Skip to Content

A precarious labour market: Re-thinking employment through finance

Created: 04 Jun 2013


There is much written about changes in the labour market in Australia and elsewhere. It often goes under the heading of labour market 'deregulation', where the argument is that the state is playing a lesser role in overseeing work and pay. Of course, labour markets are never 'deregulated'. Indeed, the extent of laws pertaining to forms and conditions of employment are as extensive as they ever have been. The term 'deregulation' is best understood as a somewhat rhetorical way of saying that labour regulations and wage bargaining have changed to give more power to employers.  The analysis presented in this paper gives substance to that conclusion.

Nonetheless, these familiar debates remain very state-centred (and normative) – about what the role of government regulation of employment contracts SHOULD be. Our focus is discernibly different. Our concern is how financialization – calculation based on risk, and framing things in terms of liquidity and derivatives – is driving many changes in the labour market. Our proposition, put simply, is that changing employment relations are about breaking the employment contract down into constituent elements especially in terms of their contribution to profit making for an employer, and thereby revealing the range of risks that lie within employment relations. We observe that this decomposition has enabled a dramatic shift of risk from employers to employees, with the consequence that work and the income derived from it is, for most people, increasingly precarious.


Mike Rafferty is an ARC Future Fellow in the School of Business at the University of Sydney. His research engages issues of financial markets and low-wage workers, and international capital flows.

Dick Bryan is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. He currently holds an ARC DORA, researching, inter alia, how, in the absence of stable monetary units of measure, households are being rethought in financial analysis as anchoring the unit of value.

Together they have published for extensively on the 'derivative form' and how this financial innovation is impacting on wider social relations.