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Contingent work or casual work is a type of employment relationship between an employer and employee. While there is no consensus on a precise definition, it involves at least one of the following characteristics:
- Temporary or without job security
- Part time (typically with variable hours)
- Paid on a piece work basis
Whether a person who does contingent work can be described as having a job is debatable, but contingent work is usually not considered to be a career or part of a career. One of the features of contingent work is that it usually offers little or no opportunity for career development.
Contingent work is not an entirely neutral term as commentators who use the phrase generally consider it to be a social problem. Employment agencies and classified advertising media are more likely to use the phrase casual work, particularly to attract students who wish to earn money during the summer vacation but who would not consider the work as part of a long-term career. All casual work is considered to be contingent work, but not all contingent work is casual. In particular, part time jobs, or jobs in organisations that have a high staff turnover, may be considered contingent work but may not be casual.
The concept of what is now considered to be a job, where one attends work at fixed hours was rare until the Industrial Revolution. Before then, the predominant regular work was in agriculture. Textile workers would often work from home, buying raw cotton from a merchant, spinning it and weaving it into cloth at home, before selling it on.
In the 1770s, cotton mills started to appear in Lancashire, England, using Richard Arkwright's spinning jenny and powered by water wheels. Workers would often work in twelve-hour shifts, six days a week. However, they would still often be paid on a piece work basis, and fines would be deducted from their pay for damage to machinery. Employers could hire and fire pretty much as they pleased, and if employees had any grievance about this, there was very little that they could do about it.
Trade union movement
Individual workers were powerless to prevent exploitation by their employers. However, the realisation that all workers generally want the same things, and the benefits of collective bargaining, led to the formation of the first trade unions. As trade unions became larger, their sphere of influence increased, and started to involve political lobbying, resulting in much of the employment law that is now taken for granted.
20th century decline in manufacture
Manufacture has declined during the 20th century in the Western world. Many manufacturing organisations that employ large numbers of people have relocated their operations to developing nations. As a result, whenever they do hire staff in Europe or North America, they often need to be able to fire them quickly and keep costs as low as possible, to remain competitive. As a result, some employers may look for loopholes in employment law, or ways of engaging staff that allows them to circumvent union-negotiated employment law, creating what is now known as contingent work.
Contingent work in culture
Contingent work jobs are widely referred to as McJobs. This term was made popular by Douglas Coupland's novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, and stems from the notion that jobs in McDonalds and other fast food and retail businesses are frequently insecure.
Critics of the concept
Critics say that it is unfair to tarnish all employment agencies with the brush of contingent work. Some say that temporary work patterns such as self-employment, consultancy and telecommuting can bring benefits of flexibility not just to employers but also employees, can improve work-life balance, and can make it easier for workers to manage family responsibilities. However, it is argued that such benefits are realised only in middle class jobs, whose entry barriers are too high for most workers with below-average earnings.
- Contingent Work: American Employment Relations in Transition, edited by Kathleen Barker and Kathleen Christensen, ISBN 0801484057