Opinion: policies need to be put in place to address the job quality issues that are occurring in the Irish workplace

By Claire Harnett, Caroline Murphy and Christine CrossUniversity of Limerick

Job quality and decent work are topics that have received growing attention of late. Only recently, President Michael D Higgins addressed an audience gathered in Dublin Castle for the International Labour Organisation's centenary celebrations, calling for greater protection and regulation for workers amid a rise in precarious work and gig economy roles. The president had previously called the battle for decent work "a defining struggle"  So what is the situation in Ireland at the moment in terms of decent work and job quality? And more importantly, what do policy makers plan on doing about it?

The current employment rate paints a positive picture about employment in Ireland. According to the Central Statistics Office, the number of persons on the Live Register in August 2019 is at its lowest since 2008. While the number of jobs added to the Irish economy receives a lot of attention, we hear far less about the quality of the jobs that are taking people off the live register. In fact, 18.5% of those people who remain on the live register are in casual or part-time working arrangements.

From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, a report on President Michael D Higgins' address at an event to mark the centenary of the International Labour Organisation

What are low quality jobs?

Low quality jobs are characterised by low earnings, limited job security, poor future prospects, as well as poor social and physical work environments. According to 2012 data from Eurofound, Ireland has a higher percentage of low quality jobs than the EU average with 22.6% of jobs falling into this category. A further 16.4% of Irish jobs are "poorly balanced", where jobs tend to have very poor working time arrangements, be it the number of hours they are employed or the requirement to work unsociable hours.

What is interesting about job quality in Ireland is that 32.2% of Irish jobs fall into "high-paid good jobs". These jobs provide good prospects, intrinsic job quality and working time quality in addition to high earnings in comparison to other categories. The data indicates a growing divide between what is commonly considered "good" and "bad" jobs.

While the Government is focused on reducing unemployment through a mix of indigenous job creation and foreign direct investment, it is important to ask questions about the quality of the jobs created. Good quality jobs should be providing people with employment stability, opportunity for growth and optimum use of skills and discretion; all within a safe physical and social environment.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Sean O'Rourke, a discussion on the social implications of precarious work with Sinead Pembroke (TASC) Keith Murdiff (English language teacher) and Fionn Rogan (Thinkhouse)

Good quality jobs should also provide workers with a safe physical and social environment. Earning a wage on which workers can live comfortably is another indicator of better job quality, as is workers being given the opportunity to develop their skills and progress in their career. Arguably the types of jobs created by technology companies such as Google and other large multinational tick most of these boxes.

But what of the indigenous jobs created in Ireland, particularly those in small scale, labour intensive industries like hospitality, domestic work or care work? Many of these jobs are not providing adequate earnings or enough hours for individuals to live comfortably, particularly in our capital city. Hence, we see the emergence of announcements like that made by Google, when the tech giant announced that it would be willing to invest in subsidizing the local housing sector in Dublin where it employs 8m000 staff. The firm already engages in similar action in San Francisco.

While this seems like a positive thing, a corporate giant embracing corporate social responsibility for the good of the nation, what does it tell us about the state of our labour market?  We run the risk of lauding the efforts made by corporate giants to pursue corporate social responsibility objectives, while failing to support small entrepreneurs who create a substantial level of employment in Ireland. They often do so in difficult circumstances where they find themselves unable to compete with larger organisations on the terms and conditions offered to staff.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke show, a discussion on Google's announcement on housing in Dublin with Paul Murphy TD, Noel Rock TD and Orla Hegarty (UCD School of Architecture)

What's the policy on job quality?

In addition to job quality statistics, it is important to look at what is happening in Ireland in terms of job creation, which has featured progressively on the political agenda at both European and local level with an emphasis on boosting entrepreneurship to create more jobs. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2019, 84% of new entrepreneurs in Ireland expect to become employers within five years of setting up their business and 47% of those entrepreneurs have set their businesses up within the services industry. This is an industry in which precarious work arrangements appear to thrive.

READ: does full employment mean good employment?

Therefore, reducing the live register is not enough and policies need to be put in place to address the job quality issues that are occurring. Job quality is an implicit aim of the Europe 2020 strategy. Earlier this year the Future Jobs Ireland initiative was published, highlighting the need for policy to enhance job quality to allow for better living standards. Crucial to this will be the need to provide incentives and supports to entrepreneurs establishing small and medium businesses, particularly the types of businesses that provide local employment immune from offshoring. However, these supports should keep the quality of the jobs created as a central concern and a failure to so may only further the job quality divide in Ireland.

Claire Harnett is a PhD research scholar and part-time lecturer at the Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick. Dr Caroline Murphy is a lecturer in employment relations at the Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick and a former Irish Research Council awardee. Dr Christine Cross is Acting Dean of the Kemmy Business School of the University of Limerick

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ