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Special Issue Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research Year : 2018

Work and employment grey zones: new ways to apprehend emerging labour market norms



Attempts to use or adapt categories and mind-sets still anchored in the 20th century wage labour society in order to comprehend work practices in global labour markets are now commonly recognised to have reached their functional limits of significance. The five articles published in this issue of Transfer take a different approach. They propose problematics that find coherence in the far-reaching changes in employment relationship norms in the context of globalisation, through what they term as ‘work and employment grey zones’, an alternative to dualistic approaches. The introductory article, by Marie-Christine Bureau and Patrick Dieuaide, presents the problematics of work and employment grey zones. It sets out the overall framework for comparison of the variety of work situations and their underlying rationales, presented in the articles that follow, that are out of sync with established norms and categories. Beyond the recognised blurring of legal boundaries between wage labour and independent work, these work phenomena arise within, outside or on the margins of employment norms. More broadly, the analysis emphasises the usefulness of the notion of grey zones in depicting the singularity and diversity of the dynamics of 21st century labour market transformations and institutional changes. These dynamics, or mechanisms of change, include: the ‘decoherence’ of employment categories on account of the proliferation of areas of legal voids and the strategies adopted by numerous stakeholders tending towards ever more porous rules; the multiplicity of norms and of the scales at which they interact; and the disconnection between the spheres of public policies and the beneficiaries who actually have access to them. As national authorities and regulations are being undermined, the notion, as it is defined here, provides insight into how employment norms compete, from the global North to the global South, in an unequally globalising economy. A multi-dimensional typology of grey zones, each one of which constitutes its own ‘regulatory order’, serves as the basis for a comparative analysis of the highly diverse work situations and labour markets discussed. This includes emerging ‘grey zone figures’ or categories of actors, who, individually or collectively through their identity and practices, embody the dynamics of changes in employment norms. For instance, employers and workers alike have attempted to circumvent, to their own advantage, the constraints of subordination, the central mechanism of employment relations in industrial economies. Such arrangements may or may not become instituted and develop from temporary or stop-gap measures into new forms of regulation. The article concludes by demonstrating how work and employment grey zones contribute to institutional analysis. When actors, interactions and resources mobilised are brought together, they themselves become alternative processes of institutionalisation. Marie-Christine Bureau and Antonella Corsani take two case studies in France. The cases are both what the authors term ‘instituting factories’ (fabriques instituantes)1, that experiment with non-hierarchical forms of decision-making, organisation and coordination, where innovative regulatory arrangements are introduced. The unemployment social insurance and social security schemes for ‘intermittent’ workers in the performing arts are called ‘exceptional zones’ here, given these workers’ complex, discontinuous work statuses, the renegotiation of which is a source of tension between trade unions, employers and the state. Managing these tensions, including through collective activism and the expertise of the workers themselves, endows this grey zone with a capacity of resilience. The case of Coopaname, a Business and Employment Cooperative (BEC), illustrates how its management used this zone of indetermination to gain long sought-after legal recognition for the hybrid figure of the ‘entrepreneur-employee’ and to initiate innovative cooperative forms. Ground-breaking experiments are conducted in an attempt to produce democratic decision-making structures and new forms of social protection for members. The distinction between a de facto employer and a de jure employer forms the background to the article by Patrick Dieuaide. It studies how the human resources policies of Western transnational groups affect employment relationships in Central and Eastern Europe. The ‘recodification of the employment relationship’ in the context of globalisation can be understood only in dynamic terms as an area outside the law that is inaccessible to national labour legislation. The legal and economic subordination of employees to their employer in local subsidiaries overlaps with the commercial subordination of subsidiaries to parent companies worldwide. This dual asymmetry of power allows top management to juggle with different levels of intervention – global, national, local – and play them off against each other, establishing internal systems of social regulation within contract terms. While this managerial regulation is increasingly autonomous from national industrial relations systems, these grey zones in globalisation tend to reinforce forms of hierarchical links. Olivier Giraud and Arnaud Lechevalier analyse aspects of the labour market in Germany. Grey zones are used to reflect the in-depth reconstruction of the structure and operating rules of German labour markets. The proliferation of categories of employment and the growing dissonance between those categories and the realities of employment blur the meanings of terms and give rise to a process of differentiation. In this space of reintermediation, the article shows that the widespread view of the German model of co-determination, dominated by internal markets and the dualisation of the labour market, is not relevant. This model is gradually giving way to the rise of a more flexible and competitive regulatory order. The authors make their claim through the analysis of two phenomena that have developed since the 1990s and have their own particular dynamics: (i) the rise of precariousness and insecurity in wage employment, taking the example of the new employment category of student traineeships, and (ii) the traditional category of independent or solo workers and how it has been distorted. The emerging forms of employment regulation are influenced by collective mobilisations and appropriations by both social actors (young people’s unions, political parties and consultancy firms) and the workers themselves. Depending on the strategies of the actors involved, these work situations can be perceived as spaces of precariousness or of transition towards more stable employment. Cinara Rosenfield studies self-entrepreneurship in Brazil, an emerging form of social insertion through work outside the framework of wage labour, in the context of flexible capitalism. There, the informal sector still plays a major role and the self-entrepreneurial regime has become an issue of public policy, one that promotes a new norm resting on a political, but also a cultural and symbolic, basis. This status is meant to help workers find their way out of the informal sector by encouraging them to internalise the values of self-management. This gives rise to a grey zone that entails a permanent state of tension between autonomy and subordination at the very heart of the new norm of self-entrepreneurship. The tension is associated with a constant to and fro between formal and informal sectors, but also a segmentation of self-entrepreneurs, as illustrated by the author. The approach brings to light a rather imperfect employment norm that is a source of discrimination and other forms of injustice. In this new ‘employment regime’, being self-employed and managing oneself means experiencing the paradox of more individual freedom and the simultaneous weakening of collective bonds and cooperative support systems. In a context of individualisation of employment norms, the notion of work and employment grey zones is a tool for understanding the gaps between emerging forms of employment and work relationships, using the ‘standard’ norm as a reference. But, above all, it is a way of grasping their meaning and highlighting how emerging employment norms either destabilise existing industrial relations systems or, on the contrary (and very frequently), help to institute new forms of regulation. The articles presented in this issue set out the challenges facing trade unionism in the face of processes that have been under way for a generation, such as the individualisation of work situations and the circumventing of rules. As editors of this issue, we hope that this special issue will help labour organisations to devise constructive ways of steering and regulating these new forms of work relationship in a way that helps to articulate new forms of citizenship at work in the collective interests of workers. Jean-Yves Boulin, IRISSO-Paris Dauphine University, France and Donna Kesselman, Université Paris-Est Créteil, France Footnote 1 We use the term ‘factories’ as a metaphor, referring to a production space where institutions (instead of manufactured goods) are designed and produced.



Dates and versions

hal-04188342 , version 1 (25-08-2023)



Jean-Yves Boulin, Donna Kesselman. Work and employment grey zones: new ways to apprehend emerging labour market norms. Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research, 24 (3), pp.257-259, 2018, ⟨10.1177/1024258918785104b⟩. ⟨hal-04188342⟩
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