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.”

Growing phenomenon

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.”


There are certain sectors in which this is particularly acute, notably, according to Tom Healy, in care-working and hospitality sectors. Unions have, in recent years, also highlighted increased casualisation in teaching and lecturing.

“Temporary and casual work has always been there in sectors such as light industrial service sectors but its also becoming more the norm in the professional side,” says Cosgrove. “Even with jobs like ‘financial manager’, companies aren’t always offering full-time jobs but hiring people on an interim basis. I think that it’s a trend that even when the economy recovers this is going to remain the norm.

“The workplace is changing. Companies like Vodafone have embraced this sort of thinking. Everyone has a ‘hot desk’, nobody has their own desk with their belongings on it, everyone has a phone and a laptop. That’s pretty revolutionary here but standard in other countries.”

The question is whether such an approach is automatically a bad thing. Cosgrove thinks not. He feels that employees will learn that contract work isn’t any less valuable than full-time employment, and that bosses, particularly older bosses, will learn to rethink how they see labour. “They need to learn to focus on outputs rather than how and when the workers do their work.”

Others, however, feel that this scenario can leave people open to exploitation. It’s partly that the wider world hasn’t completely adapted to changing employment models. Companies don’t feel a duty of care to casual workers (in fact, business rhetoric encourages them to treat them as service providers).

Colleges don’t always give students the psychological or business training required for more insecure employment. The social welfare system is very difficult to negotiate for those whose income is irregular (a recent review of casual workers from the Joint Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education acknowledges as much).

And unions, once the main mitigating factor when it came to casualisation’s excesses, have not really adapted to the structural changes in the labour market (not least because self-employed workers are barred from collective bargaining by competition law).

Terrence McDonough feels that they will have to adapt. “The economy is going to have to rethink the way it’s organised,” he says. “And unions will have to rethink how they address these issues. I think, perhaps, that organising in the future won’t be workplace by workplace but may have to take on a more expansive and political dimension, targeting those who aren’t employed by a single employer but are finding work in different places. Those people deserve to be protected too.”

New challenges

On the other hand, some people really do enjoy the challenges of this changing world. For some, striking out on their own and removing themselves from traditional labour structures can be a positive experience.

But the question for individual workers is whether they are enjoying freedom, flexibility and being their own boss, or are, in fact, insecure, underemployed and at the mercy of several bosses.

“I think the test is to check your bank account before and after,” says McDonough. “If your weekly income rises when you start working as a ‘portfolio worker’ then you’re probably an entrepreneur. If your weekly income falls then you’re a casual labourer. That independent professional is often more like the 19th-century dockworker who doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from than he might like.”