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Temporary labour in the public sector: employers' policies and trades union responses in social services and schools

By Hazel Margot Conley


Labour market flexibility is an issue that has been much debated but remains controversial. It is argued in this thesis that the lack of theoretical and empirical clarity which has impeded the study of flexibility has resulted from two main deficiencies. The first is that although the public sector has been identified as a major site of flexible forms of labour, the systematic study of this phenomenon has been largely absent. The second is that flexibility as a concept has obscured forms of employment relations that are distinct.\ud \ud One aim of this thesis was therefore to refocus the theoretical debates by drawing together a number of literatures that have so far remained discrete. This analysis provided the basis for a clearer empirical study by identifying the relationship between restructuring public sector employment, specifically in social services and schools, and one aspect of labour market flexibility: temporary labour. A review of previous research indicated that temporary work is likely to affect women, minority ethnic groups and young workers to a greater extent than the wider population. The literature also highlighted the statistical and managerial bias in the debates and in doing so indicated the need for new perspectives and methods to be adopted to further an understanding of issues that surround flexibility.\ud \ud The research for this thesis therefore examined temporary labour in the public sector from the perspective of employers, workers and trade unions in two case study local authorities and LEAs using qualitative methods. By adopting this approach the research data indicated that employers' conflicting motivations to use temporary labour are exacerbated by decentralised management functions. Personalised and arbitrary management associated with devolved powers highlighted a number of characteristics associated with temporary employment contracts. The central feature was the enhanced power imbalance in favour of employers created by the insecurity inherent in this form of employment, which resulted in forms of control that were gendered and racialised. The experience of temporary workers reflected these findings and emphasised the vulnerability of their situation. The trade union position on temporary work was however ambivalent, displaying a combination of responses even within branches of the same union, raising serious questions for trade union democracy

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