April 2012        

Every employer’s fantasy: casual and insecure labour

Too many workers in Ireland are employed as “casual” labour, with many more under-employed in insecure work. This is work that provides little economic security and leaves workers with little or no control over their working lives.
     Casual and insecure labour is every employer’s fantasy: a flexible, compliant work force with very few rights, who are at the beck and call of the employer. The problem with this scenario is that we sometimes fall for this fantasy too.
     For workers, the facts of casual employment are usually very different from the fantasy. The increasing push for ultra-flexibility in sectors such as retail means a significant decrease in decent jobs and decent work.
     The ultimate employer fantasy of full and unfettered flexibility, with a subservient work force just glad to have a job and be offered crumbs from the master’s table, is becoming both an increasing tantalising reality for employers and a Nightmare in Dole Street for workers in recessionary times.
     The fantasy that most workers want casual and flexible arrangements is simply not true. Most casual, under-employed workers prefer permanent full-time or decent part-time work. They are forced to take these jobs because they are often the only types of job they can get.
     Many employers in sectors such as retail no longer offer decent work opportunities for new employees. The idea of long-serving employees on the top point of a pay scale is a “hair standing on the back of the neck” experience for many employers. In their world, what drives profits is low-paid work, uncertain hours, changed at a whim to suit the needs of the business, little or no access to sickness pay schemes or pension provision, etc., low job security, and a transient and flexible work force.
     Add in the fact that some employers can seemingly walk away from their obligations to workers in situations such as that at Vita Cortex, Laura Ashley, La Senza and, more recently, Game with two fingers up to the system, the workers, the state, and society in general, and therein lies the dilemma.
     Insecure work and casual employment have effects far beyond the workers themselves. With exceptionally low and in many cases uncertain incomes, workers find it difficult to meet day-to-day living expenses. This has a devastating effect on family life and drives many families into deeper and deeper debt, by default then forcing the economy to contract further into recession.
     Picking on retail, many hugely profitable transnationals provide work of uncertain duration with uncertain earnings and irregular work patterns, thus forcing thousands to resort to the social welfare system.
     In short, the taxpayer ends up paying for the fantasy that is work-place flexibility, so craved by many of these profitable companies at the expense of workers and society in general.
     Casual employment and insecure work are bad for all of us: for our families, our communities, and our economy. When the employer forces flexibility on the work force it is usually in the boss’s favour, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
     Perhaps it’s time to burst the bubble of bosses having casual affairs and demand that real, sustainable, permanent jobs are at the centre of all future employment in our “New Ireland.”
     I’m sure Richard Bruton, minister for insecure work and minimum-wage employment, might not appreciate the need for regulation in these areas, which is all the more reason for making it happen.
     Permanent full-time work for those who want and need it, and decent work for all in employment: we deserve no less; society deserves no less!

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