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Covid-19 has made low-paid jobs 'worse for workers but more valuable to society'

A new paper calls on policymakers to ‘transform’ precarious and low-paid jobs.

Image: Robert Schmiegelt/Geisler-Fotopress

THE PANDEMIC IS highlighting discrepancies between quality of employment and the level of risk associated with certain low-paying jobs, according to a new paper by the National Economic and Social Council (NESC).

Many low-paid workers have found themselves on the frontlines of the pandemic after their jobs were deemed essential by the government. Some, such as those in hospitality have lost their jobs and face “significant vulnerability” to permanent job losses, the paper states. 

In its research, NESC found 670,000 workers in financial and professional services as well as information technology (IT) have average annual incomes of €55,200 and are at a low risk of contracting the virus in work.

On the other hand, 902,000 workers in retail, hospitality and healthcare earn an average €29,300 a year, but their risk of infection is over five-times higher.

NESC, which advises the government on economic issues, makes a distinction between ‘good’ jobs and ‘poor’ jobs in the report, titled ‘How We Value Work’.

“In more ‘normal’ times,” the paper says, “workers and policy-makers considering ‘good jobs’ and quality of work could look to the earnings, output, or productivity in a sector” along with hours of work and terms and conditions of employment.

NESC says that Covid-19 has “re-emphasised the pre-existing negative aspects” of certain poor jobs and “reinforced the importance of adequate hours and wages”.

The virus has also introduced new criteria that determine the quality of employment; the intensity of contact with the public, the risk of being infected and the ability to work from home.

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For example, the paper explains, “Workers in food-retail have continued to work in outlets in the face of the outbreak, with average incomes €26,500 lower per year than a worker in, say, the financial services sector, with twice the risk of contracting Covid-19.

“In this sense, the pandemic has made good jobs better and more valuable to the worker; and made poor jobs worse, yet more valuable to society.”

In conclusion, NESC says that policymakers “must act to transform these ‘precarious/low paid, but now essential’ jobs into ‘good jobs’.”

Commenting on the report, Dr Cathal Fitzgerald, research analyst at NESC said, “The signals are strong enough to suggest that policy-makers and key stakeholders across society need to consider how the coincidence of existing negative issues and new criteria will shape and inform our understanding of the quality and value of work.”

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