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Contingent Work and Its Contradictions: Towards a Moral Economy Framework


  • Sharon Bolton


  • Maeve Houlihan


  • Knut Laaser



This article proposes the lens of moral economy as a useful ethical framework through which to assess HRM practice, with a particular focus on the strategic use of contingent work (‘non-standard’ employment practices including temporary, agency and outsourced work). While contingent work practices have a variety of impetuses we focus here on their strategic use in the pursuit of economic and flexibility goals. A review of the contingent work literature conveys mixed messages about its outcomes for individuals, and more opaquely, for organisations: on the one hand transferring risks yet on the other, creating opportunities. A moral economy lens views employment as a relationship rooted in a web of social dependencies, and considers that ‘thick’ relations produce valuable ethical surpluses that represent mutuality and human flourishing. Applying such an approach to the analysis of contingent work enables a fresh interpretation of contradictory individual and collective outcomes observed in the research literature. We suggest that evaluations informed by moral economy offer a more holistic appraisal of HRM practices such as contingent work, where both economic and social opportunities and costs can be more fully seen. In this way we not only highlight the ethical inadequacies of neglecting the human in HRM but also the conceptual pitfalls of analytically separating the economic from the social. Copyright Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Suggested Citation

  • Sharon Bolton & Maeve Houlihan & Knut Laaser, 2012. "Contingent Work and Its Contradictions: Towards a Moral Economy Framework," Journal of Business Ethics, Springer, vol. 111(1), pages 121-132, November.
  • Handle: RePEc:kap:jbuset:v:111:y:2012:i:1:p:121-132
    DOI: 10.1007/s10551-012-1439-7

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Michael D. S. Morris & Alexander Vekker, 2001. "An Alternative Look at Temporary Workers, Their Choices, and the Growth in Temporary Employment," Journal of Labor Research, Transaction Publishers, vol. 22(2), pages 373-390, April.
    2. Nikolay Nenovsky & S. Statev, 2006. "Introduction," Post-Print halshs-00260898, HAL.
    3. repec:cup:apsrev:v:88:y:1994:i:03:p:653-667_09 is not listed on IDEAS
    4. Leah F. Vosko, 2009. "Less than adequate: regulating temporary agency work in the EU in the face of an internal market in services," Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, Cambridge Political Economy Society, vol. 2(3), pages 395-411.
    5. Simon Peel & Peter Boxall, 2005. "When is Contracting Preferable to Employment? An Exploration of Management "and" Worker Perspectives," Journal of Management Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 42(8), pages 1675-1697, December.
    6. McGovern, Patrick & Hill, Stephen & Mills, Colin & White, Michael, 2007. "Market, Class, and Employment," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780199213382.
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    Cited by:

    1. Stéphanie Arnaud & David Wasieleski, 2014. "Corporate Humanistic Responsibility: Social Performance Through Managerial Discretion of the HRM," Journal of Business Ethics, Springer, vol. 120(3), pages 313-334, March.


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