This week the Carnegie UK Trust published new research which analyses how workplace trends are impacting on the quality of life of workers in Ireland.
Our argument is simple: that work should improve wellbeing, not undermine it. The idea that work offers a route out of poverty, a means to get on in life and to provide for yourself and your family, is fundamental to our social contract. But it is clear that our social contract is under strain. In-work poverty is on the rise with over 100,000 workers in Ireland earning below the poverty line. Much of the jobs growth since the recession has been in low-paid sectors and too many workers are seemingly trapped in low-paid or insecure work without clear routes for progression.
From celebrating the jobs boom of the Celtic Tiger years to contending with the significant unemployment caused by the recession, national debate in Ireland has (understandably) focused on job creation and on getting people into work. But a singular focus on job creation, which fails to examine the nature of the work people have access to, will not tackle the unfairness or the practical consequences of poor quality work on people’s lives and communities. Indeed, in recent decades Ireland’s economic narrative has (similar to the UK) made a virtue of having a highly-educated ‘flexible’, and ‘low cost’ workforce to attract inward investment and job creation. This has been done perhaps without sufficiently questioning the implications of these terms from the point of view of the worker.
The latest evidence shows a positive correlation between employment quality and employment rates in EU countries, suggesting that there does not have to be a trade-off between the two. However working towards better provision of good quality work requires new and imaginative policy responses and a new tenor of discussion with employers. Now is the time for a greater public debate about quality of work in Ireland.
What do we know about job quality?
It sounds academic, but if we’re going to have an informed discussion about how to improve quality of work, we need to know where we are as a starting point across the aspects of work which matter most to wellbeing. That’s why Fulfilling Work in Ireland is first and foremost a data review, crunching the most robust Irish and European statistics which shed light on quality of work. We look at some of the more traditional measures of job quality, such as pay. But we also look at other significant aspects such as over and underemployment; use of skills; access to training; job security, quality of management, support from colleagues; and opportunities to progress. The detailed findings can be explored in our data review and are summarised in our discussion paper. But here are some findings which stood out to me:
- Young people, who were the most likely to be unemployed during the recession, are now also most likely to be low-paid, underemployed, or on insecure (e.g. ‘if and when’ or temporary) contracts.
- Both involuntary part-time and temporary working increased by over 25% during the recession, and particularly impact low-paid sectors like hospitality, retail and cleaning, where around 20% of workers want to work more hours.
- Pay inequality is a serious issue. There are enough workers earning a good wage in Ireland to pull up the national average, but certain sectors and demographics, particularly women, young people, and part-timers are faced with very low pay – e.g. more than four out of five workers in the services sector are earning at or below the minimum wage.
- It’s not all doom and gloom, with workers in Ireland relatively (compared to UK and EU figures) upbeat about their ability to express their ideas and influence decisions at work; about the support and training they receive from their colleagues and managers; and their career prospects.
What don’t we know?
We wanted to understand the inequalities in Ireland’s labour market – who has access to good work, and who is working in jobs which are poor by many measures? However, one of the report’s key findings is that “there is a lack of recent, high quality data to draw conclusions about the scale and nature of poor quality work in Ireland today”. For example, we came up short when it came to regional or county-level analysis. It is usually acknowledged that job creation is uneven in Ireland, with much of the jobs growth centred in Dublin, but we don’t have the data to know (or disprove) whether regions outside of Dublin are experiencing a double disadvantage - with access to fewer jobs that may also be of poor quality.
Getting better data about work in Ireland is only a starting point. Tackling the complex causes of low pay and insecure work obviously requires political will and a range of actions. But it is an important step. Better data can help to inform public and business policies which promote better quality work. Shining a light on sectors where job quality appears high can help other employers understand how aspects of good work and job design can be encouraged and enabled for a more productive workforce. Most importantly, asking more of the right questions about job quality in Ireland will get more of us talking about how to improve it.
The Carnegie UK Trust works to improve the lives of people throughout the UK and Ireland through influencing policy and through innovative practice and partnership work. Read the Fulfilling Work in Ireland research at https://www.carnegieuktrust.org.uk/project/work-and-wellbeing/
 See e.g. Warhurst, Chris et al, ‘Developing Effective Policy to Improve Job Quality’, in Poverty 156, 14-17, 2017
Gail is a senior policy and development officer with Carnegie UK Trust