We’re young, we’re working, but we’re not employed

Even law and state jobs have become precarious areas. Meet the gig economy workers

By most measures, the story of the Irish economic recovery has been a remarkable one. Unemployment is forecast to fall to 5.7 per cent next year, having peaked at 15 per cent in 2012, and fallen to 9 per cent in 2015.

By most measures. But not by all measures.

With the return to almost full employment, some labour market economists are warning that job quantity is being prioritised over job quality. The dark side of the much-vaunted “gig economy” has been the growth of zero hours or “if and when” contracts, unpaid internships, and involuntary part-time labour.

The troubling spectre of “bogus self-employment” has emerged – people compelled by their employers to become self-employed. And there has been an increase in reluctant entrepreneurship – people who would rather not be self-employed, but have no choice.


“The core question is whether, in the drive to replace the large number of jobs lost between 2008 and 2012 and advance to full employment by 2020, the issue of the quality of jobs is being sufficiently protected,” said labour market consultant Dr John Sweeney in a paper for the National Youth Council of Ireland published this week.

“Recession is bad not just for job quantity, it’s also bad for job quality,” he says.

“Many of the indicators of job quality got worse when unemployment was high and rising. Now we are within shouting distance of full employment, many of these indicators are coming down – but we cannot return to where we were at the end of the virtuous growth cycle. We’re coming back to the future, and the future poses really serious threats to job quality.”


Just over 5 per cent of employees in Ireland now have constantly variable working hours, while 2 per cent work only one to eight hours per week. Over 50,000 workers receive family income supplement, while another 65,000 receive a partial jobseeker’s allowance because their hours of work are so low.

The concern, says Sweeney, “is that the State is using the social welfare system to subsidise employers who are providing low hours and paying low wages”.

On top of this, growing numbers of graduates are over-qualified for their jobs.

The increasingly precarious nature of work is not a problem unique to Ireland. Across the OECD, there are concerns about what economists call the hourglass economy – the disappearance of middle salary, medium-skilled jobs due to automation, artificial intelligence and other structural factors – and the growth of jobs at the top, and low paid, precarious jobs at the bottom.

In Ireland, the issue has crystallised around zero hours and “if and when” contracts – contracts in which the employer is not obliged to provide any minimum number of hours – following a 2015 study by the Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick.

The report made 14 recommendations. The Government is due to publish a draft Bill before the end of the year to implement a number of these and “address problems caused by the increased casualisation of work”, Minister for Employment Affairs Regina Doherty told the Dáil recently.

The Bill will prohibit zero hours contracts in most circumstances, bring more clarity to employment arrangements, and ensure the strengthening of provisions around minimum payments for low-paid workers whose shifts are cancelled.

It will also reinforce anti-victimisation provisions for employees who try to invoke their rights under these proposals. It will apply to both private and public sector employees, a spokesman said.

I'm sick of hearing people glamorise the gig economy. The gig economy is grand when you're 19 or 20

But though the legislation is welcomed, the State is not “an uninterested party” in this, points out James Doorley, deputy director of the National Youth Council of Ireland, which recently carried out its own research on precarious employment.

Precarious work situations

Since the recession, some people working in the public sector have been employed in increasingly casual and precarious work situations.

“Alice” is a civil servant who is on “a part-time, seasonal, temporary, non-established contract” with a government department. She doesn’t want her real name used because she has previously been warned against commenting on her employment situation on social media.

“I’m sick of hearing people glamorise the gig economy. The gig economy is grand when you’re 19 or 20. But I’m in my 40s now, and I don’t want to be in the gig economy anymore,” she says.

“I’ll finish up my current contract at the end of November, and assume I’ll start back in February – but we don’t know. I might not have a job next year.”

Alice’s husband is in a similarly precarious employment situation. A construction worker, he retrained through a Community Employment scheme during the recession, and now works as a care assistant in a day care centre run by a publicly funded healthcare organisation. He has a permanent contract for a limited number of hours per week. On top of this, he does additional cover on an “if and when” basis for the same employer, taking the shifts that full-time workers don’t want to do.

The work is uncertain, exhausting and stressful, says Alice, but he doesn’t want to give up the security of those precious, guaranteed hours per week to return to the even more precarious construction industry.

“We’re the working poor. We’re pulling in less than €50,000 a year. We have three children. We’re paying full college fees for our son, we’re paying for his accommodation, we don’t have a medical card and we can’t get a credit card or a mortgage. We’re in the private rental sector.

“We’re getting by. But only so long as nothing goes wrong. At the moment, we’re living in hope that our landlady remains the saint she is. She hasn’t raised our rent in eight years. If she did, we would be absolutely screwed.”

Alice’s situation is similar to that of people working in a range of sectors, from the construction and haulage industry to child care and third level education, says Sinead Pembroke, a researcher with the Think Tank for Action on Social Change (TASC). She is working on a report on the social implications of precarious work.

Being self-employed suits many people, but it should be a choice

Pembroke interviewed 40 people aged between 18 and 40, all of whom are employed on a temporary, zero-hour or self-employed basis. She also interviewed self-employed people, including barristers, commercial archaeologists, and what she terms the “bogus self-employed”.

“In the construction industry, it’s huge, and it’s happening a lot since the recession,” she says. Because of a loophole in the legislation that allows employers to register their employees as self-employed, some of these workers are not even aware they are self-employed until they get a letter from the Revenue.

“Being self-employed suits many people, but it should be a choice,” says Pembroke.

“There is this romantic idea that we all want to work as self-employed, that self-employed people make more money – and that might be true for people with highly in-demand skills in IT, for example. But for lots of other people, precarious working conditions mean precarious lives.

“We hear a lot about the ‘gig economy’,” says Pembroke. “It sounds like this cool new thing, this ‘rock star lifestyle’. But this economy isn’t new – it has existed for a long time and it needs legislation to address it.”

‘I get up at 6am’

Research carried out by Red C for the National Youth Council of Ireland found that young people and those from lower socio-economic groups are particularly at risk of precarious employment situations. Thirty-eight per cent of the 404 young people surveyed were on temporary contracts, with just over one third working part-time jobs. Many of those say their hours of work vary from week-to-week.

Precarious employment practices disproportionately affect the young, young women in particular, those outside Dublin and those in the lower socio-economic groups.

These same young people were hardest hit in the recession: they withdrew from the workforce in larger numbers than other age groups. The participation rate of 20-to 24-year-olds, for example, fell from 75 per cent to 62 per cent between 2008 and 2015.

Andrew Rooney is one of that lost generation. He is 24 and has two degrees and a Masters in Political Communications, which he finished last May. His hope is to eventually work for an NGO in a communications role.

I can go weeks or months without work. The last time I got work was in August

But for now, with only unpaid or low-paid internships on the horizon, he is living in his family home in North Dublin and relying on the work he can get as a social care worker in a private setting.

He has been employed in a relief capacity since 2015 on an “if and when” contract, at a rate of €14.50 an hour. “I can go weeks or months without work. The last time I got work was in August. So I’m on Jobseeker’s because of the lack of hours. I had a number of shifts planned for the end of this month, but they have been cancelled. They can just take the shift away whenever they want, as long as they give you notice, and you don’t get paid anything.”

In a good month, he might get three or four shifts. “A shift can be up to 24.5 hours. We’d start at 11pm and finish at 11.30pm the next day. You get paid for 15.5 hours of that shift, and you’re supposed to sleep, but you don’t really get to sleep because of the nature of the work. Then you might go straight from that into a ‘live night’, which is from 8pm to 8am, and you have to stay up all night.”

Despite the hardships of the role, Rooney says he would love more hours. “I love working. I get up at 6am, which is probably earlier than Leo Varadkar. I hear him talking about our ‘republic of opportunity’, but for me this feels more like a ‘republic of opportunism’. I’m very sceptical of the idea that we’re almost at full employment.”

Young people in a precarious work situation are often forced to delay the traditional milestones of adulthood, says Pembroke – parenthood, owning or renting their own home, starting a pension. “They’re not starting pensions, and we won’t see the effects of that for another 20 or 30 years. There’s a lot of hidden homelessness, with people staying on friends’ couches.”

Precarious workers also often neglect their physical health – one woman Pembroke spoke to had to go off the pill, because she couldn’t afford her GP appointments; another man talked about having to choose between buying food and paying for an inhaler. They also suffer from mental-health problems exacerbated by their sense of isolation.

Bad for your health

Even employment sectors that might once have been thought of as secure have become increasingly precarious, says Pembroke, citing people who work in third-level, law, and archaeology.

“These people often have a passion for what they do, so they find it very difficult to leave. In third-level, for instance, you tell yourself if I just keep publishing, I’ll soon get my permanent lecturing job. But as the Cush report states, nearly half of university staff are on temporary, or part-time hourly contracts.”

Sarah, who is 47, retrained as a solicitor three years ago, having left a well-paid but stressful job in IT. But she found it difficult to find a permanent job in law, and ended up working in a national tourism attraction.

“The first year, we were given 39 hours a week for just under €500. It was a fun job, and most of us had a real passion for it, so we were happy. This year, they offered us far different conditions – we were offered contracts guaranteeing a minimum of four hours a week, up to 19 hours in high season, at €11 an hour. The working day started at 11am and finished at 4pm, which made it impossible to do anything else.”

Sarah decided not to take up the job again, and instead found part-time work as a solicitor. “The contract was three days a week at €18 per hour. So I was getting €365 a week and paying €50 a week out of that to the Law Society, so I could keep practising as a solicitor.

“Do we really need all this education? Instead of getting my undergrad and a masters, would I have been better off I’d just left college and taken a job that didn’t require any qualifications? I’d probably be earning the same now.”

As we move into the next phase of the recovery, John Sweeney wants to see job quality embedded as an objective in three core areas: national and regional economic development strategies, skills and social protection policies.

He asks: “What’s the evidence that any job is better than none? Taking any job can be bad for your health, bad for your future career prospects. We have dozens of case studies of individuals whose spoken experience of holding down one of these low-status jobs has left them exhausted, with no social life, unable to participate in sports.

“There’s no evidence that having just any job is better than having no job at all.”