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Professor Bisom-Rapp in Paris

December 8, 2011

Prof. Bisom-Rapp in Paris

Thomas Jefferson School of Law Professor Susan Bisom-Rapp traveled to Paris for the kickoff conference of the Grey Zone Project, a research project known as ZOGRIS in France. The conference, held December 7 – 10, was the first meeting for the more than 30 academics comprising the international ZOGRIS research team. This three-year comparative study aims to explore the rise of insecure forms of employment — independent contracting, temporary employment, leased working, short-term contracts, self-employed freelancers and the like — in a number of countries including, Brazil, the U.S., France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, and Peru. Of particular interest is the way these new employment relationships potentially increase inequality between groups of workers, and whether labor and employment laws must be amended to account for and cover those whose work deviates from full-time, long-term employment with a single employer. Funding for the three-year collaboration is provided by the French National Research Agency (Agence Nationale Recherche), a research funding organization established in 2005 by the French government.

“I was flattered and pleased to be invited to join the team by my friend, Professor Donna Kesselman (University of Paris-East (Creteil),” said Professor Bisom-Rapp. “It is a tremendous intellectual challenge to develop the concept of the ‘grey zone’ — a zone of work that is not illegal, like the informal sector or black market, and yet is non-standard and non-traditional, setting it apart from the predominant form of employment we are used to seeing.”

Professor Bisom-Rapp’s presentation detailed three key challenges facing the team. The first is a semantic challenge. More specifically, defining the grey zone is tricky business beset by disputed terminology. In the U.S., for example, non-traditional work arrangements are often referred to as “contingent employment,” and yet definitions of contingent employment vary. The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines contingent workers as “workers who do not expect their jobs to last.” In contrast, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) defines contingent work as “work that is other than standard full-time employment.”

A second challenge is empirical. Although these new forms of employment have proliferated, we do not have a good idea of how many such workers exist. In the U.S., for instance, there has not been a statistical survey of contingent workers done since 2005. In 2006, using data from that survey, the GAO estimated that there are 42.6 million contingent workers in the United States, representing almost one-third of the labor force. As an anecdotal matter, we do know these forms of employment have increased in the Great Recession. We do not know by how much. Further muddying the waters is employer misclassification. Estimates are that between 10-30 percent of U.S. companies misclassify employees as independent contractors in order to avoid making health insurance and other benefits available to them and to avoid payroll tax obligations.

The final challenge is regulatory. In many countries, including the U.S., non-traditional employees are not covered by protective labor and employment laws, such as unemployment insurance, wage and hour law, laws protecting the right to unionize, workers compensation law, and equal employment opportunity law.

“Depriving a significant group of American workers of legal protection is a serious problem,” noted Professor Bisom-Rapp.

Professor Bisom-Rapp’s specific ZOGRIS project will be looking at the occupational safety and health implications of grey zone employment. U.S. researchers and regulators have been concerned for some time about the physical and mental effects produced by new forms of employment and increasing employment insecurity. Of special concern are the risks facing vulnerable worker populations, including foreign born workers who lack legal authorization to work in the country. The majority of these workers are Spanish-speaking and they work in some of the most dangerous jobs in the economy.

Professor Bisom-Rapp is especially interested in non-traditional safety and health programming for these workers, in particular government funded programs based at UC Berkeley and UCLA. These programs, which are the focus of her ZOGRIS study, promote safe work through four mechanisms: capacity building (training workers to work safely and recognize hazardous situations); government agency navigation skills (teaching workers how to file and pursue legal claims and complaints about their working conditions); creating networks of civil society groups (facilitating connections between groups to support and advocate for undocumented workers); and creating incentives and mechanisms for information sharing between groups advocating on behalf of the undocumented.

The ultimate outcome of the anticipated three years of meetings will be the publication of at least one book compiling the work of the team. In between conferences, the team plans to communicate by using technology, including videoconferencing and Huddle, an interactive platform that allows for uploading and sharing documents.