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Combatting precarious work

The term “precarious workers” refers to low paid, part-time employees who work irregular or variable hours, or those on full-time, short-term contracts. Many people in these situations are paid only for the hours they actually work and therefore their income is insecure.

From a workers’ point of the view, a simple definition of precarious work is employment which is perceived to be “insecure, uncertain or unpredictable”.

Being forced into such an employment situation means these workers are unable to secure loans or mortgages or to make financial plans. Precarious employment is also linked to negative physical and mental health, as well as offering little opportunity for career progression.

Precarious work is not a new concept. In its current guise, it is linked to the spread of neoliberal economics and the emphasis placed on a ‘flexible’ workforce. With the onset of the global financial crisis, its increase has become a key concern for workers in nearly all sectors of the economy.

SIPTU Health Division Organiser, Paul Bell, said: “It may be a strong charge but I believe precarious work is not unlike a legalised version of modern day slavery. In many cases, bosses demand that employees immediately respond to a call to present for work. Should they fail to do so, the contract of employment can be terminated. Many workers on precarious contracts are also forbidden to work for other companies. It is interesting that this practice is accepted by employer organisations, many of whom rest on their defence for precarious work on the legitimacy of flexibility.

Surely labour market competition and restriction of trade must be a consideration for employers and these representative organisations.”

Worker insecurity: Sector by sector

Precarious work practices have spread throughout the economy. These are just some of the sectors affected where SIPTU members are organising to confront them.

Home care sector

The sector has three types of provider – public, voluntary and private. The first two are fully funded through the HSE. The average rate of pay for a public sector Home Help is €15 per hour; the voluntary sector rate is €11.50– €12.50 per hour, and in the private sector, the rate of pay averages approximately €10.50 per hour. In the private Home Care Sector, “if-and-when” contracts are the norm, meaning not only do workers lack guaranteed hours but they also don’t know from week to week what hours they will be working.

The lack of security extends to complaints made against them by a client; if a client makes an allegation against a carer they are instantly let go. Precarious home care workers in the private sector receive statutory maternity leave, but it is unpaid. While they are entitled to take holidays, it has to suit the employer. There is also a large amount of unpaid work in the private sector in the form of travelling time from one client to the other. Staff turnover is high in the private sector.

Childcare sector

There are 23,000 workers in this sector, who are predominantly female and whose average rate of pay is €10.27 per hour. They have no pension scheme, very few workplaces have paid maternity leave, and they receive the statutory minimum of 20 days’ holidays. Early Years educators get paid for the hours of contact time they have with a child per day. However, this does not take into account the extensive work that is done outside of those hours such as observation reports, preparatory work and administration.

The precarious nature of work in the sector results in an annual staff turnover rate of approximately 26%. This is a consequence of the limited scope for career progression, including pay increments for Early Years Educators. A high turnover in the sector has further implications for the quality of childcare services in Ireland because the highly educated and professional staff cannot be retained.

Third-level education sector

There have always been workers employed in a precarious manner in this sector doing occasional lecturing and tutoring. However, it is estimated that there are now at least as many people on precarious contracts as permanent contracts. Lecturers and tutors hired on a part-time hourly basis are paid for the hours they teach. This payment is said to be inclusive of preparatory work. However, they are not being paid for follow-up or administrative responsibilities. Many others are retained on short-term contracts. The implications this has for academics are wider than simply the direct impact on their lives.

It also creates an atmosphere of self-censorship, meaning they are less likely to partake in vigorous, academic debate.  Many are also constantly anxious about reaching the end of their contract and having to put much of their energies into applying for new employment rather than focusing on publishing or doing research.

Financial sector

The financial sector has also seen an increase in temporary contracts and outsourcing. In the credit unions, new entrants are being brought in on one-year, fixed-term contracts. This has followed changes relating to mergers and amalgamations, resulting in management claiming it may not be in a position to say what kind of staff needs they will have in the future. For “permanent” staff in this sector, there is also a growing trend towards ‘performance management’ which means that over a two-year period a contract can be terminated on the grounds of capability. Therefore, while permanent workers may not be contractually precarious, they do feel precarious, and this is an example of a sector where the issues facing contractually precarious workers are seeping into the working conditions of permanent workers.

Restaurant sector

Most people working in restaurants are employed on a casual basis, with part-time contracts and irregular hours of work. Workers often only find out from week to week what their hours will be. People employed in the restaurant sector often work long hours on a flat rate. Workers often report unpaid work such as doing overtime, where management will attempt not to pay them for the extra hours they worked.

Furthermore, when they are paid for overtime, it is on a flat rate, regardless of whether they worked day or night. It is difficult for workers to challenge management in these circumstances because they can be punished by not being put on the roster or having their hours decreased. Another issue is workers being asked to work unpaid for a “training period” before they are officially employed.

Agricultural production sector

During the economic “boom”, employers and agencies in industries such as meat production and vegetable processing specifically targeted certain countries to bring in migrant workers on minimum wage, with no security of employment or entitlements. Typically, contracts in the meat or vegetable processing industries would be on an “if-and-when” basis and would involve something along the lines of “up to 48 hours”. In many cases, people do not have a written contract. It is also common for workers to live together in crowded accommodation and pay rent to their employer.

When it comes to fruit and vegetable picking, workers can also be paid on a productivity measurement system, for example being paid for the total weight of the product they pick. There is a high turnover of people, and the precarious nature of the work leaves people feeling too vulnerable and frightened to act collectively to improve their working conditions.

The construction sector

Since the financial crisis, the construction industry is organised differently to how it was previously when large construction employers had high levels of direct employment. Now, the predominant form of employment for technical operative grades is through agencies that employ them on an if-and-when basis. Among the trades, bogus self-employment features highly. It is also rare for agency workers to be offered a mandatory pension scheme to which the employer contributes.

Often construction workers have disputes with the agencies over holiday pay that is outstanding to them. Bogus self-employment in the craft trades is forced on the workers; they are told that if they want the job, they must register as self-employed, or else the job will go to someone else. By forcing a self-employment status on trades’ people, this leaves them bereft of any protection in employment law.

Hotel sector

A generation ago, a hotel was considered a good place to work because there was career progression. Now it is very rare to find contracts in the sector with fulltime or even part-time guaranteed hours. This was triggered over 10 years ago when employers began to hire people with neither qualifications nor experience to work in the sector.

This culminated in the de-skilling of the workforce, and consequently, employers could justify diminishing the contract terms and conditions for new entrants on this basis.

The biggest problem for a lot of workers in the hotel sector is rostering. They can be rostered in for certain hours and on certain days, only to find out on their arrival to work that they are not needed. Workers in the hotel sector are also being pushed to do more work in less time, with housekeeping staff, in particular, suffering from so-called ‘speed up’, resulting in increased incidents of injury.

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