Precarity Rising


From top; cycle courier in Dublin; Michael Taft

Precarious working is rising, pervading a number sectors: hospitality, retail, construction, financial, education (including childcare) and health. A major difficulty, though, is that there is no official or agreed definition.

There is no one set of measurements that captures precariousness.

We sometimes use short-hand data such as under-employment –people working part-time but looking for more hours or a full-time job. Or those on uncertain working hour contracts. These are aspects of precarious working but do not tell the full story.

To overcome this, the EU Commission’s Precarious Employment in Europe uses the concept of ‘at-risk of precariousness’. They first identify the risks:

Low-pay and in-work poverty

Lack of certainty over hours worked

Lack of access to social security / insurance benefits such as unemployment or illness benefit

Lack of employment rights such as holiday pay

Lack of right to collective bargaining

Lack of career progression, career development, in-work training

Stress and negative health impacts

This list covers a number of precarious situations based on income, workplace rights, social security, career and health-related issues. The EU Commission then ranks various employment contracts by their potential risk.


Standard open-ended contracts – whether full-time or part-time – are not without risk of precariousness but they are at the lower end. The highest at-risk contracts are, unsurprisingly, temporary agency work, posted work, zero-hour contracts and black market work.

All work that is ‘atypical’ (that is, not full-time standard contracts) is subject to levels of unacceptable risk. And atypical work is growing.

Four in every 10 workers are in medium to high risk categories. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all ‘atypical’ workers are at risk. High-income, professional self-employed and many fixed-term contract workers would not be subject to risk. Nonetheless, if we are to find precariousness, we’ll find it in atypical work.

Obviously no single measurement can encompass all this and provide a bottom line number. We can, though, measure some aspects of precariousness.

Part-Time Involuntary employment: Those who are involuntarily employed part-time (when they would rather be employed full-time or with more hours) stood at 23.7 percent of all part-time workers in 2009. This rose to over 40 percent by 2012 as would be expected during a recession. Since then it has fallen back 31.5 percent but still remains above pre-crash levels.

Temporary Agency Workers: A small category, it has increased during the recession and afterwards. In 2009 only 0.7 percent of workers were employed in this category. By 2016 this has nearly doubled to 1.3 percent with a continuous upward trend.

Temporary or Fixed-Term Contracts: In 2009, 8.8 percent of employees were on fixed-term contracts. This rose to over 10 percent during the recession but has fallen back to 8.2 percent.
These measurements show a mixed-bag. And some high-risk categories are not measurable such as bogus self-employment.

ESRI’s Elish Kelly and Alan Barrett, writing in the Economic and Social Review, studied the trend in atypical contracts and expressed concern at the:

‘ . . . apparent persistence of the increased likelihood of atypical work in the recovery, albeit to a weakening degree. Before drawing any strong conclusions, we should note that the timeframe we are using is short and so we certainly cannot conclude that Ireland is in a new phase where atypical work is more likely. Nevertheless, the results raise the possibility that economic recovery will not, of itself, lead to more full-time and permanent jobs.’

Whether we will fall back to pre-crash norms or enter into a new phase of increasing atypical contracts is still not settled.

If measuring precariousness is difficult, resolving it is even more so and not amenable to a magic bullet.

The problems faced by low-hour contract workers are different from temporary agency workers are different from bogus self-employed.

Each situation requires specific tools and, as the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission shows, the resolution can be quite complex with potential for perverse consequences (in this case, the Government’s legislation on ‘if-and-when’ contracts and banded hours).

A Floor of Social Rights

So how can we establish a framework that can tackle precariousness while acknowledging the complexity of the different solutions?

A EU Commission study came up with a provocative proposal: a Social Rights Floor. This would take all the social rights currently enjoyed by those on open-ended contracts and assess the degree to which those rights are applicable to those on atypical contracts.

This would include many of the risks outlined above by the EU Commission (social security, workplace rights, etc.).The fight against precariousness shouldn’t be reduced to legislation over employment contracts.

There are two other key ingredients:

Sectoral collective bargaining: each sector has particular issues which could be addressed by employers and employees collectively to ensure the remedy is robust and universally applicable. This not intended to replace a legislative floor but the fact is that banded hours negotiated collectively in the retail sector are more secure than what the Government is proposing. And if one were to look at the legislative protection for atypical workers in Denmark, you might think it quite weak. However, precariousness is tackled through sectoral collective bargaining and the result is much stronger protection.

Fiscal policy: I have written in the past about the idea of transforming personal tax credits into a partial Basic Income or Participation Income. This would only benefit workers whose income is below the income tax threshold. It wouldn’t be a handsome amount at first (approximately €300 per month) but it would establish an income floor that could be raised in the future.

Floors for Social Rights and income will become ever more a necessity in the future. The oncoming automation, AI and robot revolution could generate even more workers on atypical contracts.

The challenge will be to ensure that, regardless of your employment contract, you will enjoy the full range of Social Rights, that you will have an income floor, that you will have access to training and re-skilling (through enhanced labour market interventions) and, so, greater career progression.

In other words, you will be protected from precariousness.

Michael Taft is an economic analyst and author of the political economy blog, Notes on the Front.

16 thoughts on “Precarity Rising

  1. Baffled

    A good measure of ‘precarious’ employment is the proportion of people at work who are not in full-time employment.

    The CSO provides these data in its quarterly Labour Force Survey.

    The latest one is here:

    Table 1 shows that in the most recent quarter for which there are data (Q3 2017), 19.9% of those with a job (i.e. 438k divided by 2.2m) were working part time.

    This is lower than the proportion for Q315, Q216, Q316, Q416, Q117 and Q217.

    In other words, the number of people working full-time in a country where employment is back to peak has been consistently growing. That doesn’t suggest that ‘precarious employment’ is a rising phenomenon. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    1. Cian

      Agreed. The CSO has a different measure from Michael’s one called “In employment part-time – underemployed” that shows counts of people (rather than percentages). Latest figures show:

      2009Q3: 450.0 were “In employment part-time” of this 120.3 were “underemployed” (26.7%)
      2017Q3: 438.1 were “In employment part-time” of this 116.2 were “underemployed” (31.5%)

      So while now there is a greater percentage ‘part-time underemployed’ there are actually 4,000 fewer people.

    2. Michael Taft

      Thanks for that, Baffled. The data for full-time employment would include own-account workers and temporary workers – where they are full-time. Many in these groups would be at-risk of precarity. This is the problem – as I stated – of trying to find a single measurement of precarity where none exists; where not even an official definition exists.

      1. Fact Checker

        You can mandate that all jobs come with extremely high levels of protection.

        But you might have less of them.

          1. Baffled

            Not sure why you think that, Anne. The total number of people at work in Ireland today (2.2m) is just below the all-time high. Unemployment is at its lowest rate for close to 10 years. Is this all down to ‘poo jobs’?

          2. anne

            In response to the quality jobs comment from the other fella above me there.. higher protection = lesser jobs.

  2. bisted

    …Margaret Thatcher made no secret of the necessity to maintain a level of unemployment where workers could not gain leverage from scarcity in the workforce…even Thatcher would blush at the expoitation caused by deliberate precarious employment. The solution lies in falling unemployment rates and hopefully the rogue employers will soon experience difficulties…

  3. some old queen

    Something I have not seen mentioned anywhere is the trend to not notify and then ignore request from unsuccessful candidates post interview. This is usually done through agencies so the candidate has no redress.

    I don’t know the reason for it but when someone takes the time to present for interview, the very least they should expect is a courtesy notification.

    1. anne

      What redress do you have for no feedback after interviewing when you applied directly to the company? I’d say zero to none at a guess.

      1. some old queen

        True. I suppose it is one way of weeding out bad employers because if they treat people like that before they are employed, god knows what they would be like afterwards.

  4. Cian

    One other thing. You show a bar chart showing “Workers in Atypical Contracts”. This includes part-time as atypical.
    If you look at CSO data for part-time work we have
    2003Q2 17.5%;
    2008Q3 19.6%;
    2014Q3 24.1%;

    If we remove these from your Atypical chart we get
    2003Q2 34-17.5% = 16.5%
    2008Q3 38-19.6% = 18.4%
    2014Q3 41-24.1% = 16.9%

    There is very little increase (0.4 points) in fulltime-Atypical work.

    As an aside – as part-time % has dropped from 24.1% in 2013 to 19.8% in 2017 – so I’d expect the Atypical rate to have dropped by 4 points too… dropping us under EU levels!

      1. Cian

        I wasn’t bragging.
        a) the data he is using is not relevant – as most of the change is due to part-time work. So he should have just highlighted the increase in part-time work only.
        b) the cart shows old data. if you look at the most recent data (Q3-2017) there are 245,000 extra full-time jobs and 46,000 fewer part-time jobs since Q3-2014. Which tells a different story.

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