‘Gig economy’ may damage workforce

Easter week is traditionally teachers’ unions conference time. It’s somewhat unusual that the various trade union groups representing a particular profession would have a particular focus season, largely driven by the school calendar. 

‘Gig economy’ may damage workforce

But, the teaching profession is unusual and, as the years progress, is becoming more unusual — at least in terms of how it is organised and rewarded compared to many other professions.

The trend in employment over the last few years has been away from the permanent and pensionable model associated with teaching and, for that matter, most other civil service and public sector jobs.

An increasing number of employees are in non-standard, non-traditional forms of employment, the so-called “gig economy”. Rather than work with set times and set benefits including holiday pay and pension entitlements, more and more of us work on an ad hoc basis.

While this type of work is sometimes described as zero hours contracts working, most people on variable working hours are not working so-called zero hours contracts but are working ‘if and when’-type contracts. It’s an important distinction, highlighted by research from the University of Limerick which was commissioned by the previous government and published last year.

Under zero hours contracts, an employee is required to be available for work even if the work is not available. In comparison, under ‘if and when’ contracts, while there is no particular obligation on the employer to offer working time, neither is there a particular obligation on the employee to take it up if work becomes available.

‘If and when’ contracts make for enormous flexibility for employers and, indeed, for employees alike, but the increasing prevalence of such types of contract can be a cause of concern not just in this country but further afield. The UK government is conducting a study as to what more flexible work arrangements might mean for public policy, most notably in the area of job security.

All employers have to offer access to some form of pension savings arrangements for employees. Pension funding is becoming increasingly costly, but failure to provide for pensions in the private sector will result in a future burden on the State.

Another consequence of the gig economy is that building up training and experience may fall by the wayside. The training associated with traditional forms of employment yields direct benefits in terms of productivity. A recent OECD study found compelling evidence that investment in skills resulted in a direct payback in tax revenues as productivity and earnings increased among the workforce.

State employment, with its opportunities for retraining and adequate pensions, is increasingly a gilt-edged employment opportunity. Many workers can only dream of the stability and benefits available to those in permanent and pensionable jobs.

Teaching is a tough and important job that deserves to be rewarded, and it is legitimate for teachers’ organisations to highlight any gaps and inequalities within that profession. However, such calls should be considered in the context of the workforce as a whole.

  • Brian Keegan is director of public policy and taxation at Chartered Accountants Ireland

More in this section

News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up