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The deterioration of job quality in the United States in the past three decades has made this topic a major concern and serious challenge. The consequences of bad jobs are widespread, affecting not only experiences related to work but also many non-work individual (e.g., mental stress, poor physical health, uncertainty about educational choices), family (e.g., delayed entry into marriage and having children), and broader social (e.g., community disintegration and disinvestment) outcomes.
This worsening of the quality of jobs is reflected in two major ways. First, there is a crisis of low-wage work in the United States: Wages have stagnated for most workers and become more unequal between the top 10 percent of incomes and the bottom 90 percent (and more dramatically, between the top 1 percent and the bottom 50 percent). There has also been a rise of low-wage and very low-wage jobs, especially for workers without a college degree.
Second, there has been a rise in what has come to be known as precarious work, or work that is uncertain, unstable, and insecure, in which people receive limited social benefits and statutory entitlements, and in which the risks of work are transferred away from employers and the government, toward workers. These changes pose new risks for people, such as job insecurity (with respect to both losing one's job and being able to find a new one) and economic insecurity. These risks of low-wage work and insecure jobs are unevenly distributed among the labor force, as they differ according to individuals’ resources and labor market power, produced both by their human capital characteristics and by their gender, race or ethnicity, age, and immigration status among other factors.
These declines in job quality are not merely outcomes of business cycles but represent major transitions that are associated with social, political, and economic forces that have radically transformed the nature of work and employment relations. Globalization has increased the amount of competition faced by companies, provided greater opportunities for them to outsource work to lower-wage countries, and opened up new sources of vulnerable workers through immigration. More knowledge-intensive work has been accompanied by an accelerated pace of innovation in information and communication technologies and the continued expansion of service industries as the principal sources of jobs.
In the apparel industry, module and bundle production are two distinct methods of work. The module system is a team-based strategy that relies on the involvement of multi-skilled workers. In contrast, the progressive bundle system is a traditional approach to production that is based on the accumulation of in-process inventories and in which work is highly fragmented and “deskilled”.
Our study differs from other studies of work organization because it uses a unique multi-level research design. Our conclusions are based on data and information obtained from several sources, including company records and interviews with corporate officials; plant, human resource, and training managers; and union officials (for the two unionized plants). In each plant, we also interviewed a random sample of approximately 100 employees, stratified by occupation. These half-hour interviews were conducted by telephone after work hours. The data presented in this chapter are from four U.S. plants of two companies in the basics segment of the apparel industry.
In the next section, we briefly review the literature on the effects of human resource innovations on performance. We then provide a brief overview of the apparel industry. After discussing our research design, we examine the extent of workplace transformation across our sample of plants. In the following section, we present a variety of performance data, and conclude with a discussion of the causes of differences in performance.
In the past ten years there has been a wide variety of research on the effects of human resource innovations on firm performance (Eaton and Voos, 1992; Levine and Tyson, 1990; MacDuffie, 1995).
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