The growth of precarious work in the Republic of Ireland

Precarious Work

The trend of rising non-standard employment across the developed world is by now, well established.  Full-time permanent positions as a proportion of employment are in decline as part-time and fixed-term contracts are rising. The growth of ‘precarious’ work (often used as a blanket-term for low-wage and/or insecure work) has been of growing concern to policymakers, academics and workers alike. A broad consensus exists on the negative effects insecurity and poverty can have on the health and well-being of vulnerable workers and wider society. Workers in various forms of precarious working arrangements have been found to smoke more, to drink more and to be more susceptible to depression. Further research suggests that insecurity effects relationships and precarious workers tend to have children later.

Although the proportion of Irish workers on temporary contracts as a proportion of employment changed little over the past decade (hovering in and around 9%), there has been a significant rise in temporary employment contracts for younger workers (from less than 15% in 2004 of jobs to over 20% in 2015). Almost two thirds of those would rather have a permanent job but can’t find one, amounting to about 13% of all workers in this cohort (for workers over thirty this figure is closer to 3%).  Just under 6% of all Irish workers are on temporary contracts they would rather trade for a permanent position (somewhere in the region of 110,000 workers).

In the elementary professions (an occupational classification that encompasses a significant proportion of the lowest paid jobs in the economy and about 10% of all Irish workers) these trends in involuntary contract precariousness are even higher for all demographics. About 11% of all elementary workers are on temporary contracts that they would rather trade for a secure permanent position (around 20,000 workers).

Part-time employment has risen from about 17% of all employment in 2004 to about 22% in 2015. The proportion of those workers who would rather work full-time has risen significantly over the past decade.  In 2015, about 8% of the Irish workforce were underemployed (about 160,000 Irish workers).  In the elementary professions, about 16% of part-timers would rather work full-time.

For specific groups these precarious employment arrangements are even more prevalent.  11% of female workers are underemployed compared to 6% of working men whilst about 6% of female workers are on fixed-term contracts they would rather swap for a permanent position compared to about 4.5% of male workers.

Young workers, in addition to being more likely to be involuntarily on a fixed-term contract are more likely to be underemployed. 20% of workers under the age of 30 are underemployed compared to 9% of workers between 30 and 65.

The proportion of working-poor has also risen considerably over the past decade or so. The deprivation rate is an indicator of poverty based on consumption rather than income. Individual’s answering a survey are asked whether they can afford 11 basic items such as a winter coat, or a night out once a fortnight. If an individual cannot afford two or more from the list, they’re considered to be in material deprivation. Over 16% of all Irish workers were in material deprivation in 2015 compared to less than 5% in 2007. That’s a difference of about 200,000 working people.  Almost a quarter of all workers on temporary contracts are working-poor by this measure. A similar rate applies for all elementary workers. If you also happen to be a woman or under the age of 30 you are more likely again to be in deprivation. Almost 1 in 3 women in the elementary professions are in material deprivation.

Over two in three workers answered in the same representative survey that they either have some difficulty, have difficulty or have great difficulty in making ends meet in 2015. That is up from about 50% in 2006.  This compares to almost 4 in 5 elementary workers and a similar proportion of temporary workers.

These figures are particularly interesting in the context of Ireland’s emergence from recession and its performance relative to the other ‘bailout’ countries in the Eurozone particularly in unemployment. Recently, Minister Paschal O’Donoghue announced that income tax receipts were below projections this year despite continued steady growth in employment and in GDP.  A plausible explanation: a significant proportion of the job growth in recent years has been low-paid, part-time and/or insecure work which tends to contribute less to revenue and in fact often has to be subsidised through supplementary welfare supports to bring workers up to a subsistence standard of living.


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Ciarán Nugent

Ciarán Nugent is an Economist at the Nevin Economic Research Institute and is based in the Dublin office. He is currently working on a number of projects relating to the Just Transition and the Irish labour market. Ciarán has an MA in Economics from NUI Maynooth and a BA in International Politics. His research interests include income distribution, wages, precarious work, the cost of living and intergenerational inequality. He graduated with an MA in Economics and BA in International Politics from NUI Maynooth.

Ciarán also produces the NERI video and podcast series.

Contact: [email protected] or 00353 1 889 77 22.