Alicja Bobek: In 2015 the government commissioned a study on zero hours contracts from the University of Limerick. In a welcome development it now seems (Irish Times 4 January 2016) that the government is preparing to accept some of the recommendations of the UL study.
In a ‘zero hours’ contract employees agree to make themselves available for employment but are only actually paid if there is work for them. While such contracts are widespread in the UK – and have become a major issue of public concern – the UL study documents that they hardly exist in Ireland. Instead there are ‘if and when’ contracts: the employer offers extra hours (at the standard hourly rate) but it is up to the employee whether he or she takes them on. This would be fair enough – if it actually happened.
TASC’s own Working Conditions in Ireland Project also identified the problem of variable hours as discussed in the UL report. This is especially an issue in the hospitality sector. In the hospitality sector we did background research and interviewed trade union officials. Crucially we also did in depth interviews with ordinary employees. These interviews highlighted how the reality can be very different to that presented by the employers.
In hospitality overall earnings are low, partly because the hourly wage rates are low, but also because many people work short hours. Even during the economic boom average working hours in the industry were falling (from 42.3 hours per week in 1992 to 32.9 in 2008) due to a disproportionate increase in part-time work. Currently more than 40% of all at work in the industry are recorded as part-timers (CSO 2015). The problem is that while many employees are happy to work these hours, others are working fewer hours than they would wish.
Furthermore, many are often working irregular hours, only knowing their shifts a few days in advance. As one of our informants said:
You are lucky if you know a week in advance. But more often you would find out, say on… Thursday, that you have to come in on Monday or the Saturday or whatever. So it was all quite short notice. I mean… you couldn't plan for the week ahead. (Fast food worker)
Indeed, given that workers can sometimes be sent at home without pay at literally a moment’s notice the term ‘shift’ is actually a misnomer. As the same informant reported:
The manager did the thing… Calling people in and then sending them home. He was like ‘oh, we need another member of staff in, on tonight, now!’ So you know, it would be your day off. But you will have the warning that, you know, Thursday might be busy. So then you get the phone call and you go down there and then you are being told: ‘No, no, actually… We thought we needed you, but you can go home now’. (Fast food worker).
As this quote also shows, employees are often asked to work extra hours at very short notice. All this makes it difficult to plan family and other responsibilities; it makes it impossible for part-timers who want more work to take on a second part-time job.
Our interviews also showed that workers often feel they cannot refuse to work extra hours. At worst refusal can jeopardise the job, even at best it can mean less chance of being offered more suitable hours in the future. Employers can use control of hours as a mechanism of control, effectively varying people’s pay in order to ensure good behaviour.
In the hospitality sector – and probably elsewhere too – many Irish employers have fragmented jobs, turning full-time employment into part-time employment (and not quite full-time employment). Rather than having one full-time employee working regular hours, employers prefer to have two part-time employees whose hours can be adjusted at short notice at the employer’s convenience. This is certainly ‘flexibility’ as so often praised, but flexibility that suits employers and imposes inflexibility on employees.
The UL recommendations will go some way to tackling these problems. Especially important is the simple proposal that whenever an employee is required to report for work, they must be offered an absolute minimum of three continuous hours work. Of course many businesses will claim that they have to make their employees work very flexible hours if they are to stay competitive. However, our research shows that there are businesses in the hospitality industry which are successful without making their employees change their working hours at very short notice. Unfortunately it will require legislation to ensure that they do not remain unusual.
Alicja Bobek has a PhD in Sociology from Trinity College Dublin, an MA in Sociology and an MA in Migration and Ethnic Studies from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. She previously worked as a teaching and research fellow in the Department of Sociology, Trinity College where she was involved in projects related to migration, workplace and social integration.
She is the co-author of Enforced Flexibility? Working in Ireland Today and is a contributor to Dublin Inquirer.