Thursday 23 November 2017

New Irish low: low pay, low hours and low security

The economic recovery has led to a welcome drop in unemployment, but the secure "job for life" may be a thing of the past.

London calling: Joseph Loughnane back in Galway after struggling to feed himself on £20 a week while on an internship in the English capital
London calling: Joseph Loughnane back in Galway after struggling to feed himself on £20 a week while on an internship in the English capital
Dunnes stores workers pictured picketing outside Dunnes Henry Street,Dublin
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

There was more good news for those hunting for jobs in recent days. As the sun finally came out, unemployment figures dropped to their lowest level in more than six years at 10pc.

While there are definite grounds for optimism, the Dunnes strike over low hours contracts would have caused many to pause for thought about what kind of jobs there will be in Ireland during the recovery. Will they be well-paid and secure?

Strictly speaking, the Dunnes workers who picketed stores across the country do not have the much-publicised zero-hours contracts.

However, according to their union Mandate, most do not have certainty beyond 15 hours on how many hours they are going to work from week-to-week. Spokesman David Gibney says: "They feel that they can't plan their life, plan their future and there's no financial security."

They may grab the headlines, but the Dunnes workers are by no means exceptional in Ireland of 2015. The new breed of employee is increasingly working unpredictable hours on insecure contracts, frequently on low pay.

Welcome to the world of the "precariat". The term was coined near the start of this decade by the economist Professor Guy Standing to describe a class of worker, whose career is unpredictable.

Typically they are temps - part-timers working in shops, hotels or call centres - and often they are classed as self-employed contractors.

They may be graduates struggling to make a decent living on internships or JobBridge schemes.

Where once employees could hope for secure full-term contracts, now Professor Standing says the new precariat has a working lifetime consisting of disjointed bits. With little security or guaranteed income, they can struggle to build a career.

Professor Standing has predicted the rise of a phenomenon known as "crowdworking", where keyboard workers try to earn a crust by bidding online for small online tasks, and are paid a small amount for each task.

There are no precise figures on the number of workers who work on zero-hours contracts in Ireland. However, clues can be found in figures from the Central Statistics office. There are currently 130,000 people classed as "part-time underemployed". This means they are part-timers who would like to do full-time work.

Ultimately, these low-paid part-timers come at a cost to the State, because many have to top up their incomes with social welfare.

Employment lawyer Richard Grogan says: "There has been a considerable increase in the use of zero-hours contracts, particularly in the hospitality industry, restaurants, distribution and the cleaning industry."

A zero-hours contract of employment is an arrangement where the employee is available for work but does not have specified hours of work.

Richard Grogan says: "A number of these contracts are being put in place, effectively to create a form of bonded labour, where the employer effectively has absolute control over the employee."

In some cases, the employee may not be allowed to work for another company, even though they have very few hours.

Close observers of these developments suggest that some employees may be working on zero-hours arrangements without even knowing it, because the contracts are effectively disguised. One legal source says: "A typical contract might suggest that the 'normal office hours are 9 to 5.30' and 'You will be required to work such hours as required by the company from time to time'.

"You might think that means you work from 9 to 5.30, but it could be zero. The hours could be cut at any time."

The phenomenon is not confined to low-paid sectors such as retailing and the hospitality sector. It seems to have spread into middle-class jobs as well.

A recent survey found that one in six pilots in Europe are "atypical employees". This means they may work through a temporary work agency, are self-employed, or on a zero-hours contract with no minimum pay guaranteed.

Stephen Kinsella, economist at the University of Limerick, says the rise of the precariat is being driven by globalisation.

"Dunnes Stores is not competing with your local shop. It is competing with Lidl, Aldi and Tesco. So in a global marketplace, it has to reduce its cost base. It's good for the employer because they want flexibility, but it's not good for the employee."

One labour law analyst says some zero-hours working arrangements in the hotel industry may be legitimate.

"A lot of the work is seasonal. You might have a waiter who works on functions and there isn't a wedding on every night. The trouble is that employers are also using these terms for regular jobs such as cleaners and kitchen staff, where the demand for labour is consistent."

Since it was launched four years ago, the JobBridge scheme, where workers can top up their unemployment benefit by €50 by working as interns, has attracted controversy. Critics say it displaces well-paid entry-level jobs.

Just under 40,000 workers have taken part in JobBridge, and a recent survey by the National Youth Council of Ireland shows decidedly mixed feelings about it among participants.

Of those surveyed, 57pc said they were satisfied with their internship. However, 44pc said they thought the scheme was used for free labour.

Labour lawyer Richard Grogan says: "JobBridge employees have no protection whatsoever when it comes to employment rights.

"However, other types of intern have a right to the minimum wage and other rights."

Richard Grogan draws the distinction between those who may work for a vet or a solicitor as an intern to see if they are interested in a career, and the qualified low-paid intern who is taken on long term.

"What is happening is that you are getting people who are qualified being offered internships on some hope that they will get a job. This can simply be a way of getting cheap labour."

While unemployment is dropping, the growth in the number of jobs is not consistent across the country and economists have described the upturn as a "two-tier recovery".

A recent report by the Nevin Economic Research Institute found that the recovery is heavily concentrated on Dublin and its hinterland.

While the overall report is positive, it shows that employment growth is sluggish in western and border counties.

New Irish low: low pay, low hours and low security

With two law degrees and a ­Masters, Joseph Loughnane might have expected a smooth path into the workforce.

But like thousands of other young workers, NUI Galway graduate came to his present job on a circuitous route via a call centre and an unpaid internship in London and the dole queue.

Despite applying for jobs at solicitors' offices for six years, Joseph says he never had an offer of paid work in his chosen field.

Unable to secure an internship in Ireland, Joseph used his savings from working in a call centre for a few months to do a six-month placement at a human rights organisation in London.

Joseph found the work worthwhile, but his emigrant experience became one of penury, as he ran out of money. He lost two stone in weight, having struggled to feed himself on £20 (€27) a week.

"The organisation was small and couldn't afford to pay me," the 28-year-old says. "My friend and I were paying £500 each a month on rent and I only had money for one meal a day."

"Young people now are told that they have to internships in order to fill up their CV. But what is the point if you are not getting an income and don't have enough work to live.

"It definitely discriminates against those who are not from wealthy families, because if you don't have financial backing, you can't afford to do the job and get the experience that you need."

With his raft of third-level qualifications, Joseph feels he was over-qualified when he was applying for jobs.

"I had to downplay my qualifications if I was going for an interview. If you show them that you have too many degrees, they might think you will be bored in the job. A lot of my contemporaries either have to go abroad or take unpaid internships in order to gain experience."

Joseph now has a full-time job in taxi regulation.

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