Ireland could be stepping back to the days of 19th century hiring fairs as tens of thousands of workers take casual jobs when and where they can get them, Business Minister Ged Nash has warned.
The Labour Party minister said he is working on measures to combat “if-and-when” contracts, offering workers little or no rights, exposed in an independent report commissioned by the coalition last year.
While he could not give a time-frame for any clampdown on the unsecured working arrangements, he said he would like to see a plan drawn up within the coming weeks to be brought before Cabinet.
Almost 30,000 workers take casual shifts of between one and eight hours a week, while some 98,000 workers have arrangements giving them between nine and 18 hours’ work.
They are mostly accommodation, food and retail jobs, but there are also jobs in the public healthcare and education systems.
“I referred to these if-and-when arrangements as a new phenomenon,” said Mr Nash.
“But it might be a little more accurate to class them as a resurrection of an old phenomenon, one we had thought we had seen the back of.
“If these if-and-when workers have no employment contract lasting any longer than the length of their shift, then we are taking a step backwards, I believe, to the era of the Dublin docks in the 1950s or indeed the era of the hiring fair, going back to the 19th century.”
Mr Nash added: “Back to an era when an employer could simply pick his daily complement of labour from people lined up outside of the workplace ... who could hope for nothing more than a day’s work.
“That’s not something in this day and age that anyone could stand over.
“That’s what casual labour is, workers on standby available to do work as required without any contractual hour of entitlement.”
The so-called “if-and-when” arrangements were exposed in a University of Limerick study published last November.
They differ from zero-hour contracts, much criticised in the UK, because there are no obligations on either worker or employer to take or provide work.
Mr Nash said the arrangement may not even amount to a contract in law, which would offer workers little or no protection.
Appearing before an Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, he said it was his intention to bring a report to Cabinet colleagues before the Dáil is dissolved ahead of the imminent general election.
But Sinn Féin’s Peadar Tóibín said action was needed urgently.
“Most employers are decent but there are some unscrupulous employers out there who have used low-hour contracts and zero-hour contracts not just for flexibility but for leverage purposes with regards to how they wanted workers to behave,” he said.
“With the best will in the world, workers can’t eat that report, and that report – while it will colour the future direction hopefully of the next government – isn’t going to make a significant difference to the lives of these individuals now.”