Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Social implications of precarious work: possible consequences of atypical employment

Alicja Bobek: Since the financial crisis, and through the recovery, we hear more about the increase of precarious work. Precarious employment means insecurity, as it mostly refers to those with atypical contracts: including irregular part-time workers, self-employed with no paid employees and people employed on a temporary basis. The academic debate tends to focus on changes in the employment relationship itself, while not much attention is given to the social implications of precarity. There are some possible consequences of being in precarious employment, including financial difficulties, limited career opportunities, housing issues, or delayed family formation. While not all precarious workers are affected in the same way, it is worth discussing some of these implications.

Career consequences and financial implications
Precarious work has obvious financial implications. Almost all atypical employment can be characterised by short, mid, or long-term income unpredictability. Many irregular part-time employees have insecure income on a weekly basis. Self-employed workers and freelancers are often paid for a job which has an end to it while the next one is not guaranteed. Finally, temporary contracts can be characterised by long-term income insecurity as individuals may expect some periods of unemployment.

Precarious work may also have an impact on careers. Traditional careers are based on a linear model. Individuals work for a company within which they can progress; alternatively they move to another firm if a better opportunity arises. They can move vertically or horizontally, but the change is usually regarded as voluntary. Promotion within this model is also associated with either higher pay or a better status. Furthermore, there is an assumption that employers would be willing to invest in their regular employees by providing them with education or training. This can improve their workers’ skills and increase loyalty.

Such paths are often not available for precarious workers. This is especially the case in relation to people on ‘if and when’ contracts, which are now widespread in the hospitality and retail sectors. Regular increments are frequently not part of these contracts, while workplaces have a flat organizational structure, which makes it difficult to progress. Promotion can be capped at a supervisory level as employers prefer to offer managerial positions to college graduates, rather than to their ‘regular’ employees. An upwards movement also does not guarantee much higher hourly rate, although is likely to result in more security in terms of the hours. Those staying longer in these sectors may thus become trapped.

On the contrary, temporary contracts are associated with movement between different employments. Those advocating for a ‘boundaryless career’ model argue that moving between different employers benefits an individual. Ongoing fixed-term contracts, however, may result in a number of horizontal movements which have an involuntary character. This may be the case of those who move companies out of their own choice. A new job taken out of a necessity does not necessarily mean progression. This is especially an issue for high-skilled workers, who are supposed to build ‘a portfolio’ CV. Frequent moves with no strategy behind them may damage, rather than improve this ‘portfolio’.

Housing, family formation, and social relations
Buying a house may present a great difficulty for precarious workers. Financial institutions are usually hesitant to give a mortgage to individuals who are on atypical contracts, precisely due to the lack of security of their income. Saving for a deposit may also be of an issue for those with unpredictable income, especially if work only has a temporary character. Even if the earnings are high, additional resources may be needed for a period of unemployment. Spending this income on rents, which are currently very high, can also be problematic, or even impossible. Depending on the individual circumstances, precarious workers may not be able to afford a place on their own, and can be forced to either share with others, or live with their parents.

Financial constraints and housing issues may have a potential influence on relationships and family formation. Young workers, who cannot rent or buy places for themselves, are less likely to start a family. If they cannot predict their income, or their future place of work, they may be even less likely to plan to have a child. Relatively high childcare cost in Ireland is a further constraint. Furthermore, females in temporary employment may have difficulties in obtaining maternity leave simply due to the length of their contract. They may also fear being ‘pushed out’ of the labour market if they take time off work. All these can result in an involuntary delay in family formation.

Finally, precarity can have an impact on everyday social relationships. On a simplest level, irregular income may restrict an individual’s ability to spend money on socialising. Precarious workers are also often in a difficult position at work when compared to regular employees. If they change workplaces, work by themselves, or work on different shifts, then they do not have the same opportunities to establish social relationships at work.

The importance of individual circumstances and the national context.
These implications are not the same for all precarious workers, or atypical workers in general. The national context, including the cost of living or the social welfare system, is of a great importance. The current housing crisis in Ireland, combined with the high costs of living, can make it more difficult for precarious workers to survive, compared with the same workers in another European country. The impact of precarity may also vary depending on individual circumstances. In other words, precarious work will have different consequences for a single mother working irregular hours than those for a young college graduate living with his or her parents. Nevertheless they all have one thing in common: the lack of security and the inability to predict what their future will bring. 

Dr Alicja Bobek is a Researcher at TASC

1 comment:

Nat O`Connor said...


I think you accurately describe many of the problems associated with precarious work.

There is an interesting article by Michael Lind in the New York Times ('Can You Have a Good Life if You Don't Have a Good Job?', 16 Sept 2016)

His article is largely descriptive, about the "invisible welfare state" in the USA, where a complex of tax credits, federal- and state-level programmes, state retirement benefits, etc. all combine to support precarious workers, and this represents a larger social spend that we generally think exists in the USA.

The USA is years ahead of Ireland in the breakdown of traditional secure, full-time employment with benefits (notably health insurance). Do you think their direction of travel is inevitable, including the kind of remedial measures that Lind describes?

I'm not in hurry to endorse the messy—and probably inefficient—system that Lind describes. However, his conclusion might be a useful rejoinder to your article:

'Until most American workers are persuaded that they will not be worse off in a system characterized by flexible work arrangements and partly socialized benefits, they may continue to make unrealistic demands that 21st century politicians restore something like the occupational structure of the 20th century. Politicians should tell working Americans what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. And what they need to hear is that it is possible for all Americans to have good lives, even if they can’t all have good jobs.'

(Aside: And President Trump's rhetoric is aligned to the idea of turning back the clock to 20th century occupational structures, and even if he can't achieve that, he seems likely to cancel parts of the invisible welfare that keeping people afloat).

In Ireland, like the USA, there is an antipathy to paying more taxes. And the middle classes here are equally blind to the welfare benefits they receive in the form of tax breaks—for health insurance, pensions, third level education, etc.

But what's your solution to precarity? Better jobs, a more explicit and direct system of state protections for precarious workers, or do you think our best bet is to build up Ireland's invisible welfare state, given people's antipathy to taxation and state services?