Temporary employment services (temporary agency) work : the South African case

Barreto, Ronelle Nicchia (2020) Temporary employment services (temporary agency) work : the South African case. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


The sharp increase in flexible and externalised work patterns over recent decades has caused concern on the part of trade unions and national and international organisations promoting labour interests. Industrial and employment relations academics have sought to measure and document the changes and consider the space for alternative approaches and outcomes that are more favourable to workers and their unions. While the literature is dominated by pessimistic perspectives regarding the negative consequences of global trends of flexibilisation and employment degradation, research on the potential for the state and other actors to exercise agency and regulate the use of labour market flexibility is of the utmost importance. Against this background, this thesis makes a notable contribution. It provides in-depth, contextual case study analysis from South Africa of both current strategies of temporary employment services (TES) firms and of experts’ views regarding the current and likely impact of legislative interventions aimed at regulating temporary agency work. In South Africa the comparatively privileged political and institutional position of trade unions combined with prevailing societal views regarding the necessity to protect workers against abuse, has underpinned a radical intervention by government in the form of legislation mandating parity in treatment between temporary agency and permanent employees, and including a provision whereby temporary employment service workers are ‘deemed’ to be employees of the client firm after a period of three months. This thesis presents empirical evidence on trends and drivers in temporary agency work in South Africa, uniquely drawing on in-depth interviews with industry experts addressing the experience and perspectives of the primary players, namely temporary employment firms, clients, workers and trade unions. This data is supplemented by interviews with various legal experts regarding the likely consequences of the regulatory changes and other secondary evidence. The findings highlight the quantitative scale of temporary employment services in South Africa. The need for some qualification of dualisation theories is suggested in that many workers remain on the books of TES firms and can therefore be seen as ‘partial insiders.’ While experts reported a reduction in prevalence of the most unscrupulous and unregulated TES firms as a consequence of the new legal framework, increasing use of ‘master vendor’ contracts seeking to avoid regulatory scrutiny was also identified. The legislation, as interpreted in recent court decisions, has the potential to effect very significant change in employer responsibilities towards TES workers. However, the potential for this to materialise in practice was seen to be limited due to the weakness of labour market enforcement mechanisms. For their part, South African trade unions are faced with multiple internal and operational challenges that impede their effectiveness in representing TES workers. The findings highlight the value of in-depth case study research of temporary employment practices within national institutional and regulatory frameworks and contribute to debates around actor agency and social movement responses to dominant economic trends. Limitations and suggestions for further research are identified.

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