Towards a new web of rules. An international review of institutional experimentation to strengthen employment protections

Publication Date11 Feb 2019
AuthorChris F. Wright,Alex J. Wood,Jonathan Trevor,Colm McLaughlin,Wei Huang,Brian Harney,Torsten Geelan,Barry Colfer,Cheng Chang,William Brown
SubjectHR & organizational behaviour,Industrial/labour relations,Employment law
Towards a new web of rules
An international review of
institutional experimentation to
strengthen employment protections
Chris F. Wright
University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia
Alex J. Wood
University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
Jonathan Trevor
Said Business School, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
Colm McLaughlin
University College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland
Wei Huang
School of Labor and Human Resources, Renmin University of China,
Beijing, China
Brian Harney
Dublin City University, Dublin, Ireland
Torsten Geelan
University of Leicester, Leicester, UK
Barry Colfer
University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
Cheng Chang
Capital University of Economics and Business, Beijing, China, and
William Brown
University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to review institutional experimentationfor protecting workers
in response to the contraction of the standard employment relationship and the corresponding rise of
non-standardforms of paid work.
Design/methodology/approach The paper draws on the existing research and knowledge base of the
authors as well as a thorough review of the extant literature relating to: non-standard employment contracts;
sources of labour supply engaging in non-standard work; exogenous pressures on the employment
relationship; intermediaries that separate the management from the control of labour; and entities that
subvert the employment relationship.
Findings Post-war industrial relations scholars characterised the traditional regulatory model of collective
bargaining and the standard employment contract as a web of rules. As work relations have become more
market mediated, new institutional arrangements have developed to govern these relations and regulate the
terms of engagement. The paper argues that these are indicative of an emergent patchwork of ruleswhich
are instructive for scholars, policymakers, workersrepresentatives and employers seeking solutions to the
contraction of the traditional regulatory model.
Research limitations/implications While the review of the institutional experimentation is potentially
instructive for developing solutions to gaps in labour regulation, a drawback of this approach is that there are
limits to the realisation of policy transfer. Some of the initiatives discussed in the paper may be more effective
than others for protecting workers on non-standard contracts, but further research is necessary to test their
effectiveness including in different contexts.
Employee Relations:
The International Journal
Vol. 41 No. 2, 2019
pp. 313-330
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/ER-10-2018-0259
Received 2 October 2018
Revised 7 November 2018
Accepted 19 November 2018
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Towards a new
web of rules
Social implications The findings indicate that a task ahead for the representatives of government, labour
and business is to determine how to adapt the emergent patchwork of rules to protect workers from the new
vulnerabilities created by, for example, employer extraction and exploitation of their individual bio data,
social media data and, not far off, their personal genome sequence.
Originality/value The paperaddresses calls to examine theinstitutional intersectionsthathave informed
the changingways that work is conducted and regulated. These intersections transcendinternational, national,
sectoral and localunits of analysis, as well as supply chains, fissured organisationaldynamics, intermediaries
and online platforms. The analysis also encompasses the broad range of stakeholders including businesses,
labour and community groups, nongovernmental organisations and online communities that have influenced
changing institutional approaches to employment protection.
Keywords Employment relations, Fissured work, Gig economy, Institutional experimentation,
Labour activism, Non-standard work
Paper type Research paper
The post-war emergence of the standard employment relationship in the form of full-time
ongoing employment contracts represented a progressive innovation that provided workers
in advanced economies with income, job and social security (Fudge, 2017). In Britain, the
proportion of workers covered by the standard employment relationship has declined in
recent decades (Brown and Wright, 2018). This development is also evident in many other
advanced economies especially, though not exclusively, the Anglo-Americanor liberal
market economies (Kochan and Riordan, 2016).
At the same time, non-standardforms of paid work, in particular, have increased.
These include temporary and fixed-term arrangements where employment protections are
typically contingent and market-mediatedcontracts where such protections are absent
(Kalleberg, 2011). These trends have been further enabled and enhanced by online platforms
and the rise of the so called sharingor gigeconomy (WEF, 2018). The purpose of this
paper is to survey the various disparate forms of institutional experimentation for
protecting employment conditions. It aims to provide insights into how policymakers,
workersrepresentatives and responsible employers have responded to the decline of the
standard employment relationship. It addresses calls to move beyond traditional modes of
understanding and analysis focusing on a gloomy landscape(Las Heras, 2018) to analyse
a more dynamic and diverse array of regulatory systems(Wright, Wailes, Bamber and
Lansbury, 2017, p. 246).
The growth of non-standard employment has been underpinned by a fracturing of
the mechanisms that traditionally sustained the standard employment relationship,
particularly union representation and sectoral collective bargaining. Several factors
have driven these changes. First, the internationalisation and fragmentation of business
activity and ownership has greatly increased product and financial market competition,
while weakening the bargaining power of traditionally organised labour. This has
driven changes in how business contractually engages its workforce (Brown, 2008;
Rubery,2015).Second,information,communication, manufacturing and transportation
technologies have transformed supply chains (Trevor, 2016). This has facilitated flexible
forms of accumulation, with production, distribution and finance increasingly enmeshed
within global networks (Castells, 1996; Harvey, 2011; Silver, 2003). Third, the period of
austerityfollowing the global financial crisis led to downward pressure on wages and
a marked increase in contingent forms of work (Schömann and Clauwaert, 2012).
Bailout agreements for crisis-stricken economies, including Greece, Ireland and
Portugal, were conditional on labour market reforms that promoted non-standard
employment (Colfer, 2018). Finally, changes in the contractual forms and regulation of
work are often presented as inevitable outcomes of global competition. However, they
reflect the dominant ideology of employers (Dundon et al., 2010) and the conscious

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