Is precariousness the future of work?- part 3

Precarious work the future

Precarious work in Ireland is not new. Since the foundation of the ITGWU and SIPTU, it has been an almost constant feature of the Irish labour market over the past 100 years. Casual labour on the docks in Dublin since the turn of the 20th century, agricultural labourers working across thousands of Irish farms, the emergence of fixed term workers in the 1990s and workplace innovations that saw the development of the temporary agency worker in the early 2000s and more recently, “if and when” contracts.

Each time, the union movement has responded by organising workers in those sectors and in latter years ensuring that legislative protections are put in place to create a level playing field between permanent and insecure workers.

We now have a new set of challenges.  Already, we have highlighted that increasing automation and the digitalization of production are transforming how firms produce. The emergence of digital platform companies is transforming how companies are organised.

With regard to the impact on job quality from all of these innovations, the most obvious concerns lie with the emergence of digital platforms and so called “crowd sourcing”. In short, digital platform companies depend on highly automated digital processes to connect their services (remotely provided by workers whose only tool is typically their computer/digital device) with their customer. The pool of workers typically compete for work and in their review of new forms of work in 2015, Eurofound highlight that this work can encompass anything from food delivery, cleaning, graphic design, marketing and website management.  In how they are organised, digital platform companies are radically altering how firms recruit, manage and retain staff.  The (almost) zero marginal cost of taking on workers means that firms can scale up or scale down in way previously unrecognisable. In short, the role of the worker in these firms is dramatically different.

How big it is in Ireland right now? We don’t really know- some like Uber are precluded from operating here due to tight regulations surrounding those who provide taxi services. But walk around Dublin and you’ll see a new breed of couriers on bikes- this time delivering meals. The less obvious but just as significant group of platform workers operate out of their homes or from the growing stock of short term rental offices.

One potential indicator is the emergence of serviced office companies here in Ireland. Although not exclusively aimed at gig workers, serviced office companies play a key role in the gig economy by renting out “hot desks” and temporary office space to workers on an hourly, daily or weekly basis. In Dublin alone, the largest real estate brokers are reporting huge growth in this area in a very short period- by the end of 2018, it is expected that serviced office space will have mushroomed to over 20,000 square meters in the Dublin area- that’s enough space for between 4,000 and 7,000 gig workers.

Some present platform work as a great innovation for micro entrepreneurs”.  However, a 2015 ILO survey of crowdworkers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform and the Crowdflower platform presents a very different picture. They found that for 40% of respondents in a survey based in the US, crowdworking was the main source of income with an average of 30 hours work per week. These respondents reported that they earned 80% or less of the federal wage and that they spent 18 hours seeking out work for every hour worked. Most respondents reported being under employed.

The extent to which digital platform work becomes a major driver of precariousness depends on whether it assumes the position of primary or supplementary income source for a worker. Eurofound (2017) research suggests the scale of this work remains very small for the time being. Estimates suggest that 0.5% of all workers are employed in digital crowdworking at any one time. This figure was derived from CIPD (2016) research showing that in the UK, only 4% of workers were working for digital platforms at one time, with just 1% dependent on it as a source of income.

Arguably, the second key challenge to decent work may well come from the increased demand for care sector workers over future decades. In their 2017 report on future health demand in Ireland, Wren et al  estimate, based on certain assumptions relating to population growth, unmet demand and healthy life expectancy, that demand for home help hours will increase by over 48% in the fifteen years to 2030. This will necessitate significant recruitment and from SIPTU’s detailed knowledge of the sector, a lot of private sector care work is precarious with part time or variable hours and low pay.  The OECD highlight that non- standard work creates job opportunities for those that may not otherwise be able to take up so-called “standard work” and this is particularly relevant to the high numbers of females over the age of 45 who are currently outside the labour force.

So what to do? As the international organization tasked with setting labour standards and the promotion of decent work, the ILO, put it, the goal must not be to make all work standard, but rather to make all work decent.

That is why SIPTU and ICTU are pushing politicians to ensure we get the Employment Miscellaneous Provisions Bill passed through the Oireachtas. It sets a threshold of decency for new workers in being able to access a contract of employment within the first five days of work and negates the effect of an “If and when” contract by ensuring a minimum weekly payment according to the lessor of the two; 25% of contracted hours or 15 hours at a rate that is three times the national minimum wage or minimum wage set down for the sector by an employment regulation order.

But it is not enough. Collective bargaining is the only real tool to improve worker’s living standards. While the challenges are enormous, the German union IG Metall has agreed a crowdsourcing code of conduct with eight German based digital platform companies, while Delivery Hero, a food delivery service has signed an agreement with EFFAT- the European confederation of unions covering food , agriculture and tourism. Likewise in Austria, a works council has been established in the Foodora food delivery company. In Denmark, the 3F union entered into a collective agreement with digital platform company; Hilfr.dk which provides private cleaning services. The agreement, claimed to be the world’s first, covers minimum wages, sick pay, holiday pay and pensions.

Here in Ireland, we have had groundbreaking legislation enacted both in 2015 and in 2017. Last year, collective bargaining legislation covering freelance workers was signed into law. This marked a big step forward in ensuring that those who are classified as “dependent” self employed can collectively bargain for their terms and conditions.

In 2015, legislation was introduced to allows groups of workers to benchmark their terms and conditions with similar workers in other firms. To date, SIPTU has used this legislation to improve the terms and conditions of hundreds of its members and within a short time, it will be used to improve the conditions of many thousands more.

For trade unions, our challenge is to overcome worker fear and employer hostility and increase membership where precariousness is greatest. We know that for workers the best protection against precariousness is through collective bargaining and the security of having their terms and conditions negotiated and enforced through membership of a trade union.