Tuesday 15 October 2019

Calls to make employment great again? That's Trumpian nonsense

Workers' rights are being eroded and jobs are more precarious - widespread beliefs but wrong ones, writes Dan O'Brien

There are genuine concerns about the rights of cyclists delivering takeaways, but much else in common debate is just plain wrong. Photo: PA Wire
There are genuine concerns about the rights of cyclists delivering takeaways, but much else in common debate is just plain wrong. Photo: PA Wire
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

There have been bigger gains in employment over the past 18 months than in the first 75 years of this State's existence. That stark fact says more about Ireland's worst-in-Europe record on jobs in the 20th Century than it does about the (very good) recent record on employment creation.

Ireland's appalling record on employment growth over most of that century is one reason why there is less fuzzy-headed nostalgia about the past in this country than in some others, of the Make-America-Great-Again variety so beloved of Donald Trump. In many peer countries, and despite the drudgery of assembly-line work, the decline of employment in heavy industry is lamented because jobs for life in manufacturing have come to be seen as better than less long-lasting service sector jobs.

In spite of the facts that the Republic never industrialised and its 20th-century employment record was so grim, suggestions of a past in which jobs and employment conditions were much better are often made. Even more common are claims of an unstoppable proliferation of zero-hour contracts, bogus self-employment and other forms of awfulness in the world of work.

A section on the Sean O'Rourke radio show last week was a classic example of the things-are-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket genre. Last Thursday a panel of three all told a tale of woe about working life. One of the most commonly made claims, that employment is becoming more precarious, was predictably trotted out within minutes.

Along with claims about another supposed socio-economic phenomena - the death of rural Ireland - claims about workplace precariousness are made with little supporting evidence. Most of the claims made on the show were presented as facts despite being fact-free. Most of them are, in fact, wrong.

For decades, the State's statisticians have visited thousands of homes every three months to ask people very detailed questions about their employment situation. One of the many questions they ask is whether PAYE workers have permanent or temporary contracts with their employers.

Over those two decades, there has been no marked change, with around 90pc of employees on permanent contracts and only 10pc on temporary ones. If there has been a trend it has been towards permanency.

In recent years, as the recovery has picked up pace and skill shortages have emerged in some sectors, employees have been in a stronger bargaining position. That is to be seen in the most recent jobs figures which show 93pc of employees were on permanent contracts, the highest share on record. In other words, there has never been such a small proportion of employees on temporary contracts since records began in the late 1990s.

Ah, but doom-mongers will say, only looking at PAYE employees misses a supposed scourge of the age: bogus self-employment. That happens when an unscrupulous employer refuses to give somebody an employment contract: permanent or temporary.

In order to save money by, for instance, not paying social insurance and holiday pay, the employer insists that the worker sign a contract as an independent services provider.

With the rise of the smartphone-enabled gig economy, there is certainly reason to think that bogus self-employment could be a problem.

It is for this very reason the Department of Social Protection recently did a major study on the subject. It found no evidence to support the contention (just as another investigation a few years ago showed there to be no zero-hour contracts in Ireland).

Again, the hard facts show why. If bogus self-employment was becoming more widespread, the total number of people registered as self-employed would be on the up. That is not happening.

The statisticians register two types of self-employment. The first type of self-employed worker employs other people. Anyone who is working on their own account and paying others to work for them is unlikely to be bogus. Indeed, this group is part of the employment solution, as they are creating jobs. They are not part of any problem.

The second group of self-employed people are those who don't employ anyone else. These solo workers include those in the gig economy, such as bicyclers delivering takeaways, and about whom there is considerable and justifiable concern.

Again, let's look at the figures, which are collected at some considerable expense to the taxpayer in order to allow for an informed debate.

As of the end of last year, just over one in 10 people at work in the Irish economy was self-employed and employing nobody else.

That was fractionally lower than a decade ago and marginally higher than two decades ago. Such stability in the share of solo self-employed workers over 20 years would not be happening if any significant surge in bogus self-employment was taking place.

Nor is it the case, incidentally, that solo self-employed workers are all struggling with too few hours, even if some certainly are. If anything, it is more common to hear of self-employed people complaining of too much work rather than too little.

Again, this is borne out by the available data. Solo self-employed people put in 43 hours a week on average, far more than people with employee status, who work an average of 35 hours.

Part-time working is the one area where there may be some evidence to support claims that the workplace environment has deteriorated. OECD figures show that in 2016, 6.6pc of those at work in Ireland were part-timers who wanted to be full-timers. That is down on peak of 2013, but is more than twice pre-crisis levels.

But even this shred of evidence that could support the negative view may be less supportive than it first appears.

The fact that involuntary part-time working was low and stable as a share of total employment for decades before the crash suggests that there may not be an underlying trend at work. Rather, it is more likely that the still high number of involuntary part-timers reflects the huge scale of labour market shock from 2008 from which full recovery has not been completed.

None of this is to say that Nirvana has been arrived at in the jobs market, or that younger people are not still having a considerably worse time of it than their pre-crash counterparts - the under-25s are always the first to suffer jobs losses when economies slump and the last to benefit when they recover.

But the employment story since the economy turned around in 2012 has been almost all about positive developments. Since the Celtic Tiger took legs in the mid-1990s, with the exception of the 2008-2012 period, that has also been the case. Before that time, things really were grim in Ireland, with decade after decade of stagnating employment.

There are lots of real problems that need attention and discussion, from global warming, to the chronic housing shortage, to the high level of jobless households, which is Ireland's real labour market issue.

Giving unchallenged prominence to those who make claims without evidence not only distracts from real problems, it adds to the inchoate anger that is a feature of modern politics across the western world.

Dan O'Brien has tweeted further detail and graphics on this subject at @danobrien20

Sunday Independent

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