Ireland: Republic of opportunity or state of insecurity for young workers?

December 12, 2019

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by James Doorley, National Youth Council of Ireland

A decade on from the economic crisis, Ireland is a different country. The recession left scars on all our citizens and impacted as they were by unemployment, debt, cuts in income supports and the withdrawal of social services, young people were hit harder than most. It is welcome that youth unemployment has declined from 31% in 2012 to 14% today and many more young people are at work. However, in the last decade, major changes have taken place in the labour market and there has been significant growth in precarious employment. This trend impacts in particular on young people. Many young workers are having the traditional entry into well-paid and secure employment elongated and frustrated by precarious employment, which takes many forms and is characterised by in-work poverty as well as the insecurity related to the nature of the employment contract. These include rolling temporary contracts, agency contracts, bogus self-employment and the so-called “if and when contracts”, where there are no guaranteed hours of work and equally important, no certainty in your weekly pay packet. To address these deficiencies, Government must prioritise quality employment, where young workers have access to jobs that deliver decent and stable wages, have security of tenure and enjoy good working conditions that balance work and family life.

A significant proportion of young people working in post-crash Ireland are in precarious employment, which brings with it financial uncertainty and impacts on personal and family life, and on health and well-being. A survey undertaken by Red C and on behalf of the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI) in 2017, indicated that almost half of people aged 18 to 29 in Ireland are on non-standard contracts, and more than one third are on temporary contracts and in part-time work. Also, precarious work is no longer confined to typical “gig economy” jobs, such as short-term positions or activities in the arts, delivery workers, etc., but is now prevalent in sectors such as education, healthcare, telecommunications and IT (Pembroke, 2018).

Despite uninterrupted economic growth over the last seven years, improvements in labour market conditions for young workers has been relatively slow.  All this suggests that without Government action and policy change, the current labour market conditions of precarious work will become a new norm for young people. As highlighted by the research of TASC and others, precarious employment and low pay not only impacts on the financial well-being of workers, it also has significant knock-on effects on their personal and family life. As they have no guaranteed hours or income from week to week, they often miss important family gatherings, cannot socialise with friends and put off medical appointments because of the cost. The variable nature of the working hours also inhibits the capacity of the employee to undertake further education or training.

More and Better Jobs

It was understandable during the economic crisis that the focus of Government policy was on reducing the high numbers on the live register, however, too much time and focus were invested in creating new jobs at any cost, with insufficient attention being given to the quality of the new jobs which the State was supporting. The creation of low pay and poor-quality jobs may reduce the live register figures in the short term, but it merely shifted young workers from the ranks of the unemployed to that of the working poor. There should have been a greater focus on not just more jobs, but more and better jobs. The recent publication of the Future Jobs Ireland 2019 report is welcome in that regard, with an increased emphasis on quality employment. Yet more is needed.

NYCI has called for a comprehensive Government policy to address precarious employment for a number of years. Such a comprehensive policy would include the following components:

  • First, we believe the Government should accept and adopt the robust recommendation from the Living Wage Technical Group for a Living Wage of €12.30 an hour. While the increase in the minimum wage in recent years has been welcome, it does not provide an acceptable minimum standard of living for many workers. As almost 40% of those on the minimum wage are under 30 years, the living wage would make a significant difference in the lives of many young workers.
  • Secondly, while we welcome the enactment of the Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2018, which commenced in March 2019 and is designed to tackle ‘if and when contracts,’ unpredictable working hours and the incorrect designation of employees, it needs to be rigorously implemented. Many workers, especially young workers are in a vulnerable position and may be apprehensive about reporting prohibited employment practices and therefore it is important that the Workplace Relations Commission takes a proactive approach to ensure full compliance with the new law.
  • Thirdly, much more needs to be done to support young workers in low paid jobs and with limited educational qualifications to retrain and upskill. Enhancing skills and qualifications will better enable young workers to navigate the ever changing and turbulent job market, in particular arising from the changes brought about by decarbonisation, digitalisation and globalisation. At present, almost three-quarters of those engaged in life-long learning already have third level qualifications. This data indicates that many of those who really need to engage in life-long learning to upskill are not doing so for a variety of reasons. As outlined earlier many workers on low pay and in precarious employment cannot afford the cost nor commit the time to do so. There are undoubtedly other barriers, and the Government needs to develop a strategy to support more young workers in precarious employment to upskill and retrain.
  • Finally, the Government needs to be more proactive in supporting employers who provide good quality employment and to confront employers and employment practices, which create and sustain precarious employment and poor-quality jobs. It would appear in recent years that some employers have developed business models predicated on precarious employment and low pay (Sweeney, 2016). It is crucial that such behaviour and business models are not subsidised by the taxpayer. At present, Government provides grants, subsidies and tax breaks to employers and businesses to create and sustain employment, much of this is welcome and to be commended, however, this may not always be the case. As the economy improves it is vital that all supports to employers are scrutinised to ensure they are supporting quality employment. Otherwise, employees are being short-changed and good employers are being placed at a disadvantage by less scrupulous employers.

The labour market has changed dramatically in the last decade and young workers are at the frontline of that transformation. As a result, Government policy must adapt to ensure quality employment and more and better jobs. A comprehensive policy as outlined above to support quality and well-paid employment would assist lower paid workers, promote upskilling and retraining, reward good employers and employment practises, be positive for our economy and most importantly, would help to tackle the state of insecurity many workers experience. Young workers are especially vulnerable in this regard. We need to redress this imbalance, to ensure that the workplace is a republic of opportunity for all employees.