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16 years of precarious work in English language schools caused me to develop anxiety

I felt anxious, alienated and depressed. Irish workers must unite to resist the creeping casualisation of work, writes Keith Murdiff.

Keith Murdiff

FOR 16 YEARS I was a precarious worker.

I was an experienced English language teacher but in all that time I never had a permanent contract. I never had sick pay, or holiday pay, unless it was ‘rolled into’ my hourly rate of pay.

I never had guaranteed hours of work and for 16 years I didn’t get a pay rise. 

During that time I felt angry, alienated and depressed. Despite loving what I did, I felt that I had chosen the wrong profession and that there was no other option for it except to sit it out and hope that things would change.

They did change. But not for the better. The recession happened in 2008 and I was laid off for the first time in my life at 35 years old.

Stress and Anxiety

That’s when I first started suffering with anxiety.

The anxiety that comes with not knowing if you will be employed, or where you’ll get the money if you become sick, or how you’re going to pay for your children’s birthday and Christmas presents.

I got some help with my anxiety, but my stress levels remained the same. Every precarious worker has to live with the stress of not having a permanent job.

In Ireland, a staggering 44% of us don’t have a permanent contract.

We are gig economy workers, freelance and contract workers, archaeologists, teachers, preschool workers, university lecturers, waiting staff, retail workers, bank clerks, researchers, IT technicians, security staff, computer games programmers, finance and insurance clerks and many, many other workers.

It was only when I started listening to others that were in the same situation, organising workers within the sector and meeting with like-minded activists, that my stress levels went down.

That’s when I realised that it wasn’t my fault that I was precariously employed.

This form of employment is really just exploitation in the classic sense of the word. We are being exploited by unscrupulous employers.

Fortunately, the answer is equally as classical in its simplicity. Collective action, in the form of trade unions.

A recent report Precarious Work, Precarious Lives’ produced by the Think Tank on Action for Social Change (TASC)outlines the effects precarious work has on workers, and what should be done to stamp out this form of nefarious sub-employment.

In conjunction with the launch, I spoke about my experiences – my decade and a half of not knowing whether I’d still be working, month to month. I was very touched and somewhat surprised when my friends wrote to offer their condolences and wish me well in my new job, which I am glad to say is with Unite the Union.

What surprised me most was the lack of awareness among the general public of the effect that precarious work has on people’s lives. Perhaps that is because, just like mental health issues, we don’t talk about it.

The TASC report suggests that being in precarious employment, which I would define as employment with no security, decency or hope of progression, leads to a chaotic life.

It’s a life filled with dread for the future and a sense of hopelessness. It’s not the kind of thing anyone wants to talk about in public, which leads many to keep those feelings to themselves, almost always with detrimental consequences. These feelings, and our reaction to them, are of course not an accident.

We know that workers united will not be divided, but the opposite is equally true.

Employers are also aware of this, and the rise of so-called ‘gig economy’ companies like Uber, Deliveroo and others is no accident. Because in the mercenary pursuit of profits, it is necessary to keep workers disparate, disunited and beholden to getting that call for work on the employer’s inequitable terms.

If we want to change this modern-day version of the ‘hiring fairs’ – that saw gaffers pick and choose workers a day at a time – we need to embrace collective action, starting with honouring workers’ rights through trade union membership.

Because, if the current trend is allowed to continue, there is nothing safe from the creeping casualisation of work; even traditionally permanent and pensionable jobs are being eroded with the normalisation of contracting.

This trend can be reversed by ordinary working people, but if you tolerate this, your workplace will be next.

We have to stand against precarious work as a society, and through collective action, solidarity and protest, force this issue onto the political agenda.

If we want a decent country to work and live in, we need to stand up and speak out.

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About the author:

Keith Murdiff

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