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24. Work and Workers

Chapter Editors:  Jeanne Mager Stellman and Leon J. Warshaw 


Table of Contents 


Work and Workers
Freda L. Paltiel

Shifting Paradigms and Policies
Freda L. Paltiel

Health, Safety and Equity in the Workplace
Joan Bertin

Precarious Employment and Child Labour
Leon J. Warshaw

Transformations in Markets and Labour
Pat Armstrong

Globalizing Technologies and the Decimation/Transformation of Work
Heather Menzies


Point to a thumbnail to see figure caption, click to see figure in article context.


Wednesday, 23 February 2011 17:13

Work and Workers

The World Health Organization concept of “Health for All” envisions a state of health which enables persons to lead economically and socially productive lives. This is contrary to the guiding individualistic precept of “economic man”, who seeks only to satisfy or improve his economic well-being. Moreover, as we re-contemplate the world of work, it is time to rethink the notion of “human resources” or “human capital”, a concept which views humans as expendable economic instruments, diminishing their essential and transcendental humanity. And how valid is the “dependency ratio” concept, which views all younger and older persons as non-productive dependants? Thus our precepts and current practices subordinate or subvert the idea of the society to that of the economy. Advocates of human development emphasize the need for robust economies as engines for the satisfaction of societal needs, through the equitable production, distribution and enjoyment of goods and services.

When the emphasis is unduly placed on the economy, the family is viewed merely as the unit which produces, maintains and restores workers; from this viewpoint, the family must accommodate to work demands, and the workplace is absolved of accommodation to harmonize work and family life. The ILO Workers with Family Responsibilities Convention, 1981 (No. 156), has been ratified by only 19 states, in contrast with the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in All Its Forms, which has been ratified by nearly all its members. The ILO found that very few countries reported the adoption and implementation of explicit national policies covering men and women workers with family responsibilities, in accordance with the Convention.

The World Bank Human Development projects currently account for only 17% of loans. The World Bank in recent reports has recognized the importance of investments in health and education, and has acknowledged that a significant number of development mega-projects have failed because they lacked the participation of intended beneficiaries. In a vision statement for the future, the Bank’s president has indicated that there would be greater emphasis on environmental effects and on human development to support education, nutrition, family planning and improvement in the status of women.

But there is still a conceptual lag. We are entering the twenty-first century anachronistically saddled with the philosophies and theories of the nineteenth. Sigmund Freud (despite conferring his mantle on his daughter) believed that women with their unstable superegos were morally as well as biologically deficient; Adam Smith taught us that the servant girl, unlike the factory worker, was not economically productive, while Charles Darwin believed in the “survival of the fittest”.

In this chapter we present essays on the transformation of work, on the new technologies and their implications for worker well-being, and on various forms of exploitation of workers. We consider the needs of women workers and the challenges we face in maximizing human potential.

The world has arrived at a crossroads. It can continue on the path of neoclassical economics and “Social Darwinism”, with unequal and inequitable development, with waste and disparagement of human capabilities. Or, it can opt for healthy public policy, nationally and internationally. Healthy public policy is aimed at reducing inequities, building supportive and sustainable environments and enhancing human coping and control. To accomplish this we require democratic institutions that are transparent, responsive, accountable, responsible and truly representative.



Wednesday, 23 February 2011 17:16

Shifting Paradigms and Policies

Although this article focuses to a large extent on women, it is actually about humans, and humans as workers. All humans need challenge and security; healthy workplaces provide both. When we cannot succeed despite best efforts (impossible goals without adequate means) or when there are no challenges (routine, monotonous work), the conditions are met for “learned helplessness”. While exceptional persons may triumph over adversity and hostile environments, most humans need nurturant, enabling and empowering environments in order to develop and exercise their capabilities. The case for stimulation, not only in childhood, but lifelong, is supported by neuroscience research, which suggests that increasing stimulation and input can promote brain growth and increase brain power. These suggestive findings have implications for an enriched psychosocial environment at work, for the prevention of certain brain disorders and for the restorative benefits of rehabilitation after trauma or disease.

The dazzling intellectual feats of Stephen Hawking, or the equally dazzling performance of paralympic athletes with severe physical or mental disabilities, bear witness to the importance of personal drive, buttressed by supportive environments with favourable opportunity structures, aided by the application of appropriate modern technologies.

The workplace is made up of workers with diverse characteristics. ILO Convention No. 111 (1958) which deals with discrimination, employment and occupation states in Article 5 (2):

Any member may ... determine that other special measures ... to meet the particular requirement of persons who, for such reasons as sex, age, disablement, family responsibilities or social or cultural status, are generally recognized to require special protection or assistance shall not be deemed to be discrimination.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has stated that European legislative instruments pertaining to safety and health in the work environment require adaptations of workplace design, choice of equipment, and production methods (e.g., eliminating monotonous work and machine pacing) to meet the individual needs of workers and that reduce adverse health effects (OECD 1993). Some statutes call for prevention of policies addressing technology, the introduction of work organization and conditions, social relations and other aspects of the working environment. The reduction of absences, of turnover and of costs for treatment, rehabilitation, re-education and training are viewed as benefits to employers accruing from the introduction and maintenance of healthy work environments and conditions.

North American employers, generally in response to advancing legal requirements for workplace human rights, are developing positive policies and strategies for management of a diverse workforce. The United States has developed probably the most comprehensive legislation for disabled Americans, including legislation regarding their entitlements in education, employment and all other spheres of living. Reasonable accommodations are changes made to the work environment, job responsibilities or conditions of work that provide opportunities for workers with special needs to perform essential job functions. Reasonable accommodation can cover the special needs of, for example: persons with disabilities; women; workers with chronic or recurrent disease, including persons with AIDS; persons with language training needs; those who need to harmonize work and family responsibilities; pregnant or breast-feeding mothers; or religious or ethnic minorities. Accommodation may include technical assistance devices; customization, including personal protective equipment and clothing; and changes to processes, location or timing for essential job functions. For equity and justice to all workers, these accommodations are best developed through joint management and worker committees and through collective agreements.

Cost-effective appropriate technologies and policies need to be developed for the benefits of reasonable accommodation to be enjoyed by workers throughout the world, not only by some in economically advanced societies. Globalization could achieve this, through existing multilateral agencies and the World Trade Organization.

Women Workers

Why are women included among the workers with special needs? When we look at the needs, risks and tasks of women we must consider the following factors:

  • gender discrimination
  • poverty or the threat thereof. (Most of the world’s poor are women and their children, especially sole-support mothers, who comprise 20 to 30% of households worldwide; and 75% of the world’s 18 million refugees are women and children.)
  • reproductive functions of pregnancy, childbirth and breast-feeding
  • gender-based violence, now internationally accepted as a human rights violation
  • sexual harassment
  • gender-support gap, with women providing most of the caring functions. (A Canadian social survey showed that 10% of men in dual-earner families share equally in household tasks.)
  • longevity, a factor affecting their long-term social security and health needs.


All of these risks and needs can be addressed to some extent or taken into consideration at the workplace. Additionally, we must bear in mind that women constitute half of other categories of workers with special needs, a fact that places them in potential double jeopardy and makes gender a central factor in assessing their capabilities and entitlements.

Sexism is the belief that women need less, deserve less and are worth less than men. The UN International Woman’s Decade, 1975–1985, with its themes of equality, development and peace, revealed that throughout the world women are overworked and undervalued. From a reanalysis of past studies and new research the realization slowly emerged that women’s work was undervalued because women themselves were devalued, not because of inherent deficiencies.

During the 1960s there were many studies of why women worked and which women worked, as though work was an aberration for women. Indeed, women were routinely fired when they married or when they became pregnant. In the late 1960s European countries with strong labour demands preferred the recruitment of foreign workers to the mobilization of their own female workforce. While work conferred dignity on male family breadwinners, the paid work of married women was considered demeaning; but the unpaid community work of married women was considered ennobling, especially as it enhanced the social status of their husbands.

Beginning in the 1970s and established by the mid-1980s was women’s permanent presence in the workplace over the work-life cycle. Having children no longer impacts negatively on women’s participation rates; indeed the necessity to provide for children acts as a natural impetus for pursuit of work. According to the ILO, women now constitute 41% of the world’s documented workforce (ILO 1993a). In Nordic countries their participation rate is almost equal to men’s, although in Sweden, part-time work for women, while declining, is still high. In OECD industrialized countries, as the general female life expectancy is now 79, the importance of secure work as a source of income security over the adult lifespan is underscored.

The OECD acknowledges that the marked increase in female participation in employment has not produced any major convergence in the overall distribution of female and male employment. The sex-segregated workforce persists vertically and horizontally. Compared with men, women work in different sectors and occupations, work for smaller industries or organizations, have different tasks within occupations, are more often in irregular and unregulated work, have less opportunity for work control, and face the psychological demands of people-oriented or machine-paced work.

Much literature still blames women for choosing less competitive jobs that complement family responsibilities. However, a generation of studies has shown that workers not only choose, but are chosen into, occupations. The higher the rewards and status, the more restrictive the selection process and, in the absence of equity-oriented public policy and structures, the more likely that selectors choose candidates with characteristics matching their own regarding gender, race, socio-economic status or physical attributes. Stereotyped prejudices extend to a whole range of capabilities, including the ability to think abstractly.

Not only are women concentrated in few occupations with low pay and status and with restricted physical and occupational mobility, the OECD notes also that women’s occupations are often classified in broad categories comprising very different tasks, while a more precise job categorization has been developed for men’s occupations with implications for job evaluation, pay, mobility, and for the identification of safety and health risks in the work environment.

The health sector is probably the greatest example of persistent gender discrimination, where capabilities and performance are secondary to gender. Women everywhere are the major stakeholders in the health care system, as providers, guardians, brokers and, because of their reproductive needs and their longevity, users of the health care. But they do not run the system. In the former Soviet Union, where women predominated as physicians, that profession had relatively low status. In Canada, where 80% of health care workers are women, they earn 58 cents of every dollar earned by men in the same sector, less than the two-thirds of male pay earned by women in other sectors. Pay equity measures in both federal and provincial jurisdictions are attempting to close this gender gap. In many countries females and males performing comparable work are given different job titles and, in the absence of legislation and enforcement of pay equity or equal pay for work of equal value, inequities persist, with female health care workers, particularly nurses, bearing major responsibilities without commensurate authority, status and pay. It is of interest that only recently did the ILO include health in the category of heavy work.

Despite the presence of a “glass ceiling”, which confined women to middle management and the lower professional echelons, the growth of employment opportunities in the public sectors of both industrialized and developing countries was very beneficial to women, especially those with high educational attainment. The stagnation and downsizing of this sector has had serious adverse effects on women’s initial opening prospects. These positions offered greater social security, more opportunities for mobility, quality working conditions and fairer employment practices. Cutbacks have also resulted in heavier workloads, lack of security, and deterioration of working conditions, particularly in the health sector, but also in blue-collar and machine-paced pink-collar work.

“Poisoning” the Workplace

Backlash is defined by Faludi (1991) as a pre-emptive strike that stops women long before they reach the finish line. Backlash takes many forms, one of the most insidious being the derision of “political correctness” to discredit social acceptance of employment equity for disadvantaged groups. Used by persons in authority, intellectual elites or media personalities, it has an intimidating, brainwashing effect.

To understand backlash we must understand the nature of the perceived threat. Although the aspirations and efforts of the women’s movement for gender equality are nowhere realized, those who lead the backlash realize that what has been happening for the past two decades is not just incremental change, but the beginning of a cultural transformation affecting all spheres of society. The inroads to power-sharing are still minor and fragile when women occupy barely 10% of all legislative seats throughout the world. But backlash is aimed at arresting, reversing and de-legitimizing any progress achieved through employment equity or affirmative or positive action as measures to control discrimination. Combined with weak enforcement and shrinking job opportunities, backlash can have a toxic effect on the workplace, fostering confusion about wrongs and rights.

Moghadam (1994) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) writes of cultural backlash, employed by fundamentalist groups, playing on emotions of fear and shame to restrict women’s visibility and their control over their lives and confine them to the private domestic sphere.

Systematic implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in All Its Forms (CEDAW), which has been ratified by nearly all Member States of the United Nations, would both demonstrate and promote political will to end gender discrimination, particularly in employment, health and education, along with discrimination against other “non-charter” groups.

Harassment, which can seriously interfere with the exercise of one’s capabilities, has only recently become an occupational health and human rights issue. Ethnic slurs, graffiti, name calling of persons with disabilities or of visible minorities have often been trivialized as “part of the job”. Employment insecurity, fear of reprisal, denial and lack of acknowledgement by one’s social milieu or the authorities, and lack of awareness of its systemic nature, together with lack of recourse, have contributed to complicity and tolerance.

Sexual harassment, while experienced at all occupational levels, is most pervasive at the lower levels where women are concentrated and most vulnerable. (A very small percentage of males are victims.) It became an employment and public policy issue only when large numbers of professional and executive women during the 1970s were confronted by this unwelcome interference and as women were entering trades, making them feel like intruders in their new workplaces. The effects on the health of the worker are widespread, leading in extreme cases to suicide attempts. It also contributes to family breakdown. Unions, not at the forefront of combating sexual harassment, now regard it as a grievable employment and human rights issue and have developed policies and mechanisms of redress. Services to promote healing and coping of survivors are still underdeveloped.

In a 1989 case, the Supreme Court of Canada defined sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature which detrimentally affects the work environment ... ”. The Supreme Court determined that the Canadian Human Rights legislation confers a statutory duty on employers to provide a safe and healthy working environment, free of sexual harassment, and that employers could be held liable for the actions of their employees, especially supervisors (Human Resources Development Canada 1994).

Violence is a workplace risk. Evidence of this comes from a US Justice Department survey which revealed that one-sixth of violent crimes, affecting nearly 1 million victims annually, occur at work: 16% of assaults, 8% of rapes and 7% of robberies, with a loss of 1.8 million workdays. Fewer than half are reported to the police.

Assault or abuse constitutes a major threat to the mental and physical health of girls and women of all ages and cultures, but mostly of the young and the old. The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) has found that in the Americas, violent deaths (i.e., accidents, suicides and homicides) represent more than 25% of all deaths in girls aged 10 to 14 and 30% in the 15- to 19-year age group (PAHO 1993).

Gender-based violence includes physical, sexual and psychological abuse and financial misappropriation, as well as sexual harassment, pornography, sexual assault and incest. In a global context we could add sex selection, abortion of female foetuses, wilful malnutrition, ritual gender mutilation, dowry deaths, and sale of daughters for prostitution or marriage. It is acknowledged that violence against women disrupts their lives, limits their options and intentionally blocks their aspirations. Both intent and consequences signify it as criminal behaviour. However, the violence from known assailants against women at home, at work or on the street, has generally been considered a private matter. The 1989 massacre of 27 Montreal women students at a Polytechnic, precisely because they were women engineering students at a Polytechnic, is brutal evidence of gender-based violence aimed at thwarting occupational aspirations.

The prevention and control of violence are workplace issues which can be addressed through employee assistance programmes and health and safety committees, working in partnership with law enforcement agencies and other agencies of society including grass-roots women’s organizations throughout the world, which placed the matter on public agendas and have been attempting, bare-knuckled, to achieve zero tolerance and to aid the survivors.

Changing World of Work

From 1970 to 1990, the economically predominant G-7 countries (excepting Japan and Germany) experienced de-industrialization, with a decline in manufacturing employment and the emergence of a post-industrial service economy. This period also coincided with the rise of the welfare state. At the end of the period, services in general (including manufacture-related services) accounted for two-thirds to three-quarters of employment. Excepting Japan and Italy, social services accounted for one-quarter to one-third of employment. These two trends created unprecedented demands for female employees who had benefited from improved educational opportunities. A zeitgeist of growing demands for human rights and equal opportunities also favoured the beginning integration of other “non-preferred” workers (e.g., persons with disabilities, minorities) (Castells and Oayama 1994).

Today, the world of work is undergoing a radical transformation characterized by globalization, take-overs and mergers, joint ventures, relocation, deregulation, privatization, computerization, proliferating technologies, structural adjustments, downsizing, outsourcing and the change from command to market economies. These changes and comprehensive re-engineering have altered the scale, the nature, the location, and the means and processes of production and communications, as well as the organization of and social relations in places of work. By the early 1990s, the technological revolution of information processing and communications, biotechnology and automated materials-processing was widespread, modifying, extending or reducing human effort and producing “efficient” jobless growth. In 1990, there were at least 35,000 transnational corporations with 150,000 foreign affiliates. About 7 million of the 22 million persons they employ, work in developing countries. Transnational corporations now account for 60% of world trade (much of it internal to its subsidiaries.)

A World Health Organization Issues Paper prepared for the Global Commission on Women’s Health (1994) states:

The struggle for access to markets brings with it increased threats to the health of millions of producers. In a highly competitive climate with an emphasis on the production of cheap, tradeable goods, companies seek to produce at the lowest costs by cutting wages, increasing working hours and sacrificing costly safety standards. In many cases companies may relocate their production units to developing countries where the controls in these areas may be less strict. Women often fill the ranks of these low-paid workers. The most extreme health consequences can be seen in tragedies where scores of workers lose their lives in factory fires due to inadequate safety standards and poor working conditions.

Moreover, an estimated 70 million persons, mostly from developing countries, are migrant workers cut off from family support. The value of cash remittances from migrant workers in 1989 was US$66 billion—much more than international development assistance of $46 billion, and exceeded only by oil in international trade value. In China’s booming coastal provinces, the province of Guangdong alone has an estimated 10 million migrants. Throughout Asia, women are over-represented among workers in unregulated and un-unionized workplaces. In India (which has reputedly received over $40 billion of loans for development from international financing institutions) 94% of the female labour force is in the unorganized sector.

Behind the miracle of exponential economic growth in Southeast Asia is the labour in the export sector of young female, capable and docile workers who earn from US$1.50 to US$2.50 a day, about one-third the basic wage. In one country, college-educated key-punch operators earn US$150 per month. In Asia as in Latin America, the pull to urban centres has created major slums and shanty towns, with millions of unschooled children living and working in precarious conditions. Over 90 developing countries are now attempting to stem the pace of this urban drift. Thailand, in an attempt to stem or reverse the process, has established a rural development initiative to retain or return young persons to their communities, some for work in cooperative factories where their work benefits them and their communities.

The United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) has noted that modernization strategies have often destroyed women’s economic bases as traders, craftswomen or farmers, without altering the socio-cultural context (e.g., access to credit) which prevents them from pursuing other economic opportunities (UNFPA 1993). In Latin America and the Caribbean, the economic crisis and structural adjustments policies of the 1980s engendered major cuts in the social services and health sector which both served and employed women, cut subsidies on basic food items and introduced user charges for many services formerly provided by governments as part of the development and fulfilment of basic human needs. By the end of the 1980s, 31% of all non-agricultural employment was in the precarious informal sector.

In Africa, the 1980s have been characterized as the lost decade. Per capita income dropped by an annual average of 2.4% in Sub-Saharan Africa. Almost 50% of the urban population and 80% of the rural population live in poverty. The informal sector acts as a sponge, absorbing the “excess” urban labour force. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where women produce up to 80% of the food for local consumption, only 8% own the land they work (ILO 1991).

Economic restructuring, privatization and democratization have severely affected the employment of female workers in Eastern Europe. Previously burdened by heavy work, with fewer rewards than men, household responsibilities not shared by spouses and curtailment of political freedom, they nevertheless had secure employment with state-supported benefits of social security, maternity leave and child-care provisions. Currently entrenched gender discrimination, combined with market arguments against social expenditure, have rendered women expendable and less desirable workers. As the female-predominant health and social domains of work are reduced, capable professional workers become redundant.

Unemployment is a severely disorganizing experience in the life of workers, threatening not only their livelihood, but also their social relations, their self-esteem and their mental health. Recent studies have shown that not only mental but also physical health can be compromised as unemployment may have immuno-suppressive effects, increasing the risk of disease.

We are entering the twenty-first century with a crisis of values, of weighing self-interest against the public interest. Are we building a world based on unfettered, winner-takes-all competition, whose sole criterion is the “bottom line”, a world where ethnic cleansing triumphs? Or are we building a world of interdependence, where growth is pursued together with distributive justice and respect for human dignity? At United Nations global conferences in the 1990s, the world has made a number of landmark commitments to environmental protection and renewal, to ethical and equitable population policies, to the protection and developmental nurturing of all children, to an allocation of 20% of international development funds and 20% of budgets of developing countries to social development, to an expansion and enforcement of human rights, to gender equality, and to the removal of the threat of nuclear annihilation. Such Conventions have established the moral compass. The question that looms before us is whether we have the political will to meet these goals.



Wednesday, 23 February 2011 17:18

Health, Safety and Equity in the Workplace

Occupational health policies often co-exist with policies to ensure equity in the workplace. Laws, regulations, and standards adopted or endorsed in many countries prohibit various forms of workplace discrimination and require safety and health goals to be achieved in ways that do not infringe workers’ other rights and interests. Legal obligations compel employers in some jurisdictions to implement practices that ensure workplace equity; policy considerations may encourage similar practices even when they are not legally mandated, for the reasons set forth by Freda Paltiel at the beginning of this chapter.

As a practical matter, workers’ acceptance of health and safety programmes may be affected by the extent to which they incorporate and reflect equitable principles. Workers are more likely to reject occupational safety and health programmes if they are implemented at the expense of other important interests, such as the interest in self-determination and economic security. There are additional reasons to implement health and safety programmes with attention to workplace equity. Rational and fair workplace rules improve workers’ job satisfaction, productivity and emotional well-being, and reduce work-related stress. An individualized approach to workers’ needs and abilities, which is at the core of both occupational safety and health and workplace equity, expands the pool of qualified workers and maximizes their skills and abilities.

There are certain areas in which equitable principles and occupational safety and health seem to conflict, and these tend to be situations in which certain workers appear to have unique or special needs. Pregnant workers, older workers, and disabled workers fall into these categories. Closer inspection often reveals that the needs of these workers are not so dissimilar to those of workers generally, and that well-accepted workplace policies and practices can ordinarily be adapted to create programmes that implement health and safety and equity in tandem. The guiding principle is the flexibility to make individual assessments and adjustments, which is a familiar reality in most work settings, since illness, temporary disability, and work restrictions often require flexibility and adaptation. At some point in their working lives, almost all workers have occupational health needs related to “age, physiological condition, social aspects, communication barriers or similar factors (which) should be met on an individual basis” (ILO 1992).

General Principles

Workplace equity connotes fairness in the allocation of jobs, duties, promotion, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment. Employment-related distinctions on the basis of race, sex, national origin and religion, in particular, have been recognized as perpetuating invidious forms of social bias and discrimination, and have been almost universally condemned. More recently, distinctions drawn on the basis of age and disability have come to be recognized as similarly inequitable. These characteristics are generally irrelevant to an individual’s desire to work, financial need for employment, and are often irrelevant to the ability to perform a job. Failure to integrate all able and willing individuals into productive activity not only stymies human potential but also defeats social needs by reducing the population of self-sufficient individuals.

Principles of equity rely on the premise that workers should be judged on the basis of an objective assessment of their own skills, abilities and characteristics, not on assumptions about any group to which they belong. Thus, at the core of workplace equity is the repudiation of stereotypes and generalizations to judge individuals, since even accurate generalizations often inaccurately describe many individuals. For example, even if it is true on average that men are stronger than women, some women are stronger than some men. In hiring workers to perform a job requiring strength, it would be inequitable to exclude all women, including those who are strong enough to do the job, on the basis of a generalization about the sexes. Instead, a fair assessment of individual abilities will reveal which women and men have the requisite strength and ability to perform the job adequately.

Some kinds of screening tests disproportionately exclude members of certain groups. Written tests may disadvantage individuals whose native language is different or who have had less access to educational opportunities. Such tests are justifiable if they actually measure the abilities that are needed to perform the job in question. Otherwise, they operate to bar qualified individuals and reduce the pool of eligible workers. Reliance on certain kinds of screening devices also reflects stereotypes about who should do particular types of work. For example, height requirements imposed for law enforcement jobs assumed that greater height correlated with successful job performance. Elimination of these requirements has demonstrated that height per se is not a necessary element of the ability to function effectively in law enforcement, and it has opened this field to more women and members of certain ethnic groups.

The classic barriers to workplace equity include physical requirements such as height and weight, written tests, and education or diploma requirements. Seniority systems sometimes exclude members of groups that have been disfavoured, and veterans’ preferences often disadvantage women workers, who are often neither required nor permitted to do military service. Stereotypes, traditions and assumptions about skills and characteristics associated with race, sex and ethnicity also operate, often subconsciously, to perpetuate a traditional allocation of employment opportunities, as do other factors, such as preferences for friends or relatives. The presence of such barriers is often signified by a work environment that does not accurately reflect the composition of the pool of qualified workers, but shows members of certain groups holding a greater share of desired positions than would be expected based on their representation in the field or labour pool. In such cases, careful evaluation of the practices by which workers are chosen usually reveals either reliance on screening practices that unfairly eliminate certain qualified applicants, or unconscious bias, stereotyping or favouritism.

Notwithstanding almost universal adherence to workplace equity principles and the desire to implement equitable practices, these goals are sometimes confounded, ironically, by the view that they conflict with occupational safety and health goals. The area in which this issue is most prominent relates to women of childbearing capacity, pregnant women and new mothers. Unlike other workers who ordinarily enjoy the right to undertake any work for which they are qualified, women workers are often subject to involuntary restrictions in the name of health protection either for themselves or their children. Sometimes these provisions secure much-needed benefits, and sometimes they exact a high price in terms of access to economic independence and personal autonomy.

Many of the principles relevant to the consideration of women workers’ rights and needs apply to workers who are disabled or ageing. Most important is the notion that workers should be judged on the basis of their own skills and abilities, not on the basis of generalizations or stereotypes. This principle has resulted in recognition of the fact that disabled individuals can be highly productive and valuable workers. Some investment may be necessary to accommodate a disabled worker’s needs, but there is growing appreciation that such investment is well worth the cost, especially in light of the consequences of the alternative course.

Sex Discrimination, Pregnancy and Childbirth

Many international conventions and recommendations advocate the elimination of sex discrimination in employment, for example, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976), and the Equal Treatment Directive (76/207/EEC). The concept of equal pay for male and female workers doing work of equal value was adopted by the ILO in the Convention Concerning Equal Remuneration for Men and Women Workers for Work of Equal Value, 1951 (No. 100). The Recommendation Concerning Equal Remuneration for Men and Women Workers for Work of Equal Value, 1951 (No. 90), which supplemented that Convention, also urged “promoting equality of men and women workers as regards access to occupations and posts”. A more comprehensive statement of the non-discrimination principle was adopted in June 1958 in the Convention Concerning Discrimination in Respect of Employment and Occupation (No. 111) and the Recommendation Concerning Discrimination in Respect of Employment and Occupation (No. 111).

The European Community Directive 76/207/EEC on equal treatment of women and men with respect to access to employment is consistent with these provisions. There is thus widespread agreement with the principle that women and men should enjoy equal access to employment opportunities and equality in the terms and conditions of employment. For example, Austria has amended its Equal Opportunities Act to place Austrian law in line with European Community Law. The Austrian amendments stipulate that there may be no discrimination in connection with an employment relationship on grounds of gender. This extends the prohibition of discrimination to all aspects of the employment relationship.

Long before international bodies and national laws condemned sex discrimination, many recognized a need for maternity protection. The Maternity Protection Convention which was first adopted in 1919, gave pregnant women with a medical certificate the right to a leave six weeks before the expected date of delivery, and prohibited a woman from working “during the six weeks following her confinement”. Pregnant women were required to receive breaks during work hours. (ILO 1994). The Convention also entitled women workers to free medical care and cash benefits. The dismissal of a woman during maternity leave or during an illness arising out of pregnancy or confinement was “unlawful”. The revised Maternity Protection Convention, 1952 (No. 103), provided that maternity leave be extended to 14 weeks where necessary for the health of the mother, expanded the provisions for nursing mothers, and prohibited night work and overtime for pregnant and nursing mothers. It also stated that work that could be harmful to a pregnant or nursing mother’s health, such as any hard labour or work requiring special equilibrium, should be prohibited. Notably, Member States were allowed to make exceptions for women who fell into certain occupational categories, such as non-industrial occupations, domestic work in private households, and labour involving the transport of goods or passengers by sea.

Consistent with ILO Conventions on maternity protection, the European Community adopted Council Directive 92/85/EEC of 19 October 1992, to encourage improvements in the safety and health of pregnant workers and workers who have recently given birth or are breast-feeding. This calls for the evaluation and communication of types of activityies which may pose specific risks to pregnant and nursing women, prohibition of the requirement of night work when necessary for the health and safety of pregnant and nursing workers, the right to maternity leave, and the maintenance of the rights of the employment contract during pregnancy and confinement. While these Conventions and Directives contain provisions that enhance the ability of women to work and bear children safely, they have been criticized for failing to guarantee that result. For example, studies done by the Indian Government found that few women received maternity benefits as a result of poor enforcement and the exclusion from coverage of temporary and seasonal workers, women working in small industries, and homebased workers (Vaidya 1993). In addition to maternity benefits, some countries require that women receive rest breaks, seats, sanitary facilities and other benefits.

In contrast, other measures adopted to protect women workers’ health include limitations on women’s work. These take the form of exclusion from dangerous jobs or heavy work, restriction from jobs thought to pose a moral danger, restrictions during menstruation, maximum hours and overtime prohibitions and so on (ILO 1989). Unlike maternity benefits provisions, these actions are restrictive: that is, they limit women’s access to certain kinds of jobs. One example is the prohibition of night work by women, which was one of the first items addressed at the International Labour Conference in 1919. Four ILO documents provide further discussion of these issues (ILO 1919a; 1921; 1934; 1948). (It is interesting to note that there is no standard definition of the word night.) The history of attitudes towards night-work restrictions provides an instructive study in the relationship between health and safety goals and workplace equity.

The prohibition of night work was meant to protect family life and to protect workers against the particularly arduous physical burden of night work. In practice, the ILO Conventions are meant to prohibit night work by women doing manual work in industry, but not to prohibit white-collar or managerial work or work in service sectors. But night-work restrictions also denied women job opportunities. In the name of health and morality, women were restricted from some jobs altogether and limited in their ability to progress in other jobs. The impulse to legislate restrictions on night-work was in response to the exploitation of workers of both sexes, who were required to work exceedingly long hours. However, in the United States, for example, night- work restrictions prevented women from obtaining lucrative jobs as streetcar conductors. Restrictions did not, however, bar women from working as nightclub dancers (Kessler-Harris 1982).

Inconsistencies of this sort, along with the economic disadvantage experienced by women workers, fuelled criticism of night-work restrictions for women, which were ultimately replaced in the United States by legal protections against exploitation for workers of both sexes. The US Fair Labor Standards Act provided for the establishment of regulations regarding hours of work.

Other countries have likewise rejected the sex-specific approach to protecting working women, responding to increasing awareness of the economic penalties on women workers and other aspects of sex discrimination. In 1991, the Court of Justice of the EEC held that under European Community Directive 76/207/EEC, Member States may not statutorily ban night work for women. The European Commission requested that ILO Member States bound to the ILO Convention banning night work for women renounce it, and many have done so. In 1992, the German Constitutional Court declared the prohibition of night work for women to be unconstitutional. Within the last ten years, laws prohibiting night work by women have been repealed in Barbados, Canada, Guyana, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, Spain and Surinam. Currently, the law in 20 countries contains no prohibition on night work by women. A summary of the actions repealing protective laws prior to 1989 has been published by the ILO (1989b).

This trend is most pronounced in developed countries where women have enforceable rights protecting their legal status and where occupational health and safety concerns are recognized. In countries where conditions for women are “deplorable” and are much worse than they are for men, however, it is sometimes argued that “more protection is needed, not less” (ILO 1989b). For example, the average number of hours women in Kenya work per week, 50.9, greatly exceeds the average number of hours worked per week by men, 33.2 (Waga 1992). Notwithstanding this caveat, in general protecting women workers by restricting their ability to work has clear disadvantages. In June 1990, the ILO passed the Night Work Convention (No. 171) stating that all night workers, not just those who are female, need protection (ILO 1990). This approach is consistent with the ILO’s general position that all “work should take place in a safe and healthy working environment” (ILO 1989) and is an approach which accords health protection and workplace equity equivalent respect.

The evolution of efforts to protect women from the effects of hazardous workplaces and toxic substances at work demonstrates some of the same concerns and trends that appear in the discussion of night work. Early in the twentieth century, the ILO and many countries barred women from dangerous workplaces, as illustrated by Conventions prohibiting women and children from exposure to lead (ILO 1919b). By custom and by law, women were barred from many kinds of work, ranging from bar tending to mining. These restrictions undermined women’s employment options and economic status, and were implemented inconsistently—barring women from lucrative jobs held exclusively by men, while permitting work in equally hazardous, but low-paid, jobs frequented by women. Critics charged that all workers need protection from toxic chemicals.

In the United States, the effort to exclude women from hazardous work took the form of “foetal protection” policies. Proponents claimed that the foetus is more sensitive to certain workplace hazards and that it is therefore rational to exclude women who are or might be pregnant from such environments. The United States Supreme Court rejected that claim and held that occupational safety and health practices must account for the health needs of both women and men. The Court’s decision vigorously enforces women’s right to employment, while recognizing the equally important right to health protection. On a theoretical level, this solution accords equal weight and respect to equity and safety and health goals and obligations. As a practical matter, some have expressed concern whether the absence of adequate mechanisms to enforce occupational safety and health laws leaves both sexes vulnerable to reproductive and other injuries (International Union 1991).

Other countries have sought a different solution. For example, Finland’s Act on the Special Maternity Leave, which came into force in July 1991, allows women who are exposed to agents considered to be harmful to the pregnancy or to the offspring, to request a transfer to a different job which does not involve such exposure from the beginning of their pregnancy. If such a job is not available to them, they may be entitled to special maternity leave and benefits (Taskinen 1993). Similarly, the Pregnant Workers Directive (92/85/EEC) contemplates a series of accommodations to women who require additional protection for pregnancy or breast-feeding, including modifications of the work environment or conditions of work, temporary transfer, and leave of absence.

This approach, like the one discussed above, solves some, but not all, problems: the different level of benefits accorded to women may make them less desirable and more expensive employees and may encourage sex discrimination; and the failure to accord male workers protection against reproductive risks may result in future illness and injury.

Provisions that accord women the right to request transfers, modification of work conditions, and other accommodations point up the importance of how rights and obligations are allocated between workers and employers: the workers’ right to request certain benefits, which the employer is required to provide on request, accords with principles of equity, while rules which permit employers to impose unwanted restrictions on workers, even if “for their own good”, do not. Allowing employers to control the conditions of women’s work, as opposed to men’s work, would deprive women, as a class, of decision-making power and personal autonomy, and would also violate basic concepts of equity. The notion that workers retain control over health-related decisions, even though employers are required to observe certain standards and provide benefits, is already recognized in the context of biological monitoring (ILO 1985) and is equally applicable to address the health needs of women and other identifiable sub-groups of workers.

As the foregoing discussion indicates, efforts to protect women workers as a separate group, through benefits not available to other workers, have had mixed success. Some women have undoubtedly benefited, but not all. Poor enforcement, especially in the case of maternity benefit laws, has limited their intended beneficial effect. Limits on the employability of women workers themselves, as in the case of night-work restrictions, impose economic and other penalties on women workers themselves by restricting their options, opportunities and contributions.

At the same time, other factors have forced re-evaluation of the best ways to meet workers’ needs for health protection. Entry of more women into all parts of the workforce has exposed more women to the full range of occupational risks previously experienced only by men, while increasing knowledge of male susceptibility to reproductive and other injury from occupational exposures reveals the need for comprehensive health policies. Other trends also influence the direction of all employment-related policies. These include not just the demand for equality between the sexes, but also the fact that more women work, work longer, and in more kinds of jobs. As a result, the recent trend is to allow men and women more choices concerning all aspects of family and employment: more men have elected to participate in the care of young children, more women are principal wage-earners, and more workers of both sexes seek greater flexibility in managing their work and family lives. These factors contribute to a trend to provide benefits to both men and women to accommodate a range of predictable needs associated with family welfare, including reproductive health concerns, pregnancy, temporary disability, childbirth and child care and elder care. For example, the Workers With Family Responsibilities Convention, 1981 (No. 156), applies equally to both men and women. In addition, France, Germany, Belgium, Denmark and Greece permit some form of parental leave to address a range of family needs. The benefits for men still do not equal the maternity benefits received by women, however (Dumon 1990). Instead of excluding workers thought to be susceptible to the effects of toxins, some reproductive toxins have been banned altogether and others have been strictly regulated to prevent reproductive harm by reducing exposures to both sexes. Transfer options for men and women exposed to reproductive hazards at work have been adopted in several countries, such as in the United States for workers exposed to lead. A number of countries have adopted parental leave benefits that allow parents greater freedom in caring for young children.


The examples drawn from the historical and current experiences of women workers demonstrate principles that apply with equal force to the situation of many disabled and older workers. Like women, these workers have sometimes been protected from employment-related risks in ways that have deprived them of economic self-sufficiency and the other rewards of work. Restricting the choices of these workers suggests that they are incapable of making appropriate decisions about the risks and benefits of work. All three groups have been burdened with negative assumptions about their abilities, and often denied the opportunity to demonstrate their skills. And there has been a tendency to view accommodation of these workers as especially burdensome, even though it may be routine to accommodate a worker injured in a traffic accident or an executive who has had a heart attack.

Equity is served when workplace policies are established to meet the needs of all workers. This principle is essential to address situations in which members of identifiable ethnic or racial groups are thought to be especially susceptible to certain work-related risks. Such claims must be carefully scrutinized to ensure their validity; they have sometimes been advanced without foundation and used to justify exclusion of affected workers, even though individual variation in susceptibility is usually more important than group-based differences (Bingham 1986). Even if true, however, equitable principles suggest that the risk should be reduced or avoided through engineering controls, product substitution, or other means, rather than by depriving an entire class of individuals of employment opportunities or subjecting them to conditions that are known to pose a hazard.

Ideally, workers’ abilities and needs should be assessed individually, and individual needs accommodated to the extent possible. Risk-benefit calculations are ordinarily best performed by the individuals most directly affected. The possibility that workers will sacrifice their health for their economic well-being can be reduced if government standards are established with the expectation that the workplace will contain a representative sample of the population, including pregnant women, older workers, those who are disabled, and members of different racial and ethnic groups. Certain events in life are highly predictable: procreation and ageing affect a large proportion of the working population, disability affects significant numbers, and everyone belongs to some racial or ethnic sub-group. Work-related policies that treat these circumstances as normal, and that anticipate them, create workplace environments in which equity, and health and safety, can co-exist comfortably.



Wednesday, 23 February 2011 17:20

Precarious Employment and Child Labour

The section of this article devoted to child labour is based largely on the report of the ILO Committee on Employment and Social Policy: Child Labour, GB.264/ESP/1, 264th Session, Geneva, November 1995

Throughout the world, not only in the developing but also in the industrialized countries, there are many millions of workers whose employment may be termed precarious from the standpoint of its potential effect on their health and well-being. They may be divided into a number of non-exclusive categories based on the kinds of work they perform and the types of relationship to their jobs and to their employers, such as the following:

  • child labourers
  • contract labourers
  • enslaved and bonded workers
  • informal sector workers
  • migrant workers
  • piece-workers
  • unemployed and underemployed workers.


Their common denominators include: poverty; lack of education and training; exposure to exploitation and abuse; ill health and lack of adequate medical care; exposure to health and safety hazards; lack of protection by governmental agencies even where laws and regulations have been articulated; lack of social welfare benefits (e.g., minimum wages, unemployment insurance, health insurance and pensions); and lack of an effective voice in movements to improve their lot. In large part, their victimization stems from the poverty and the lack of education/training that force them to take whatever kind of work may be available. In some areas and in some industries, the existence of these classes of workers is fostered by explicit economic and social policies of the government or, even where they have been prohibited by local laws and/or endorsement of international Conventions, by the deliberate inattention of governmental regulatory agencies. The costs to these workers and their families in terms of ill-health, shortened life-expectancy and impact on well-being are imponderable; they often extend from one generation to the next. By any sort of measure, they may be considered disadvantaged.

The exploitation of labour is also one deleterious aspect of the global economy wherein the most dangerous and precarious work is transferred from the richer countries to the poorer ones. Thus, precarious employment can and should be viewed in macro-economic terms as well. This is discussed more fully elsewhere in this Encyclopaedia.

This article briefly summarizes the characteristics of the more important of these employment categories and their effects on workers’ health and well-being.

Migrant Workers

Migrant workers often represent a critically important segment of a country’s labour force. Some bring developed skills and professional competencies that are in short supply, particularly in areas of rapid industrial growth. Typically, however, they perform the unskilled and semi-skilled, low-paying jobs that are scorned by workers native to the area. These include “stooped labour” such as cultivating and harvesting crops, manual labour in the construction industry, menial services such as cleaning and refuse removal, and poorly remunerative repetitive jobs such as those in “sweatshops” in the apparel industry or on assembly-line work in light industries.

Some migrant workers find jobs in their own countries, but, more recently, they are for the most part “external” workers in that they come from another, usually less-developed country. Thus, they make unique contributions to the economy of two nations: by doing necessary work in the country in which they are working, and by their remittances of “hard” money to the families they leave behind in the country from which they came.

During the nineteenth century, large numbers of Chinese labourers were imported into the United States and Canada, for example, to work on the construction of the western portions of the transcontinental railroads. Later, during the Second World War, while American workers were serving in the armed forces or in the war industries, the United States reached a formal agreement with Mexico known as the Bracero Program (1942–1964) that provided millions of temporary Mexican workers for the vitally important agricultural industry. During the postwar period, “guest” workers from southern Europe, Turkey and North Africa helped to rebuild the war-ravaged countries of western Europe and, during the 1970s and 1980s, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the other newly rich oil-producing countries of the Near East imported Asians to build their new cities. During the early 1980s, external migrant workers accounted for approximately two-thirds of the workforces in the Arab Gulf states (citizen workers outnumbered the expatriates only in Bahrain).

Except for teachers and health workers, most of the migrants have been male. However, in most countries throughout these periods as families became wealthier, there has been an increasing demand for the importation of domestic workers, mostly women, to perform housework and provide care for infants and children (Anderson 1993). This has also been true in industrialized countries where increasing numbers of women were entering the workforce and needed household help to take up their traditional home-making activities.

Another example can be found in Africa. After the Republic of Transkei was created in 1976 as the first of the ten independent homelands called for in South Africa’s 1959 Promotion of Self-Government Act, migrant labour was its major export. Located on the Indian Ocean on the east coast of South Africa, it sent about 370,000 Xhosa males, its dominant ethnic group, as migrant workers to neighbouring South Africa, a number representing approximately 17% of its total population.

Some migrant workers have visas and temporary work permits, but these are often controlled by their employers. This means that they cannot change jobs or complain about mistreatment for fear that this will lead to revocation of their work permits and forced repatriation. Often, they evade the official immigration procedures of the host country and become “illegal” or “undocumented" workers. In some instances, migrant workers are recruited by labour “contractors” who charge exorbitant fees to smuggle them into the country to meet the needs of local employers. Fear of arrest and deportation, compounded by their unfamiliarity with the language, laws and customs of the host country, makes such workers particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Migrant workers are frequently overworked, deprived of the benefit of proper tools and equipment, and often knowingly exposed to preventable health and safety hazards. Crowded, sub-standard housing (often lacking potable drinking water and basic sanitary facilities), malnutrition and the absence of access to medical care make them particularly subject to contagious diseases such as parasitic infections, hepatitis, tuberculosis and, more recently, AIDS. They are often underpaid or actually cheated of much of what they earn, especially when they are living illegally in a country and hence are denied basic legal rights. If apprehended by authorities, it is usually the “undocumented” migrant workers who are penalized rather than the employers and contractors who exploit them. Further, particularly during periods of economic downturn and rising unemployment, even documented migrant workers may be subject to deportation.

The International Labour Organization has for long been concerned with the problems of migrant workers. It first addressed them in its Migration for Employment Convention, 1949 (No. 97), and the related Recommendation No. 86, and revisited them in its Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention, 1975 (No. 143), and the related Recommendation No. 151. These Conventions, which have the force of treaties when ratified by countries, contain provisions aimed at eliminating abusive conditions and ensuring basic human rights and equal treatment for migrants. The recommendations provide non-binding guidelines to orient national policy and practice; Recommendation No. 86, for example, includes a model bilateral agreement that can be used by two countries as the basis for an operational agreement on the management of migrant labour.

In 1990, the United Nations adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which formulates basic human rights for migrant workers and their families, including: the right not to be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; the right to be treated no less favourably than national workers in respect to conditions of work and terms of employment; and the right to join unions and seek their assistance. This UN Convention will enter into force when it has been ratified by 20 nations; as of July 1995, it had been ratified by only five (Egypt, Colombia, Morocco, the Philippines and Seychelles) and it had been signed but not yet formally ratified by Chile and Mexico. It should be noted that neither the ILO nor the UN has any power to compel compliance with the Conventions other than collective political pressures, and must rely on the Member States to enforce them.

It has been observed that, at least in Asia, international dialogue on the matter of migrant workers has been hindered by its political sensitivity. Lim and Oishi (1996) note that countries exporting workers are fearful of losing their market share to others, especially since the recent global economic downturn has prompted more countries to enter the international market for migrant labour and to export their ‘‘cheap and docile’’ labour to a limited number of increasingly choosy host countries.


Piece-work is a compensation system that pays workers per unit of production accomplished. The unit of payment may be based on completion of the entire item or article or just one stage in its production. This system is generally applied in industries where the method of production consists of distinct, repetitive tasks whose performance can be credited to an individual worker. Thus, earnings are directly linked to the individual worker’s productivity (in some workplaces producing larger or more complicated items, such as automobiles, the workers are organized into teams which divide the per piece payment). Some employers share the rewards of greater productivity by supplementing the per piece payments with bonuses based on the profitability of the enterprise.

Piece-work is concentrated, by and large, in low-paying, light industries such as apparel and small assembly shops. It is also characteristic for sales people, independent contractors, repair personnel and others who are usually seen as different from shop workers.

The system can work well when employers are enlightened and concerned about workers’ health and welfare, and particularly where the workers are organized into a trade union in order to bargain collectively for rates of payment per unit, for appropriate and well-maintained tools and equipment, for a working environment where hazards are eliminated or controlled and personal protective equipment is provided when needed, and for pensions, health insurance and other such benefits. It is helped by the ready accessibility of managers or supervisors who are themselves skilled in the production process and can train or assist workers who may be having difficulty with it and who can help to maintain a high level of morale in the workplace by paying attention to workers’ concerns.

The piece-work system, however, readily lends itself to the exploitation of the workers, with adverse effects on their health and well-being, as in the following considerations:

  • Piece-work is characteristic of the notorious sweatshops, unfortunately still common in the garment and electronic industries, where workers must toil at repetitive tasks, often for 12-hour days and 7-day weeks in sub-standard and hazardous workplaces.
  • Even where the employer may manifest concern about potential occupational hazards—and this does not always occur—the pressure for productivity may leave little inclination for workers to devote what amounts to unpaid time to health and safety education. It may lead them to ignore or by-pass measures designed to control potential hazards, such as removing safety guards and shields. At the same time, employers have found that there may be a drop in the quality of the work, which dictates enhancement of product inspections to prevent defective merchandise from being passed along to the customers.
  • The rate of pay may be so low that earning a living wage becomes difficult or nigh impossible.
  • Piece-workers may be considered “temporary” workers and as such can be declared ineligible for benefits that may be mandatory for most workers.
  • Less-skilled, slower workers may be denied training that would enable them to keep pace with those who can work faster, while employers may establish quotas based on what the best workers can produce and fire those unable to meet them. (In some workplaces, workers agree among themselves on production quotas that require the faster workers to slow down or stop working, thereby spreading the available work and the earnings more evenly among the work group.)


Contract Labour

Contract labour is a system in which a third party or organization contracts with employers to provide the services of workers when and where they are needed. They fall into three categories:

  1. Temporary workers are hired for a short period to fill in for employees who are absent because of illness or who are on leave, to augment the workforce when peaks in workload are not likely to be sustained, and when particular skills are needed only for a limited period.
  2. Leased workers are supplied on a more or less permanent basis to employers who, for a variety of reasons, do not wish to increase their workforces. These reasons include saving the effort and costs of personnel management and avoiding commitments such as rate of pay and the benefits won by the “regular” employees. In some instances, jobs have been eliminated in the course of a “downsizing” and the same people rehired as leased workers.
  3. Contract workers are groups of workers recruited by contractors and transported, sometimes for great distances and to other countries, to perform jobs that cannot be filled locally. These are usually low-paying, less desirable jobs involving hard physical labour or repetitive work. Some contractors recruit workers striving to improve their lots by emigrating to a new country and make them sign agreements committing them to work at the behest of the particular contractor until the often exorbitant transportation costs, fees and living expenses have been repaid.


One fundamental issue among the many possible problems with such arrangements, is whether the owner of the enterprise or the contractor supplying the workers is responsible for the safety, health and welfare of the workers. There is often “buck-passing”, in which each claims that the other is responsible for substandard working conditions (and, when the workers are migrants, living conditions) while the workers, who may be unfamiliar with the local language, laws and customs and too poor to obtain legal assistance, remain powerless to correct them. Contract workers are often exposed to physical and chemical hazards and are denied the education and training required to recognize and cope with them.

Informal Workers

The informal or “ undocumented” work sector includes workers who agree to work “off the books”—that is, without any formal registration or employer/employee arrangement. Payment may be in cash or in “in kind” goods or services and, since earnings are not reported to the authorities, they are not subject either to regulation or taxation for the worker and the employer. As a rule, there are no fringe benefits.

In many instances, informal work is done on an ad hoc, part-time basis, often while “moonlighting” during or after working hours on another job. It is also common among housekeepers and nannies who may be imported (sometimes illegally) from other countries where paid work is difficult to find. Many of these are required to “live in” and work long hours with very little time off. Since room and board may be considered part of their pay, their cash earnings may be very small. Finally, physical abuse and sexual harassment are not infrequent problems for these household workers (Anderson 1993).

The employer’s responsibility for the informal worker’s health and safety is only implicit, at best, and is often denied. Also, the worker is generally not eligible for workers’ compensation benefits in the event of a work-related accident or illness, and may be forced to take legal action when needed health services are not provided by the employer, a major undertaking for most of these individuals and not possible in all jurisdictions.


Slavery is an arrangement in which one individual is regarded as an item of property, owned, exploited and dominated by another who can deny freedom of activity and movement, and who is obliged to provide only minimal food, shelter and clothing. Slaves may not marry and raise families without the owner’s permission, and may be sold or given away at will. Slaves may be required to perform any and all kinds of work without compensation and, short of the threat of impairing a valuable possession, with no concern for their health and safety.

Slavery has existed in every culture from the beginnings of human civilization as we know it down to the present. It was mentioned in the Sumerian legal codes recorded around 4,000 BC and in the Code of Hammurabi that was spelled out in ancient Babylon in the eighteenth century BC, and it exists today in parts of the world despite being prohibited by the UN’s 1945 Declaration of Human Rights and attacked and condemned by virtually every international organization including the UN Economic and Social Council, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the ILO (Pinney 1993). Slaves have been employed in every kind of economy and, in some agricultural and manufacturing societies, have been the mainstay of production. In the slave-owning societies in the Middle East, Africa and China, slaves were employed primarily for personal and domestic services.

Slaves have traditionally been members of a different racial, ethnic, political or religious group from their owners. They were usually captured in wars or raids but, ever since the time of ancient Egypt, it has been possible for impoverished workers to sell themselves, or their wives and children, into bondage in order to pay off debts (ILO 1993b).

Unemployment and Employment Opportunity

In every country and in every type of economy there are workers who are unemployed (defined as those who are able and willing to work and who are seeking a job). Periods of unemployment are a regular feature of some industries in which the labour force expands and contracts in accord with the seasons (e.g., agriculture, construction and the apparel industry) and in cyclical industries in which workers are laid off when business declines and are rehired when it improves. Also, a certain level of turnover is characteristic of the labour market as employees leave one job to seek a better one and as young people enter the workforce replacing those who are retiring. This has been labelled frictional unemployment.

Structural unemployment occurs when whole industries decline as a result of technological advances (e.g., mining and the manufacture of steel) or in response to gross changes in the local economy. An example of the latter is the moving of manufacturing plants from an area where wages have become high to less developed areas where cheaper labour is available.

Structural unemployment, during recent decades, has also resulted from the spate of mergers, takeovers and restructurings of large enterprises that have been a common phenomenon, particularly in the United States which has far fewer mandated safeguards for worker and community well-being than do other industrialized countries. These have led to “downsizing” and shrinkage of their workforces as duplicative plants and offices have been eliminated and many jobs declared unnecessary. This has been damaging not only to those who lost their jobs but also to those who remained and were left with a loss of job security and a fear of being declared redundant.

Structural unemployment is often intractable as many workers lack the skill and flexibility to qualify for other jobs at a comparable level that may be available locally, and they often lack the resources to migrate to other areas where such jobs may be available.

When sizeable layoffs occur, there is often a “domino” effect on the community. The loss of earnings has a dampening effect on the local economy, causing the closing of shops and service enterprises frequented by the unemployed and, thereby, increasing their number.

The economic and mental stress resulting from unemployment often has significant adverse effects on the health of the workers and their families. Loss of job and, particularly, threats of job loss, have been found to be the most potent work-related stressors and have been shown to have precipitated emotional illnesses (this is discussed elsewhere in this Encyclopaedia). To prevent such adverse effects, some employers offer retraining and assistance in finding new jobs, and many countries have laws that place specific economic and social requirements on employers to provide financial and social benefits to the affected employees.

The underemployed comprise workers whose productive capacities are not fully utilized. They include part-time workers who are seeking full-time jobs, and those with higher levels of skill who can find only relatively unskilled work. In addition to lower earnings, they suffer the adverse effects of the stress of dissatisfaction with the job.

Child Labour

In most families, as soon as they are old enough to contribute, children are expected to work. This may involve helping with housekeeping chores, running errands or caring for younger siblings—in general, helping with the traditional homemaking responsibilities. In farming families or those engaged in some form of home industry, children are usually expected to help with tasks suited to their size and capabilities. These activities are almost invariably part-time, and often seasonal. Except in families where the children may be abused or exploited, this work is defined by the size and “values” of the particular family; it is unpaid and it usually does not interfere with nurturing, education and training. This article does not address such work. Rather, it focuses on children under the age of 14 who work outside the family framework in one industry or another, usually in defiance of laws and regulations governing the employment of children.

Although only sparse data are available, the ILO Bureau of Statistics has estimated that “in the developing countries alone, there are at least 120 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 who are fully at work, and more than twice as many (or about 250 million) if those for whom work is a secondary activity are included” (ILO 1996).

Earlier figures are thought to be grossly understated, as demonstrated by the much higher numbers yielded by independent surveys carried out in several countries in 1993–1994. For example, in Ghana, India, Indonesia and Senegal, approximately 25% of all children were engaged in some form of economic activity. For one-third of these children, work was their principal activity.

Child labour is found everywhere, although it is much more prevalent in poor and developing areas. It disproportionately involves girls who are not only likely to work for longer hours but, like older women, are also required to perform homemaking and housekeeping tasks to a much greater extent than their male counterparts. Children in rural areas are, on average, twice as likely to be economically active; among migrant farmworker families, it is almost the rule that all of the children work alongside their parents. However, the proportion of urban children who work is increasing steadily, mainly in the informal sector of the economy. Most urban children work in domestic services, although many are employed in manufacturing. While public attention has been focused on a few export industries such as textiles, clothing, footwear and carpets, the great majority work in jobs geared towards domestic consumption. On the whole, however, child labour remains more common on plantations than in manufacturing.

Child slavery

Many child workers are slaves. That is, the employer exercises the right of either temporary or permanent ownership in which the children have become “commodities” that can be rented out or exchanged. Traditional in South Asia, the sub-Saharan strip of East Africa and, more recently, in several South American countries, it appears to be evolving all over the world. Despite the facts that it is illegal in most countries where it exists and that the international Conventions banning it have been widely ratified, the ILO estimated (accurate data are not available) that there are tens of millions of child slaves around the world (ILO 1995). Large numbers of child slaves are to be found in agriculture, domestic service, the sex industry, the carpet and textile industries, quarrying and brick-making.

According to the report of an ILO Committee of Experts (ILO 1990), more than 30 million children are thought to be in slavery or bondage in several countries. The report cited, among others, India, Ghana, Gaza, Pakistan, Philippines, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Brazil, Peru, Mauritania, South Africa and Thailand. More than 10 million of them are concentrated in India and Pakistan. Common sites of employment for enslaved children are small workshops and as forced labour on plantations. In the informal sector they can be found in carpet weaving, match factories, glass factories, brick making, fish cleaning, mines and quarries. Children are also used as enslaved domestic labourers, as slave-prostitutes and drug carriers.

Child slavery predominates mainly where there are social systems that are based on the exploitation of poverty. Families sell the children outright or bond them into slavery in order to pay off debts or simply provide the wherewithal to survive, or to supply the means to meet social or religious obligations. In many instances, the payment is considered an advance against the wages the child slaves are expected to earn during their indenture. Wars and the forced migrations of large populations which disrupt the normal family structure force many children and adolescents into slavery.

Causes of child labour

Poverty is the greatest single factor responsible for the movement of children into the workplace. The survival of the family as well as the children themselves often dictates it; this is particularly the case when poor families have many children. The necessity of having them work full-time makes it impossible for families to invest in the children’s education.

Even where tuition is free, many poor families are unable to meet the ancillary costs of education (e.g., books and other school supplies, clothing and footwear, transportation and so on). In some places, these costs for one child attending a primary school may represent as much as one-third of the cash income of a typical poor family. This leaves going to work as the only alternative. In some large families, the older children will work to provide the means for educating their younger siblings.

In some areas, it is not so much the cost but the lack of schools providing an acceptable quality of education. In some communities, schools may just be unavailable. In others, children drop out because the schools serving the poor are of such abysmal quality that attendance does not seem to be worth the cost and effort involved. Thus, while many children drop out of school because they have to work, many become so discouraged that they prefer to work. As a result, they may remain totally or functionally illiterate and unable to develop the skills required for their advancement in the world of work and in society.

Finally, many large urban centres have developed an indigenous population of street children who have been orphaned or separated from their families. These scratch out a precarious existence by doing odd jobs, begging, stealing, and participating in the traffic of illegal drugs.

The demand for child labour

In most instances, children are employed because their labour is less expensive and they are less troublesome than adult workers. In Ghana, for example, an ILO-supported study showed that three-fourths of children engaged in paid work were paid less than one-sixth of the statutory minimum wage (ILO 1995). In other areas, although the differentials between the wages of children and adults were much less impressive, they were large enough to represent a very significant burden to the employers, who were usually poor, small contractors who enjoyed a very slim profit margin.

In some instances, as in the hand-woven carpet and glass bracelet (bangles) industries in India, child workers are preferred to adults because of their smaller size or the perception that their “nimble fingers” make for greater manual dexterity. An ILO study demonstrated that adults were no less competent in performing these tasks and that the child workers were not irreplaceable (Levison et al. 1995).

Parents are a major source of demand for the work of children in their own families. Huge numbers of children are unpaid workers in family farms, shops and stores that depend on family labour for their economic viability. It is conventionally assumed that these children are much less likely to be exploited than those working outside the family, but there is ample evidence that this is not always the case.

Finally, in urban areas in developed countries where the labour market is very tight, adolescents may be the only workers available and willing to take the minimum wage, mostly part-time jobs in retail establishments such as fast-food shops, retail trade and messenger services. Recently, where even these have not been available in sufficient numbers, employers have been recruiting elderly retirees for these positions.

Working conditions

In many establishments employing child labour, working conditions range from bad to abysmal. Since many of these enterprises are poor and marginal to start with, and are often operating illegally, little or no attention is paid to amenities that would be required to retain all but slave labourers. Lack of elementary sanitation, air quality, potable water and food are often compounded by crowding, harsh discipline, obsolete equipment, poor quality tools and the absence of protective measures to control exposure to occupational hazards. Even where some protective equipment may be available, it is rarely sized to fit the smaller frames of children and is often poorly maintained.

Too many children work too many hours. Dawn to dusk is not an unusual working day, and the need for rest periods and holidays is generally ignored. In addition to chronic fatigue, which is a major cause of accidents, the most damaging effect of the long hours is the inability to benefit from education. This may occur even where the children work only part-time; studies have shown that working more than 20 hours per week can negatively affect education (ILO 1995). Functional illiteracy and lack of training, in turn, lead to greatly diminished opportunities for advancing to improved employment.

Girls are particularly at risk. Because they are often also responsible for household tasks, they work longer hours than boys, who usually engage only in economic activities. As a result, they generally have lower rates of school attendance and completion.

Children are emotionally immature and need a nurturing psychological and social environment that will socialize them into their cultural environment and enable them to take their places as adults in their particular society. For many labouring children, the work environment is oppressive; in essence, they do not have a childhood.

Prevention of Injuries to Children

 Child labour is not restricted to developing countries. The following set of precautions is adapted from advice put forth by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The risks for work-related injuries and illnesses in children, as in workers of all ages, can be reduced through adherence to routine precautions such as: prescribed housekeeping practices; training and safe work procedures; use of proper shoes, gloves and protective clothing; and maintenance and use of equipment with safety features. In addition, workers under the age of 18 should not be required to lift objects weighing more than 15 pounds (approximately 7kg) more than once per minute, or ever to lift objects weighing more than 30 pounds (14kg); tasks involving continuous lifting should never last more than 2 hours. Children under the age of 18 should not participate in work requiring the routine use of respirators as a means of preventing the inhalation of hazardous substances.

Employers should be knowledgeable about and comply with child labour laws. School counsellors and physicians who sign permits allowing children to work should be familiar with child labour laws and ensure that the work they approve does not involve prohibited activities.

Most children who begin working under the age of 18 enter the workplace with minimal prior experience for a job. Advanced industrial countries are not exempt from these hazards. For example, during the summer of 1992 in the United States, more than half (54%) of persons aged 14 to 16 years treated in emergency departments for work injuries reported that they had received no training in prevention of the injury they had sustained, and that a supervisor was present at the time of injury in only approximately 20% of the cases. Differences in maturity and developmental level regarding learning styles, judgement and behaviour should be considered when providing training for youth in occupational safety and health.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1996


Exposure to occupational hazards

In general, the risks that children face in the workplace are the same that adult workers encounter. However, their effects may be greater because of the kinds of tasks to which children are assigned and the biological differences between children and adults.

Children tend to be given more menial tasks, often without instruction and training in minimizing exposure to the hazards that may be encountered, and without proper supervision. They may be assigned to cleaning-up duties, often using solvents or strong alkalis, or they may be required to clean up hazardous wastes that have accumulated in the workplace without awareness of potential toxicity.

Because of their smaller size, children are more likely to be given tasks that require working in odd, confined places or long periods of stooping or kneeling. Often, they are required to handle objects that even adults would consider too bulky or too heavy.

Because of their continuing growth and development, children differ biologically from adults. These differences have not been quantified, but it is reasonable to assume that the more rapid cell division involved in the growth process may make them more vulnerable to many toxic agents. Exposure earlier in life to toxic agents with long latency periods may result in the onset of disabling chronic occupational diseases such as asbestosis and cancer in young adulthood rather than at older ages, and there is evidence that childhood exposure to toxic chemicals may alter the response to future toxic exposures (Weisburger et al. 1966).

Table 1 summarizes information on some of the hazardous agents to which working children may be exposed, according to the sources of exposure and the types of health consequences. It should be noted that these consequences may be aggravated when the exposed children are undernourished, anaemic or suffer from chronic diseases. Finally, the lack of primary medical care, much less the services of health professionals with some sophistication in occupational health, means that these health consequences are not likely to be recognized promptly or treated effectively.

Table 1. Some occupations and industries, and their associated hazards, where children are employed.



Abattoirs and meat rendering

Injuries from cuts, burns, falls, dangerous equipment; exposure to infectious disease; heat stress


Unsafe machinery; hazardous substances; accidents; chemical poisoning; arduous work; dangerous animals, insects and reptiles

Alcohol production and/or sale

Intoxication, addiction; environment may be prejudicial to morals; risk of violence


Dust inhalation, poor lighting, poor posture (squatting); respiratory and musculoskeletal diseases; eye strain; chemical poisoning


Harmful chemicals, exposure to harmful dust; arduous work; respiratory and musculoskeletal disease

Construction and/or demolition

Exposure to heat, cold, dust; falling objects; sharp objects; accidents; musculoskeletal diseases

Cranes/hoists/lifting machinery Tar, asphalt, bitumen

Accidents; falling objects; musculoskeletal diseases; risk of injury to others Exposure to heat, burns; chemical poisoning; respiratory diseases

Crystal and/or glass manufacture

Molten glass; extreme heat; poor ventilation; cuts from broken glass; carrying hot glass; burns; respiratory disease; heat stress; toxic dust

Domestic service

Long hours; physical, emotional, sexual abuse; malnutrition; insufficient rest; isolation


Dangerous work with high voltage; risk of falling; high level of responsibility for safety of others

Entertainment (night clubs, bars, casinos, circuses, gambling halls)

Long, late hours; sexual abuse; exploitation; prejudicial to morals

Explosives (manufacture and handling)

Risk of explosion, fire, burns, mortal danger

Hospitals and work with risk of infection

Infectious diseases; responsibility for well-being of others

Lead/zinc metallurgy

Cumulative poisoning; neurological damage

Machinery in motion (operation, cleaning, repairs, etc.)

Danger from moving engine parts; accidents; cuts, burns, exposure to heat and noise; noise stress; eye and ear injuries

Maritime work (trimmers and stokers, stevedores)

Accidents; heat, burns; falls from heights; heavy lifting, arduous work, musculoskeletal diseases; respiratory diseases

Mining, quarries, underground work

Exposure to dusts, gases, fumes, dirty conditions; respiratory and musculoskeletal diseases; accidents; falling objects; arduous work; heavy loads


Heat, burns, chemical poisoning

Street trades

Exposure to drugs, violence, criminal activities; heavy loads; musculoskeletal diseases; venereal diseases; accidents


Chemical poisoning; sharp instruments; respiratory diseases

Transportation, operating vehicles

Accidents; danger to self and passengers

Underwater (e.g., pearl diving)

Decompression illness; dangerous fish; death or injury

Welding and smelting of metals, metalworking

Exposure to extreme heat; flying sparks and hot metal objects; accidents; eye injuries; heat stress

Source: Sinclair and Trah 1991.

Social and economic consequences of child labour

Child labour is largely generated by poverty, as noted above, and child labour tends to perpetuate poverty. When child labour precludes or seriously handicaps education, lifetime earnings are reduced and upward social mobility is retarded. Work that hampers the physical, mental and social development ultimately taxes the health and welfare resources of the community and perpetuates poverty by degrading the stock of human capital needed for the economic and social development of the society. Since the societal costs of child labour are visited primarily on the population groups that already are poor and less privileged, access to democracy and social justice is eroded and social unrest is fomented.

Future trends

Although much is being done to eliminate child labour, it is clearly not enough nor is it effective enough. What is needed first is more and better information about the extent, dynamics and effects of child labour. The next step is to increase, amplify and improve educational and training opportunities for children from pre-school through universities and technical institutes, and then to provide the means for children of the poor to take advantage of them (e.g., adequate housing, nutrition and preventive health care).

Well-drafted legislation and regulations, reinforced by such international efforts as the ILO Conventions, need constantly to be revised and strengthened in the light of current developments in child labour, while the effectiveness of their enforcement should be enhanced.

The ultimate weapon may be the nurturing of greater awareness and abhorrence of child labour among the general public, which we are beginning to see in several industrialized countries (motivated in part by adult unemployment and the price competition that drives producers of consumer goods to migrate to areas where labour may be cheaper). The resultant publicity is leading to damage to the image of organizations marketing products produced by child labour, protests by their stockholders and, most important, refusal to purchase these products even though they may cost a bit less.


There are many forms of employment in which workers are vulnerable to impoverishment, exploitation and abuse, and where their safety, health and well-being are at great risk. Despite attempts at legislation and regulation, and notwithstanding their condemnation in international agreements, Conventions, and resolutions, such conditions are likely to persist as long as people are poor, ill-housed, malnourished and oppressed, and are denied the information, education and training and the curative and preventive health services required to enable them to extricate themselves from the social quicksand in which they exist. Wealthy people and nations often respond magnanimously to such natural disasters as storms, floods, fires, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes but, important as they are, the benefits of such help are short-lived. What is needed is a long-term application of human effort fortified by the needed resources that will overcome the political, racial and religious barriers that would thwart its thrust.

Finally, while it is entirely appropriate and healthy for children to work as part of normal development and family life, child labour as described in this article is a scourge that not only damages the health and well-being of the child workers but, in the long run, also impairs the social and economic security of communities and nations. It must be attacked with vigour and persistence until it is eradicated.



Wednesday, 23 February 2011 18:17

Transformations in Markets and Labour

The massive and dramatic restructuring that is evident at the local, national and international levels has profound implications for the health of workers.

At the international level, a new global economy has emerged as both capital and labour have become increasingly mobile within and among countries. This new economy has been marked by the negotiation of trade agreements which simultaneously remove barriers among countries and provide protection from those outside their common markets. These agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the European Union, cover much more than trade issues; indeed they encompass the entire role of the state. Along with these agreements have come a commitment to freer markets, deregulation of the private sector and the privatization of many state enterprises.

In some cases, the agreements have led to common standards that raise the level of protection provided to workers in countries where previously such protection was minimal or absent. In other cases, the condition of membership or aid has been de-unionization and movement away from social services, rural agriculture and local enterprise. And in still other cases, unionized workers have successfully resisted efforts to change their conditions. In all cases, however, national boundaries, national economies and national governments have become less important in structuring work relations and in determining the location of work.

Although the new global economy is characterized by the continuing expansion of transnational corporations, it has not been accompanied by the creation of larger and larger establishments. Indeed, the opposite is the case. The prototype enterprise is no longer the giant car plant with thousands of employees producing a standard product by following a fixed production line. Instead, more and more corporations use niche production to provide customized goods and, increasingly, services. Rather than employ economies of scale they employ economies of scope, shifting from one product to another with the help of sub-contracting and equipment that can easily be reprogrammed.

In fact, at least part of the massive shift to the service industries and the rapid growth in small businesses can be explained by transnational corporations contracting out their work. In the work that continues to be done directly by the corporation, large inventories and buffer stocks are frequently replaced by “just-in-time” production, and firms see themselves as increasingly customer driven. More employers are demanding a flexible workforce, one that has a range of skills and a variety of work times. In this way, employees too can work “just-in-time” and at a number of work stations. This increase in contracting out and in multi-tasking, along with the move to “non-standard” forms of employment such as part-time and part-year work, make it difficult for unions to follow the traditional means of organizing workplaces.

Both the development of a global economy and the restructuring of work have been made possible by the new microelectronics technology. This technology makes niche production possible, because new equipment can be altered quickly and cheaply to accommodate new lines. Moreover, this technology not only creates inexpensive and instant communication throughout the world, independent of time zones or other barriers , but also allows the corporation to maintain control over remote enterprises of workers, because it can monitor output in other locations. It thus creates the possibility for production in the home with workers employed anywhere in the world at any time of the day or night.

At the same time, this technology helps to transform the kinds of skill required and the organization of work within enterprises. Increasingly, employers are talking about multi-skilling for workers who control and monitor a variety of machines and who must move between work stations. More and more workers analyse and apply the information generated, processed, stored and retrieved by the new technologies. Both kinds of worker may be organized in teams so that they can work together to continuously improve quality.

This continuous quality improvement is intended to put the focus on the work process as a means of eliminating error and waste. Much of this quality improvement is measured by the new technologies that allow employers and employees to monitor continually the time taken by each worker, the resources used and the amount and quality of the product or service. Managers, especially at the intermediate level, become less necessary because there are fewer supervisory tasks. As a result, hierarchies are flattened and there are fewer promotion routes to the top. Those managers who remain are more involved with strategic considerations than with direct supervision.

The technologies also make it possible for employers to demand a flexible labour force, not just in terms of skills, but also in terms of time. The technology allows employers to use formulas to calculate the precise amount of work time required for the job, and the hours when the work must be done. It therefore allows employers to hire precisely for the number of work hours required. Moreover, the technology can eliminate the traditional costs associated with hiring a variety of workers for short periods of time, because it can determine how many workers are necessary, call them to come to work, calculate their pay and write their cheques. Although the technologies make it possible to monitor and count in incredible detail, they also make transnational corporations more vulnerable, because one power failure, or a computer “glitch”, could delay or shut down the entire process.

All this restructuring has been accompanied by rising unemployment and increasing disparities between the rich and the poor. As companies become leaner and meaner, the demand for employees declines. Even among those who still have jobs, there is little employment security in the new global economy. Many of those with jobs are working very long work weeks, although some do so for only short periods of time as more and more work is done on a contract or piece-work basis. Shift work and irregular work hours have increased significantly as employers rely on a flexible workforce. With only irregular employment, fewer workers have employment-linked protection from unemployment and fewer are represented by strong unions.

This is particularly the case for women, who already form the majority of the casual labour force and of the non-unionized workforce. Governments are also reducing the provision of social services for those without work. Moreover, the combination of new technologies and new organizations of work often results in jobless growth, with both profit and unemployment increasing simultaneously. Economic development no longer means more paid work.

The implication of these developments for workers’ health are enormous, although often more difficult to see than those found in traditional industrial work organizations. Non-standard employment, like unemployment, can increase the health risks for workers. While workers can be quite productive in short work periods, irregular employment may have the opposite effect over the long term, especially if workers are unable to make plans for the future. It can lead to increased levels of anxiety and nervousness, to irritability and lack of confidence and an inability to concentrate. It also can have physical consequences such as high blood pressure and an increased incidence of illnesses such as diabetes and bronchitis. Moreover, irregular employment and non-standard work times can make it very difficult for the women who bear the major responsibility for child care, elder care and domestic chores to organize their work, and thus can significantly increase their stress levels. Furthermore, irregular employment usually means irregular income and often loss of work-related benefits such as dental care, pensions, sick leave and health care. These, too, contribute to the stress workers face and limit their ability to remain healthy or productive.

New methods of organizing work also may be increasing the health hazards for those with more regular employment. A number of studies indicate that unhealthy or inappropriate job design and work organization can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as other work-related health concerns such as repetitive strain injury. The greatest stress is produced by jobs that offer workers little control over their work or work time, those which require few recognized skills and those that do not allow workers to determine which skills they use. These stress levels may be increased even more for the majority of women, who also have a second job at home.

Although the new work organizations based on teams and multi-skilling promise to increase both the range of skills workers employ and their control over work, in the context of continuous quality improvement they can have the opposite effect. The focus is usually on short-term, easily quantifiable increases in productivity rather than on the long-term results or overall health of the workers. Especially when team members are not replaced during sickness, when team quotas are set by management alone or when output is measured by detailed formulas, team structures may mean less individual control and little collective collaboration to establish individual contributions. In addition, multi-skilling may mean that workers are required to do a wide variety of tasks in rapid succession. Their range of skills is intended to ensure that every second is used, that there are no breaks created by the nature of the work or the transfer of tasks from one worker to another. Particularly in the context of less individual control, the pace set by such work can result in repetitive strain injury or a variety of stress-related symptoms.

Similarly, the new technologies that increase output and make flexible work schedules more possible also can mean loss of control for workers, increased work speed and more repetitious work. In allowing the precise calculation of both work time and output, the new technologies make possible continuous quality improvement and the elimination of waste time. But slack time also can be physical and psychological recovery time, and without such time, workers often experience higher blood pressure levels, increased nervous system activity and generally greater strain. In allowing the electronic measurement of workers’ activities, the new technologies also limit workers’ control, and less control means higher risk of illness. In eliminating many of the mental and manual aspects of the work previously done by a range of workers, the new technologies can also reduce the variety in jobs and thus make work more stultifying and less skilled.

At the same time that work is being reorganized, it is also being relocated both within and among countries. What may be called outwork or home work is increasing. New organizations of work make it possible for more and more production to be done in small workplaces. And new technologies make it possible for more workers to buy their own equipment and work at home. Today, many service jobs such as accounting and filing can be done at home, and even auto parts can be produced within households. Although work at home can reduce commuting time, can increase choices about work time, can make it possible for the disabled to take on paid employment and can allow women to care for their children or the elderly, it also can be dangerous to health. Health hazards in the home are even less visible to others than those in the new workplaces.

Any health hazards created directly by the equipment or the materials involved in the workplace can place the entire household at risk twenty-four hours a day. Without the separation of home and work, workers often feel pressured to work all the time at work that is never done. Conflicts can develop between the demands of children, the elderly and household chores that raise the levels of stress for the entire household. The isolation from other workers doing a similar job can make the work both less satisfying and less likely to be protected through union membership. Physical and mental assault problems remain hidden in the household. This may be the case particularly for the disabled, who then have less choice about working with others because the pressure on employers to make jobs in the market accessible for the disabled is reduced.

Although people in many countries throughout the world have long worked from their homes, the new global economy often involves a new kind of home work. This home work includes new work relations with a remote employer who can have a great deal of control over the home work. Thus, in spite of allowing workers to remain within their households far away from their employers, the new home work may decrease workers’ control over the nature and pace of their work without improving their work environment.

Those who live in many of the southern countries are drawn into the global economy as homeworkers for international corporations. These homeworkers are even more vulnerable to health risks than those in the north and even more likely to have less control over their work. Many are located in free trade zones where protection for workers is eliminated, often as a means of encouraging investment.

At the same time, in both the north and south, cutbacks in state services frequently mean a relocation and redistribution of work for women. With fewer services provided in the public sector, there are fewer paid jobs for women in the labour force. More services are expected to be provided by women, without pay, in the home. Although women bear most of the burden, this transfer of work to the home increases the strain on all household members and lowers their immunity. The increased responsibility at home also may increase the pressure on women and their children to do home work.

In some countries, the growth of both home work and small business means that many employers are no longer subject to state regulations that provide standards for pay, promotion, work hours, conditions and relations, standards such as those forbidding sexual harassment and arbitrary firing. In any case, the expansion of small businesses and home work makes it more difficult to enforce health and safety standards in these many and varied workplaces. Similarly, the growth in contract work often means that the worker is defined as self-employed and thus ineligible for protection from the person who pays for the work. What might be called a legal underground economy is emerging: an economy in which standards related to health and safety no longer apply and unions are more difficult to organize.

There certainly are still significant differences in economies throughout the world. And there are certainly large differences among workers both within and between countries regarding the kinds of work and pay they receive, as well as the protection they have and the hazards they face. However, the emerging global economy is threatening the protection many workers have gained, and there is a growing pressure for states to “harmonize down” in terms of less emphasis on protection and services as free trade increasingly becomes the goal.



The new technologies of computer-communications are no longer a set of tools and production methods within an industrial landscape. They have become the landscape, and they surround us, as Canadian communications scholar Marshall McLuhan predicted in the 1960s. The communications systems of the new economy constitute not only the new tools of production; they are also the new and fully programmed environment for work and economic activity, which changes everything, both quantitatively (in terms of jobs and skill sets) and qualitatively (in terms of control and domination). With the magnitude of the transformation, it is fitting to think of the changes as a paradigm shift from the industrial to the post-industrial era.

The paradigm shift began with computerization and its related automation of work in the 1970s and early 1980s. The shift continued with the integration of computers and communications, which created back-office production sub-systems and front-office management information systems in the white-collar environment. As the convergence improved, the integration was extended from small, local sub-systems to large national and multinational units, with “back-office” and “front-office” operations fully integrated. Gradually, the communications aspect became more central, and the “netware” for networking became as important as stand-alone hardware and software. By the early 1990s, perceptions about the systems also started to shift. Corporate and other networks were seen to be a means to achieving other ends, and the networks were regarded as ends in themselves. The global information superhighway, or autobahn, has emerged to become a new post-industrial networking infrastructure, and the paradigm has shifted completely. Networks have become the context of the new economy. Increasingly, they are the site where business deals are made, and the medium through which not only money but also goods and services, and work itself, are distributed. Networks are also the key to the re-engineering and restructuring of the industrial economy into a post-industrial economy—at least in that sector of the international economy which is dominated by monopoly-scale transnational corporations. The global information and production networks provide these companies with a distinct advantage over newly developed and developing countries on every measure of corporate performance from productivity to scale to speed. Networking can position these companies to launch a new wave of global “colonization” if they so desired.

Three technologies in particular highlight the scope of the transformation taking place:

  • the information superhighway
  • a planning tool called “quick response”
  • a production-organizing strategy called “agility”.


The superhighway represents the convergence of many technologies, including television, video games, interactive shopping and electronic publishing, with the core technologies of computers and communications. Computers and communications remain the bedrock technologies, enabling and extending the scope of all the others. That scope has been boosted significantly since the early 1990s through major public investment in the highway infrastructures in many industrialized countries. Furthermore, while media coverage boosting the highway among the general public has emphasized its potential in education and entertainment, its core use from the beginning has been for business. The forerunner to the US National Information Infrastructure Program launched in 1994 was the then Senator Al Gore’s High Performance Computing Act of 1988, which was directed exclusively at big business. In Canada, the first federal government publication on the information highway, in 1994, referred to it as a tool for business competitiveness.

Quick response (QR) might have remained simply an interesting marketing ploy by the Italian clothing chain Benetton, but for the new centrality of networks. The original idea was simply to create an on-line feedback link between stores selling Benetton clothing and the company head office where the work of actually making the clothes in different styles, colours and sizes was contracted out to local knitters. Since the early 1990s, QR has come to set a new standard for performance in every sector of the economy.

In the military, quick response was used to produce innovative weapons systems during the Persian Gulf War. In industry, it has been used in the production of semi-customized jeans and other retail products. In the service sector, it has been used to provide health care to the community, where cutbacks in public-service spending have closed hospitals and reduced or eliminated institutional services. Through QR techniques, what had proceeded as a series of stages or separate activities occurring within one or two institutional sites has become a fluid interplay of concurrent stages and disaggregated actions occurring within a host of disparate sites. Yet they are all coordinated through electronic networks and centralized management information systems. Where people and work groups had provided the necessary coordination and integration within different worksites, now systems software knits and manages the links.

Agility is the term used to describe that which delivers the necessary fluidity to actual sites on the ground. Agility is considered to be the final stage of re-engineering the production process through the use of computer communications. The restructuring began with the integration of automated sub-systems to create larger, semi-cybernetic operating systems. This was called computer-integrated manufacturing. As the systems involved in this stage were steadily expanded to include subcontractors and suppliers within corporations’ operating networks, computer-integrated manufacturing gave way to just-in-time manufacturing, which represents the “hinge” of the paradigm shift, wherein the re-engineered production system was transformed (or “morphed”) into a new time-sensitive conception of the production process. With lean production, as it is also described, the focus shifted from integrating the machines in this new process to integrating the people who were left operating the systems. Quality circles, total quality management and other “cultural training” programmes schooled workers to identify with the productivity and competitive goals of management and to assist in constantly fine-tuning the production process to achieve these goals. Increasingly in the early 1990s, that fine-tuning shifted towards the harmonization of operations around standardized norms and sub-systems. Increasingly, too, the focus shifted from flexibility and interchangeability within local production facilities to interchangeability across globally- networked facilities. The goal of agility, which had yet to be realized in the mid-1990s, was the flexible dispatch of work among a distributed array of worksites plugged into (and plug-compatible with) the information highway. The related goal was to create and tap a global pool of labour located everywhere, from automated factories, workshops, clinics and offices to private homes, basements, garages and trucks.

Such restructuring has had a profound impact on the extent and nature of employment, the dimensions of which include:

  • rising levels of structural unemployment as machines and machine intelligence take over what people and human intelligence used to do
  • increasing polarization in the labour force, characterized on the one hand by those who work too hard, with chronic overtime and full-time jobs, and, on the other hand, by those constituting a growing “contingent” labour force on the periphery, employed on a part-time, temporary or short-term contract basis only
  • a transformation of the labour process, particularly for many in the second group of workers as they become totally enclosed in a programmed work environment, with computers both defining the work to be done and monitoring and measuring its performance.


In essence, the working relationship is increasingly being transformed from an open system featuring labour, capital equipment and management to a closed cybernetic system of which the worker is a functioning part or, in the service sector, a personable human extension. Instead of people working with machines and tools, more and more people work for the machines, and even inside them in the sense of functioning as the human voice-boxes, fingers and arms of fully programmed production or information-processing systems. It could represent what Donna Haraway calls a new cybernetics of labour, with labour relations defined and negotiated entirely in systems operating terms (Haraway 1991).

There is little consensus on these trends. In fact, there is considerable controversy, sustained in part by lack of research in important areas, and by rigidities in the discourse. As one example the annual OECD Jobs Study for 1994 refused to draw a link between technological restructuring and the wretchedly high rates of unemployment which have prevailed through the industrialized and industrializing world since the 1980s. The report acknowledged that the new technologies have had some “labour-displacing” effects; however, it also assumed that firms “may be able to create compensating employment whenever they are successful in combining such processes of technological change with product innovation and sound marketing policies” (OECD 1994).

The discourse on technological change has been rigid in at least two ways, the results of which could now be to misinform and even disinform the debate on restructuring as much as they have intended to inform it. In the first instance, it pursues a narrowly abstract economic or “economistic” model of restructuring, and ignores not only the social but also the psychological and cultural dimensions involved. Secondly, this economistic model is seriously flawed. It assumes that as technology increases productivity through automation, innovative new economic activity and new employment will emerge to compensate (though perhaps not with the same skill requirements) for what was lost in the automation phase. Not only is new economic activity (and what new employment it does generate) emerging in globally remote sites, but much of the new economic growth since the late 1980s has been “jobless economic growth”. Sometimes it is fully automated production and processing facilities churning out double and triple what they put through previously, with no increase in staff. Or it is fully automated new services such as call-forwarding in telecommunications or multi-branch banking in finance, “produced” and “delivered” by software alone. Increasingly too, semi-automated work has been transferred from the paid hands of workers to the unpaid hands of consumers. Consumers using digital phones now “work” their way through a string of computerized voice clips to order goods and services, register for courses, negotiate for government services, and obtain customer service.

It is important to confront the rigidities permeating the discourse because, here, the separation of economistic “supply-side” issues from “labour market”, “demand-side” issues in the social and cultural context blocks the gathering of information essential for developing a consensus on what’s happening with the new technologies. For example, Statistics Canada has conducted some excellent macro-level studies exploring the increased polarization of the Canadian labour force. These emerged following a 1988 study on changing youth wages and the declining middle wage (Myles, Picot and Wannell 1988). The study documented a massive hollowing out of middle-ranking jobs (according to pay scale) in virtually every industrial sector and in every major occupation between 1981 and 1986. Furthermore, job growth was severely polarized between the lowest wage levels and the high end of the wage scale (see figure 1).

Figure 1. Net change in full-time equivalent jobs, 1981-1986, by occupation and wage level (in thousand US$).


The study seemed to provide a macro-level confirmation of the computerization, and related simplification and de-skilling, of work which the case studies of technological restructuring during that period had identified everywhere from resource industries through manufacturing to services (Menzies 1989). A follow-up study began by referring to literature arguing a link between widening wage differentials and technological change (Morissette, Myles and Picot 1993). However, it then confined itself to examining strictly “labour market” factors such as hours of work, gender, age and educational attainment. It concluded that a “growing polarization in both weekly and annual hours worked accounted for much of the rise in earnings inequality in the 1980s”. It sidestepped the possible link between the computer simplification of work and the rise of a contingent labour force of part-time, temporary workers employed at well below a standard week’s worth of hours and income. Instead, it ended lamely, saying that “If changing technologies and the associated changing skill mix required are a major part of the story, existing data sources are not up to the task.”

The existing data sources are case studies, many undertaken by unions or women’s groups. Their methodologies might not be of a uniform standard. Nevertheless, their findings suggest a decided pattern. In case after case through the late 1980s and early 1990s, computer systems were implemented not to enhance what people were doing but to replace them or diminish and control what they were doing (Menzies 1989). Not only did layoffs accompany large-scale computerization, but full-time staff were replaced by part-time or other temporary staff, in a wide array of industries and occupations. From the evidence, particularly of interview-based studies, it seems clear that it was the computer-simplification of work—particularly the takeover of administration, planning and management by software—which made it possible to replace full-time staff with part-time staff or to transfer it outside the labour force into the unpaid hands of consumers.

Often, the technological change was accompanied by organizational restructuring. This included a collapsing of job-classification levels and an integration of computer-simplified tasks. This has often resulted in a streamlining of jobs around computer systems so that the work can be entirely defined by the computer system, and its performance can be monitored and measured by it as well. Sometimes this has resulted in some re-skilling or skills upgrading. For instance, in the automobile, aerospace and electronics industries in Canada, reports repeatedly point to the creation of a fairly senior new multi-task, multi-skilled position. Sometimes it is called electronics technician, or ET. Here, the work often involves overseeing the operations of several automated machines or sub-systems, troubleshooting and even some planning and analysis. The people involved not only have to be familiar with a number of operating systems, but sometimes also have to do some simple programming to knit different sub-systems together. Often, too, however, these positions represent a trickling down of what had been highly skilled tools and trades jobs as computerization has turned the creative work over to engineers and salaried programmers. Nevertheless, for the people involved, it often represents a large and welcome step up in terms of job challenge and responsibility.

While there is evidence of re-skilling, this is the minority trend, generally affecting a more privileged core of full-time and fully unionized industrial-sector workers—most of them men. The larger trend is toward de-skilling and even the degradation of work as people become enclosed in computer-operating environments which rigorously programme, and monitor, everything they do. Essentially, the person works as the human extension of the computer operating system, while the system does all the essential thinking and decision making. This new form of work is becoming more and more prevalent in more and more lines of work, particularly where women are concentrated: in clerical, sales and service work.

The term McJob has become a popular epithet for this new form of work where the computer defines and controls the work to be done. By the 1990s, the term applied in a host of settings from fast-food restaurants to grocery check-out lines to accounting, insurance claims-processing and other types of offices, and even in the health-care field. By the mid-1990s, however, another trend had emerged from the computerization of work—at least of information-processing work. This trend has been called “telework”. Once work had come to be fully defined and controlled by computer systems, it could also be de-institutionalized and redeployed through electronic networks to remote call-processing centres or to teleworkers employed in their homes via computers and modem attachments. Telework was starting to emerge as a major labour issue in the mid-1990s, with the proliferation of call centres for handling airline and hotel reservations, remote banking and insurance service work, courier and other services. As well, the 1991 Canadian Census recorded a 40% rise in the “at-home” workforce, compared to a 16% rise in the labour force as a whole. It also found a high concentration of women in this growing at-home labour force. They were concentrated in clerical, sales and service work. They were working for incomes of less than Can$20,000 and often less than Can$10,000—not enough to support a life, let alone a family.

Depending on the trends, and on how the technological landscape for work and economic activity is structured and governed, telework could emerge as the post-Fordist work model—that is the successor to a high-wage full employment pattern—in place of the high-value-added model associated with Toyota and Suzuki and Japanese “lean production”. However, both models might prevail, with the precarious low wage telework model identified more with women, young workers and other less privileged groups, and the latter identified more with men holding the additional advantage of strong unions, seniority and full-time jobs in capital-intensive industries such as autos, aerospace and electronics.

The rise of telework surfaces a number of labour issues: the danger of sweatshop-like exploitation, highlighted by the rise in performance-related compensation as an adjunct to or replacement for a regular hourly wage; poor and debilitating working conditions as people rig up modems and computers in their basements or in the bedroom of one-bedroom apartments, often bearing overhead and maintenance costs themselves; stagnation, boredom and loneliness as people work in isolated silicon cells, without the camaraderie of others, and without the protection of collective organization. One of the most pressing labour issues, however, involves the new cybernetics of labour, and what happens as people’s work lives become totally controlled by computer systems. There has been little research into these more qualitative aspects of work. Perhaps, they require a more qualitative story-telling approach, rather than the more objectifying methods of social-science research. In Canada, two documentary films have shed valuable light on the personal experience of computer-defined, computer-controlled work. One film, “Quel Numéro/ What Number?” directed by Sophie Bissonette, features telephone operators talking about working in isolated work cubicles at long-distance call-processing centres. Not only does the computer control every aspect of their work but it also provides them with their only feedback on how well they’re performing at it. This is the computer’s feedback on the average time (AWT) they take processing each customer call. The women talk about becoming so well adjusted to “operating” as part of the computer-defined system that they get “hooked” on trying to beat their own AWT work-time score. It is a psychosocial process of adjustment when the only context and meaning for one’s activity is being dictated, here by the computer system.

Another film, “Working Lean”, directed by Laura Sky, documents a similar effect achieved through the cultural training programmes of Total Quality Management. In this film the workers are not totally enclosed and isolated inside a wholly computer-programmed work cell but are auto workers involved in TQM teams. Here the rhethoric of co-management and empowerment closed the horizon on workers’ perceptions. Training urges them to identify with management’s productivity goals built into the production systems, by finding ways to fine-tune them. (The Japanese prototype of this management programme defines quality in strictly systems terms, as “performance to requirements” (Davidow and Malone 1992).) Union officials refer to the programme as “management by stress”. Meanwhile, in many workplaces, repetitive-strain injury and other stress-related disease is on the rise as workers find themselves driven by fast-paced technology and its accompanying rhetoric.

A survey of Canadian workplace training found that at least half of the “training” companies are providing is in areas associated with TQM: corporate communications, leadership and other “cultural training”. “Training more closely linked to developing human capital was far less frequently reported.” On the other hand, within the category of computer-skills training, the study found a decided shift in who gets this training—a shift dramatically favouring managerial, professional and technical employees after 1985 (Betcherman 1994).

There are many contradictory trends. For example, there are some workplaces—some hotels, for instance—where co-management seems to be living up to its rhetoric. There are some worksites where workers are doing more with the new technologies than they were able or allowed to do with the old. But overall, the trends associated with restructuring in the new economy are towards the replacement of smart people with smart machines, and the use of machines to diminish and control what other people are doing, particularly at work. The central issue is not job creation or training in new computer skills. The issue is control: people are coming to be controlled by cybernetic computer systems. This needs to be turned around before both democratic rights and basic human rights are destroyed.



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