Ghosts in the labour market: A qualitative study of the health and wellbeing of informal workers in the Northern suburbs of Adelaide, South Australia

Author: Miriam Vandenberg

Vandenberg, Miriam, 2020 Ghosts in the labour market: A qualitative study of the health and wellbeing of informal workers in the Northern suburbs of Adelaide, South Australia, Flinders University, College of Medicine and Public Health

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The International Labor Organisation estimates that two billion people work in the informal economy around the world. In Australia, informal employment is said to be a major contributor to Australia’s ‘black economy’, which is estimated to be ‘much larger’ than official reports of 1.5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Whatever the size of the informal economy in Australia, little is known about informal employment, let alone how it effects workers’ health and wellbeing. This PhD contributes to filling this knowledge gap.

Using a social determinants of health lens, this PhD aimed to answer the following research questions.

• What do informal workers in the northern suburbs of Adelaide (South Australia) perceive are the health effects of their involvement in informal employment?

• How do social determinants of health interact to influence the health of informal workers in the northern suburbs of Adelaide?

• How do social structures influence informal employment in the northern suburbs of Adelaide?

The study was conducted within a critical paradigm and theorist, Pierre Bourdieu’s analytical tools were applied to understand how workers enter, navigate and experience the field of informal employment. Informal workers aged 18 years and over, who were undertaking legal work activities, were recruited using social media and an online marketplace in Adelaide, Australia during 2018. Qualitative, narrative data and quantitative demographic, and physical and mental health scores were collected.

Twenty-nine participants of various genders, ages (18-67 years), ethnicity and education levels participated in the study. Most informal workers reported unfair and indecent employment conditions including job insecurity, low income, coercion, and lack of respect and dignity at work; and were often exposed to unsafe and unhealthy work environments. Workplace injuries and exposure to occupational hazards were common; and physical and mental health component scores were poorer among informal workers when compared to the population of South Australia as a whole. Conversely, some workers described positive outcomes associated with informal employment, including greater flexibility and control over their work arrangements. For these participants, informal work was reported as being conducive to better health, particularly mental wellbeing.

Informal employment in Australia is framed in this PhD as ‘acts of everyday resistance’ against dominant social structures, that on the one hand offer hope and opportunity, while at the same time creating oppression, and opening the door for exploitation and exposure to unjust workplace relations. This oppression, I argue, is largely associated with one of the defining features of informal employment—invisibility. When combined with other vulnerabilities in people’s lives, this is likely to have an important impact on health and wellbeing; and may be one reason for some of the very low mental health component scores observed in this study.

With informal employment in Australia described as part of a ‘significant, pervasive, damaging and growing’ problem, the need for enhanced employment policies, aimed at ensuring equitable access to fair and decent work, in the interest of creating a healthier society, is paramount.

Keywords: Informal employment, informal work, unacceptable work, social determinants of health, Australia

Subject: Public Health thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2020
School: College of Medicine and Public Health
Supervisor: Fran Baum