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Contingent work

Contingent work, also sometimes known as casual work, is a neologism which describes a type of employment relationship between an employer and employee. There is no universally agreed consensus on what type of working arrangement constitutes contingent work, but it is generally considered to be work with at least one of the following characteristics:

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.

If a job is full time, permanent, and pays a regular salary or a fixed wage for regular hours, it is usually not considered to be contingent work.

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 organizations that have a high staff turnover, may be considered contingent work but may not be casual.


  • Industrial Revolution 1
  • Trade union movement 2
  • 20th century decline in manufacture 3
  • Contingent work in culture 4
  • Critics of the concept 5
  • Further reading 6
  • See also 7

Industrial Revolution

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

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, and that the hiring and firing is as fast as the food. But this is not zero-hour contract, whereby the employee is on-call, but MUST turn up for work, even if the hours is completely not guaranteed, and may only last as short as an hour one week. The practice of zero-hour contract are, however, practiced and documented in fast food businesses in New Zealand and United Kingdom.

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 realized only in middle class jobs, whose entry barriers are too high for most workers with below-average earnings.

Further reading

  • Contingent Work: American Employment Relations in Transition, edited by Kathleen Barker and Kathleen Christensen, ISBN 0801484057

See also

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