Opinion

Sinéad: Precarious Work Risks Stunting a Generation

Work is supposed to bring independence and certainty.

But for those in precarious work, it is failing to do so, according to our recent research, which involved talking to 40 people between the ages of 18 and 40 years old, and policy experts.

“Our parents had nothing when they had us, but they had some stability,” said one woman we talked to, who had cycled through several temporary and zero-hour contracts.

Those men and women in precarious work, and in their 20s and 30s, said they are forced to depend on parents and families.

Parents, friends or partners often had to step in to pay their medical bills. And many of those we spoke to had to live at home, even though they wanted to move out.

Nearly half a million adults still live at home, census figures in 2016 showed, so the phenomenon goes beyond precarious workers. But young precarious workers, with insecure income and contracts, are most at risk.

Some suggest that young people move back home to save for a deposit to buy a house. But in reality, many simply can’t afford to live independently.

What researchers call precarious work can vary. For us, it was not just about low wages, but also uncertainty of tenure, working hours, and frequency of pay.

In short, it is the unpredictability of income, the instability of employment and the lack of or limited access to social security that makes precarious work precarious.

Permanent workers also struggle with paying for healthcare, childcare, and housing. But insecure contracts and unpredictable wages put precarious workers at a greater risk of material deprivation.

Younger workers are at particular risk of precarious work. Forty-seven percent of young people aged between 18 and 29 are on contracts under which they don’t work the same number of full-time hours each week, a Red C poll in February 2017 for the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI) found.

What’s more, 38 percent of young people aged 18 to 29 are on temporary contracts, 34 percent are in part-time work and 30 percent are in employment where the hours vary from week to week, the same online survey of a representative sample of 286 people found.

More than 70 percent of those asked said their temporary or part-time contract led to serious hardship, and 64 percent said that their current contract made it difficult to plan their personal and family lives.

So, what can be done? For a start, legislation can be brought in that tackles the insecurity and unpredictability of precarious work, and its low-pay and low-hour nature. That includes banning “if-and-when” contacts.

If-and-when contracts are more widespread than zero-hour contracts, a report from University of Limerick found.

Workers don’t have guaranteed hours, and the employer is under no obligation to offer work. So the worker isn’t legally considered an employee. The Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill (2017), which is currently passing through the Dáil, deals with zero-hour contracts, but not if-and-when contracts.

Pay is important. But weekly, rather than hourly wages, need more attention. High hourly rates but few hours threaten a decent weekly wage.

Commentators sometimes argue that banning precarious contracts might hit small businesses or make employers hesitate to hire if its a bigger commitment.

But many employers who hire people on precarious contracts are profitable multinationals that can afford to offer more security and better pay.

Similar warnings sounded when the government increased the minimum wage back in 2016, too. It would lead to greater unemployment among workers on minimum wage, some employer groups said.

The Economic and Social Research Institute and the Low Wage Commission looked into whether that happened. It didn’t, they said.

Ultimately, precarious work means young workers feel their lives are more unstable than their parents’ lives.

Precarious workers said their status meant they felt infantilised, because of this dependency.

“It’s a little bit like being 17 again and it feels as though you’re not progressing forward in life,” Lucy, a temporary commercial archaeologist who moved back home, told us.

The onus is on policymakers and employers to ensure not only that work does pay, but also that work is conducive to family life and the mental and physical well-being of all.

Sinead Pembroke portrait
Sinead Pembroke

Sinead Pembroke is a senior researcher at the Think-tank for Action on Social Change (TASC), specialising in working conditions and precarious work. She has a PhD in Sociology from University College Dublin.

 

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