For all those seeking to better understand the main battle for the Irish trade union movement in the coming years, the recently published report ‘Living with uncertainty: the social implications of precarious work’ is essential reading.
The report produced jointly by the trade union-backed think-tank TASC and the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, examines the current rise in precarious forms of work and how they adversely impact on individuals and Irish society.
One of its stark conclusions is that for many, work no longer represents a reliable route out of poverty.
In the report, precarious work is identified as low paid work which is either part-time with variable hours, so-called “if-and-when” contracts, temporary, and solo self-employment (also known as “bogus self-employment”), or a combination of these employment situations.
It found such forms of employment to be widespread in healthcare, education, archaeology, transport and storage, the postal sector, the arts, media and construction, as well as in retail, catering, hairdressing, hotel work, bar work and contract work, such as cleaning and security.
Participants interviewed for the study, which included several SIPTU members fighting for improvements in the pay and conditions of low paid, contract workers, said the unpredictability of precarious work affected them physically and mentally, often making them ill.
Many, however, “could not afford” to be ill, as taking time off meant not being paid.
Many were also victims of the interplay between precarious work and that other great threat to the quality of life of workers in Ireland, the worsening housing emergency.
Precarious workers often have no choice but to rent or to live in the family home. Those working in non-standard employment are unlikely to be approved for a mortgage while renting in the private market has become prohibitively expensive.
This can lead to a lack of independence, with adults unable to leave the family home or lead independent lives and can have severe adverse effects on children.
From this malign influence on family life, it is clear that precarious work presents an intergenerational challenge, which if not tackled effectively will deepen inequality and drive communities further apart along economic lines.
The report does not shy away from highlighting the strong ideological dimension to the rise in precarity. In many cases, the introduction of precarious work was spun as being about businesses having to make ‘hard choices’ during the recession with an increase in ‘flexibility’ by workers key to a wider economic recovery.
Factually, this was just not the case. The report states clearly that some of the industries with the highest profits during the recession were the most relentless in the roll-out of insecure contracts. The spread of such employment practices was also driven by political pressure.
The aim was often to drive down unemployment figures rather than a focus on the quality of the employment being created in both economic and social terms.
As with the great battles against casual work practices and horrific conditions that were won in the early decades of the last century in Ireland and across much of Europe and North America, unions will be at the forefront of the war on precarity.
The TASC report presents further evidence that precarious working conditions thrive in sectors where there is a lack of worker organisation and were dreamt up by political conservatives as a way of undermining unions in areas where they were strong.
It took many years, and the production of much false, ideologically driven research concerning the supposed economic and social benefits of ‘flexible’ working conditions, as well as the opportune use of economic crises, to drive the precarious work agenda to where it is now.
It will similarly take much hard work at the industrial, political, community and district council level by trade unions to drive back the wave of human misery caused by low paid, insecure and often unsafe work.
For SIPTU members the battle against precarious work is an urgent priority