Statistics don’t always tell the truth

they are open to interpretation

Sinead Pembroke08/05/2018

Today, statistics are major currencies in policy discussions and debates. They are used as weapons by government ministers, politicians and political commentators alike, to disarm the opposition. However, we must be careful with how we readily accept them as facts, because they are also open to interpretation. Furthermore, statistics that do not accurately measure the claim that is being made, are often thrown about.

A case in point is an article written by Dan O’Brien for the Irish Independent two weeks ago, in which he makes the spurious claim that precarious work is not a “real issue” in Ireland and  attempts to use statistics to back up his claim. His use of such statistics, however, weakened his claim because the CSO’s statistics on precarious work do not give us an accurate measurement of it. To quote him directly, he claimed that:

For decades, the State’s statisticians have visited thousands of homes every three months to ask people very detailed questions about their employment situation. One of the many questions they ask is whether PAYE workers have permanent or temporary contracts with their employers. Over those two decades there has been no marked change, with around 90 pc of employees on permanent contracts and only 10 pc on temporary contracts. (Irish Independent, 22/04/2018)

This is an inaccurate representation of temporary work, for a number of reasons, which I will go through below.

Recently, we launched our report on precarious work: Living with uncertainty: the social implications of precarious work. The FEPS-TASC report set out to map precarious work in Ireland, and the impact this type of work has on precarious workers’ lives. We identified three main types of employment in Ireland that are contractually precarious: part-time work with variable hours (‘if-and-when’ contracts), temporary work and solo self-employment. This was investigated through a mixed-methods approach, which included statistical analysis of Central Statistic Office (CSO) data and qualitative in-depth interviews with 15 significant informants and 40 precarious workers.

CSO statistics do not give an accurate measurement of precarious work

Short-comings were encountered while accessing the CSO’s data related to non-standard employment and precarious work in Ireland. Therefore, it was not possible to measure the full extent of non-standard employment through CSO statistics alone. The main reason for this is the method of data collection used by the Quarterly National Household Survey (QNHS); the survey question is related to the respondent’s understanding of their employment status, rather than their actual contractual status.

This technicality poses questions for the reliability of responses, particularly for those who do not have a contract or for those who are simply unaware of their contrac’s details. For instance, many of our participants were initially unaware that they are contractually precarious for several reasons, including the lack of a contract. Consequently, many referred to their employment as ‘permanent’, although it was later revealed that they were on temporary, ‘roll-on’ contracts (e.g. renewed every 3 or 12 months).

If and when contracts are not measured as a type of precarious work

Furthermore, many of those with ‘if-and-when’ contracts often work more or less than regular weekly hours. If-and-when workers can therefore be classified as either regular part-time or even full-time workers, as the Irish QNHS refers to hours worked rather than what is stated in the contract.  These workers’ hours, however, are not guaranteed—a fact that makes their job situations precarious.

We need data on precarious work on a sector-by-sector basis

Another shortcoming of the CSO’s data on precarious employment is that it does not give us detailed, sector-by-sector data on precarious work. While it does provide data on non-standard employment for NACE sectors (Nomenclature générale des Activités économiques dans les Communautés Européennes), these are still too broad.

For example, it looks at education as a whole but does not give us statistical information for sub-sectors within education, such as Early Years and Pre-school, Third Level and English Language Schools. These are just some of the subsectors with high levels of precarious work, yet we cannot get an accurate measurement of this through CSO statistics.

And it is this data that is imperative to understanding the rise of such temporary and insecure employment; the key is not just to look at the overall figures for temporary work, part-time work with variable hours and self-employment, but to see how it is rising within each sector.

Statistical limitations need to be addressed

Therefore, no one can truely know the overall total of precarious workers in Ireland because the data does not exist. If we want to better understand the extent of precarious work in Ireland, this is a real obstacle. The QNHS needs to address these limitations, particularly by looking at how they categorise people on if-and-when contracts and by addressing the misconceptions surrounding a person’s understanding of whether they are permanent or temporary.

However, as our research report illustrates, what remains clear is that precarious work is a real issue that is having a profoundly negative effect on peoples’ health, access to healthcare services, housing, childcare services and family formation in Ireland. Effective policy is needed to address these shortcomings.  

Posted in: Corporate governanceEconomicsFiscal policy

Tagged with: precariouswork

Dr Sinead Pembroke

Pembroke, Sinead

Dr Sinéad Pembroke is a researcher at TASC on the Social Implications of Precarious Work project. She was an Irish Research Council (IRC) Postgraduate Scholar and completed her PhD in Sociology in University College Dublin. Sinead worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Trinity College Dublin developing an evidence-based educational resource for self-disclosure strategies for people with epilepsy (How2Tell). She also worked as a Research Fellow in University College Dublin on an Irish Research Council-funded project, “The Magdalene institutions: Recording an oral and archival history”. Sinéad has also worked on numerous health-related projects including co-authoring a report for the WISE UP Programme for Women Living and Working with Social Exclusion for the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA).


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Alicja Bobek

Alicja Bobek has a PhD in Sociology from Trinity College Dublin, an MA in Sociology and …

Sinead Pembroke

Dr Sinéad Pembroke is a researcher at TASC on the Social Implications of Precarious …

Nat O'Connor

Nat O’Connor is a member of the Institute for Research in Social Sciences (IRiSS) and a …