The Dunnes Stores strike highlighted the problem of zero-hours contracts and casualisation. Brian O’ Boyle shows this is part of a general trend
Ask any Dunnes worker and they’ll tell you straight: fulltime employment has become harder to attain since the economic crash in 2008. In branches across the country, 75% of staff are now employed on part time and/or temporary contracts. More importantly, 98% would like more hours and more security.
Work practices across the retail sector are broadly similar. A recent survey of Mandate members, revealed a majority on part-time contracts, with over 60% of these expected to change their hours regularly.
What was worse, 97% received no shift or bonus allowance for the inconvenience caused. As Ireland’s largest employment sector (15%), retail is indicative of the casualisation that has gripped the wider economy since the start of the crisis.
According to the Central Statistics Office, part-time work has increased by more than 25% during the last six years. Historically, it was workers in non-unionised sectors that faced the insecurity of precarious labour, but increasingly the so-called professions are also being hit.
Research by the Teachers Union of Ireland, indicates that 30% of teachers are currently without full time hours or a permanent contract. For teachers under 30, this figure rises to more than 50%. In the university sector things are no better. Lecturing is gradually being outsourced to people without any entitlements beyond an hourly wage.
Flexibility or insecurity?
Why does this matter? For all its limitations, fulltime work affords people a degree of security to allow them to plan their lives and their futures. It often comes with important benefits including pension rights, paid holidays, promotional opportunities and protection from dismissal.
Those on part-time/casual contracts have very few, if any, of these benefits. Work is often low paid, insecure and badly protected. Workers can be sacked relatively easily with the flexibility imposed on employees helping to generate extra profits for employers.
The personal effects of such arrangements are all too predictable. According to Mandate, 30% of their respondents said that they were finding it difficult to feed their families; 40% found it impossible to cover their bills, whilst 75% admitted to increased stress and vulnerability.
This sense of job insecurity is becoming all-too-widespread. Speaking to Socialist Worker at the picket lines of the recent Dunnes strike, one woman explained the effects of casualisation on her life
“I have worked in Dunnes for 12 years on a 15 hour contract. I’ve just had a baby and could really do with some extra hours, but because I’m earning €11.65 the management are giving them to people on lower wages. I’ve have always worked hard for Dunnes, but the thanks I get is losing my hours as soon as I get a tiny pay rise. I can’t get a mortgage with the kind of hours I’m guaranteed and it leaves my family very vulnerable”
This vulnerability is not happening by chance. In 2008, the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation (IBEC) argued that the biggest cause of the economic meltdown was a lack of competitiveness. This was really a euphemism for the need to drive down wages under the cover of the crisis.
Understanding the signals, the government immediately sprang into action. Over the course of the last seven years, the State has cut public sector pay by €3 billion per year. On top of this, it has drawn up a series of ‘labour activation policies’ (LAPs) and dismantled the protections associated with Joint Labour Committees (JLCs).
The cumulative effects of these policies have been devastating. Let’s start with the LAPs. Instead of receiving wages for their labour, younger people are being conditioned to believe that paid employment is a privilege that must be earned.
Currently there are around 6,500 people on JobsBridge with as as many as 85,000 on labour activation programmes more generally. This represents the extreme end of casualisation as employers often receive free labour for a period of up to 9 months with no obligation to hire anyone at the end of it.
Joint Labour Committees traditionally protected workers in precarious sectors such as hotels, hairdressing and retail. Reducing pay needed employee consent and wages were slightly higher than would otherwise have been the case. Under the Industrial Relations Amendment (2012), employers can now plead poverty to escape the rules of JLCs. Sunday pay and premium rates have also been scrapped, whilst future JLCs will have to take into account factors such as competitiveness and rates of employment and unemployment.
European Monetary Union
Driving this casualisation is the logic of what economists call ‘internal devaluation’. Yet once again this is merely a euphemism for reducing wages to escape the crisis.
Prior to monetary union, governments had a variety of tools to achieve this goal. They could (1) borrow to fund new technologies and R&D, (2) reduce the costs of business loans through expanding the supply of money and/or (3) make their exports cheaper by making their currency lose some of its value.
Under the rules of the monetary union none of these policy tools are currently available. Indeed, the rules of EMU outlaw every form of government action except those designed to make labour markets more flexible.
Instead of well-paid and secure employment, EMU demands that governments attack pay and conditions as the only means of regaining competitiveness. Casualisation is therefore likely to worsen so long as we remain trapped within the prison of the Eurozone.