Precarious employment and social protection systems,
Ines Wagner, Institute for Social Research, Oslo

Full-time, permanent work remains the dominant form of employment relationship within the EU Member States and still largely structures entitlements to welfare. However, there has been significant growth in a wide range of non-standard forms of employment relationship with the result that significant numbers of Europe’s workers are now excluded from or have difficulties accessing welfare benefits and/or employment protection. This intertwined relationship between markets and social citizenship has occupied policy makers, practitioners and scholars interested in European integration for decades. Research has traditionally focused on political and judicial forces that either create or dismantle a so-called ‘Social Europe’. The aim here is to sketch the link between precarious employment and social protection systems with reference to the Nordic, Continental, Liberal and Eastern European type of welfare state.

Scholars in the Worlds of Welfare literature (Esping-Anderson 1990; Sainsbury 2006) stress the importance of institutional logic in welfare state research. Welfare systems differ in their inclusiveness and generosity; as Esping-Andersen (1990) describes, welfare state regimes vary in their levels of de-commodification—that is, the degree to which people are able to make their living standards independent of pure market forces—which he presents as the central criterion for social rights. European welfare states differ significantly in how much de-commodification they provide, which has to do with, among other things, access to and the level of unemployment benefits they grant, the size and mode of social assistance provision, support for female labour market participation, pension systems and their labour market regulations. They also differ in the character of this de-commodification, with liberal welfare states considered to be the least de-commodified and social-democratic states the most de-commodified (Esping-Andersen, 1990). Conservative regimes are somewhere in between and typically emphasise traditional family patterns and tie welfare provisions to occupational status. In terms of contributions and the generation of entitlement to social security, there is a difference between “Bismarckian” and “Beveridgean” mechanisms for accessing social benefits and services. In the Bismarckian system, eligibility to benefits is secured by contributions made through employment. Other forms of eligibility are also derived from these contributions, for example, dependant family members as part of the ‘male breadwinner model’. In contrast, “Beveridgean” mechanisms secure eligibility by residence and/or need so that the relationship with employment contributions and access to benefits is more tenuous.

The Nordic countries have a rights-based benefits and services system which is oriented toward promoting equality and full employment for all with particular policies to promote gender equality. There is also the possibility to draw on individualised tax benefits. Social security is accessed through “Beveridgean” policy mechanisms for health and basic pension whilst there are also contributory and mixed requirements for unemployment, family and pensions.

In conservative welfare states such as Germany or Austria, there is a contributory-based benefits and services system. It depends on employment and occupations and hence has an emphasis on maintaining income during vulnerable times when it comes to old age or unemployment. Supplementary needs-based, tax-funded provisions exist along with an emphasis on supporting families with children. Social security is accessed via a Bismarckian policy mechanism for unemployment, health and pensions and mixed requirements for family benefits.

The liberal model, as seen in the UK, is a means-tested benefit model. Characteristics include low levels of contributory benefits and universal services. Social security is accessed through “Beveridgean” policy mechanisms for health, contributory and mixed requirements for pensions, unemployment and family benefits.

The Eastern European welfare state is a contributory-based benefit system, paid at very low levels, with very limited and low-level ‘safety-net’ provisions and a strong emphasis on private pensions and health services as well as reliance upon family care provision. Social security is accessed via “Bismarckian” policy mechanisms for pensions, unemployment and health and is mixed for family benefits.

With regard to the relationship between work and access to welfare it is important to note that Germany, Austria and the UK have each tightened their criteria for what counts as “genuine and effective work” (O’Brien et al 2016). With many Member States experiencing an increase in precarious employment, this could become a burden on workers to show that they are, indeed, workers (O’Brien et al. 2016). The changes in patterns of employment, especially increased precarious and so-called ‘atypical’ employment, with consequently reduced access to social insurance directly affect access to and the portability of benefits. This is also important for minority groups in the labour market, such as migrant workers who often find themselves in precarious employment. EU citizenship grants extensive rights to remain, work, transfer and draw social benefits in other Member States to those who fall within the status of ‘worker’. A ‘worker’ is entitled to legal residence and equal treatment with national citizens of the host country. However, answering the questions ‘What is work?’ and ‘Who is a worker?’ is not straightforward. For example, EU migrants can draw on unemployment benefits if they can show that they have exercised what is called ‘genuine and effective work’ or if they have a ‘genuine chance of being engaged’. Whether this is the case is determined by the transnational—the sending and receiving countries’—implementation and interpretation of EU laws (Shutes 2016). How the sending and the receiving countries define ‘worker’ and ‘work’ are of central importance when it comes to accessing portable social security rights. With the increase in precarious employment in many Member States, it could become a burden on migrant workers to show that they are, indeed, ‘workers’ (O’Brien, Spaventa, and De Coninck 2016) in order to access social security rights. Ambiguous legal definitions leave the final decision of access to the interaction between EU migrant workers and administrators. The case of Brexit shows that this is not purely a technical issue and that there are political forces behind benefit refusals, gaps and expulsions. Thus, the discrepancies between definitions of ‘work’ and ‘worker’ impact migrant workers’ actual access to social security rights. Access to welfare states is then based on a variety of conditions pertaining to, amongst others, the person’s work, residency and life history embedded in the nation state or various EU Member States.



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This project is mainly financed by funds from the European Union


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