In Ireland the absence of universal health and childcare makes the insecurity of precarious work even greater.
Often, policymaker narratives focus on the unemployment figures declining, yet we are seeing more and more workers experiencing or being at risk of in-work poverty, especially through precarious work. Precarious Work, Precarious Lives: how policy can create more security—a report recently published by FEPS and the Irish think tank TASC—describes how precarious work is not just a labour-market matter, as it has far reaching consequences beyond the workplace. The report, based on the evidence of precarious workers living in Ireland, reveals that, although such insecurity is prevalent throughout Europe, Ireland differs because of the lack of universal access to state services, such as healthcare and childcare.
Ireland has a ‘two-tier’ system of social supports: there are those who meet the means-tested eligibility criteria to be subsidised by the state and those who do not. Those who do not are assumed to be able to afford healthcare services. Ireland’s lack of housing security—such as a social housing programme and an affordable rental model would provide—exacerbates the experience of precarious workers.
The report finds that, when it comes to access to healthcare, precarious work has a negative impact because of the triple financial burden of ill-health: unpaid sick leave, the General Practitioner (GP) fee and the cost of medication or follow-up appointments. This often results in making difficult choices, such as cutting down on food to be able to pay the fee. Most precarious workers cannot afford private health insurance, unless a family member pays. Therefore, in Ireland many are covered by neither public nor private healthcare services, because they are just above the threshold for a medical or GP card providing free access.
When it comes to securing a home, precarious workers speak about being precluded from purchasing a property, with many forced to live in their family home because they cannot afford to rent or buy. For others, renting is the only option, even though viewed as unaffordable, unsustainable and insecure. The combination of rising rents and forced evictions leads to extensive periods of hidden homelessness.
Finally, many put off having children because of their precarious work situation. Therefore, starting a family is no longer a personal choice for precarious workers, because they are being forced to make their choice based on their work situation. For those who have children, childcare costs are described as unaffordable, sometimes resulting in a parent being forced to give up their job to look after their children full-time.
EU action plan
If precarious work is failing to lift people out of poverty, then what changes are required? Although there is EU-level consensus that something needs to be done about this phenomenon, the prevalence of precarious work is different in each country. Furthermore, each has its own legislative system, laws and social support mechanisms. While at an EU level the directive is the predominant tool used to regulate precarious work, it is up to each member state to decide how to implement such laws/regulations.
A combination of measures is needed to address precarious work:
- EU directives and national legislation need to protect the standard employment relationship and confront the insecurity and unpredictability associated with non-standard employment, low pay and low-hours work;
- the deficit in universal coverage of vital healthcare and childcare in the EU needs to be addressed, accompanied by policy responses to tackle the housing crisis;
- social-protection systems across Europe should cover all workers and not just employees, promoting a job-quality approach rather than using punitive measures to force job-seekers into taking poorly paid and precarious jobs; and
- industrial relations and trade unions have a major role to play in mitigating precarious work—legislation is required to strengthen the power and resources of enforcement agencies and consolidate the bargaining power of workers and unions.
When precarious work is discussed at a policy level, we often hear of the need for ‘flexibility’ for employers. But the detrimental consequences these insecure and unpredictable working conditions have on peoples’ lives are not considered. We should not be afraid to say that business needs should not come before workers’ needs: not only should work pay, but work should be conducive to family life and the mental and physical well-being of every worker should be assured.