The gig economy is booming! In Ireland, eight percent of the labor force or approximately 160,000 people are engaged in some kind of independent work, from restaurant workers and food delivery drivers to IT professionals, creative freelancers, university researchers, and lecturers. In the U.S. the numbers are much higher (some estimates calculate that up to 20-30% or 162 million Americans are engaged in some kind of independent or contingent work). And the numbers are growing fast.

Ride share service Uber boasts over seven million drivers world-wide but lists only 16,000 employees.  Airbnb has over 4 million listings, 640,000 hosts but only 3,100 employees.

As the effects of globalization and technological change continue to put pressure on employers to look for ways to reduce costs and improve profits, while some workers may enjoy the independence offered by flexible work arrangements, others will increasingly be compelled to accept precarious work: work that is defined as poorly paid, uncertain and unsustainable. For many people, particularly youth, this kind of employment is quickly becoming the norm.

A recent report by the Irish think tank TASC, “Living with Uncertainty: The Social Implications of Precarious Work”, highlights the negative impacts precarious employment on individuals, their families and society at large. A lack of stability and uncertainty creates pressure and stress and can contribute to mental and physical illness.  Precarious work exploits vulnerable populations, contributes to long-term poverty and puts increasing pressure on the social welfare system.  Temporary workers are most often subject to low-wages and are not entitled to sick benefits, holiday pay, pensions, parental leave and the like and most would be unlikely to be considered for a mortgage.  Many workers surveyed, reported that they could not afford to take a sick day and, in any case, would likely be unable to afford to seek out the care of a doctor. 

According to Senator Alice-Mary Higgins, who launched the report: “Increasingly, we are seeing that work no longer represents a reliable route out of poverty. Precarious work is usually poorly paid and under-unionised, lacking in important benefits such as pension contributions, sick leave or parental leave. Often, it can leave workers vulnerable to pressure, abuse or exploitation. In its effects on housing, health and family life, precarious work often spills over into precarious lives.”

The Irish government is currently looking at legislation to help determine employment status, ban insecure work contracts and bolster the rights of workers.  In the meantime, the gig economy shows no sign of slowing down.  Precarious employment is both pervasive and pernicious and likely to play an increasing role in our future working lives.

The TASC report, "Living with Uncertainty:  The Social Implications of Precarious Work" is available here.

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