Series on Precarious work in Ireland – Part 1 Behind the shine of Ireland’s employment growth rate

With the exception of the stratospheric growth between 1991 and 2006, the pace of employment growth over the past six years in Ireland has been the fastest over the past 90 years.  At a glance, this is great news.

However the world of work, as we know it, is changing and of course, not all of it is bad. Looking at the CSO’s Labour Force survey, we see that there have been significant structural changes to the nature and composition of employment here in Ireland over the past two decades.

The average age of entry into the labour market has increased because of a welcome increase in educational attainment. In 2007, close to 20% of all those aged 15-24 were in employment. Ten years on, that share fell to 11%.

The increase in female labour market participation has been the single greatest change to the Irish labour market. Between 1998 and 2017, the number of women in employment grew by 59%.  Almost three quarters of all workers working 30 or less hours per week are women and so it is no surprise that there has been a significant slide in average hours worked per week over the past two decades. In 2017, one fifth of all workers were in so-called “part time” work- working less hours compared with full time work in a particular workplace.

There has also been a major shift in the type of jobs that workers now undertake. In 1998, just over one third of all jobs were in industry and agriculture. Nineteen years on that share has fallen to less than a quarter of all jobs with the lion’s share now accounted for by services.

If we scratch further below the surface, we find concerns about the quality of some of these jobs. A major debate has taken off in recent years within Europe and in the US about the quality of work and there is little evidence to suggest that Ireland should be immune to these concerns.

In the early years of the employment recovery in Ireland, a key feature of that recovery was an increase in the availability of temporary and part time work. Now in 2018, almost all new jobs are in full time employment, giving rise to a debate in some quarters as to whether insecure employment is merely a temporary feature of the recovery.

It is not. In Ireland in 2017, almost one in five workers woke up each day to some type of insecurity surrounding their livelihoods, be it the length of their contract (full time temporary workers), insufficiency of their income (involuntary part-time worker), those in self employment with no paid employees or those working for a family member (“assisting relatives”) with no individual access to social supports in the event of a change in circumstances.

When we look at 20 years of data contained in the CSO’s Labour Force survey we see that the overall share of those in some form of insecure work has remained remarkably persistent and stable over the past two decades. So it’s not that this is a new phenomena. Insecure work in some shape or form has always existed. It has just evolved into new work practices in some well established sectors; 9% of all plant and processing jobs were in temporary contracts in 2017, up from 5% in 2007 while those working in education have seen a rise in the numbers on fixed term contracts such that one in seven in that sector are now not on permanent, secure contracts.

On the ground, SIPTU members report that in hospitality and manufacturing, temporary work is on the increase while in construction, there is has been a dramatic reduction in direct employment. Instead, the bulk of general operative work in construction is now available via temporary work agencies.

What are behind these trends? Multiple factors are a play here. Greed remains an age old feature of some employers’ motivations whereas for others, a big increase in how companies debt finance their activities, so called finanacialisation shapes how they recruit and retain. For these employers, their profit maximisation strategy depends on minimising their cost base to the greatest extent possible.

The design of our social welfare system also plays a part in that it is cheaper to take on “self employed” persons than directly employ workers because of the differential between Class A (most employees) and Class S (self employed) PRSI contributions.

And technology is transforming how almost all of us work. Eurofound identify three separate “vectors” of transformative change in the workplace due to advanced technology; automation, the digitalisation of production and digital platforms.

While so called “gig work” has always existed in sectors such as the arts and media, the growth of digital platforms has meant that this work, also known as “crowd employment”, is now becoming a more common feature in conventional sectors such as food delivery, transport, personal services and desk based work.

The extent to which automation and the digitalisation of production will make employment less secure and more precarious is not yet clear. The digitalisation of work refers to the increasing use of data to understand, control and alter production processes. With this there are concerns about worker input, worker autonomy and management control.

A lot of fear been expressed about the impact of automation on employment and whether there will be less jobs, worse jobs or better jobs in the future. To date, little research has been conducted on the impact of these changes on the Irish workforce. While the past is not a good predictor of the future, the legacy of each phase of technological revolution going back to the 1700’s and through the early 1800’s (steam and railways), late 1800’s (steel electricity and heavy engineering) and early 1900’s (oil, automobile and mass production) was that there was continuous change, the “creative destruction” of old jobs, reform of existing ones and the creation of new ones.

Right now, we are trying to better understand how these new work practices are impacting on workers’ quest for a decent income and fair working conditions. But we do know this much; successive studies demonstrate that when workers are members of a trade union, there is a lower probability of being in precarious or insecure work.