Peanuts and productivity

“The gig economy is a real-time admission of our generation’s mass failure of the young. It belongs in the same embarrassing corner as marriage bans and workhouses,” argues the Irish Congress of Trade Unions’ (ICTU) John O’Farrell.

The gig economy is a real-time admission of our generation’s mass failure of the young. It belongs in the same embarrassing corner as marriage bans and workhouses.

Ask any woman who has reached the age at which one would expect her to be enjoying retirement what life used to be like before fads like political correctness and you may be sharply informed that women were routinely paid less than male colleagues for doing the same job, and that those working women had no legal access to a bank account without the blessing and scrawl of her husband.

They may remind you that the then EEC told the grim patriarchs of Leinster House that they could not join the rich man’s club unless it abandoned what was known as the ‘marriage bar’ – the requirement that if any female public servant fell in love and got married, then they were required to quit and sit at home raising the obligatory seven kids. This prevailed until 1971 and operated throughout the professions, in particular (interestingly, more mundane, low-paid occupations were exempt).

“The gig economy is a real-time admission of our generation’s mass failure of the young.”

An RTE document from 1947 lists the terms and conditions for employment as General Features Officer in Radio Éireann. Number two on the list sets out the different rates of pay for men and women. If a man gets the job, he will be paid £650-£850 per annum, while if a woman gets it, she will be paid £500-£700. A substantially less amount for doing the same work. Number nine on the list is the marriage bar, making it compulsory for a female employee to resign when she married.

The recent abortion referendum reminded many of us with long and sour memories of the journey it has taken to achieve something close to equality for women in that Republic, but that anecdote can still shock the generation entering the age of voting and working. I like to think that there will come a day when they look back and tell their successors about a flawed system of casual exploitation.

This was a system where companies like Amazon, Uber and Deliveroo were hailed as ‘disruptive’ visionaries, rebels in cargo pants shaking up the old, over-regulated, sclerotic systems of wages; and public services; and media; and shopping, and education; and devising systems which were ‘flexible’ and therefore, ‘free’.

One million people in Britain wait each day for a text or a phone call to let them know whether an employer has work for them. Twenty years ago few had heard of zero-hour contracts, but the number of workers covered by them has increased more than fourfold since the recession of a decade ago.

This leads to the other sclerosis, that afflicting the wider UK, economy, according to Larry Elliot, the Guardian’s economics editor: “Britain’s flexible labour market has resulted in the development of a particular sort of economy over the past decade: low productivity, low investment and low wage. Since the turn of the millennium, business investment has grown by about 1 per cent a year on average because companies have substituted cheap workers for capital.”

A generation gap has opened up – not the fictional one about the old shafting the young through Brexit, but in the wages and conditions ‘enjoyed’ by workers. A recent TUC report exposed the extent to which young workers (despite a superior education) are not only concentrated in low-status, non-unionised McJobs, but condemned to remain there longer. 41 per cent were forced to ask their family or friends for financial help due to a shortage of money. 20 per cent had skipped a main meal. There are long-term impacts too. Over one-fifth put off starting a family, and over a quarter had put off changing careers due to financial worries.

Recently the Nevin Economic Research Institute examined the links between Northern Ireland’s labour market performance and productivity performance, “with a body of literature suggesting that the rise of flexible labour markets have contributed to the slow-down in productivity.” They “question the conventional wisdom that flexible labour markets are a panacea to higher economic performance”.

So, when some local apologist for this dismal UK government blathers about record employment, ask them to focus on the quality and not only the quantity, to feel the cloth as much as admire the emperor’s new cloak. Then ask them if they are happy at the idea of their own kids and grandkids delivering parcels and take-away pizza in their 30s.

The gig economy is a real-time admission of our generation’s mass failure of the young. It belongs in the same embarrassing corner as marriage bans and workhouses. Disrupt that racket, and we can then talk about intergenerational justice.

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