Retail is the second largest industry sector in the United States. One in five American workers is employed in this $4.3 trillion industry. It is a particularly important source of employment for workers without a college degree. But it is also notoriously a low-wage, no-benefits industry, plagued by high turnover and part-time jobs. In an increasingly competitive global economy, the American retail sector exemplifies an emerging combination of high technology and deteriorating compensation and working conditions.
Industry case studies of retail in other advanced economies show that the quality of retail jobs is declining everywhere, not just in the United Sates, but outcomes for workers and their families do vary across countries. Is the degradation of retail jobs inevitable? How do we explain national differences in jobs and in worker outcomes? And, perhaps most importantly, can we find examples of effective institutions and regulatory strategies to bolster job quality for low-wage workers in this sector?
With funding from the Foundation, Chris Tilly and Françoise Carré explored these issues by extending their previously completed study of retail-sector jobs in France and the United States to include Mexico and Spain. Mexico has imported U.S. chains, like Wal-Mart, with similar management and investment strategies as in the United States, but it provides an interesting comparison because it is a middle-income developing country with a large informal sector. Spain is similar to the United States and France in terms of the organization of retail work, but has GDP per capita lower than both and represents a middle-ground between French hyper-regulation and Mexican informalization. Tilly and Carré have conducted intensive case studies in all four countries and will now complete additional data analysis and synthesis, complemented by the use of secondary sources.
The investigators will look at the impact on job quality of reproductive institutions (such as the length of the school year and supply of child care), the regulation of store hours and locations, and other dimensions of labor regulation, such as the occupational health system or strength of monitoring and enforcement agents. They will try to sort out the relative contribution of these institutions and other factors, such as national income levels, to observed differences in firm strategies and worker outcomes in retail in each country, while paying special attention to gender issues in the retail labor market.