Contingent Work and Its Contradictions: Towards a Moral Economy Framework



Bolton SC, Houlihan M & Laaser K (2012) Contingent Work and Its Contradictions: Towards a Moral Economy Framework. Journal of Business Ethics, 111 (1), pp. 121-132.

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.

HRM; Contingent work; Employment; Moral economy; Ethics; Human flourishing; Personnel management ; Economics Moral and ethical aspects

Journal of Business Ethics: Volume 111, Issue 1

Publication date30/11/2012
PublisherSpringer Verlag

People (2)


Professor Sharon Bolton

Professor Sharon Bolton

Emeritus Professor, Management, Work and Organisation

Dr Knut Laaser

Dr Knut Laaser

Lecturer, Management, Work and Organisation