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Lecture Theatre

Understanding informalised business and employment practice: Regulation in alternative economic spaces in Nottingham and the East Midlands

  • School: Nottingham Business School
  • Starting: 2021
  • Funding: UK student / EU student (non-UK) / International student (non-EU) / Self-funded


The work, informalisation and place research group, WIP, provides methodologically innovative interdisciplinary studies of contemporary work and employment in sectors such as hand car washes, nail bars, and small-scale garment manufacturing. Work in these sectors tends towards casualisation and informalisation where workers operate under business models that embed patterns of labour market exploitation. This includes wage theft, under payment of the national minimum wage through to modern slavery where employer coercion centres on work for favours, labour bondage and tied labour in unsafe workplaces. Our work is currently themed into three strands exploring informalised labour and work, regulation and enforcement, and spatial analysis of informalised work opportunities.

The project centres on three theoretical themes; Firstly, ‘hustle’ as a conceptual frame to examine how young workers in precarious urban geographies manage the uncertainty of informality in work and beyond. Allied to this comes the idea of ‘waithood’ where those in precarious mainly informalized work have to wait to get into more formalized employment where the waiting can be long or indefinite, (Thieme, 2018). Therefore, hustle and waithood become analytical and political frames of reference that affirm and normalize precariousness and uncertainty but in a context of place-based social ties, in a city such as Nottingham where formalized employment opportunities and dominant models such as Fordism and post-fordism experience dramatic contractions. A second spatial theme therefore centres on the necessity to re-conceptualize informal work practices and workplaces and move forward from approaches grounded in modernization and avoidance of regulation towards the lived experience of workers (Rogers, 2019). Therein, informalization becomes a mode of urbanization where social embeddedness, networks and non-monetary motives provide ethnographic explanations of a willingness to accept precarious unregulated work that focus beyond the economic marginalization of some workers (Harris, 2018). Thirdly, then the study of  alternative economic spaces can extend and enrich  research on work and employment as these represent work transitions within contemporary capitalism however informalized and precarious they appear to be, (Strauss, 2018, Krueger 2019). Our research suggests that  in the British context at least, the vast majority of hand car washes and small garment manufacturers re-produce established business practice but informally where they are unregulated (Clark and Colling, 2018, Hammer and Plugor 2019). Following on from this a spatialized study of alternative economic spaces may provide a dispersed theorization of informalization and precarity at work.

To evaluate this theorization empirically we are seeking a PhD student to work on any of the following areas; nail bars where an ethnographic study could complement our work on hand car washes. Our wider team have links to the industry bodies trying to professionalise the industry that will enable initial empirical work. Alternatively, a study may focus on the challenges of labour exploitation in small-scale garment manufacturing in the east midlands. Finally, an empirical study of alternative economic spaces can examine these spaces in a place-based study. This will examine how entrepreneurs who fail to comply with business and employment regulations secure regulatory capture of particular forms of retailing, for example, restaurants, local supermarkets, vape shops, barbers and other forms of innovative retail outlets such as ‘pop-ups’.  One end user, impact and regulator friendly aim of these outline projects is to create an informal work predictive map of the region. This will inform the strengths and limitations of local approaches to ‘good work’ and decent work, a United Nations sustainable development goal, where the UK has committed to the delivery of decent work – full and productive employment for all by 2030 .


Clark, I. and Colling, T. (2018) ‘Work in Britain’s Informal Economy: Learning from Road-Side Hand Car Washes’ British Journal of Industrial Relations, 56:2 320-341.,

Hammer, N. and Plugor, R. (2019) ‘Disconnecting Labour? The labour process in the UK fast fashion value chain’ Work, Employment and Society – on line first, 1-16.

Harris, A. (2018) ‘Engineering formality: flyover and skywalk construction in Mumbai’ International Journal of Urban and regional research 42(2) 295-314.

Krueger, R., Schulz, C., Gibbs, D. (2018) ‘Institutionalizing alternative economic spaces? An interpretativist perspective on diverse economies’ Progress in Human Geography 42(4) 569-589.

Rogers, P., Shahid, M., Williams, C. (2019) ‘Reconceptualising informal work practices: some observations from an ethnic minority community in Urban UK’ International Journal of Urban and Regional studies on-line first.  

Strauss, K. (2018) ‘Labour geography 1: towards a geography of precarity’ Progress in Human Geography 42(4) 622-630.

Thieme, T. (2018) ‘The hustle economy: informality, uncertainty and the geographies of getting by ‘Progress in Human Geography 42(4) 529-548


Professor Ian Clark

Entry qualifications

For more information please visit the NTU Doctoral School – Research Degrees webpages.

How to apply

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Ian Clark