In many sectors, particularly those with primarily low-skilled jobs, the use of temporary and often migrant workers is on the rise. While there are certain benefits to companies in using temporary migrant workers, their use may come at a cost. A study of the UK food manufacturing sector examined employee absence rates and the tools companies use to reduce absence issues. The results showed that companies were predominantly using punishment rather than reward techniques to combat absence. This study also found that settled migrant workers had similar absence behaviour to native workers, while newer transitory type migrant workers had less job commitment and were more likely to be absent from work.
Key Topics: Absence management; Temporary workers; Migration
Title of Reviewed Article: Absence management of migrant agency workers in the food manufacturing sector
Researchers: Benjamin Hopkins (University of Leicester), Chris Dawson (University of Bath), and Michail Veliziotis (University of the West of England).
Publication: The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 2016, Vol. 27 No. 10, pp. 1082-1100.
Setting the Scene
The days of a job for life are long gone in many industries, with the use of non-standard contracts becoming increasingly popular as companies look to gain a flexible and cost efficient workforce. Such contract types include the use of fixed-term contract workers (Hopkins, 2009), agency workers (Forde & Slater, 2005), and temporary workers (Virtanen et al., 2005). Given the expansion of the European Union, many of these temporary type jobs have been filled in the UK by migrants from Eastern Europe, and this study primarily examines this group.
The food manufacturing industry is an industry that has seen a notable rise in such work practices, with manufacturers being continually squeezed on margins by supermarkets as well as needing to deal with variable and seasonal demand (Edwards, Sengupta, & Tsai, 2009). While there are advantages to companies in using these work practices, they can also create issues due to the increased distance between companies and the workers employed by them on these non-standard contracts. One notable disadvantage for companies is the increased difficulty in controlling such workers, and in this respect the current study looks to examine absence management in regards to these workers, in a UK context in the food manufacturing industry.
Some have suggested that when it comes to HR practices, different approaches are needed for core and peripheral workers, with peripheral workers requiring a harder style of HR management than core workers in order to maintain control. One particular challenge with this approach however is the assumed homogeny of peripheral worker, which in many cases may be a flawed assumption (Standing, 2011), with fixed term and agency workers, for example, often experiencing considerably different relationships with the company they work for (e.g. Torka, 2011).
Building on this prior research, this study looked to address three primary research questions:
Research question 1 – “How are hard human resource management techniques related to issues such as absence management experienced by temporary and agency workers?”
Research question 2 – “How are these approaches experienced by those migrants who can be considered to be transitory?”
Research question 3 – “as some migrants…begin to settle in the UK, how are these hard HRM techniques experienced by more settled migrants?”
How the research was conducted
This study was conducted, using participants from the food manufacturing sector in the UK. This sector was chosen due to its typically low skilled workforce and high usage of temporary and short-term workers, as well as the high proportions of migrant workers used in the sector.
Five companies were analysed, which were considered typical of the sector. These companies were a brewery (BeerCo), a confectionery factory (ChocCo), a herb and spice packer (SpiceCo), a ready meals manufacturer (ReadyCo), and a poultry processer (TurkeyCo).
88 semi-structured interviews were carried out, with questions relating to the research questions. The interviewees were 32 operations managers, 16 directly employed temporary workers, 14 permanent workers, 12 HR managers, 12 agency workers and 2 trade union officials.
In-depth observation by the researchers over a 2-4-week period also occurred at each of the companies to supplement the interview analysis.
Key Research Findings
Short term absence in the companies examined was found to be 8% on average, with all companies specifying that they saw their absence rates as a problem.
All companies indicated they had, in the past, applied policies of rewarding attendance, which had been unsuccessful in decreasing absence. These reward policies typically involved bonuses for full or high attendance.
At the time of the study, companies were generally using punishment rather than reward to motivate higher attendance levels. Techniques to monitor and punish absence were employed, such as use of the Bradford Factor. Such techniques were being used particularly in relation to peripheral workers e.g. temporary and agency workers. Companies reported that these punishment techniques were more successful than reward in managing absence. Workers, both permanent and temporary, reported experiencing these hard HR techniques negatively.
Agency employed transitory workers were found to have low job commitment and low career aspirations in the line of work they were employed. Such transitory workers were also more likely to take absence leave, even if they were not sick, and further to this the results indicated that hard HR techniques, such as the use of the Bradford Factor, had little impact on their decision to take absence.
The lack of commitment by the Company to these transitory workers was cited as one of the reasons for the reciprocal lack of commitment on the part of these workers.
This study found a significant difference in absence behaviour between new migrant workers and those more settled in the UK, with settled migrants aligning more to the behaviours of native workers, and less likely than new migrants to be absent.
The results demonstrated that transitory agency workers were more likely to take absence than other groups. On the other hand, and similar to the findings of previous studies, other employee groups who were aware of being monitored, were more likely to attend work, even when ill (Baker-McClearn et al., 2010; Dew et al., 2005).
The younger migrants captured in this study had little attachment to their company of employment, and saw their work as a job rather than a career, while also believing they could find similar work elsewhere. These factors all contribute to these workers being relatively unconcerned with the repercussions of absence. These attitudes of transitory agency workers highlight the importance of viewing absence as not purely a result of illness but also a response to work practices and various other factors (e.g. Cappelli, 1999).
Organizational and Reward Implications
This study highlights the important role of employee attitudes and commitment in the effectiveness of HR practices. In essence, the results indicate that if employees are unconcerned by the repercussions of negative behaviour, then they are more likely to behave negatively. As such, despite using hard HR practices such as the Bradford Factor, the companies in this study were struggling to control absence levels of their most peripheral workers.
This study also further reinforces the notion that different employee groups will perceive and respond to both reward and punishment in different ways. For companies employing migrant workers, it is important to consider the differences between them in developing HR practices, and not to view them as a homogeneous group. While transitory workers, with a disconnected relationship with the company, may view sanctions involved in HR practices as not being a credible threat, similar sanctions are likely to be more effective with settled workers.
Migrant workers are often viewed by companies as a homogeneous group. This study highlights important differences which impact on the success of HR practices, and indicates that a more nuanced approach is needed, taking into account the profiles of sub groups. While this study focuses primarily on the role of punishment in absence management, it would be valuable for future research to examine the role of reward in absence management, as it is also likely to play a key role.
Source Article: Hopkins, B., Dawson, C., & Veliziotis, M. (2016). Absence management of migrant agency workers in the food manufacturing sector. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 27(10), 1082-1100.
Published by: Taylor & Francis
For further details and access to the full journal article Click Here (subscription or payment may be required).
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Cappelli, P. (1999). The new deal at work: Managing the market-driven workforce. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Dew, K., Keefe, V., & Small, K. (2005). ‘Choosing’ to work when sick: Workplace presenteeism. Social Science and Medicine, 60(10), 2273–2282.
Edwards, P. K., Sengupta, S., & Tsai, C. J. (2009). Managing low-skill workers: A study of small UK food manufacturing firms. Human Resource Management Journal, 19(1), 40–58.
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Virtanen, M., Kivimaki, M., Joensuu, M., Virtanen, P., Elovainio, M., & Vahtera, J. (2005). Temporary employment and health: A review. International Journal of Epidemiology, 34(3), 610–622.
Standing, G. (2011). The precariat: The new dangerous class. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Torka, N. (2011). Agency workers and organisation’s commitment to its workers. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 22(7), 1570–1585.
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