MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Our prosperity’s foundation is precarious

ARCHAEOLOGISTS went digging for decency last Thursday. That’s how they describe it anyway. Their campaign is called Dig4Decency. It’s all about seeking proper terms and conditions in their place of work, writes Michael Clifford.

Archaeologists Stuart Elder, Finbar O’Mahony, Donnacha Smith, Steve Waugh and Muiris Wade, who are working on the Ballyvourney to Macroom bypass, are supported in their protest by colleagues from all over the country. Picture: Dan Linehan

On Thursday they downed tools on a site in Dublin’s Aungier St. In recent months their colleagues working on the Macroom bypass staged a similar protest. They want collective bargaining with the employer, Irish Archaeological Consultancy, which is doing very well for itself on the back of a construction boom.

What’s the big deal about another group of workers looking to improve their lot? The protest by archaeologists is instructive because these people with a professional qualification, doing important cultural, historic and commercial work, are part of the precariat. They are forced by working conditions to live week to week. Their work involves delving into the past but they can do precious little to plan for the future.

The precariat is that section of the Irish economy hidden from view in the bright, shining statistics. The term, popularised in a 2014 book by economist, Guy Standing, defines those whose precarious employment has serious repercussions for their lives, and by extension for society as a whole.

Standing defined the precariat as those having “lives dominated by insecurity, debt, uncertainty and humiliation. They are becoming denizens rather than citizens, losing cultural, social political and economic rights built up over generations.”

Weekly now, we are reminded how the economy in this country is flying. The latest congratulatory note came from Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank. He told an Oireachtas committee on Thursday that the Irish economy is in danger of overheating.

“Ireland is now growing at the fastest pace of any euro area country,” he said.

But what of the fruits? One section of society that is not surfing the wave of prosperity is the precariat. Those in precarious work are spread right across the economy, through retail, hospitality, media, teaching, academia and particularly the likes of construction.

Through these and other sectors people are routinely employed on “if and when” contracts which effectively mean that on Sunday you might find out how much work you have the following week.

Bogus self-employment is the other method of precarious work. Here workers are told to class themselves self-employed even though they are effectively employed. This deprives workers of all the benefits of employment but forces them to endure the precarious nature of self-employment without enjoying the possible monetary benefits of that status.

In this world, holidays are something to be hoped for rather than expected. Complaints about conditions or other normal workplace issues are simply not entertained. To complain is to put oneself in a position where there may be no work next week and no obligation on an employer to explain why. And basic life planning is simply put on hold.

Nobody knows how many are actually being subjected to this. Some estimates put it at one-fifth of the workforce. At an Oireachtas hearing on Thursday, an assistant secretary for the Department of Social Protection told parliamentarians that bogus self-employment is not as big an issue as some suggest. She then admitted that the department doesn’t know how many people have been forced into bogus self-employment.

A major report into the challenges faced by the precariat, Precarious Work, Precarious Lives, by the thinktank Tasc was published on the same day. It provided a window into some of the lives of those who live week to week.

Here’s Elaine, a commercial archaeologist. “At the moment, I don’t have a contract and I’ve been working for this company for a year. Tomorrow they could tell me anything. Flexible working conditions is great for them but it just means total uncertainty for me.”

Louise is a shop assistant who has been working in the business for 10 years. “You never know from week to week what hours you’re in. You’re always in different hours on different days…but you have to be 100% flexible,” she told the report’s authors.

Martin is a bar worker on an “if and when” contract, told if he will be needed week by week and when during the week he will be needed: “Especially at this time of year we’re all conscious of homeless people on the street and you can see how a few bad months that could be me. It’s not a problem that is a million miles away from home.”

The impact of this “creeping casualisation of work”, as described by Labour senator Jed Nash at the report’s launch is felt right through people’s lives. Starting a family must be postponed or foregone. The prospect of owning a home is beyond reach. The whole concept of laying down roots and contributing to a community is shaky.

At the moment there is precious little acknowledgement at official level that huge numbers are now living precarious lives. Nash admits that it’s difficult to get most politicians to focus on it.

Instead, the stats are held up as proof positive that there is plenty of work out there for anybody who wants it.

It’s as if the Government is acutely aware that the current prosperity is itself precarious. If, for instance, action were to be taken to address problems in the workplace, would this contribute to shaking the edifice that has been built coming out of recession?

Employers who are benefiting from the current system would be loathe to have it changed in a manner that would affect the complete imbalance of power they enjoy over workers.

Yet this is not something that can continue to remain hidden. There is a societal cost for the continuance of a system in which considerable numbers of people are prevented from having a stake.

The political upheaval in places like the USA, with the election of Donald Trump, and Britain, with the Brexit vote, have, to a large extent, origins in a feeling of rootlessness among sections of the population.

Much of this originated with a changed workplace in which old certainties no longer applied. The disillusionment that resulted went unaddressed by governments and, in turn, the response was to effectively lash out by voting for Trump and Brexit.

We in this country have largely been insulated from such upheaval. Interestingly, not even the spectacular economic crash and subsequent austerity led to a political explosion of a similar order. Fianna Fáil got annihilated in 2011, but the main thrust of politics remained in the centre.

Perhaps that has led to a false sense of security in the main parties. Perhaps there is a belief that because the precariat is forced to exist in silence that there will be no repercussion for what is obviously an injustice.

One can only hope that wiser heads than that prevail. For this is an issue that will not go away. You cannot hope to maintain any semblance of a status quo if a large cohort is increasingly left unmoored.


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