"Recovery" Based on Exploitation of Low-paid Workers

Andy Storey

Andy Storey is a lecturer in political economy at University College Dublin and a board member of human rights group Action from Ireland (Afri).


More than 400 workers lost their jobs when Clerys department store, a Dublin institution, was shut down on Friday, 12 June.

People who in some cases had worked there for decades were given 30 minutes’ notice and told they would receive just the statutory redundancy entitlement of two weeks’ pay for each year of service. Tanaiste Joan Burton was moved to describe the treatment of workers as “absolutely despicable”.

Two days prior to the Clerys announcement, I attended a protest outside the Dail organised by Single Parents Acting for the Rights of Kids and calling on the government, and Joan Burton in particular as the minister responsible, to reverse cuts to payments for lone parents.

The latest such cut means that many lone parents will lose between €36.50 and €86 a week. Two-thirds of lone-parent families already suffer deprivation. Minister Burton, in 2012, had said that such cuts would only be introduced if we had an affordable system of childcare “similar to what is found in Scandinavian countries”. I think it is fair to say we are not exactly Sweden yet in that regard.

The minister says that this will help get lone parents back to work. Leaving aside the rather important issue of how they will arrange childcare while at work, are there jobs for them?

The unemployment rate looks set to fall below 10 percent this year, down from over 14 percent at the worst of the crash. But that is a still very high figure, and the downward trend needs to be treated with caution, as an important policy paper from Social Justice Ireland (SJI) published in April of this year makes clear.

Since 2009/10, there has been net emigration of 123,000 Irish people, an interesting companion figure to the fall of 97,300, between 2010 and 2014, in the numbers unemployed. Also between 2010 and 2014, the numbers registered on various training schemes rose by 13,500.

At least as significant are the changes SJI documents in the nature of employment. There were 272,000 (15 percent) fewer full-time jobs in Ireland in 2014 then there were in 2008, when the downturn began. By contrast, in 2014 there were 55,700 more part-time jobs, a rise of 14 percent. Many of those working part-time have fewer hours of work than they would like and many are also members of the so-called “working poor”.

The number of families claiming Family Income Supplement rose from 28,223 in 2010 to 44,159 in 2013, reflecting the fact that workers are increasingly having to turn to state support to supplement their low wages. Meanwhile, average wages continue to fall.

The issue of workers receiving inadequate and/or unpredictable hours and wages has been highlighted by the Decency for Dunnes Workers campaign. Dunnes makes widespread use of short-term and temporary contracts, refuses to negotiate with a trade union, and operates “low-hours” contracts that leave employees not knowing how many, if any, hours they will be working from one week to the next. Dunnes has deployed these tools to discipline workers, including those who participated in recent strike action.

Ironically, it was at an event lauding the Dunnes workers’ struggle that Joan Burton criticised Clerys’s new owners. Neither the Dunnes nor Clerys workers were offered much in the way of practical support by the Tanaiste, however. And it is not just people in the retail trade who are suffering – in the third-level-education sector, for example, temporary, “flexible”, low-paid work is increasingly common.

In my last column, I looked at how Dublin was suffering disproportionately from rising property prices and rents. At one level, Dublin may be gaining disproportionately from the growth in jobs, with most of the post-2010 upsurge being concentrated in the capital. But a crucial issue facing Dubliners and others is whether a claimed employment “recovery” increasingly based on the exploitation of low-paid and insecure workers represents real social progress.

P.S. For a wonderful dramatisation of the challenges facing shop workers, check out Katie O’Kelly’s play Counter Culture.

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Andy Storey: Andy Storey is a lecturer in political economy at University College Dublin and a board member of human rights group Action from Ireland (Afri).

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