Trade unions represent workers’ interests both in times of economic prosperity and downturn. In the last two decades, increasing demands on labour market flexibilization and internationalization fueled the rise of flexible, and often precarious, forms of work. Such precarious forms of work motivated trade unions to redefine their strategies vis-à-vis precarious workers, employers and the state. The aim of union strategies is not only defending the rights of precarious workers, but an attempt to shape the overall public policy and thereby mitigate precarious forms of work.
The current labour market conditions induced by the 2019 Covid-19 pandemic yield an increase in precarious forms of work, or a rise of precarious elements in work that has been considered standard and stable prior to the pandemic. In order to assess the major changes and sources of precariousness and recommend trade union actions to mitigate them, it is first needed to highlight the fundamental characteristics of precarious work and its changes in the times of the Covid-19 pandemic. This focus is applied to work in the public sector, which shows a number of specific characteristics that are considered for understanding tailored trade union responses.
Dimensions of precarious work
A definition of precarious work derives from its opposite, e.g. standard non-precarious work, based on a standard employment relationship. Such an employment relationship yields employment stability that is long-term and full time. Remuneration follows the principle of decent living. In contrast, precarious work lacks these features and refers to contingent work lacking a socially stable employment contract with decent remuneration. Examples of precarious work involve temporary, fixed-term, part-time employment, temporary agency work or dependent self-employment. In his book Precarious Lives, Arne Kalleberg defined precarious employment as “employment that is insecure and uncertain, provides limited economic and social benefits and limited statutory entitlements provided by labour laws, regulatory protection and labour rights” (Kalleberg 2018: 15).
Examples of precarious work involve temporary, fixed-term, part-time employment, temporary agency work or dependent self-employment. Nevertheless, not all fixed-term employment is necessarily precarious as it may emerge from the workers’ preference for this form of work. Also, stable full-time jobs may feature elements of precarity due to low pay, demanding working hours, or lack of access to workers’ voice. These examples suggest that to better understand proposed trade unions actions to mitigate precarity in the times of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important to first understand particular features of an employment relationship, which characterize it as precarious.
Based on previous research, the following dimensions of precarious work can be identified:
- Income level: wages below two-thirds of median gross hourly wages in a country.
- Job security: low job security when compared to a standard employment relationship
- Social security: limited or no social security entitlements
- Employability: hindered access to training, skill development, and similar.
- Workers’ voice – access to trade union representation or other forms of workers’ voice and collective bargaining coverage and collective benefit entitlements
- Other labour conditions: e.g., limited access to training, paid leave, paid overtime, abuse of travel reimbursements, etc.
Empirical observations on the changing character of work during the Covid-19 pandemic allow extending the above dimensions of precarity by acknowledging two additional factors in working conditions:
- health and safety at work
- working conditions related to telework
- precarity as a gendered phenomenon
Health and safety at work is currently in the spotlight as the Covid-19 pandemic uncovered extensive demands for securing the health and safety of workers, especially those exposed to the disease or working directly in high-risk areas of infection. Access to proper clothing, facemasks, disinfectants, and recently also access to vaccination, is more important for protecting workers than ever before. Still, some workers lack access to such protective measures or are expected to seek their own protection without employer responsibility.
Teleworking facilitated by digital technologies and fueled by the Covid-19 pandemic on the one hand contributes to the decrease of precarity because maintaining job stability in some jobs. On the other hand, teleworking lacks distinct regulation and therefore creates a potentially large source of growing precarity. For example, precarity derived from telework is often related to unregulated working time, the non-existence of the distinction between work and private activities, demand to perform several activities simultaneously in areas that were clearly separated before. The latter includes the merger of work and free/family time, which is hardly enforced in many countries when workers are expected to telework. Moreover, the provision of feasible working conditions, e.g. equipment, facilities and digital connectivity technologies for working from home are often lacking, non-regulated, or the burden of securing these is placed on the shoulder of workers.
Finally, some evidence suggests that recently induced changes in work patterns, on the one hand an increased use of telework and at the same time requirements to work excessive overtime of frontline workers in the healthcare and social care sectors, yield a different pressure on work patterns of men and women. This introduces a gendered perspective on precarity.
Precarious work in the public sector in the Covid-19 pandemic
What are the implications of the identified dimensions of precarious work on work in the public sector? Working in the public sector yields a number of distinctive characteristics. Some of these are well preserved also during the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, such as a high share of female work and the continuity of work from a physical workplace (e.g., working in the healthcare/hospital sector and other public services like police, workers in penitentiary correction facilities, in the judiciary area, social care homes, ministries and citizen and municipal services). At the same time, the spread of digital technologies allows also a higher part of public sector workers to telework, including especially in the education sector and partially also workers in office work at ministries and other state institutions).
Evaluating the above dimensions of precarity in the context of public sector work, it becomes clear that not all dimensions affect public sector employees to the same extent and across various types of public sector jobs. While the state may decide to reduce the size of the workforce in some subsectors due to telework (e.g., education sector) or temporary lack of demand for public services (e.g. pre-primary education, state office citizen services also partially replaced by telework), other fields of public sector employment resemble stability or even an increased demand work workers (e.g. in the healthcare/hospital sectors). Additional jobs may be created in relation to social care and testing and vaccinating the broad population. Some of these jobs are temporary and therefore may embrace elements of precarity, but it can be argued that the most important dimensions of precarity affecting public sector workers are excessive pressures on working time, on organizing working time during teleworking, and on working conditions related to health and safety. First, excessive pressures on working time are obvious among frontline healthcare workers and are further exacerbated by a shortage of healthcare professionals that was obvious already before the Covid-19 pandemic in most European countries. Second, the organization of working time is challenging during telework when there is an expectation that workers are always available. Online meetings, tutorials and teaching sessions are often scheduled outside of regular working time. This aspect of precarity is furthermore enhanced if the public sector worker working under telework arrangements combines working obligations with family related obligations and caring for own children. The combination of telework and family care is extremely challenging and lacks a sufficient regulatory framework. A decrease of working hours is often not possible since at least the same amount of work needs to be delivered, e.g. in education or office work related to services of public institutions. In terms of wages, the Covid-19 pandemic seems not to have a major effect at the first glance. However, after a more detailed analysis, savings may have been introduced on bonuses and wage moderation. In contrast, the pandemic may open new opportunities for interest representation, or the voice of public sector workers, especially among frontline workers and workers in essential services whose bargaining power has increased hand in hand with their crucial role in facing the conditions of the pandemic.
Opportunities and challenges for trade union action to address precarity in the Covid-19 conditions
What opportunities and challenges do trade unions face in these conditions, and how can unions address the changing needs of public sector workers in times of the Covid-19 pandemic? Acknowledging that collective bargaining is the fundamental role of trade unions, the presented summary of precarious elements in telework yield a need to better regulation of teleworking via collective agreements. Related to this is a regulation of provision of material and digital equipment to workers teleworking, acknowledging their costs (e.g. for higher utility payments when working from home) and need for additional equipment. Second, although working time regulation belonged to key features of regulation and bargaining even prior to the pandemic, the current situation calls for a stricter working time regulation, both for workers teleworking and for workers in public services without the opportunity to telework. Depending on country-specific and sector-specific conditions of unions’ access to such regulation, unions may demand greater attention to these aspects in collective bargaining, or directly attempt to influence policymaking and legislative regulation in these areas. Third, health and safety at work is more important than ever before especially for workers in the critical infrastructure. Trade unions play a crucial role not only in monitoring health and security at work, but also demanding a stricter enforcement of health and safety standards for public sector employees to the benefit of the entire population. Last but not least, unions may strengthen their interaction directly vis-à-vis their members and potential members by informing them about their rights related to working time and health and safety requirements. Raising awareness among workers about their rights complements union activities via collective bargaining and policy impact; and together these three levels of union action have a higher possibility for mitigating the presented dimensions of precarity induced in the public sector by the Covid-19 pandemic.