the existence of an employment relationship.

The use of contract labor and precarious work is part of the a global business strategy to cut labor costs and undermine decent work through labor market “flexibilization” or casualization. The International Metalworkers’ Federation (IMF) proposes the following definition: “precarious work is the result of employment practices by employers designed to limit or reduce their permanent workforce to a minimum, to maximize their flexibility and to shift risks onto workers. The resulting jobs typically are non-permanent, temporary, casual, insecure and contingent. Workers in such jobs often are not covered by labour law and social security protections”.

To understand what is at the core of this employer strategy, it is important to understand that the entire framework of labor law, including international labor law, is based on the permanent employer/employee relationship: full-time work, under a contract of employment for unlimited duration, with a single employer, and protected against unjustified dismissal. From a historical perspective, employers discovered over time that slave labor was not economically efficient and that legally "free" workers could be contracted without the cost of providing them housing and food. Workers struck back by organizing unions and winning the right to bargain collectively as employees. Now employers are trying to turn the clock back by ridding themselves of permanent employees as such. Many employers have created a world of work where there is no longer a need to bust unions or use violence against union leaders when they can just take away the potential members. This practice not only maintains a pattern of exploitation abroad but also cements working-class poverty at home.

In the midst of global economic crises, market instability falls hard on those millions of workers with insecure jobs. Contract, temporary, or casual workers without union representation have no bargaining power to negotiate for severance pay or other safeguards when layoffs occur. While companies may use the excuse of a recession to further erode labor rights and reduce regular permanent jobs, we believe that stable jobs are the key to building the middle class needed for a sustainable economy in the future.

 

Securing the right to unionization is essential to fighting the normalization of precarious and uncontracted labor. 

ILRF coordinates several campaigns with other international organizations and labor unions to end “precarious work” and “labor flexibilization” in favor of contracts and benefits for full employees. The Global Union Federation campaign targets precarious work in a multitude of sectors, including manufacturing, services, and especially agriculture, where work can be seasonal. ILRF applies pressure on employers in both the U.S. and other countries to stop the abuse of contract labor.

Specifically, because women tend to be in the most precarious of work situations, we support the grassroots activism efforts of non-contracted and migrant female workers, such as sugar cane workers in Colombia who are forced into “labor cooperatives” at extremely low wages. You can read more about their situation here.  After long struggles, some unions have been able to include contract workers in collective bargaining arrangements while others have successfully demanded that employers’ reduce or eliminate the use of contract labor and other forms of precarious work.

Past ILRF campaigns against precarious work

Dole in the Philippines:  Since 2006, the Dole Philippines union has been undermined as nearly 77% of Dole Philippines' workers at their unionized pineapple processing plant are outsourced, many through labor "cooperatives". Read ILRF's report,"The Sour Taste of Pineapple" for more information. Click here to read ILRF testimony to the USTR regarding Dole's request for trade benefits on pineapple juice. ILRF demonstrated that Dole Philippines undermined decent work and sustainable development by overusing contract labor. Note that Del Monte's practices are even worse as it buys nearly 100% of its pineapples from contract farms in the Philippines.

Coca-Cola in Guatemala: ILRF, together with other international organizations, has been called out Coca-Cola’s discriminatory and exploitative labor practices since 2006. A July 2008 ILO mission to investigate labor relations and working conditions at several Coca-Cola bottling plants found a clear difference between the employers’ relationship and treatment of directly employed workers as compared to outsourced workers. In one Bogota plant, 70% of the operating staff, and 85% of the distribution staff is now outsourced, contracted through associated work cooperatives or employment agencies. A large number of these workers were formerly direct employees but the company forced them to change their status.

Drummond Coal in Colombia: Sixteen workers producing for the Alabama-based Drummond Coal company in Colombia have died on the job, including 3 deaths in 2009. Drummond has used subcontracting to evade responsibility for these workers' deaths. Furthermore, Drummond’s leaders are now under investigation on charges related to the killing of two labor activists in 2001. Read more on Drummond here and here.