Making work more secure for ‘the precariat’

Fundamental equalities for the good of society are required to protect vulnerable workers, including support for the principle of ‘a living wage’

 

Even before the recession hit in 2008, jobs for life, along with guaranteed pay and working conditions, were giving way to short-term contracts and casual work, underpinned by a national minimum wage. The introduction of “yellow pack” contracts and casualisation accelerated when businesses failed, unemployment grew and many employers, including government agencies, scrambled to cut costs and survive. Levels of remuneration, working hours and job security were all affected.

New templates and standards are required. It is not good enough to say that because the nature of work and its location is in a state of flux, rules should not apply. Such an approach encourages exploitation of the most vulnerable and while many employers would behave honourably, others would not. Growing inequality and social fragmentation would result. Surely Ireland does not want to embrace the extremes on view within the US?

A series in this newspaper dealing with job security has charted the challenges that face young professional people and part-time workers. It also identified the bogus use of contract labour by employers who wish to minimise their tax and pension liabilities. This activity, which exposes workers to increased risk in the event of redundancy, is being actively investigated by the Revenue Commissioners. The prospect of introducing a “living wage” was also considered – a policy commitment that should be made by all parties in advance of the next general election.

As the economy recovers, practices that were embedded during the recession are being challenged. Trade unions have focussed particular attention on low-hours contracts operated by Dunnes Stores and the damaging impact they have on the lives of workers. Collective agreements, involving “banded hours”, are suggested as an alternative. The Government has prepared legislation dealing with trade union recognition and favours the reinstatement of registered agreements, along with standard pay levels, in a number of sectors. A Low Pay Commission has been asked to review the minimum wage.

In spite of reliable international research that shows a contented workforce is more productive and that society benefits from greater equality, executive greed has got in the way at company and corporate level and governments are reluctant to intervene. In recent decades wealth has gravitated upwards in the developed world, leaving a declining middle class and impoverished workers behind. That is a recipe for social unrest. This Government has done a good job in rebuilding the economy, but the repair of society is more complex and will take longer. Careful planning and investment will be required. The creation of jobs is a key component, but the work on offer must bring reasonable security and remuneration.