What separates casual labourers and entrepreneurs? Bank balance
THE WAY WE WORK NOW:Business speak is being used to obscure harsh truths, but the increasing casualisation of labour should be recognised and understood
The business rhetoric of recent decades presents all workers as potential Richard Bransons, Sergey Brins and Dermot Desmonds. A street vendor is an entrepreneur in the same mould as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Someone who loses their job and starts selling cup-cakes form their kitchen is just like George Soros. An outsourced former employee, now self-employed, is a mini-James Dyson. Agency staff are free-agents selling their labour to the highest bidder, like Tom Cruise.
This way of thinking is economically useful. It flatters out of touch chief executives that they have an affinity with hands-dirty street-level business people, and it comforts those struggling to make ends meet that with some smart thinking they can scale up to wealth.
The official neoliberal line is: we need to be flexible, we need to be competitive, we do not need competition-stifling unions and ultimately we are all, rich or poor, “portfolio workers” ducking and diving between diverse, exciting projects.
“I think a lot of that rhetoric is an attempt to deliberately confuse that distinction between entrepreneurialism and casual work,” says Prof Terrence McDonough from the economics department at NUI Galway. “A lot of people would prefer to be called an entrepreneur rather than a casual worker but in actual fact those are two very different things and it’s wrong to confuse them.”
Union density declining
Casualisation generally refers to the replacement of permanent pensionable jobs with cheaper more insecure forms of employment. The prominence of casual labour was one of the reasons unions sprang into life in the 19th century, and, as union density declines, it’s unsurprising to see the phenomenon’s widespread return.
Rates of casualisation are difficult to quantify. The term refers to a whole range of disparate phenomena – the use of short-term contract employees, the outsourcing of work to the self-employed, the rise of agencies facilitating such employment and the erosion of employee rights in general.
“There is no specific data on casualisation,” says Tom Healy, director of the Nevin Economic Research Institute. “But there is time series data on the extent of underemployment, temporary versus permanent employment and part-time versus full-time employment going back the last five years, and what’s clear is that with the recession there’s been a big shake-out in permanent full-time employment.
“The big growth in those other categories suggests, in all likelihood, increased casualisation of work. There is a definite sense that it’s a trend.”
Peter Cosgrove, a director at CPL recruitment, agrees that the phenomenon is growing. “There’s been a 20 per cent increase in the number of contracts compared to permanent positions [over the course of the recession],” says Cosgrove. “That would be a rough figure. The main thing is that employers realise that the number one cost of any business is the people so they need more and more flexibility and more and more companies have moved towards contracts which gives them that flexibility.
“Many of the big multinationals prefer short-term contracts. There are a number of reasons. Workers want some flexibility themselves, but also with the amount of uncertainty in the economy, when employers feel they should be hiring but are worried that the market might take another dip, short-term contracts put them in a much more flexible position ... Many companies don’t even offer contracts. It’s a global economy now. They need flexibility.”