Precarious work in Ireland's public sector
Ashling Seely, Government of Ireland's PhD Scholar

What is precarious work?

There are many interpretations and definitions of precarious work. Some link the definition to particular contract types while others define precarity as being “atypical” work, leading to a further question of what we consider to be typical employment in the 21st century. Explanations of precarious work delve into employment status and the existence (or not) of an employment relationship. These are not easy questions; a five-year-long dispute over whether Uber drivers are workers, and therefore entitled to the protection of labour legislation, or independent contractors recently made it to the UK’s Supreme Court[1]

Temporary, such as fixed-term contract, and indirect, such as agency, work generally falls under the realm of precarity. However, this is not always the case. Highly-skilled and well remunerated workers may not consider themselves as being in precarious employment. The balance of power is in their favour: they enjoy greater exit options than their employers.

If we think of precarity from the perspective of workers we can argue that the central feature is risk. To quote Irish Labour Party Senator Marie Sherlock “Risk is the defining characteristic of insecure work and the greater the risk or responsibility borne by the worker as opposed to the employer for a worker’s security of income, stability of employment and access to social security, the greater the precariousness of that job.”[2] Risks can include unclear employment relationships, uncertain employment duration, unpredictable working hours, low pay, substandard occupational health and safety, lower job satisfaction, inadequate social security coverage, less worker representation, difficulty accessing key rights at work such as holiday pay and parental leave, and few opportunities for advancement[3].

Power resources and precarious work

Power is a central theme in many studies of precarious work. Power can be defined as the ability of one actor to make another actor do something that they would otherwise not do[4].  Depending on their circumstances, workers have access to varying degrees of institutional, structural and associational power resources [5].  Institutional power resources are “hard” (statutory) or “soft” (non-statutory) provisions related to workers’ rights[6]. Institutional power resources include protective labour laws, collective bargaining agreements and procedures for dispute management. Disputes over the classification of individuals or groups of workers often centre around the extent to which those workers may enjoy the institutional provisions afforded to those who are permanent and directly-employed. The UK Supreme Court’s ruling that the Uber drivers in the case it examined are employees rather than independent contractors has significant consequences: as employees these drivers are entitled to workers’ rights such as minimum wages, holiday pay and the right to join or form a trade union. The drivers benefit from far great institutional power resources as employees of the company.

Structural power derives from the position of workers in the economic system[7]. In the private sector workplace bargaining power, one type of structural power, comes from a workers’ ability to cause an economic impact to their employer. In the public sector high workplace bargaining power is associated with the ability to interrupt services. For example, if teachers go on strike parents (voters) put pressure on governments to resolve the dispute to enable their children to resume their education. Similarly, public transport providers have high levels of workplace bargaining power as work stoppages cause impacts across the economy and governments face public pressure to take the necessary steps to see transport services resumed. The second type of structural power resource, marketplace bargaining power, is the product of a tight labour market which strengthens workers’ exit options. Highly skilled workers, for example in the tech sector, often enjoy strong marketplace bargaining power.

Societal power arises from the cooperation between workers’ representatives and those which support their aims[8]. Societal power can come from two types of resources: coalition and discursive. Coalition power is drawn from the willingness of other likeminded actors and organisations to join forces with worker representatives. Discursive power is based on wide recognition of workers’ representatives as the authoritative voice for workers’ concerns.

Associational power comes from the collective organisation of workers[9]. Indicators of associational power include trade union density, human and material resources, and efficient organizational structures. Associational power is enhanced by a collective identity amongst members and a willingness to act, not only in a member’s own interests but also in solidarity with others. Associational power enhances unions’ capacity to utilise their power resources.

Precarious work in Ireland’s public sector

Studies of the workforce in Ireland indicate recent increases in involuntary temporary and part-time employment[10] and the number of workers on variable hours[11]. According to the Irish Congress for Trade Unions despite an increase in employment levels, in 2016 there were 109,000 less workers in full-time permanent employment than there were in 2008[12]. Over half of workers on fixed-term contracts said they took these positions as they could not find permanent work. The same report found that the majority of permanent workers in Ireland were male while the majority of those on fixed-term contracts were female. No longer concentrated in specific industries precarious work is a feature in many sectors, including in positions that were traditionally considered to offer secure employment.

In Ireland the public sector was once firmly situated at the secure end of the employment spectrum. However, the composition of the public sector workforce changed considerably as a result of a recruitment ban introduced in response to the economic crisis of 2008. This banned recruitment of permanent and temporary workers in all but exceptional circumstances, which needed Ministerial approval. A Government scheme incentivised early retirement, with retiring workers not replaced. Parallel to this came a dramatic increase in the amount the public sector spent on agency work. For example, Ireland’s Health Service Executive more than doubled its spending on agency work in the last decade. Although the moratorium on recruitment ended in 2015 it’s affects are long-lasting: in 2019 the Health Service Executive spent almost 1 million euro a day on agency workers.

Putting power resources to work

Staff shortages of nurses have long been an issue across Ireland’s health service impacting both patients and staff. According to the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) one of its members trained in 45 nurses in 2018, but 47 nurses left that department during the same period. Recruitment initiatives, including the highly-publicised Bring Them Home campaign which sought to attract nurses who had pursued opportunities abroad to return to nursing in Ireland, failed to achieve adequate staffing levels. Difficult working conditions, low pay – 12% less that other health professionals with similar qualification levels – and the high use of indirect employment contributed to difficulties attracting and retaining nurses. Strikes are an important tool given their potential impact, but one that nurses had been extremely reluctant to draw on. However, following the rejection of the nurses’ demands by the Public Service Pay Commission members of the INMO went on national strike for only the second time in the union’s 100 year-long history.  Displaying the strength of the INMO’s associational power ninety-five percent of its members voted in favour of the strike, citing discontentment with recruitment and retention as key factors in this decision. The strike only came to an end following the Labour Court’s recommendation of improvements to terms and conditions of employment including a pay increase of almost €2,500 for some nursing grades and a €5 million fund to ensure safe staffing levels for 2019 with the changes funded, in part, by reductions in spending on agency staff[13].

Childcare in Ireland is almost exclusively privatised but heavily funded by the government with two state-sponsored part-time preschool years offered to each child. Childcare providers have been able to avail of more state support during the COVID pandemic in order to remain financially viable and continue to provide services to essential workers during the most recent lockdown. A recent survey of childcare workers commissioned by SIPTU found that just twenty-two percent of childcare workers earned more than the living wage €12.30 per hour[14]. Ninety per cent of workers in the sector reported that they struggled to make ends meet. In addition, seventy-seven per cent of childcare staff said they had no work sick pay scheme. In order to address the challenges facing workers in the sector SIPTU launched a multi-faceted campaign aimed at tackling improving conditions in the sector, which had a 25,000-strong workforce and extremely low unionisation rates. The union invested significant human and material resources into improving working condition in the sector making it one of its top priority campaigns. In contrast to most union campaigns, the Big Start campaign brought workers, parents and providers together with the aim of transforming the childcare funding model, joining forces with NGOs and interest groups in a formal coalition. The coalition managed to get the support of Minister Zappone, then Minister for Children, who called on workers in the sector to join a union and keep campaigning. In February last year a day of action led to the closure of many childcare settings around the country as 30,000 workers and supporters took to the street in support of the coalition’s demands. The day of action was widely publicised and the new Minister for Children committing to developing a new funding model for the sector. Significantly, the Minister indicated his intention to establish a Joint Labour Committee to regulate conditions of employment and rates of pay in childcare.

Conclusion and policy recommendations

This article has looked at how unions have used their power resources to fight precarity in two sectors in Ireland: health and childcare. Several policy recommendations for unions can be drawn from these examples, which can be broken into who, when and how.

Who needs to be involved?

In creating a broad coalition where service providers, service users and staff concentrated on advancing joint priorities SIPTU managed to achieve a level of success it would have been unlikely to otherwise achieve. The union drew on its coalition power resources to develop a joint campaign supported by workers, employers and parents who sought more sustainable childcare solutions.

When should specific actions take place?

Recognising the reluctance of its members to engage in industrial action the INMO reserved balloting for strike until all other options had been exhausted, and was rewarded for this decision with the overwhelming support of its members for action. This approach was also beneficial in securing public support, which was overwhelmingly in support of the striking nurses.

How can union campaigns to tackle precarity succeed?

In devising campaigns to tackle precarious work unions should reflect on their power resources and creatively consider how and when these can be deployed. Where power resource gaps are identified unions should consider which of these are crucial to success and how these can be developed. For example, SIPTU developed its discursive resources and rapidly became the authoritative voice for childcare workers. In creating a broad coalition where service providers, service users and staff concentrated on advancing joint priorities the union managed to achieve a level of success it would have been unlikely to otherwise achieve. Although industrial action was not possible given the largely unionised nature of the sector a day of action was made possible with the support of childcare providers and served a similar function. Both SIPTU and the INTO successfully communicated the gendered nature of precarious work.

In their book Reconstructing Solidarity (2018) Virginia Doellgast, Nathan Lillie, and Valeria Pulignano find that worker solidarity is key to tackling precarious work. The examples in this article, and many more besides, support this claim. Solidarity was key to the development of SIPTU’s Big Start campaign to reduce precarity in the childcare sector. SIPTU succeeding in convincing its membership to concentrate significant resources into organising workers in a largely unionised sector. Similarly, worker solidarity was key to the achieving nurses’ objectives with the union advocating equally on behalf of directly-employed and agency workers. Education is key to breaking down barriers. Unions can benefit from demonstrating to their members that precarious work really does affect us all.



[1] Uber drivers are workers not self-employed, Supreme Court rules

[2] Opinion: The future of Irish jobs looks precarious

[3] ‘Insecure and Uncertain’: Precarious Work in the Republic of Ireland & Northern Ireland

[4] Knight 1992

[5] Wright 2000; Silver 2003

[6] Boyle 1990; Gumbrell-McCormich and Hyman 2013

[7] Silver 2003

[8] Schmalz and Dörre

[9] Wright 2000

[10] Nugent 2017

[11] O’Sullivan et al 2015

[12]Insecure and Uncertain’: Precarious Work in the Republic of Ireland & Northern Ireland

[13] Labour Court Recommendation no. 21901

[14] Majority of childcare workers struggling to make ends meet, says Siptu

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