Recalibrated expectations: A qualitative longitudinal investigation into precarious work and industry closure

Author: Gemma Beale

Beale, Gemma, 2022 Recalibrated expectations: A qualitative longitudinal investigation into precarious work and industry closure, Flinders University, College of Business, Government and Law

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In October of 2017, General Motors Holden’s Elizabeth plant produced its last red commodore and, in doing so, marked the end of 70 years of motor vehicle assembly operations in Australia. This closure was distinct from past closures in that although it happened during a period of relative economic stability, there had been a clear and well-documented deterioration in job stability and job quality in Australia over the three preceding decades. To date, there has been relatively little research into the impact of high rates of precarious employment on closures and other mass unemployment events. And, of that pool of research, even less has explored the intersection of these two issues in the Australian landscape. This thesis addressed that oversight.

Through the design and application of a unique longitudinal, qualitative framework, this thesis’ original contribution to knowledge is the confirmation that precarious work poses a significant risk to workers’ transition experiences following large scale job loss. By focusing explicitly and exclusively on the presence and impact of precarious work on worker’s experiences of employment transition, it proves that job quality must become a central consideration for future worker transition support programs.

This thesis uses data collected throughout a longitudinal study consisting of three waves of one-on-one semi-structured interviews, conducted at 6-month intervals, with 28 former South Australian automotive manufacturing workers, totalling 79 interviews. It employs a constructivist grounded theory approach and a longitudinal design in order to link the pragmatist intention of democratic social reform with critical inquiry through self-conscious reflexivity.

The automotive industry was a central producer of secure full-time employment and an anchor for one of the most vertically integrated and complex value chains in Australia. Its closure marked a significant step in the deindustrialisation of the Australian economy, but it also stands out as a significant moment of change for individual workers and their families and communities.

The central finding of this thesis is that, in the almost three years (29 months) following the industry closure, the only participants not to experience at least one component of precarious work were the three participants who were unable to secure any work. The longitudinal design enabled the researcher to track exposure to precarious work overtime to show that participants’ exposure to each of the elements of precarious work fluctuated over the course of the study. This important finding shows that participants’ employment outcomes were not static or linear.

The thesis adds to the literature on contemporary experiences of precarious employment and of industry closure. It provides a (South) Australian context to the experience of both large-scale closures and precarious work. In documenting the transition experiences of former automotive workers, it provides a valuable insight into the differing employment transition experiences of workers from a single large company, General Motors Holden, as compared to smaller supply-chain companies. In doing so, it provides an in-depth account of the human dimension of deindustrialisation and precarious employment, which is currently lacking.

It contributes to the methodological literature on precarious work through the construction of an operational, qualitative Framework for Employment In/Security for identifying the presence of precarious work based on four reoccurring components across the extant literature: employment in/security; working-time in/security; economic in/security and access to rights and entitlements.

Finally, this thesis uses the Framework for Employment In/Security as the basis for an experimental Conceptual Model for Employment In/security. The conceptual model is intended to be used as a way of interpreting and understanding the impact and value of secure and precarious work. It draws on the qualitative findings of this thesis, captured at an important moment of change in the Australian employment landscape, to advocate for a big picture understanding of employment security that is directly informed by workers’ experiences.

Interviewing these workers during this moment of change provided an insightful contrast between the incredibly secure work they were leaving and the varyingly precarious work most of them found. In doing so, the thesis found the value of secure work is not necessarily in the specifics of the task at hand, though that is also desirable, but in the stability and security that allows individuals to build friendships, families, and communities, and it is that which fosters the environment of love and fraternity that the participants of this thesis described.

Historic changes to the employment landscape are on the horizon as Australia begins to transition to a low-carbon economy. This thesis contributes to the literature by showing that precarious work poses a substantial risk to a genuinely just transition for workers who will be affected by those changes. It speaks to the importance of a holistic conception of the value of secure employment and establishes that precarious work must be directly and centrally addressed, as part of future transition programs, to ensure the successful and just transitions of affected workers

Keywords: precarious work, precarity, precarious employment, industry closure, automotive manufacturing, longitudinal, qualitative, transition, employment transition, just transition, Australia, grounded theory | precarious work, precarity, precarious employment, industry closure, automotive manufacturing, longitudinal, qualitative, transition, employment transition, just transition, Australia, grounded theory

Subject: Business thesis, Business thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2022
School: College of Business, Government and Law
Supervisor: Prof. John Spoehr