This is the question that Shinji Kojima wants to answer in his article that was published in 2015 (The Sociological Quarterly). Kojima presents the results of an ethnographic study of Japanese factory agency workers, thereby showing that agency work can have intrinsic value for agency workers.
Kojima departs from the two reasons for why agency workers show high levels of work effort that are frequently mentioned in the academic literature. First, there are structural conditions of agency work, particularly related to the tripartite relationship between the worker, the agency (that is their employer), and the so-called user-firm (i.e. the firm the leases agency workers from the agency and that has the right to instruct and monitor their daily work). In this relationship, agency workers do not have much power, though, but are subject to control from both the agency and the user-firm. Furthermore, they are permanently on the verge of becoming unemployed as neither the agency nor the user-firm guarantee long-time employment. The literature argues that due to these conditions agency workers show high levels of work effort, even though they may do so only grudgingly. Second, the literature points to the material and cultural incentives of agency work. Compared to other forms of precarious work (e.g. directly hired temp jobs), agency work has the advantage to regularly get access to paid jobs (so-called assignments) via the agency, because the agency has access to a variety of user-firms seeking to lease flexible labor. Additionally, by working hard agency workers have the chance to earn a certain level of social status within the agency, hence, partially escaping the usually low-status connected to agency work. Finally, there is the opportunity to use agency work as a stepping stone into permanent employment in one of the user-firms. Even though this opportunity often proves to only be a theoretical one, it still offers an incentive to work hard and – together with the above – create a certain degree of commitment among the agency workers to this type of employment.
Shinji Kojima argues that despite the above reasons scholars continue to grapple with understanding why agency workers work as hard as they do. The first of the above approaches neglects that these workers have any agency as it is only the conditions that force them to work hard. The second one reduces agency workers’ commitment to economic and social incentives what implies a pure instrumental work orientation. According to Kojima there are other, more subtle mechanisms at play that explain the agency workers’ high levels of work effort.
Studying Japanese factory agency workers, Kojima shows what drives the workers to work hard. They developed a specific understanding that to be a successful agency worker. This understanding is closely tied to the workers’ ability to survive the physically and psychologically challenging conditions of factory work. To prove that they can master these challenging conditions and, hence, to be seen as successful, the agency workers in this study show extraordinary levels of engagement and effort. Mastering the art of factory work is what constitutes meaning for the agency workers and creates an awareness of being a competent and hard working – and in this sense valuable – worker.
Creating their own sense of what constitutes success in factory agency work, the workers use their creativity to counteract the alienating effects of agency work resulting from its restrictive structural conditions. The workers use their creative potential to learn the art of factory work and to adapt it according to the specific context of each user-firm. They also see the results of their work, e.g. the correct assembly of a module, as outcome of their individual effort, hence, their hard work. According to Kojima both aspects contribute to work satisfaction.
The agency workers‘ high level of effort to achieve mastery in factory work transforms alienating agency work into meaningful work, suggests Kojima. Learning and perfecting the art of factory work established an awareness amongst the agency workers of the value of their work. They see themselves as knowledgeable and hardworking human beings, who have the chance and willingness to secure a certain degree of creativity and individuality in connection to their work. This understanding, in turn, creates a rather high level of commitment to factory work and results in the implicit motivation to continue working hard; because working hard renders the agency workers’ factory work meaningful.
Mind you, the agency workers in this study were not naïve. They were very well able to reflect the problematic circumstances of agency work, such as discrimination by the user-firm’s management, social exclusion by the user-firm’s core employees, or the feeling of unfair treatment in case the assignment was abruptly terminated. Unfair and poor treatment from the user-firm was a particularly painful experiences for the agency workers as such treatment collided with their self-understanding of being a competent and hard-working agency worker.
Overall, Shinji Kojima’s study suggests that agency workers’ assignment in a user-firm could have intrinsic value for them. This insight stands in stark contrast to the often-implicit assumption found in the literature that agency workers relationship to the user-firm is only instrumental. Even though agency work features coercion and control, like other workers, also agency workers use their “humanistic drive“ (p. 378) to make alienating working conditions more social, bearable and thereby meaningful.
Shinji Kojima (2015). Why Do Temp Workers Work as Hard as They Do?: The Commitment and Suffering of Factory Temp Workers in Japan. The Sociological Quarterly, 56(2), S. 355-385).