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Unacceptable forms of work: A global and comparative study

Unacceptable forms of work (UFW) have been identified by the International Labour Organization (ILO) as work in conditions that deny fundamental principles and rights at work, put at risk the lives, health, freedom, human dignity and security of workers or keep households in conditions of poverty (ILO, 2013a, para. 49). This notion of UFW has emerged as an area of critical importance for the Organization just prior to the ILO’s centenary.

The attempt to identify UFW – and to eliminate them – is a recognition of the complexity of improving contemporary working life in the early twenty- first century. It has become apparent to both researchers and policy-makers that in countries around the world there are cohorts of working people that are profoundly adrift from decent work. These working lives are singled out in the national and international debates through a range of terminology: precarious work, vulnerable workers, informal employment, etc. The diverse terminology betrays a degree of confusion about how to identify, categorize, and improve these working relations. Each of the relevant debates, however, conveys a set of guiding insights: that certain workers are labouring in unacceptable conditions; that these working relationships are growing in many countries both in the global South and in the advanced industrialized economies; that these forms of work are centred among groups who are already at risk of social and economic disadvantage and exclusion – for example, women, the young, ethnic minorities, migrant workers; and that policies to improve these forms of work are both urgently needed and potentially an entry point for a broader social and economic upgrading.

Yet, there is an evolving awareness among researchers and policy-makers that one of the central tools for the improvement of working life – labour market regulation – is both intricate and challenging. Recent work recognizes that regulation is essential to equitable and prosperous societies, yet complex and unpredictable in its effects. Policy bodies once suspicious of labour market regulation have emerged from the global economic crisis with a new-found appreciation of its worth. The World Bank, for example, accepts the need for labour markets to be regulated in the interests of prosperity and equity: central dimensions of regulatory frameworks are no longer portrayed as inevitable inhibitors of jobs and growth (see, in particular, World Bank, 2012).

Yet a rapidly evolving academic literature highlights and explores regulatory indeterminacy (Deakin and Sarkar, 2008) – the tendency of regulatory interventions to generate divergent results in different socio-economic settings. This insight has birthed a literature that is identifying and examining the facets of this complexity: fragmentation that propels certain working relationships beyond legal frameworks, de jure or de facto, flawed enforcement mechanisms, etc. (see Lee and McCann, 2011; McCann et al., 2014).

At this key juncture in its history, then, the ILO faces an urgent challenge. In 1998, the Organization identified a set of fundamental rights and principles: universal demands that must be respected in all working relations. A decade later, the 2008 Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization stressed the indivisibility of the Organization’s objectives, confirming a sustained loyalty to the long-standing concerns of wages, working hours, safety and health, etc. As the ILO approaches its centenary, it is compelled to face a complex, yet inescapable, challenge: to secure the objectives of the twin Declarations it must identify and eliminate the most unacceptable forms of work. The notion of UFW, then, does not replace the Decent Work Agenda. It enhances the Agenda, sharpening its strategic focus and demanding prioritization of efforts and resources.

Yet the Organization recognizes that there is presently a need for further refining the key dimensions of UFW and for better understanding the causes of this phenomenon and how it manifests itself in different economic or regulatory contexts (ILO, 2014a, p. 19). To bridge these knowledge gaps, the ILO has called for “a more refined understanding concerning the dimensions and descriptors of [unacceptable forms of work] to guide practical action by the ILO and its constituency” (ILO, 2014b, p. 2).

This study contends that to fully realize the potential of the concept of UFW it is essential to engage with academic and policy discourses that pursue similar objectives (for more detail, see Chapter 1). A range of policy and academic work – drawing on diverse concepts and methodologies – considers how to identify and eliminate forms of work that are unacceptable. The study assesses the most significant of these discourses as a basis for developing a meaningful model of UFW. The report takes as the central purpose of identifying UFW to devise targeted social and economic policies that aim to eliminate or transform jobs that are entirely unacceptable. The aim is therefore to construct a robust conception of UFW that can be operationalized for research and policy intervention. Among the relevant discourses, further, the study has a particular focus on renditions of unacceptability in legal and regulatory spheres and therefore regulatory concepts, mechanisms, and outcomes.