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Temporary work or temporary employment refers to a situation where the employee is expected to leave the employer within a certain period of time. Temporary employees are sometimes called "contractual", "seasonal", "interim", "casual staff", "freelance"; or the word may be shortened to "temps." In some instances, temporary professional employees (particularly in the white-collar worker fields, such as law, engineering, and accounting) even refer to themselves as "consultants." This is not to be confused with consultants (as in management consulting).
Temporary workers may work full-time or part-time, depending on the individual case. In some instances, temporary workers receive benefits (such as health insurance), but usually benefits are only given to permanent employees. Not all temporary employees find jobs through a temporary employment agency. For example, a person can simply apply at a local park for seasonal jobs.
A temporary work agency, temp agency or temporary staffing firm finds and retains workers. Other companies, in need of short-term workers, contract with the temporary work agency to send temporary workers, or temps, on assignments to work at the other companies. Temporary employees are also used in work that has a cyclical nature, requiring frequent adjustments to staffing levels.
In 2008 there were a total of 13,722 temp agencies and staffing services in the U.S. with revenue of over $7.4 million per firm.
The staffing industry in the United States began after World War II with small agencies in urban areas employing housewives for part-time work as office workers. Over the years the advantages of having workers who could be hired and fired on short notice and were exempt from paperwork and regulatory requirements resulted in a gradual but substantial increase in the use of temporary workers, with over 3.5 million temporary workers employed in the United States by 2000.
There has indeed been a great paradigm shift since the 1940s in the way firms utilize the temporary worker. Throughout the Fordist (see fordism) era, temporary workers made up a rather marginal proportion of the total labor force in North America. Typically, temporary workers were white women in pink collar, clerical positions who provided companies with a stop-gap solution for permanent workers who needed a leave of absence, when on vacation or in illness. In contrast, in the Post-Fordist (see Post-Fordism) period, characterized by neoliberalism, deindustrialization and the dismantling of the welfare state, these understandings of temporary labor began to shift. In this paradigm, the idea of the temporary worker as a stopgap solution to permanent labor became an entirely normative employment alternative to permanent work.
Therefore, temporary workers no longer represented a substitute for permanent workers on leave but became semi-permanent, precarious positions routinely subject to the threat of elimination because of fluctuations in a company's products. In the context of today's temporary labor force, both people and positions have become temporary, and temporary agencies use the temporary worker in a systematic and planned, as opposed to impromptu manner.
As the market began to transform from Fordism to a post-Fordist regime of capital accumulation, the social regulation of labor markets and the very nature of work began to shift. This transformation has been characterized by an economic restructuring that emphasized flexibility within spaces of work, labor markets, employment relationships, wages and benefits. And indeed, global processes of neoliberalism and market rule contributed greatly to this increasing pressure put on local labor markets towards flexibility. This greater flexibility within labor markets is important at the global level, particularly within OECD countries and liberal market economies (see liberal market economy).
The temporary labor industry is worth over €157 billion per year, and the largest agencies are spread across over 60 nations. The biggest temporary work agencies are most profitable in emerging economies of the Global North, and those that have undergone market liberalization, deregulation and (re)regulation.
The desire to market flexible, adaptable temporary workers has become a driving, monetary oriented objective of the temporary work industry. This has caused individual agencies to adopt practices that focus on competition with other firms, that promote “try before you buy” practices and that maximize their ability to produce a product: the temporary worker. Through this process, the ideal temporary worker has today become largely imagined, produced and marketed by temporary agencies.
A temporary work agency may be distinct from a recruitment firm, which seeks to place permanent employees, but there is often a large overlap: a permanent employee may start out as a "try-before-you-buy" trial temporary worker.
A temporary work agency may have a standard set of tests to judge the competence of the secretarial or clerical skills of an applicant. An applicant is hired based on their scores on these tests, and is placed into a database. Companies or individuals looking to hire someone temporarily contact the agency and describe the skill set they are seeking. A temporary employee is then found in the database and is contacted to see if they would be interested in taking the assignment.
When a temporary employee agrees to an assignment, they receive instructions pertaining to the job. The agency also provides information on correct work attire, work hours, wages, and whom to report to. If a temporary employee arrives at a job assignment and is asked to perform duties not described when they accepted the job, they may call an agency representative for clarification. If they choose not to continue on the assignment based on these discrepancies, they will most likely lose pay and may undermine chances at other job opportunities. However, some agencies guarantee an employee a certain number of hours pay if, once the temporary employee arrives, there is no work or the work isn't as described. Most agencies do not require an employee to continue work if the discrepancies are enough to make it difficult for the employee to actually do the work.
It is up to the temporary employee to keep in constant contact with the agency when not currently working on an assignment; by letting the agency know that they are available to work they are given priority over those who may be in the agency database who have not made it clear that they are ready and willing to take an assignment. A temporary work agency employee is the exclusive employee of the agency, not of the company in which they are placed (although subject to legal dispute). The temporary employee is bound by the rules and regulations of their direct employer, even if they contrast with those of the company in which they are placed.
Throughout this literature, scholars have argued that neoliberal (see neoliberalism) policies have been a prominent component in the erosion of the standard employment relationship. This precarious new model of employment has greatly reduced the worker’s ability to negotiate and, in particular, with the introduction of advanced technology (that can easily replace the worker), reduced the temp’s bargaining power. It has been suggested that labour regulations in North America do little in addressing labour market insecurities and the precarious nature of temporary labour. In many cases, legislation has done little to acknowledge or adapt to the growth of non-standard employment in Canada.