At the end of January 2021 almost 500,000 workers here were on the pandemic unemployment payment. The roll out of vaccination programmes has shifted mindsets to asking when, if ever, people will return to offices and workplaces.
While the pandemic has brought some long overdue appreciation for both frontline and essential workers, it is uncertain how much will really change post-Covid.
Nonetheless, there are forces afoot that may encourage progressive change.
The Government, under pressure from both the public and trade unions, is to mount a review regarding employment conditions for gig-economy workers. Such a review may be both timely and appropriate, and offer the opportunity to consider a new fair work agenda beyond just the gig-economy.
For example, the European Commission is proposing a new minimum wage floor, as well as ways to tackle in-work poverty. Both the Scottish and Welsh assemblies have pioneered fair work policies for some time and the UK Supreme Court issued a (potentially) landmark decision to end sham and bogus self-employment in the gig-economy, ruling that such workers should be entitled to minimum rights.
Similar worries about the safety of gig-workers in Ireland have reached public concern. Our decision to consider a review of employment law in the gig-economy is welcome but perhaps too narrow and may lag behind others advocating sustainable decent work, such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and United Nations (UN).
Indeed, fairer work arrangements can contribute to improved long-term inclusive growth and tackle persistently low productivity. The EU-proposed directive aims to boost workers’ rights by embedding standards such as minimum wages and the right to bargain, if so desired.
We suggest four policy goals to open up dialogue about a fairer work agenda, especially as government, corporations, managers and families consider long-term pathways beyond lockdown: the future of digitalisation work; minimum floor of standards; voice opportunity; and pay.
The (new) digitalisation of work
Covid-19 has accelerated the growth of remote working at an unprecedented pace. But while many of us enjoy the lack of commute or working from home comforts that digitalisation brings, for others digitalisation has been starkly different.
Work in the gig economy, at the behest of digital labour platforms, is not a new utopia. Take as an example Deliveroo, which has made significant gains since Covid, increasing its number of restaurant partners in Ireland by 50 per cent. These workers face many risks, including health safety hazards along with unstable earnings.
In Dublin workers have been protesting to highlight insecurity and violence encountered in the course of their work. They also argue that reductions in rates of pay mean they now have to “pedal more, to earn less”. Deliveroo has steadfastly rejected the view that its “riders” are employees, which means they are denied access to the same rights as other citizens.
Minimum floor for standards
The gig economy model that is often believed to be the new utopia of opportunity is not so enlightening. The system requires workers to invest in the capital necessary to gain a job, such as transportation and a smart phone. It is thus the individual who encounters new financial risks, without the floor of minimum standards that other citizens take for granted, such as a minimum wage, maternity leave, or protection against excessive hours.
In emerging sectors of the economy, a consequence is the normalisation of zero-hours type work. Gig workers, labelled as independent contractors for instance, may spend hours of unpaid time waiting around for the next job.
The business model is riddled with loopholes that deny basic standards of treatment in such jobs, many of them young and migrants.
People need a voice
To contribute to a fairer future people need a voice. Many corporations now brand their own form of communication as dialogue but, as union membership has declined, many people lack the opportunity to have a real say about their own future.
Technology has changed the agenda considerably. Take, for example, Amazon, which used its monitoring capabilities to identify workers who were union supporters and exclude them from work. Amazon recently withdrew a recruitment advert for an analyst to research "labour organising threats against the company" only because of public scrutiny.
A living wage
It is perhaps no coincidence that a lack of voice and low pay link to working conditions associated with Covid outbreaks; for example in garment manufacturing and meat processing sectors.
The introduction of mandatory publishing of gender pay gaps is itself a reporting exercise, rather than a policy goal to correct known pay inequalities. There also remains a lack of transparency between average worker pay and executive remuneration in most organisations.
According to the Economic Policy Institute in the US, chief executive compensation has grown 940 per cent since 1978, while average worker compensation has risen only 12 per cent during that time.
In Ireland, the Low Pay Commission recently recommended a 1 per cent increase in the minimum wage. Union representatives withdrew from the commission and criticised the decision not to recommend a 2 per cent pay increase for those on the minimum wage.
Is it now time for a new fair-work agenda in Ireland? Covid-19 has amplified the differences between “good jobs” and “bad jobs”. Government regulation in Ireland to limit this expanding divide remains painfully slow. It certainly lags other progressive initiatives witnessed elsewhere in competitive open markets.
If we use Covid as a dividing line, will be able to see differences in the before and after when it comes to decent work standards for future generations in Ireland?
- Prof Tony Dundon is professor of human resource management and employment relations, in the Department of Work & Employment Studies at the Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick. Dr Caroline Murphy is a lecturer in employment relations and director of the BA in human resource management in the department.
* This article was updated on 19/03/21