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Opinion: The future of Irish jobs looks precarious

‘If and when’ contracts and other insecure forms of employment are becoming the norm in some industries, we need regulation to make all work decent, writes Marie Sherlock.

Marie Sherlock SIPTU economist

PRECARIOUS WORK IN Ireland is not new.

Since big Jim Larkin organised workers strikes and founded the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) in 1909, precarious work has been an almost constant feature of the Irish labour market. 

Casual labour on the docks in Dublin since the turn of the 20th century and agricultural labourers working across thousands of Irish farms are the predecessors of the fixed term workers who emerged in the 1990s.

In the early 2000s workplace innovations saw the development of the temporary agency worker and more recently we have seen a growing number of workers across many industries employed on ‘if and when’ contracts.

Each time, the union movement has responded by organising workers in those sectors and in latter years ensuring that legislative protections are put in place to create a level playing field between permanent and insecure workers.

Now we face a new set of challenges.

Technology Transforming Work

Technology is transforming how most of us work. Increasing automation and the digitalisation of production are transforming how firms produce. The emergence of digital platform companies is transforming how companies are organised.

With regard to the impact on job quality from all of these innovations, the most obvious concerns lie with the emergence of digital platforms and so-called ‘crowdsourcing’. 

‘Gig work’ has always existed in sectors such as the arts and media. However, the growth of digital platforms has meant that this work, also known as ‘crowd employment’ is now becoming a more common feature in conventional sectors.

In their review of new forms of work, Eurofound highlight that this work can encompass anything from food delivery, transport, personal services and desk-based work such as graphic design, marketing and website management.

In how they are organised, digital platform companies are radically altering how firms recruit, manage and retain staff.

They depend on highly automated digital processes to connect their services with their customer. These services are remotely provided by workers whose only tool is typically their computer or digital device and a pool of workers usually compete for this work.

The (almost) zero marginal cost of taking on workers means that firms can scale up or scale down in a way that is unrecognisable to almost all conventional firms who directly employ their workers.

Is it Prevalent in Ireland?

The truth is that we don’t know.

Some companies like Uber are precluded from operating here due to tight regulation as to who can provide taxi services. But walk around Dublin and you’ll see a new breed of couriers on bikes – this time delivering meals.

There is a less obvious but just as significant group of platform workers operating out of their homes or in the growing stock of short-term rental offices.

One potential indicator is the emergence of serviced office companies here in Ireland. Although not exclusively aimed at gig workers, serviced office companies play a key role in the gig economy by renting out ‘hot desks’ and temporary office space to workers on an hourly, daily or weekly basis.

In Dublin alone, the largest real estate brokers are reporting huge growth in this area in a very short period. By the end of 2018, it is expected that serviced office space will have mushroomed to over 20,000 square meters in the Dublin area- that’s enough space for between 4,000 and 7,000 gig workers.

Some people see platform work as a great innovation for micro-entrepreneurs.

However, a 2015 ILO survey of crowd workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform and the Crowdflower platform presents a very different picture.

They found that for 38% of US-based respondents, crowd working was the main source of income with an average of 22 hours work per week, earning 77% or less of the federal wage and that they spent 18 minutes seeking out work – for every hour worked.

Put another way, these workers spend almost a quarter of their working week doing unpaid work in order to generate paid work, which also happens to be extremely low paid.

But digital workers are a small minority of all workers and precarious employment is growing across industry. 

Estimates based on the CSO labour force survey found that in 2017 some 9% of all plant and processing jobs were in temporary contracts, up from 5% in 2007.  Those working in education have seen a rise in the numbers on fixed-term contracts now one in seven people in that sector is not on a permanent, secure contract.

On the ground, SIPTU members report that in hospitality and manufacturing, temporary work is on the increase while in construction, our members tell us that there has been a dramatic reduction in direct employment.

Instead, the bulk of general operative work in construction is now  via temporary work agencies.

Future Challenges

Looking ahead, a key challenge to decent work may well emerge with the increased demand for care sector workers over future decades.

This will necessitate significant recruitment and from SIPTU’s detailed knowledge of the sector, a lot of private sector care work remains precarious with part-time or variable hours and low pay.

According to the International Labour Organisation, which is tasked with setting international labour standards and the promotion of decent work, the goal must not be to make all work standard, but rather to make all work decent.

That is why SIPTU and ICTU are pushing politicians to ensure we get the Employment Miscellaneous Provisions Bill passed through the Oireachtas.

It sets a threshold of decency for new workers in being able to access a contract of employment within the first five days. 

The proposed legislation would effectively eliminate ‘zero hour’ contracts for almost all types of work (with a number of exceptions) as a wage floor is set below which the employee’s wages cannot drop, irrespective of hours actually worked.

Similarly for ‘if and when’ employees whose hours can be above or below their contracted hours, a wage floor would be put in place.

Collective bargaining is the only real tool to improve worker’s living standards. Many SIPTU members have found themselves on permanent contracts but working variable hours in sectors such as distribution, aviation or health or working in temporary ill-defined lecturing roles in education.

It was only when workers came together as SIPTU members and made their case collectively that they were able to achieve higher levels of guaranteed paid hours or improved employment status as full time, permanent workers.

In the world of digital platforms, the challenge to organising workers is enormous.

European Solutions

The German union IG Metall has led the way by agreeing to a crowdsourcing code of conduct with eight German-based digital platform companies, while Delivery Hero, a food delivery service has signed an agreement with EFFAT- the European confederation of unions covering food, agriculture and tourism.

Likewise in Austria, a works council has been established in the Foodora food delivery company.

While in Denmark, the 3F union entered into a collective agreement with digital platform company; Hilfr.dk which provides private cleaning services. The agreement claimed to be the world’s first, covers minimum wages, sick pay, holiday pay and pensions.

For trade unions here in Ireland, our challenge is to overcome worker fear and employer hostility and increase our membership where precariousness is greatest.

We know that for workers the best protection against precariousness is through collective bargaining and the security of having their terms and conditions negotiated and enforced.

Marie Sherlock is an economist with SIPTU

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About the author:

Marie Sherlock  / SIPTU economist

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