EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Atypical work

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Atypical work refers to employment relationships that do not conform to the standard or ‘typical’ model of full-time, regular, open-ended employment with a single employer over a long time span. The latter, in turn, is defined as a socially secure, full-time job of unlimited duration, with standard working hours guaranteeing a regular income and, via social security systems geared towards wage earners, securing pension payments and protection against ill-health and unemployment.

Atypical work includes part-time work, temporary work, fixed-term work, casual and seasonal work, self-employed people, independent workers and homeworkers. Although the number of workers in non-standard employment has grown significantly over the past two decades, these workers continue to be regarded as being in ‘atypical’ employment.

In terms of legal regulation, the debate has thus focused on the distinction between ‘typical’ and ‘atypical’ employment, which is the result of the disintegration of the standard employment relationship and the emergence of new forms of work in recent years. There is also an important gender dimension to the debate on atypical work, with men being disproportionately represented in standard employment relationships and increasing numbers of women in the labour force working under atypical conditions.

At EU level, the regulation of atypical work has taken a number of directions. One was an attempt to formulate a new legal concept of worker/employee so that the legal category of ‘employment’ and the criterion of subordination should not be used as the crude instrument for making distinctions between workers. The Commission’s 2006 Green Paper, Modernising labour law to meet the challenges of the 21st century, noted the increase in the proportion of non-standard or atypical contracts, with a strong gender and intergenerational dimension, as women, older and also younger workers were disproportionately represented in non-standard employment. Policy debates about the labour market situation of young people also note that young workers tend to be disproportionately employed on atypical employment contracts.

A second direction is to focus attention on the issue of working time. The starting point is that workers with different working time schedules should not necessarily be excluded from consideration with regard to labour standards. European law on atypical workers reflects how the grounds for discrimination have been extended. The right of atypical workers to equal treatment, regardless of characteristics such as sex, race, age and disability, highlights a new dimension of the equality principle in equality law. It requires equal treatment of workers, regardless of working hours, duration of employment, place of work or the nature of the employment relationship. These concepts were key in the directives on part-time work and on fixed-term work. Directive 97/81/EC (15 December 1997) on part-time work embodies the non-discrimination principle so that such workers have the right to equal treatment. A similar model applies in relation to fixed-term work (Directive 1999/70/EC). Both directives are outcomes of the European cross-sector social dialogue on the basis of articles 154 and 155 TFEU.

In relation to telework, a European autonomous framework agreement between the EU social partners, signed on 16 July 2002, regulates areas such as employment conditions, health and safety, training and collective rights. In the area of temporary agency work Directive 2008/104/EC contains a range of important employment rights that relate to temporary agency workers, essentially laying down the principle of non-discrimination  regarding essential conditions of work and of employment between temporary workers and workers who are recruited by the user company.

Eurofound carried out research in 2010 into very atypical forms of employment in the EU, such as very short fixed-term contracts of less than six months duration, part-time work of fewer than 10 hours a week, non-written contracts and zero-hours or on-call working. The research found that while the incidence of non-standard forms of work is thought to be increasing, a high degree of variety is evident across Europe in the use of each type of ‘very atypical’ contract, mostly determined by each country’s economic background. Although it is difficult to determine trends with any reliability, the research found that the types of workers engaged in very atypical forms of work tend to be extremely varied, ranging from very low-skilled workers on seasonal contracts to highly-skilled professionals on short, task-focused contracts; clearly, the work situation of these two categories differs radically. Some sectoral characteristics are also visible: for example, seasonal working, which involves short fixed-term contracts, is prevalent in sectors such as agriculture, or tourism and hotels, while zero-hours working tends to be common in the retail sector and in some parts of the public and care sectors.

Research carried out in 2013 by the ETUI on atypical forms of employment contracts in times of crisis notes that the recent economic recession has had a severe impact on workers on atypical contracts. During the first phase of the crisis, atypical workers were among the first to lose their jobs. Furthermore, in order to cope with fluctuations in demand, new jobs were created on a temporary or fixed-term basis in order to give employers more flexibility.

Most recently, a 2015 Eurofound report found that a range of new forms of employment are emerging that are different from traditional standard or non-standard employment in a number of ways: some transform the relationship between employer and employee, some change work organisation and work patterns, and some do both. The report identifies nine forms of employment that are new or have become increasingly important in Europe since 2000: employee sharing; job sharing; interim management; casual work; ICT-based mobile work; voucher-based work; portfolio work; crowd employment; collaborative employment.

The debate on atypical work and precariousness is discussed in a 2016 European Parliament study, which finds that all types of work, including standard contracts, are exposed to some risk of precariousness, although some types of atypical work have a higher risk than others and the degree of risk is influenced by the situation of the individual.

See also: casual work;crowd employment; economically dependent worker; employee sharing; fixed-term work; ICT-based mobile work;  job sharing; new forms of workpart-time work; part-time work; seasonal work; self-employed person; undeclared work; work-life balance.; zero-hours contracts.

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