Opinion: getting Ireland back to work matters, but so too does how our citizens work and are rewarded 

By Claire Harnett, Christine Cross and Caroline MurphyUniversity of Limerick

As negative as Covid-19 has been for the economy, it also presents the opportunity to show that we have learned from the mistakes made in previous recessions when it comes to policies around job creation. Recently, the Minister for Finance said that the Covid-19 crisis has resulted in Ireland experiencing "a severe recession and unprecedented levels of unemployment".

But we have been in a similar situation before after the 2008 global financial crisis. Back then, Ireland’s government took the approach of creating as many jobs as possible to reduce the numbers on the live register. On May 29th 2020, President Michael D Higgins called for a different approach to economic recovery post Covid-19, when he said that working conditions, job security and pay need to be a focus for policy.

Understandably, job creation or restoring the jobs that were in existence pre-crisis needs to be high on the new government agenda moving through this recession. As of June 8th  2020, 543,200 people were dependant on Covid-19 income supports. Therefore, job quality is unlikely to be at the forefront of people’s minds. In fact, worrying about if and when they may get their jobs back is a bigger concern. Even for those who still have their jobs and perhaps are able to work from home, job quality is unlikely to be a priority for them either. Stress about this global pandemic has pushed job quality to the back of the queue in terms of concerns and understandably so.

However, it is important that job quality remains on the agenda, alongside job restoration and creation, while we deal with the fallout from this pandemic and work our way out of the recession we now find ourselves in. Prior to the pandemic, the concept of job quality has gained traction here with the launch of the Future Jobs Ireland programme and has been an implicit aim of the Europe 2020 Strategy and the European Pillar of Social Rights. Getting Ireland back to work matters, but so too does the way in which our citizens work and are rewarded for that work. From a societal perspective, job quality is linked with mental and physical wellbeing, familial stability and educational attainment etc.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys discusses the Future Jobs Ireland initiative

According to the European Commission, Irish SMEs accounted for over 70% of all employment in 2018. This is higher than the EU average of 66.4%. Our country relies heavily on SMEs for employment and it has relied on many of these to provide essential services during the pandemic. These essential services are provided by supermarkets, pharmacies, restaurants (through deliveries), cleaners, refuse collectors and so on.

As outlined in a recent Brainstorm article, "we rely on some of our most precarious and lowest-paid workers to keep the country operating during this coronavirus crisis". This is indeed true and President Higgins' comments reminded us of this fact. The industries who are providing us with our essential services during this pandemic are typically low paid, have varying levels of issues with working time, can have a poor physical and social environments and often have limited future prospects. We need to keep all of these factors in mind when determining what we mean by job quality.

Across all media platforms, we are regularly seeing stories of how Irish small businesses have been stepping up to help their communities by offering various different services. We see the local butcher shop or supermarket arranging for goods to be delivered to the most vulnerable people in their communities. We see alcohol distillery companies making hand sanitizer. We see gym instructors providing free training videos online.

These businesses have something in common: they are all part of Ireland's SME sector and they are often classified as low growth sectors in the economy. Interviews for a study we are currently conducting show that businesses in the low growth sectors don’t get the same support from the Government in growing their businesses as those in manufacturing, or companies who are trading internationally. As identified earlier, these are also the sectors with high numbers of low paid workers, often providing precarious working conditions.

It is important that job quality remains on the agenda, alongside job restoration and creation, while we deal with the fallout from the pandemic 

The Government should not focus solely on the number of jobs created in the Irish economy to move us through and recover from this recession. Paying it back to the small businesses and typically low paid precarious workers that are stepping up for their country during this crisis should also be a priority. This will enable a better quality of life for workers for the future.

One way of paying it back is putting supports in place to help small business owners enhance their employees' job quality. The first step in doing this is a consistent Government message to employers on the expectations around creating good quality jobs. A job quality campaign can be run through advertisements, webinars and online conferences to highlight simple, low-cost ways to enhance the quality of jobs across the country. Covid-19 has taught us that certain sectors are undervalued and it is important to try and change this so we can emerge from this crisis both qualitatively and quantitatively better off. 

Claire Harnett is a PhD research scholar at the Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick. Dr Christine Cross is Acting Dean of the Kemmy Business School of the University of LimerickDr 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.

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