Casualisation and outsourcing taking toll on workforce

Employment policy steering our workers into dangerous financial and social waters

Often workers do not know how many hours they will work next week, let alone which hours they are going to work. Such enforced flexibility makes planning your life impossible. Photograph: Getty Images

Often workers do not know how many hours they will work next week, let alone which hours they are going to work. Such enforced flexibility makes planning your life impossible. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Unemployment is falling, more people are at work. Surely that is good news enough?

To accept that any job is better than no job is to avoid looking at what sort of jobs actually exist in Ireland today. Furthermore, what sort of jobs are created has consequences for the overall structure of society. And most fundamentally of all, the social benefits of employment depend on the quality as well as the quantity of jobs.

In countries like the UK and the US and even Germany, in-work poverty was growing even before the recent economic crisis. Some people had jobs but were still in poverty. The OECD defines “low pay” as less than two-thirds of (national) median earnings.

As Tasc’s submission to the Low Pay Commission 2016 showed, on this basis the incidence of low pay in Ireland is one of the highest of all OECD countries.

If the number of low-paid jobs grows, this alters the overall shape of society. Back in the 1970s, it seemed self-evident that advanced societies resembled diamonds – most people were in the middle,and there were smaller numbers of people at the bottom and smaller numbers at the top.

Today in many countries jobs in the middle are being lost, while both well-paid jobs and poorly paid jobs are growing. Society begins to resemble an hour-glass.

Part of the reason for contemporary inequality is not just the super-rich, but the super-poor. To accept the existence of low-paid jobs is to accept a new form of social division.

However, jobs involve far more than wages. Most international research shows that, in some respects, jobs have been getting better.

For example, across Europe work is much safer than before. One might expect this to be because of the decline of heavy industry, but it is mainly because of more effective health and safety regulations.

Worrying trends

For many people, contracts have become shorter and/or more insecure. If employment becomes precarious, then it becomes less socially valuable.

At its simplest, employment should enable people to become independent and to plan their lives; having a job means you are not dependent on the state or on charity. Yet without regular employment, financial planning is difficult – and obtaining a mortgage almost impossible.

Irregularity also affects the hours people work. Tasc’s new research shows that, in the hospitality sector in particular, low earnings are the result of the combination of hourly wages that are about the national minimum wage combined with low and – above all – variable hours.

Often workers do not know how many hours they will work next week, let alone which hours they are going to work. Such enforced flexibility makes planning your life impossible.

Wider society

For this reason, the integration of new immigrants has always been seen to involve successful integration into the labour market. Yet none of these benefits are likely if work becomes short-term and the workplace fragmented.

Casualising the employment relationship can have other negative consequences. Short-term workers are hardly likely to receive any training, so the skills available to all employers declines.

Today in Ireland, firms often try to avoid actually employing people. Instead of offering jobs, they force people to work as self-employed.

In the construction industry, for example, such “bogus self-employment” is undermining the skill base, because there are fewer and fewer employees to actually train.

Perhaps the most fundamental issue however is the meaning and dignity of work itself.

Some jobs can be “good bad jobs” – not particularly well-paid, relatively unskilled, but free from arbitrary authority and providing a framework in which people can see their lives.

As jobs get outsourced and casualised, they become simply bad jobs: still badly paid, still unskilled, but now with no rights, no notion of career, no meaning. If that happens, is such a job really better than no job at all?

Enforced Flexibility? Working in Ireland Today by James Wickham and Alicja Bobek will be launched by the Think tank for Action on Social Change (Tasc) today.

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