There is general consensus that precarious forms of work have been increasing in European societies. This is associated with the growth of non standard forms of employment, that is jobs that deviate from the standard full-time and open ended employment contract. A key reason why this type of work may be considered precarious is that it may provide only limited access to social protection. Those employed may be either excluded from forms of social protection (as may apply for example to the self employed) or find it more difficult to establish entitlements due to low earnings, short contracts or variable hours. This may cause particular problems as workers in precarious jobs may have more need of social protection. When employment contracts have longer duration or guaranteed hours are higher there is less need for unemployment benefits to support workers between jobs or for in-work benefits to compensate for low earnings. Opinions differ, however, as to whether the policy focus should be on extending rights to social protection, that is making non standard forms of employment less precarious, or to try to stem the trend towards the creation of more non standard and often precarious forms of employment. Some fear that extending protection may be giving the green light to the expansion of non standard employment while others consider it is too late to halt this trend and the best course of action is to provide better protection for these workers.
The Covid crisis made the growing gaps in employment and social protection systems more visible as access to support became essential for survival during the complete lockdowns in the initial phase of the pandemic. However, the crisis also led to rapid innovation in social and employment policies that in part sought to plug gaps in the protective floor. At the same time the mass experiment in teleworking demonstrated the potential for more flexible forms of working even within standard employment relationships, suggesting that flexible working could potentially resolve some of the conflicts between work and other life commitments that may be contributing to the growth in non standard forms of employment. Thus, the Covid pandemic not only made the gaps in our social protection floor more evident but also offered some intimations of how these problems could be mitigated. However, the likelihood of mass unemployment and a long recession post Covid might drive changes in the opposite direction, exacerbating trends towards precariousness at work.
To consider these issues further we first identify the factors that are driving the growth of precarious work and consider the case for both extending protective floors to those in non standard employment and taking action to flexibilise the standard employment relationship itself (Rubery et al. 2018). The Covid experience provides an opportunity to explore both directions of policy development. In the second section we look at how the policies to protect livelihoods under Covid provide pointers to how gaps in the social protection floor could be filled. In the third section we consider whether the teleworking phenomenon could provide a basis for flexibility within the standard employment relationship, so that those needing more flexibility would not be forced to choose non standard jobs characterised by precarious employment conditions. We conclude by considering the risks that these positive opportunities for reducing precarious work may be lost in the recession and mass unemployment that is likely to follow the Covid pandemic.
Factors in the growth of precarious work
The drivers of the expansion of precarious forms of work can be located in a range of socio-economic trends (Kalleberg and Vallas 2018; European Parliament 2016). These include the changing nature of capitalism, where employment is concentrated in the service economy and organisations are focused on financial rewards, reducing employers’ interests in forging the stable employment relationships that contribute to long term comparative advantage in production of goods and services. These tendencies are also fuelled by the reduced power of trade unions to protect workers and challenge employer strategies, by the development of new technologies that facilitate transactional employment relations through platforms and by the adoption by the EU and member states of, on the one hand, neoliberal employment policies that favour reduced employment and social protection and, on the other hand, austerity responses to the financial crisis. Pressures on public expenditure drive public bodies to join private sector employers in seeking to reduce labour costs through use of new forms of employment and outsourcing that result in precarious work.
There are also problems with exclusion of certain groups from more standard employment that results in them having few choices other than to accept non standard and often more precarious work. Three main and often overlapping forms of exclusion can be identified: i) discrimination against certain groups may restrict their access to non precarious employment ii) those with significant non work commitments- for example to care or education- may not be able to seek standard employment where this involves rigid and/or long working hours obligations iii) those needing to re-enter employment after career interruptions (for example due to redundancy, ill-health or care obligations) may face discrimination by age or against interrupted, non linear careers.
From this analysis there are three main ways to take action to mitigate precarious employment. The first is national and international action to address its key drivers by reversing neoliberal employment policies and reshaping financial capitalism. This wide ranging political agenda cannot be addressed here. Instead our focus is developing a dual approach to mitigating precarity by on the one hand, extending social and employment protection to non standard forms of employment and by, on the other hand, extending opportunities to enter, maintain and re-enter more standard employment through flexibilising current barriers to entry and sustainability of careers. Both types of reform are needed to ensure employers still bear some responsibility for and costs of support and protection of the workforce; moves towards even more widespread precarious forms of employment would greatly increase the need for state action to fill the gaps due to insecure and low earnings from work and limited employer support for non work periods. The experience of Covid provides an opportunity to consider possibilities for both these types of reforms.
Lessons from the extension of social protection during the Covid pandemic
The key reasons why those in precarious work may be excluded from or acquire only low social protection entitlements include: restrictions to only dependent employment (i.e. excluding the self employed); thresholds for earnings or hours below which workers are not eligible to contribute to social protection insurance (sometimes even on a voluntary basis); lack of sufficient or too irregular contributions; low entitlements due to earnings-related benefits; or failure to meet specific benefit requirements due to irregular hours or intermittent employment (Rubery et al. 2018). The extent and form of these exclusions vary across EU member states. For example, Spasova et al (2017) found that EU member states could be classified into four groups – those providing high, medium, low or variable access for the self employed to statutory insurance based schemes and benefits.
The immediate need for income protection for all who were unable to work due to the Coronavirus pandemic led to rapid innovation that bypassed these conventional barriers to benefits and forms of exclusion- although still leaving notable gaps in the protective floor. Most EU member states (24 including the UK) provided Covid-related income protection to the self employed. This included several of the 13 member states where there was neither compulsory or voluntary individual rights to unemployment support pre Covid. For example Germany relaxed eligibility for unemployment benefits that particularly assisted freelance workers, France provided compensation of €1500 a month (similar to the minimum wage) and in the UK, where support pre Covid was household means tested, provided at 80% of past profits (similar to support for employees) without reference to household income (Rubery and Tavora, 2021). In relation to support for layoffs or short time working for employees, some countries specifically included casual or agency workers (for example Germany) or zero hours contract employees (for example the UK) and compensated based on actual rather than contractual earnings. Moreover, five countries (France, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Portugal and Slovakia) set the minimum support level at the minimum wage so the low paid (including many in precarious work) received 100% of earnings while support for others ranged from 90% to 60% (Rubery and Tavora, table 2). Where support was provided through unemployment benefits some countries (for example Finland) relaxed eligibility rules in relation to weeks of contributions while Greece came under public pressure to extend its flat rate support to those without have sufficient social contributions. In Italy initially domestic workers were excluded from protection but included them after public pressure albeit at slightly lower benefit levels. Despite innovation not all gaps were plugged; those in mini jobs in Germany were not eligible for short time work or unemployment support, those in informal employment were often left without support and part-time workers were explicitly excluded in Hungary.
While these reforms under Covid were far from perfect and left many still underprovided for, they did demonstrate the possibility of extending the social safety net. Pre-Covid there were wide variations across the EU in the extent that non standard workers faced exclusion from social protection. However, the variety of social protection systems in the EU makes establishing common good practice principles somewhat difficult and the lessons from what proved possible in the pandemic within a member state could be more useful in stimulating debate about developing a more universal social protection floor than good practice examples from other EU countries.
Lessons from teleworking under the Covid pandemic
The Covid pandemic led to another major area of innovation, teleworking. The share of those working mainly from home shot up from only around 5% regularly working from home and 14% regularly or occasionally to 48% of employees working at least some of the time from home in July (Eurofound 2020). Amongst those working from home in the lockdown, around 46% were new teleworkers and around 45% of all employees surveyed expressed a desire to work either daily or several times a week at home after the pandemic, with the share rising to over 60% for those who mainly worked at home in the pandemic (Eurofound 2020). The success of this experiment, with surveys revealing limited negative impacts on productivity (Felstead and Reuschke 2020), should mean that allowing employees to work from home can no longer be treated as a great privilege or as causing major costs to the organisation. This provides the basis for incorporating flexible working into normal ways of working for many areas of standard employment, a change that could enable those with care responsibilities or ill-health to continue in their jobs rather than feeling obliged to quit or to reduce hours to limit commuting. This experiment in principle offers hope of better reconciliation of work and family life for both men and women and thus the possibility of a more equal sharing of care work by gender. However, there is also a risk of the opposite effect if women continue to work from home while men return to the office.
Action is required to build on these lessons for a positive post-Covid future
There are two sets of positive lessons to be learnt from Covid: that social protection nets can be extended to non standard employment and that flexible working can be incorporated into a wide range of jobs without negative impacts on the organisation. However, there are also dangers that these lessons will not be built on and that there could even be some negative outcomes, without new policies to promote more positive outcomes. Three specific dangers can be anticipated. The first is a return to austerity measures due to the high public expenditure costs of the pandemic. This might lead to measures to reduce and even narrow social protection support. Second there are the risks associated with the problems of recovery. Businesses have experienced major financial difficulties and may be tempted to offer all new hires on a more casualised or precarious basis; thus even if social safety nets were extended, the share of the workforce in precarious work may increase. Third, the teleworking experiment might lead not to the incorporation of telework within standard employment arrangements but to an increase in the outsourcing of work to home-based platform work. This all suggests that there cannot be an expectation that member states and employers will all develop positive policies to build on the legacies of Covid.
If the pandemic is to have a positive legacy there is a clear need for both public pressure and action by trade unions. There is a need for a broad coalition including trade unions to push for a more comprehensive and universal social protection floor. Exactly how this can be best achieved and what can be considered the most urgent gaps in the protection floor to be filled will vary by member state. This could mean calling for the end to exemptions for some types of employment (for example mini jobs in Germany), lowering of thresholds for eligibility or disconnecting some benefits- for example sick pay or maternity pay- altogether from employment records. At the same time there could be pressure for new measures to reduce employer incentives to use non standard employment forms, perhaps, for example, to include a levy comparable to social contributions on employers’ expenditure on fees for freelance and platform work. In workplaces trade unions will need to take action to ensure that the new opportunities for flexible and homeworking that are incorporated into standard employment and do not lead to either gender segregation between home and office working nor to an increased use of outsourcing of telework to platforms.
Rubery, J. and Távora, I. (2021) The Covid-19 crisis and gender equality: risks and opportunities. In Vanhercke, B., Spasova, S. and Fronteddu, B. (Eds.), Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2020. Brussels: European Social Observatory (OSE) and European Trade Union Institute (ETUI)
Spasova, S., Bouget, D., Ghailani, D. and Vanhercke, B. (2017) Access to social protection for people working on non-standard contracts and as self-employed in Europe, A study of national policies ESPN, European Commission