The New World of Work and Employment: Fitness workers and what they want from the employment relationship

Jennifer Sappey, Glenda Maconachie

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    This paper reports on an empirically based study of the Queensland (Australia) health and fitness industry over 15 years (1993-2008). This study traces the development of the new occupation of fitness instructor in a service industry which has evolved since the 1980s and is embedded in values of consumption and individualism. It is the new world of work. The data from the 1993 study was historically significant, capturing the conditions of employment in an unregulated setting prior to the introduction of the first industrial award in that industry in 1994. Fitness workers bargained directly with employers over all aspects of the employment relationship without the constraints of industrial regulation or the presence of trade unions. The substantive outcomes of the employment relationship were a direct reflection of managerial prerogative and worker orientation and preference, and did not reflect the rewards and outcomes traditionally found in Australian workplaces. While the focus of the 1993 research was on exploring the employment relationship in a deregulated environment, an unusual phenomenon was identified: fitness workers happily trading-off what would be considered standard working conditions for the opportunity to work ('take the stage').Since then, several streams of literature have evolved providing a new context for understanding this phenomenon in the fitness industry, including: the sociology of the body (Shilling 1993; Turner 1996); emotional (Hochschild 1984) and aesthetic labour (Warhurst et al 2000); the social relations of production and space (Lefebvre 1991; Moss 1995); body history (Helps 2007); the sociology of consumption (Saunders 1988; Baudrillard 1998; Ritzer 2004); and work identity (Du Gay 1996; Strangleman 2004). The 2008 survey instrument replicated the 1993 study but was additionally informed by the new literature. Surveys were sent to 310 commercial fitness centres and 4,800 fitness workers across Queensland. Workerorientation appears unchanged, and industry working conditions still seem atypical despite regulation since 1994. We argue that for many fitness workers the goal is to gain access to the fitness centre economy. For this they are willing to trade-off standard conditions of employment, and exchange traditional employment rewards for more intrinsic psycho-social rewards gained the through exposure of their physical capital (Bourdieu 1984) or bodily prowess to the adoration of their gazing clients. Building on the tradition of emotional labour and aesthetic labour, this study introduces the concept of ocularcentric labour: a state in which labour's quest for the psycho-social rewards gained from their own body image shapes the employment relationship. With ocularcentric labour the psycho-social rewards have greater value for the worker than 'hard', core conditions of employment, and are a significant factor in bargaining and outcomes, often substituting for direct earnings. The workforce profile (young, female, casual) and their expectations (psycho-social rewards of adoration and celebrity) challenge traditional trade unions in terms of what they can deliver, given the fitness workers' willingness to trade-off minimum conditions, hard-won by unions.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publication15th IIRA
    Subtitle of host publicationThe new world of work, organisations and employment
    Place of PublicationSydney
    Number of pages9
    ISBN (Electronic)9780980675511
    Publication statusPublished - 2009
    EventWorld Congress of the International Industrial Relations Association (IIRA) - Sydney Convention Centre, Australia
    Duration: 24 Aug 200927 Aug 2009


    ConferenceWorld Congress of the International Industrial Relations Association (IIRA)


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