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Precarious work – the challenge for workers

We live in precarious times. Tens of thousands of workers in Ireland wake up early in the morning unsure whether they will earn a living that day, or whether they will earn anything at all.

Ending the scandal of precarious work is a significant challenge facing workers and their trade unions in Ireland. It affects workers across a range of employment sectors, including hotels and restaurants, early and third level education, retail, child and home care services, home care, construction and agriculture, to name just a few.

The spread of casualisation, ‘if and when’ and zero hour contracts under which mainly low paid workers are forced into uncertain irregular hours of employment and short-term contracts must be stopped.

The system destroys the physical and mental health of workers and forces them into a cycle of endless poverty. Precarious employment means a worker only gets paid for the hours they work, often doesn’t know when they will be employed and are denied the benefit of even meagre pensions, holiday and sick pay.

Pushed into long-term, low paid precarious work, often without any contract of employment, young workers are unable to secure the loans, mortgages or the rent they need to make plans for a decent home and family life.

For employers, the attraction of casualised employment, or of outsourcing work to sub-contractors, means they are freed of their obligation to meet their responsibilities to provide for the health and well-being of their employees including their entitlements to normal career progression, holiday and sick pay and decent welfare and retirement benefits.

This is not a new scandal. Indeed, the modern Irish trade union movement, including SIPTU, was moulded in the resistance of low paid workers to casualisation, low wages and extreme poverty in the early years of the 20th Century.

Over decades of struggle, improvements in wages and in their terms and conditions of work, including the reduction in working hours, were won across the economy and the country by an organised and unionised workforce.

Advances were made by women workers demanding equal pay for equal work, the introduction of, and increases to, a minimum wage and in the creation of industrial relations machinery to tackle exploitation and discrimination by ruthless employers.

Many of those welcome changes are in danger of being reversed on the new battleground where workers are forced into anti-social work practices which undermine hard-won employment standards.

The spread of precarious, casualised work is endemic across the country, as it is across other EU states and the scale of mistreatment by some employers of workers, over whom they exercise control by virtue of the insecure jobs they provide, is massive.

Over 160,000 workers cannot rely on steady and guaranteed hours from day to day, week to week or month to month. The abuse of bogus self-employment means that 10% of workers in Ireland are wrongly described as sole traders who do not employ anybody else. It is deeply shocking that 44% of workers between 18 and 29 years, or almost 100,000 young people, are on short-term contracts in the Republic.

The figures in the North are similar with a 25% increase in the number of workers in temporary employment since 2008. These figures make a lie of the claim that the economic recovery is lifting all boats. There has certainly been a dramatic reduction in the numbers of unemployed which has come down from over 15% in the depth of the recession to just over 6%.

Behind this statistic, however, is the cruel reality that many of the jobs created in recent years are in low paid, precarious employment. Women, in particular, who have taken up tens of thousands of jobs in the recovering services sector, find they are unable to meet the costs of childcare, rent and other basic needs from the wages they receive.

Migrant workers and young people entering the workforce are equally marginalised when it comes to decent work and properly paid jobs.

By driving down wages and standards, casualisation will also undermine those with secure, better-paid jobs across the economy. The attempt by employers to drive down wages and demolish employment protections in Ireland will undoubtedly intensify when Brexit takes hold as their competitors in the UK seek to remove hard-earned worker’s rights, as well as the environmental and consumer protections, required under EU laws.

SIPTU has joined with Congress and other interested organisations and groups in determined efforts being made to strengthen the law and the rights of employees and to get rid of zero hour and so-called ‘if and when’ contacts, most recently under the Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill currently passing through the Oireachtas.

The Bill is an important piece of legislation to assist vulnerable workers but is flawed, in many respects. The Government has claimed that under the proposed legislation, zero hour contracts will be banned.

However, this is disputed by opposition parties while SIPTU, the ICTU and other unions are lobbying for substantial amendments in order to ensure that precarious work is tackled in a meaningful way and that zero hour and ‘if and when’ contracts are completely eliminated.

The first defence for workers facing unscrupulous employers seeking to diminish their wages and conditions is to join a trade union.

For SIPTU the scandal of precarious work is a top priority among the various campaigns which union members are pursuing across all employment sectors in which we organise.

Join the campaign in the battle against precarious work.

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