Thursday, 8 March 2012

Precarious work is on the rise

Research by the Labour Research Department covering over 60 countries finds unions alarmed by worsening terms and conditions in public services. Devastating public sector cuts have dispelled the long-held belief that employment in this sector offers some guarantee of favourable terms and conditions.
Long associated with decent, secure work, the sector is now all too frequently in the headlines for imposing job cuts, pay freezes and attacks on pensions — and this is not just happening in the UK.

Research across 62 countries, commissioned by the international public sector trade union federation Public Services International (PSI) and undertaken by the Labour Research Department, has found a growth in recent years of employment practices such as recruiting temporary workers directly or through employment agencies, outsourcing services or only offering part-time work. And this is a trend that has accelerated with the global financial crisis as governments cut their budgets.The findings are alarming as the forms of work associated with precarious employment have previously not been widely associated with the public sector, particularly in rich industrialised countries.

What is precarious work? The definition of “precarious work” covers a range of work practices, including:
• direct hiring on fixed-term and temporary contracts;
• temporary agency contracts;
• involuntary part-time contracts;
• variable hours contracts where there is an ongoing requirement but hours vary;
• zero hours contracts where there is no guarantee of future work;
• employment at will — where a contract can be terminated at any time, and for any reason; and
• false (bogus) forms of self-employment.
In fact, over four-fifths of public sector unions who took part in the research (82%) reported that the number of precarious workers in their country’s public services has increased in the last five years, with 40% saying precarious workers make up between 20% and 50% of the public sector workforce.
The reasons given for this trend varied depending on each country’s circumstances, but most blamed privatisation, outsourcing, reduced budgets and the desire for cheap labour.
For example, the PSA union in New Zealand blamed the increase in the number of short-term contracts on government funding cuts.

The Jordanian union, Union Workers in Health Services, explained that rising unemployment combined with a high cost of living, means workers agree to work in any form and by any conditions — even if these conditions are unjust.

Impact on the permanent workforceAnd a clear majority of unions that had seen a rise in the use of precarious workers in their country’s public sector overwhelmingly believe it has worsened employment conditions for all public service workers.
This includes the AINLIEF union in India which said the increasing use of precarious workers meant that the union’s bargaining capacity has been adversely affected.

Meanwhile, Gewerkshaft AGO from Italy’s Tyrol region said that the fact that precarious workers are paid less and do more hours a week makes it more difficult for permanent employees to negotiate.

Impact on quality of public servicesThe downward spiral also impacts on the quality of public services, with the vast majority of respondents (80%) believing quality has suffered — hardly surprising when service quality is generally deemed to be most effective when run by a stable, professional workforce.

Respondents spoke of the workers’ sense of insecurity, the transient nature of the workforce discouraging real commitment and the loss of long-term institutional knowledge. The UK’s public services union UNISON said: “Both workers and the services they provide are worse off. Good quality services depend upon well-trained and motivated public service workers. Poor pay and precarious work do nothing for either of these.”

Outsourcing, fixed term contracts and agency workersA look at the different forms of precarious work found that both the outsourcing of services and workers, and direct hire on fixed-term contracts were most likely to be described as common or very common, with half the unions indicating this.While the use of employment agencies to recruit temporary workers was reported by under 20% of respondents, just over half believed that this recruitment method is set to become more common than direct hire.This has serious implications for unions — the use of a third party makes bargaining more problematic and makes it easier for public sector employers to evade their responsibilities.

Cost savings?Unsurprisingly, 85% of respondents said the main reason for the use of precarious workers is to reduce costs, followed by 64% pointing to government policies to reduce the number of public sector employees. SGPQ from Canada explained how, since 2004, the government has had a downsizing policy that means that one vacated position in every two is no longer replaced .However, research by the union shows that between 2003 and 2009, the government spent around two-and-a-half times more on contractors than the money it has saved through its downsizing plan.

Nature of the precarious workforceMany unions (71%) reported that precarious workers are overwhelmingly likely to be young, particularly in the poorer countries. This is hardly surprising with data from the UN’s International Labour Organisation showing that globally, youth unemployment rates are two to three times higher than for adults.
Smaller majorities also said precarious workers in their country were more likely to be workers with no skills or few skills (59%), or women (56%). GDP was an important factor here, with respondents from high GDP countries most likely to say women were more affected by precarious working conditions (70%).

Pay and conditions of precarious workersAnd 72% said precarious workers earn less than permanent workers in a similar position. A majority (58%) thought this to be between as much as 11% and 50% less. But precarious workers don’t only lose out when it comes to wages — they are also significantly worse off when it comes to a range of benefits. Pensions was the benefit they are most likely to miss out on according to nearly four-fifths of the unions (77%), followed by sick pay (66%), and overtime pay (60%). The insecure working conditions faced by these workers makes them vulnerable to exploitation. Most respondents (84%) believed that precarious workers in the public services are more subject than others to fear, threats and intimidation.

A further 59% said they are frequently denied the right to join a union or bargain collectively, with poorer countries most likely to say this (80% of poorer country respondents compared to 34% of high GDP countries.)

Union campaignsBut unions are fighting back and taking the rapid growth in precarious work very seriously.
The research found that just over three-fifths (61%) of PSI affiliates had undertaken campaigns in the last five years to support precarious workers.

Raising awarenessSome union campaigning has focused on creating a greater understanding of precarious workers. In fact, over two-thirds (70%) of unions said one of their organising priorities was informing others of their plight.
Austria’s Vida union has educated union employees about precarious workers, Mexico’s SUTEYM union has been running an awareness campaign and training programmes to promote respect for these workers, while Kenya’s Civil Servants Union has championed their rights at public service days and trade fairs.

RecruitmentThe top organising priority on precarious workers is to recruit them into the union (77%). The Turkish Union of Road, Construction and Building Workers achieved this as part of its campaign to get the General Directorate of Highways to give permanent jobs to its contractors. As a result, 6,300 contract workers have joined the union as it pursues the case in the High Court.

EducationOther unions are investing in education. One example was that of the General Union of Municipality and Village Councils in Gaza Governorates which has run educational workshops on occupational health and safety for workers on temporary contracts. And PSAC in Canada produced material to help precarious workers know their rights.

Bargaining successesOver half the unions reported that bargaining has resulted in successes. The Korean National Electrical Workers Union successfully negotiated with the Korea Electric Power Corporation to transfer the company’s 4,000 temporary contract workers to permanent contracts.

Legislative changesIn many countries laws do exist to protect precarious workers from exploitation, but they are inadequately enforced. Elsewhere, existing legislation fails to reflect the rapidly-changing forms of employment.
However, unions were able to report some successes on the legal front, with nearly a third (30%) saying they had secured legislative changes.
In the UK, the most notable recent success has been the introduction of the European Directive on Agency Workers which gives these workers the right to the same pay as their permanent counterparts (see Labour Research, November 2011, page 5.)

Difficulty of representing precarious workersThe most successful policies were generally deemed to be those that brought precarious workers into the mainstream. Ideally, this was done by securing them permanent employment and, where this was not possible, to at least get them into a position where they could be properly represented, as in many countries precarious workers are not entitled to join a union.

The PSLink union in the Philippines has managed to get agency workers included in collective negotiation policies, even though they can’t join the union by law .Despite these successes, unions face ongoing challenges representing an essentially unorganised group of workers. A huge obstacle is the workers’ fear that union involvement will lead to them losing their job, said 90% of respondents.

Research by the International Metalworkers’ Federation found that even when precarious workers have rights, they are afraid to pursue any collective action as they are so easily expendable.
Precarious work is spreading across all regions and wealth classifications and, as this research confirms, is growing across the public services.
In many cases it is only trade unions that are battling to show that the creation of a two-tier labour market fails not only the workers, but the public services and the people who use them.

Labour Research February 2012

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