Contingent Work: A Workers’ History

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Needless to say, contingent work is kind of a hot topic right now. But looking at the current contingent labour market, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a new thing. From ride-share app drivers, technical contractors to seasonal blue-collar workers, contingent work appears to be a new, recruitment fad.

Arguably, contingent work goes back far further. As with a lot of things, to understand where we are going, we need to understand how far we’ve come.

Exploring the past is an important part of understanding how we prepare for the future.

After all, Staffing Industry Analysts (SIA) research suggests that as much as 20% of all UK employment consists of temporary, contract, or independent work. According to Oxford Economics, 83% of executives worldwide say they are increasingly using contingent, intermittent, seasonal, or consultant employees.

So, what is contingent work?

Contingent work refers to situations where individuals carry out work for an organisation without technically being on the company’s payroll.

This can cover a wide range of situations and use cases, including but not limited to:

●     Seasonal workers

●     Freelancers

●     Independent contractors

●     Temp workers

●     Drivers for app-led services like Uber and Deliveroo

●     Informal ‘cash in hand’ work

●     Adjunct lecturers and substitute teachers

●     Locum healthcare professionals

Contingent workers may not be directly employed by the companies they do work for. But they can be heavily or solely dependent on one organisation to keep the money rolling in. For example, consider a freelance consultant who solely works on one statement of works contract at a time.

 A Worker History of Contingent Labour

Pre-Industrial Revolution: The Tale of Jane and the Two Blacksmiths

It was a brisk Monday morning in September 1670. In the town of Rattery, Devon, Jane Maddock awoke at “about three howers to day breakeing” to set off on horseback to Exeter.

Jane was far from alone in being awake so early. During her journey, her steed lost a shoe, and sought help from the blacksmith at Bickington around daybreak. However, this blacksmith had a very different routine to the joiner. The smith would not rise, so she rode on to Kingsteignton, where she had more luck.

This story illustrates how tradespeople and artisans of the time appeared relatively free to set their own working routines. The precision of ‘clock time’ was relatively unimportant. Workers’ roles revolved around doing what needed to be done during that time of the day or year, rather than clocking in and out at a set time. For all intents and purposes, many such tradespeople were the independent contractors of their day!

It may seem counterintuitive to harp on about this in 2022. With modern contingent workers now freer to work hours that suit them, we’re beginning to draw an interesting parallel.

An Industrial Revolution Begets a Worker’s Revolution

By 1700, England was already an industrial powerhouse, though not quite in the same way that we’d soon see. Most work was agricultural, though there were some small glimmers of industry. Sheffield, renowned for its cutlery; the West Midlands, a metalworking powerhouse; and Cornwall, known for its tin mining.

Everything considered, the Industrial Revolution was on the horizon. Despite this era being often heralded as a positive for all its ingenuity and productivity, the lives of workers were generally quite gruelling. Exploitation was rife, with 12 hour shifts, 6 days a week considered the norm. Professional arrangements were generally quite casual, with workers often paid on a fixed “piece rate” per product or service. All in all, like a lot of contingent work today.

Thankfully, the concept of workers’ rights wasn’t far behind. Legislation would follow suit, eventually abolishing child labour and permitting unions. There was also the first sparks of health and safety law, with the emancipation of women arriving shortly after.

Many of us will have learned about the Industrial Revolution in school as simply something that happened. However, few of us will have stopped to think about the drivers for change at play.

Industrialists became tempted to squeeze and shrink margins by exploiting their human resources in (sometimes literally) crippling ways. With the plight workers too great for the government to ignore, law was brought in to protect workers. This is a pattern that we see re-emerging in contingent work today.

The 1900s: Temp Work Becomes a Permanent Economy

Post-war, the next development to contingent labour came Stateside, with the rise of temp agencies. These agencies offered temporary and part-time clerical work to young women and housewives. Despite being marketed to women as a great way to earn a bit of extra cash, it was often exploitatively advertised to business owners:

Protected by the era’s gender biases, early temp leaders thus established a new sector of low-wage, unreliable work right under the noses of powerful labour unions. While greater numbers of employers in the post-war era offered family-supporting wages and health insurance, the rapidly expanding temp agencies established a different precedent by explicitly refusing to do so.


Yikes. It was here that the prospect of ‘renting’ workers through temping rather than ‘buying’ them through employment became well and truly entrenched within the labour market.

The Late 1900s: Dinosaur Juice Prices Skyrocket, Temporary Work Doubles

In the 80s, the economy was in a rocky place. The 1970’s oil price crisis, the 1983 Arabian Oil Embargo and western competition from emerging foreign markets all contributed to rather shaky finances.

In their 1992 paper, researchers Lonnie Golden and Eileen Appelbaum reported that temporary employment rose 2-and-a-half-fold between 1982 and 1988, dubbing it a temporary help boom”. They attribute this to the workforce favouring non-traditional work arrangements, a conclusion that we’ll learn hasn’t changed much. 

The researchers point out that demand for temporary roles and the diminishing power of trade unions allows “employers to exploit the labor [sic] cost savings of temporary hires”.

The New Millennium: The Rise of the Gig Economy

Fast forward to the 2008 recession, which had a significant impact on the workers of the world. Unemployment rose rapidly in 2008, staying at 90s levels until the economy started to recover following the 2012 double-dip recession.

Many workers were forced to find flexible, web-savvy ways to fill the gap in their earnings. New, digital platforms sprung up to serve this new, digital gig economy: Fiverr arrived in 2005; PeoplePerHour and Airbnb in 2008; and Uber in 2009.

However, the recession wasn’t just a flashpoint for change as far as workers were concerned. Permanent staff became a costly indulgence for struggling companies, and a more flexible, dynamic approach to recruitment was needed now more than ever. This likely contributed to rising use of the highly criticised zero-hour contracts. This move represented a false start to the flexible work economy we know today.

A Pandemic, A Brexit, and A Maturing Contingent Economy

After the 2008 recession, three huge factors forever changed the face of contingent work in the UK:

  • Brexit
  • Covid-19
  • IR35 legislation

Brexit: Are Workers Stronger Together?

Britain leaving the European Union had a profound impact on the UK workforce as a whole. The ONS showed that 2.31m EU nationals were working in the UK at the time that we left the union. Then a points-based system of immigration that assessed qualifications rather than a willingness to live and work came into play.

This left a gaping hole in the HR needs of industries who relied on so-called “low skilled” workers. Humorist Mark Steel, obviously working from different figures, puts it quite succinctly

Who could possibly have known in advance that getting rid of 188,000 people from abroad who did jobs here, would leave us with a workforce that was 188,000 short?

Aside from the extended seasonal workers scheme for the horticultural sector, UK businesses who relied on ‘low skilled’ workers are now limited to employing British and settled workers only. A limited talent market means many companies need to up their game in terms of recruiting, offering better pay, training and promotion prospects than they may have done before.

This may be difficult for small companies and industries with tight margins, so moving to more flexible, contingent models (as long as it’s approached legally and ethically, of course) could prove a valuable option. Namely, offering freedom and flexibility as a perk, rather than traditional job benefits.[1] [2] 

The Covid-19 Pandemic

The Coronavirus pandemic drove huge changes in the labour market. The means by which we interacted with the world in lockdown forced an increased need for residential deliveries. The manufacture and distribution of PPE became a core part of worldwide health infrastructure seemingly overnight. Brand new roles at testing and vaccine sites appeared as fast as the science became available.

But the main incentive for contingent work was probably quite reminiscent of the recessions in 2008-2012. The crushing economic impact of the pandemic left scores of people out of work, scrambling to find alternative sources of income. Yet income wasn’t the only drive: empathy was present in swathes. Retired healthcare professionals returned temporarily to help ease the strain on the NHS. Skilled craftspeople turned their attention to making and donating handmade PPE like masks and scrubs.

Despite the undeniable awfulness of the pandemic, many of us were grateful that it happened when it did. At a time when technology allowed us to meet friends, order goods, and allow some to work from home.

This silver lining in itself had a silver lining. The #WFH movement taught us that the concept of physically commuting to a job you could do from wherever wasn’t the universal pinnacle of productive perfection we’d been conditioned to believe. Many seasoned commuters felt the freedom of working from home for the first time: setting their own routine, and working with their personal responsibilities and limitations rather than against them. It was a real watershed moment for a lot of the working world.

Both workers and organisations alike used working from home as a test case for their own remote working arrangements, with many organisations making the permanent move to flexible working.

Legislation Catches Up with Contingent Work

Just as the rule of law was used to rein in the exploitative practices of industrial-era business owners, it is now being used to leash the exploitative power of organisations. Especially those using contingent work to skirt tax liabilities and employment responsibilities.

The release of national legislation like IR35 and case law precedents being set by the likes of Uber BV v Aslam will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on contingent worker rights and wellbeing.

We don’t think that this new legislative action is going to spell the end for contingent work – far from it. It’s just proof that the concept of contingent labour and gig economy work is maturing.

Similar legislation is being signed into law across the globe, and this is unlikely to change as we head into the future. Some contingent work recruiters are a little concerned by it, but as long as it’s fair and protects workers from exploitative practices, we’re all for it!

Looking to The Future of Contingent Work

We believe that contingent labour is stronger than ever, and will continue to go from strength to strength.

Even before the pandemic, 82% of American Millennials said they’d value the ability to work their own hours, from anywhere. 53% of Gen X, 62% of Millennials, and 63% of Gen Z said they were willing to become a contingent worker in future.

Many members of the modern workforce are seeing work flexibility as an essential perk of a job rather than something that’s just ‘nice to have’. 

With many workers seeking to redress the work-life balance that many of us realise has fallen out of whack, some appear willing to trade the old-fashioned stability of a “regular job” with the added freedom of contingent work. Contingent workers have the freedom to accept work that’s more on their terms.

What does this mean for employers?

Contingent labour benefits employers too. Recruiters can pick up and put down experts and extra pairs of hands at will. Companies can flexibly engage and disengage workers as demand fluctuates, and they don’t have to go to the expense of creating permanent roles that they aren’t 100% sure will be needed in a year’s time.

We’re currently in the midst of a very knowledge-driven-yet-talent-scarce economy, so knowledge workers with specific skill sets are hugely in-demand. Some of those skills may be required for a one-off project, or needed quickly. This need for skilled brains on a flexible basis is fertile ground for knowledge workers operating on contingent agreements as companies realise the need for agility and flexibility in their own talent requirements.

This is why we see contingent work going from strength to strength in future. Because the drivers for change are now coming equally from recruiters and from the workers themselves.

But let’s not get too hung up with the ‘us and them’ of recruiters and workers. 

Contingent labour helps both recruiters and contingent talent stay innovative, fresh, and vibrant. Stick to the 9-5 hivemind and both parties risk becoming a treadmill of the same ideas, trapped in a creative rut.

But the danger is higher for employers – keep to the sticklerish ways of the industrialist, and you risk becoming an unattractive place to work.

Ready to change better?