Union warns technology may give rise to high-tech sweatshops

Fórsa says law must protect people against ‘19th-century’ exploitation in gig economy

Fórsa assistant general secretary Ashley Connolly says that, if left unchecked, the development of app-controlled piecework will be bad for the economy. Photograph: Alan Betson

Fórsa assistant general secretary Ashley Connolly says that, if left unchecked, the development of app-controlled piecework will be bad for the economy. Photograph: Alan Betson


Technological advances run the risk of turning employment in some areas into “high-tech sweatshops”, the trade union Fórsa has warned.

The largest trade union voice in the Irish civil and public service said on Thursday the “gig economy” had created a field of employment governed by developing technology but there was a substantial danger of workers being exploited in a manner similar to those who worked in the 19th-century garment trade.

Fórsa assistant general secretary Ashley Connolly said the recent introduction of legislation to protect workers on insecure contracts was welcome but that challenges remained for employment law to keep pace with changes in the economy and the workforce.

Speaking at the union’s services and enterprise conference in Sligo, she said: “The emerging trend in freelance work has been facilitated by a rapid development in technology.

“There are now a wide range of platforms hosting these services, connecting consumers with individual service providers through smartphone apps. The development of these apps has had a disruptive effect on traditional models of work and the service they provide are hailed as revolutionary.”

Ms Connolly said that while the developers of such apps were hailed as futurist visionaries, the type of work on offer – and the manner in which the employment relationship was managed – was “closer in form to the piecework and sweatshops of the 19th-century garment trade”.

Ms Connolly said that, if left unchecked, the development of app-controlled piecework would be bad for the economy, incur a loss of revenue to the exchequer and create instability for workers who could no longer rely on a fixed income, with no protections or benefits.

Casualisation of work

She said the union had seen the erosion of full-time permanent roles in favour of seasonal employment in the aviation industry as part of a growing trend for the casualisation of work.

“Some contracts are now ‘fly only’ contracts. As the name suggests, the employee is only paid if they actually fly, they’re not compensated for ground duties or standby,” she said.

The conference passed a motion calling on the union to commission research into the impact of the threat of outsourcing and the emergence of the gig economy on its members in the aviation and other areas.

Incoming Fórsa general secretary Kevin Callinan said trade unions were seeking the opportunity to influence Government policy on a range of areas rather than just be consulted.

The senior general secretary-designate described the current arrangements involving unions, employers and the Government as a box-ticking exercise.

Mr Callinan told the conference a key part of the vision for social Europe was effective social dialogue involving trade unions, employers and the Government.

Mr Callinan also said “exploratory” talks were continuing with Government following on from the recent nurses’s settlement on issues such as a mid-term review of the current public service agreement and the removal of the requirement for staff to work additional working hours. He said this process was continuing and was not yet at a point of conclusion.

Extension of improvements

Separately, the union’s head of the services and enterprise division, Angela Kirk, said improvements secured by any group covered by the current public service agreement must be extended to all public servants, regardless of what sector they’re working in.

She said recent developments such as the nurses’ settlement, which showed that the current public service accord was capable of dealing with claims by different grades of staff, were “of keen interest to many members working in State agencies”.

The union’s services and enterprises division represents about 7,000 workers in commercial and non-commercial semi-State organisations, as well as private companies in aviation and communications and community and local enterprises.

The division also represents workers in a number of North/South bodies created under the terms of the Belfast Agreement.

Division executive member Eugene Gargan said the Government’s development of a Brexit response plan was “poor”.

“While some contingency plans are drawn up, they’ve been developed under the pretence of ‘nothing to worry about, it’ll all be okay’. That’s not good enough. If there’s no engagement with stakeholders, there’s a risk that any plan will be unworkable. Any plans need to be published, tested and refined to make sure they stand every chance of success,” he said.