THE HIGH COST OF LOW HOURS WORK

Posted on November 05, 2015 at 11:40 PM

Patricia King - Congress General Secretary
Patricia King
Congress General Secretary

Congress General Secretary Patricia King on the damage done by low hours work practices

Almost as soon as key details from the new study on low hours work found their way onto the front page of the Irish Times, employer and business interests were busy claiming vindication. 

No problem with zero hour contracts in Ireland. Case closed, nothing to see here. 

In fact, the very morning these details appeared, I attended a gathering at which employer representatives made that very claim. 

It was a clever, if somewhat dishonest attempt to obscure a reality that is actually far more troubling and damaging than it may at first appear. 

Anyone familiar with this issue will know that, unlike the situation that obtains in the United Kingdom, ‘zero hour contracts’ have been effectively outlawed in this jurisdiction since 1997, as Minister Ged Nash pointed out in a recent article.

The 1997 legislation was introduced following campaigns mounted by trade unions and effectively set a 15 hour weekly minimum threshold for workers. 

So ‘zero hours’ was not the story here and it never would be, making the loud employer protestations of innocence very hollow and somewhat suspicious. 

But the growth of low hour and precarious work has been a feature of every developed economy in recent years and there was never any reason to believe Ireland was an exception: quite the contrary, with the economic crisis providing fertile ground for the spread of such abusive practices. 

Trade unions have consistently argued that the prevalence of these practices meant the state had to formulate stronger legislation to protect workers – the majority of them female and low paid – and stop their corrosive impact on wider employments standards. 

In reality, the study carried out by the University of Limerick (UL) expert group was initiated to discover just how deep and widespread these problems were. 

The Nevin Institute recently pointed to the spread of precarious work, as it impacted “not only on young people, women and migrants but on older workers too and not always in the more traditional areas of construction, retail, hotels and restaurants."

Indeed, the recent Dunnes dispute graphically illustrated a key element of this new employment culture: the use of low hour rosters on an industrial scale, as a means of cutting employer costs and a none-too-subtle ‘control’ mechanism for staff. 

In the aftermath of April’s 24 hour stoppage, some Dunnes workers suffered significantly for the brave stand they took. 

Unfortunately, the new UL study has merely confirmed our worst fears, as it outlines how ‘If and When’ contracts are prevalent across key areas of the economy, from: accommodation/ food and retail and key areas of the health and education sectors. 

They undermine existing employment protections and threaten peoples’ security of income.

Ironically the study reveals that some employers attempted to argue that low hour flexibility saved the state money through non-payment of social welfare.

But the reverse is the case, with the social welfare system providing an annual de facto subsidy to bad employers through social welfare supports.

In reality, we all end up bearing cost of low hours work and low pay

It was partly to address these obvious concerns, that Congress launched the Charter for Fair Conditions at Work, which aims build a national conversation about the importance of decent work across this island. 

Although the UL study does paint a somewhat grim picture, it also presents us with a critical opportunity to address it. 

In that respect, the report’s key - and very positive- recommendations need to be acted on with urgency.

This particularly applies to proposals for an ‘hours floor’, along with a deterrent in the case of employer abuse of the 72 hour notice period and a wider review of the entire ‘If and When’ culture. 

Government please take note. 

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