Sinead Pembroke: For decades now, the retail sector has become synonymous with part-time, low-paid and insecure contracts. However, this has not always been the case; retail was once considered to be good, secure employment, and we should be moving towards making working conditions in this sector more secure again.
De-skilling of the profession
So how did the retail sector become largely precarious? Before the mid-80s, retail companies invested in their employees, and many people were hired on an apprenticeship in order to learn the drapery trade. Entitlements such as pensions were also common, and people working in large department stores considered it a job for life. From the mid-eighties onwards, there was a de-skilling of the profession, and having qualifications or knowledge in the drapery trade was no longer deemed a requirement.
Part-time if-and-when contracts are the norm
The retail sector is predominantly female, and most workers are under the age of thirty-five. It is also one of the most ethnically diverse sectors in Ireland. The majority of new entrants into the sector are on part-time “if- and- when” contracts where they are guaranteed no hours. There are also provisos in some stores for instance, where they cannot work anywhere else, and must be available when management need them for work. A significant amount of retail workers claim Family Income Supplement (FIS) and part-time job seekers allowance in order to supplement the low hours they work. Members who work part-time but have secure hours are able to claim part-time job seekers; however those who have irregular hours are not able to do so.
Since 2006, a key development driving precarity within the sector is that if employees are awarded a pay increase, the company would reduce their hours and hire somebody new to do the same work on a lower pay-scale. There are also many instances where retail companies bring in new staff on temporary contracts that last 11 months and 20 days, (because there is no case for unfair dismissal if it doesn’t go past the 12 months), and then bring in new people on the same contract.
Employees in the retail sector are almost entirely low paid; even the highest paid people have premium retail rates of pay of 14.60/14.89 per hour. The majority would be earning below that. Many are on minimum wage, but there are also many workers being paid below the minimum wage. In 2014, the National Employment Rights Authority carried out inspections, and on average for every inspection that they did that year, they recovered 900 euros of unpaid wages. They did 500 inspections, and recovered 292,000 euros of unpaid wages in total.
Precarious working conditions driven by policy
Precarious working conditions in part-time work are being driven by policy; even though there is EU legislation via the Part-Time Workers Directive designed to tackle irregular hours and give more security in part-time work, the State has not implemented it. In France, for example where they implemented this directive, they have “honest contracts”. This means that if a worker gets a contract for ten hours per week, but they regularly work twenty hours, the extra ten hours are paid at double time, or time and a half. This creates a financial incentive for a company to give an honest contract. As this was never implemented in Ireland, there is a gaping hole in legislation that would give part-time workers more hours if they want them and more security.
The Banded Hours Contract Bill
One solution being offered at present is the Banded Hours Contract Bill. On 14th June 2016, the Banded Hours Contract Bill was introduced by Sinn Fein’s spokesperson for workers’ rights, David Cullinane TD during private members time. This Bill seeks to address the right for a worker (after six months of continuous employment with their employer), to be moved to an increased weekly band of hours (as described in the legislation). The Bill has passed into second stage, and is currently waiting to reach committee stage.
We hear a lot about retail companies, who pay the living wage, but what’s far more important is the weekly wage, rather than the hourly rate; you could command a very high hourly rate but not get a decent weekly wage. It is absolutely necessary that the government intervene on this issue and implement legislation such as the Banded Hours Contract Bill in order to give part-time workers in retail and other sectors (such as hospitality), security of hours. It is time the State starts to play catch up with other European countries who have a part-time workers directive in place, and provide legislation that starts to make retail (and other sectors) more secure again.
Sinead Pembroke is a researcher in TASC