Precarious Work and Sustainable Development
Precarious work can be defined, in a general way, as a lack of security in employment that affects multiple dimensions such as the contract period, the labor rights, the wages, and the employment relationship.
Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)
Sustainable Development Goals
1. No poverty
2. Zero hunger
3. Good health and well-being
4. Quality education
5. Gender equality
6. Clean water and sanitation
7. Affordable and clean energy
8. Decent work and economic growth
9. Industry, innovation, and infrastructure
10. Reduced inequalities
11. Sustainable effects and communities
12. Responsible consumption and production
13. Climate action
14. Life below water
15. Life on land
16. Peace, justice, and strong institutions
17. Partnerships for the goals
This entry is focused on the analysis of precarious work in Europe. The International Labour Office (2011b) explains as the concept “precarious work” is challenging to define precisely due to the differences between countries which have different regulations and social structures. Blustein et al. (2016) explain as based on Benach et al. (2014) precarious work is composed by four elements: insecurity in terms of employment, vulnerability (lack of power to exercise rights), the level of protection, and the level of income.
Workers on temporary contracts with variable durations directly employed or hired through an agency.
Complexities identifying the employer.
A lack of trade union rights.
In terms of contractual agreements, the duration of the contract (which is limited: fixed-term, short-term, temporary, seasonal, day-labor, or casual labor) and the nature of the employment relationship (triangular and disguised employment relationships, bogus self-employment, subcontracting, or agency contracts) are the main characteristics of precarious work.
On the basis of these contributions, a general definition of precarious work can be shown. It can be seen as a lack of security in employment that affects multiple dimensions such as the contract period, the labor rights, the wages, and the employment relationship.
Precariousness in employment. This is a concept which contains several dimensions related to specific characteristics of job which trigger insecurity, such as a weak regulatory protection, low wages, and low levels of control over wages, hours, or working conditions from the perspective of employees.
Precarious work. It is referred to those jobs that accumulate several dimensions of precariousness, such as nonstandard jobs or the so-called bad jobs.
Precarious workers. It is making reference to those individuals with precarious works, affected by the consequences of precariousness.
Examples: migrant workers with physically difficult or dangerous jobs or underemployed young workers in order to have work experience and prove their reliability.
Precariat. This is linked with the group of precarious workers which are an emerging class, due to the increase of people in this situation.
Precarity. This concept describes a widespread condition of social life, associated with the uncertainty and instability that suffer the precarious workers. It can be extending to other areas such as housing, welfare provision, and personal relationships. The hyper-precarity relates to severe forms of labor exploitation suffered, for example, by migrant workers.
Taking into account this context, the main objective of this entry is to analyze each one of these levels in order to obtain some conclusions that could shed light in the design of better future policies in terms of the SDG, specially, considering that one of the SDG is related with the promotion of decent work.
The rest of the entry is organized as follows: The second section deals with the question of the precariousness in employment. The third section analyzes precarious work and the fourth section precarious workers. In addition, the fifth section studies the precariat while the sixth section is focused on precarity. This entry ends with a discussion of some important conclusions in the last section.
Precariousness in Employment
Lack of regulatory protection. Example: National Employment Standards or collective bargaining agreements
Low wages. Example: hourly rates below rates specified in agreements or shorter working days with low hourly rates that cause very low weekly salary for part-time workers
High employment insecurity. Example: high turnover and less-tenured workers (uncertain part-time jobs or unjustified dismissal)
Low levels of employee control over wages, hours, and working conditions. Example: employer asking for “flexible scheduling”
Considering these dimensions, it is important to review the role of labor regulation in precariousness in employment. The labor market situation has developed substantially in the last decades. However, the legislative frameworks failed to follow this development, allowing a substantial increment in precarious work arrangements (International Labour Organization 2011b). Both national and international labor regulations have weaknesses, omissions, and gaps. Some specific categories, such as agricultural and domestic workers, are often excluded from the protection of labor legislation. In other cases, the use of temporary and subcontracted labor is not sufficiently restricted. Moreover, access to trade union rights is limited, due to the practice of hiring temporary and subcontracted workers and due to the legal limits of workers to be members of trade unions, for example.
- Temporary work. Temporary workers are traditionally less protected than permanent workers. At this regard, there are countries that impose further restrictions to temporary contracts than others. If governments do not limit the rotational use of temporary contracts, employers have de possibility of hire workers on temporary contracts and lay off them before they have access to certain rights. Therefore, it is necessary that countries regulate the labor market to limit the use of temporary workers. These are some ways:
Imposing specific reasons or circumstances for hire temporary workers
Limiting the proportion of these workers that an employer can hire
Banning the use of temporary workers in given sectors
Establishing limits on the duration or number of temporary assignments for a given worker
Low income. Countries with a wide low pay sector generally have neither comprehensive collective bargaining coverage nor statutory minimum wages. This situation is becoming noticeably worse during periods of high unemployment.
Weak labor regulatory. Weak enforcement of labor law has serious consequences for workers. Even if they are protected, they feel precarious. This situation comes most often in governments that separate the regulation, the implementation, and the labor law enforcement in different ministries.
From an international perspective, there are international labor standards that seek to protect all workers. Conventions and recommendations adopted by the International Labour Conference are of general application, unless otherwise specified. The International Labour Organization emphasizes the freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, the nondiscrimination, the abolition of forced labor, and the eradication of child labor.
Besides the role of legal factors, it is also necessary to consider the role of economic drives of precarious work as it has also been remarked by the International Labour Office (2011b). In this sense, it is crucial to consider multiple combinations of several factors, such as the abuse of dominant economic position, the liberalization of the economy, or the increasing global mobility in the markets (in addition to mentioned before, weak protective labor laws, leading by lobbies, and some policies guided by the belief in the efficiency of free markets). Thus, in the past few years, most societies have seen an improvement in its economy. The growth in Africa, postcommunist countries, and Latin America has led to a convergence process of the gross domestic product (GDP) on an international level since 2001 (Milanovic 2012). However, the wages and salaries do not follow the same rhythm (International Labour Organization 2011b).
The standard employment relationship in industrialized countries was based on labor rights, social security, rising wages, and collective representation. This standard has contributed to the establishment of a broad middle class and to the upward social mobility. Welfare-state provisions and collective bargaining have been achieved at the same time. Nevertheless, they are now in risk. With the advent of globalization, the trend of the long postwar period was reversed. Employers have started to use inexpensive labor in order to cut staff expenditures and maximize profits. In addition, they are able to hire labor on increasingly less secure contracts within formal firms. A divide et impera strategy has been (and is being) applied to undermine the standard employment relationship. In this regard, precarious work is the result of a change of the rules of the game. Currently, with the global capital mobility and the global sourcing options, it is easier for companies to relocate their operations to areas with cheaper labor or, alternatively, outsource them, which has caused a job contraction. New information and communication technology advancements, together with the falling transport costs, are contributing in this process.
The theory of unemployment entrapment in neoliberal economics emphasizes that acute economic deprivation is an important stimulus for a more intense search for employment and for greater flexibility when accepting a job (Gallie et al. 2003). From this neoliberal perspective, precarious work is the solution to the job contraction. To achieve full employment, it is necessary to deregulate labor markets and make work “more flexible.” But this neoliberal doctrine needs a government that makes the social transfers conditional on accepting any kind of work, facilitating low-pay and precarious work. Therefore, this type of employment policies led to an increase in working poor. Other factors to take into account in creating the precariat are laws that allow easy layoffs; the exclusion of vulnerable groups like young people, women, or the elderly from labor protection; and the simultaneous increase of agency work and reliance on temporary workers.
As a result, the employment market created over the last decades is working outside control and without an appropriate structure. This supposes a big challenge for policymakers, employers, trade unions, and other social actors. Traditionally, the responsibility was shared between employer and employee within the framework of labor and social rights. Currently, the unprotected employee bears the burden, resulting in precarity. According to the International Labour Office (2011b), to stop this trend, it is necessary to implement sustainable labor policies that allow secure jobs, which provide decent wages and working hours that are compatible with family life.
Characteristics of Precarious Work
Lower protection from termination of employment
Lower level of access to social protection and to the benefits usually associated with full-time standard employment
Limited access of workers to exercise their rights at work
There is no perfect correlation between specific types of employment and precarious work. While casual and external forms of work are growing, the growing of precarious work may be affected by many factors in addition to this. However, there are certain forms of work that have a high correlation with the increase of precarity, such as temporary employment, specifically fixed-term contracts, and temporary agency work (International Labour Organization 2011b).
The problem is moving toward an employment arena in which employers only provide a permanent work to core workers, while all other employees have no security, low wages and benefits, and a miniscule chance of professional advancement (International Labour Organization 2011b).
Temporary involuntary jobs in EU, 2002–2017
EU (current composition)
Percentage of employees that could not find a permanent job (from 15 to 64 years)
Percentage of employees with a temporary job that could not find a permanent job (from 15 to 64 years)
At this point, it is important to note that according to data from the Eurofound (2017), the workers with permanent contracts report more favorable job quality, in general, than workers on temporary contracts. Although the number of temporary involuntary jobs seems not to be affected by the financial and economic crisis of 2008, during these years it was easier for companies to adjust the number of temporary workers and their hours than the number of employees with permanent contracts (Vandekerckhove et al. 2012).
In a country-by-country analysis conducted by the International Labour Office (2011b), Western Continental Europe countries have increased the temporary forms of employment ranging from about 3% for Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany to 16% for Spain, with Portugal, France, Italy, and the Netherlands standing between 5% and 9%. Scandinavian countries showed stable or slightly declining rates over that period. On the other hand, Central European countries suffered an increase over the period. Greece and Turkey have a declining trend, having started at around 20% in the 1980s, with shares hovering around 13% in 2007.
In order to analyze the evolution of precarious work in the strictest sense, Eurostat (2018a) provides the percentage of workers that are in this situation since year 2002 to year 2017. Thus, in 2002 around 1.6% of workers were under a precarious situation, while in year 2005, this percentage increases to 2.3%, and this number is maintained until 2017. Analyzing the geographical differences nowadays (year 2017), Croatia and Montenegro have the higher rates of precarious work in the EU (over 7%), followed by Turkey (6.4%) and Slovenia, France, and Spain (about 5%).
Percentage of precarious work by economic sectors
Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
Industry and construction
Wholesale and retail trade, transport, accommodation, and food service activities
Information and communication; financial and insurance activities; real estate activities; professional, scientific, and technical activities; administrative and support service activities
Public administration, defense, education, human health, and social work activities; arts, entertainment, and recreation; activities of extraterritorial organizations and bodies
Other service activities, activities of households as employers
The recent past economic crisis has resulted in an increasingly social unrest and people protest in cities because of their unsustainable conditions of work and life (International Labour Organization 2011b). Precarious work seems to be normalized, and this affects the long-term decisions of workers. Plans such as get married, have children, or purchase homes become impossible, contributing to the severe demographic crisis of several countries in Europe. Young generation is especially affected. The number of young employees with temporary contracts or those employed through temporary agencies has experienced an increase along with the overall use of flexible contracts. According to Eurofound (2017, p. 20) data “the proportion of younger workers in temporary contractual arrangements (19%) or in ‘other or no contract’ (13%) is much higher than that of the other age groups.”
Another point to have in mind when focusing on the social aspect is that part-time jobs may be precarious, but not in the same way for all people. For example, it’s not the same for a student who combines school and a part-time job as to the head of the household who depends on employment to keep the family afloat. The impact in their lives is especially relevant in the presence of social conditions, such as the dependence of full-time workers on the wage for their subsistence, family relations, social norms, education, and the welfare regimes (Campbell and Price 2016). Social relations outside the workplace and the action of institutions may imply different effects on workers. The welfare-state payments in order to reduce the risk of poverty could be considered a positive effect. On the contrary, an example of a negative effect could be immigration rules that position workers in a precarious status.
International labor standards seek to protect all workers. At this regard, the conventions and recommendations adopted by the International Labour Conference are of general application, unless otherwise specified. Nevertheless, it should be mentioned that many specific labor rights are conferred based on the existence of an employment relationship. To that end, the ILO Employment Relationship Recommendation (No. 198, n°5) of 2006 emerges to combat disguised employment relationships and allow employees to have a protection level. The recommendation, although it is not binding, proposes that national regulatory authorities “take particular account in national policy to ensure effective protection to workers especially affected by the uncertainty as to the existence of an employment relationship, including women workers, as well as the most vulnerable workers, young workers, older workers, workers in the informal economy, migrant workers and workers with disabilities.”
The Workers with Family Responsibilities Convention (1981) (No. 156)
The Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (Disabled Persons) Convention (1983) (No. 159)
The Maternity Protection Convention (2000) (No. 183)
The Home Work Convention (1996) (No. 177)
The Domestic Workers Convention (2011a) (No. 189)
Regarding agency workers, Convention No. 181 (1997) favors their access to their fundamental rights at work improving their working conditions, although does not limit the use of this type of workers.
The Minimum Wage Fixing Convention (1970) (No. 131, art. 3a) provides protection to employees with wages below an adequate minimum. This standard obliges countries to establish a minimum wage that addresses “the needs of workers and their families, taking into account the general level of wages in the country, the cost of living, social security benefits, and the relative living standards of other social groups.”
The Part-Time Work Convention (1994) (No. 175) seeks for part-time workers to receive the same protection as full-time workers. Part-time employees should benefit from conditions equivalent to maternity protection, end of contract, paid annual leave and paid bank holidays, and sick leave. This convention also seeks to protect workers against involuntary part-time, promoting initiatives aimed at preventing workers from being trapped in part-time employment.
Temporary employees as a percentage of the total number of employees by age (%)
EU (current composition)
From 15 to 19 years
From 15 to 24 years
From 15 to 29 years
From 15 to 39 years
From 15 to 59
From 15 to 64
From 15 to 74
Both precariousness and precarious work are related to labor insecurity. The employers are taking advantage of the weak labor regulation to reduce labor costs and the quality of employment. And the consequences for precarious workers may range from a decrease of physical, mental well-being to the decline of other aspects of social life linked to paid work (Campbell and Price 2016). Paid work is relevant for the quality of life because of the income but also because it provides identity to people and opportunities to socialize with others (Stiglitz et al. 2009).
The new economy approaches focus the attention on those objective characteristics on which people’s quality of life depends. These characteristics include the personal activities, and decent work is within these. It is necessary pointing to the high costs of involuntary unemployment for people’s quality of life. In addition to income, nonpecuniary effects of job instability (sadness, stress, and pain) among the unemployed and of fears and anxieties generated by unemployment in the rest of society must be mentioned (Stiglitz et al. 2009).
Most modern societies are faced with an accelerated urbanization process. Population groups of different origins and cultures move to cities in search of better opportunities. However, in many cases, they are forced to accept those jobs that nobody wants. According to Peter Drucker, the problems of social minorities originate in the lack of a position and a social function. He argues that the way to integrate into the group is through the property or the contract. In this way, employment is one of the mechanisms to obtain a position and a social function (Stein 2008).
Labor market barriers of migrant workers in European countries
Fewer opportunities for training; language barriers
Limited access to the public sector; ethnic prejudices
Language and legal barriers
Discrimination by colleagues
Limited access to the public sector and to managerial positions
Discrimination by employers; bureaucratic barriers to full labor market integration
Ethnic prejudices; educational qualifications; language barriers
Educational qualifications and discrimination related to ethnic prejudices
Language barriers, ethnic prejudices
Fewer opportunities for training; discrimination by employers
Different countries in the world present the same characteristics: wage employment is increasing, but with more insecurity for the employees. In this situation, labor protection laws play a crucial role. In countries with the absence of permanent forms of contract, the employers can abuse workers’ rights because the employees’ main goal is the renewal of contract. The fear leads to workers not to join trade unions, increasing their vulnerability to precarious work arrangements. Therefore, it is necessary to include the labor market policies in a broader set of measures, which must be consistent and complementary. Even under the current globalization regime, it is possible that countries improve social economic outcomes with this type of policies.
Through the literature review conducted in this study, it has been found that the achievement of a full employment should be considered as one of the main economic goals (ILO 2011b). Therefore, policymakers should consider that fiscal and monetary policies could help, for example, reducing the financial market volatility, strengthening progressive tax structures, and investing from the public administration aiming to reach the socioeconomic equity and sustainability. Previous studies also remark that the collective bargaining favor the wage growth and the importance of limiting temporary contracts that should only be used for peak periods of labor demand. It is important to note that achieving good working conditions is crucial to provide universal access to education, health, and care facilities.
- Broughton A, Green M, Rickard C et al (2016) Precarious employment in Europe. Employment and Social Affairs. Brussels: European Parliament. Directorate-General. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/587285/IPOL_STU(2016)587285_EN.pdf
- Eurofound (2007) Employment and working conditions of migrant workers. https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/sites/default/files/ef_files/docs/ewco/tn0701038s/tn0701038s.pdf
- Eurofound (2017) Sixth European working conditions survey – overview report (2017 update). Publications Office of the European Union, LuxembourgGoogle Scholar
- Eurostat (2018a) Precarious employment by sex, age and NACE Rev. 2 activity. http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-datasets/product?code=lfsa_qoe_4ax1r2
- Eurostat (2018b) Temporary employees by sex, age and main reason. http://appsso.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/nui/show.do?dataset=lfsa_etgar&lang=en. Accessed 06 July 2018
- Eurostat (2018c) Temporary employes as a percentage of the total number of employees, by sex and age (%). https://data.europa.eu/euodp/es/data/dataset/aT77OQvwY5C6KC3LrPlvA. Accessed 05 July 2018
- International Labour Organization (1949) Migration for Employment Convention (Revised) No. 97 (Geneva, 32nd ILC session (01 July 1949))Google Scholar
- International Labour Organization (1970) Minimum Wage Fixing Convention No. 131 (Geneva, 54th ILC session (22 June 1970))Google Scholar
- International Labour Organization (1975) Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention No. 143 (Geneva, 60th ILC session (24 June 1975))Google Scholar
- International Labour Organization (1981) Workers with Family Responsibilities Convention No. 156 (Geneva, 67th ILC session (23 June 1981))Google Scholar
- International Labour Organization (1983) Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (Disabled Persons) Convention No. 159 (Geneva, 69th ILC session (20 June 1983))Google Scholar
- International Labour Organization (1994) Part-Time Work Convention No. 175 (Geneva, 81st ILC session (24 June 1994))Google Scholar
- International Labour Organization (1996) Home Work Convention No. 177 (Geneva, 83rd ILC session (20 June 1996))Google Scholar
- International Labour Organization (1997) Private Employment Agencies Convention No. 181 (Geneva, 85th ILC session (19 June 1997))Google Scholar
- International Labour Organization (2000) Maternity Protection Convention No. 183 (Geneva, 88th ILC session (15 June 2000))Google Scholar
- International Labour Organization (2006) Employment Relationship Recommendation No. 198 (Geneva, 95th ILC session (15 June 2006))Google Scholar
- International Labour Organization (2011a) Domestic Workers Convention No. 189 (Geneva, 100th ILC session (16 June 2011))Google Scholar
- International Labour Organization (2011b) Policies and regulations to combat precarious employment. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@ed_dialogue/@actrav/documents/meetingdocument/wcms_164286.pdf
- Stein G (2008) El arte de gobernar según Peter Drucker. Ideas para dirigir en tiempos turbulentos. Gestión 2000, BarcelonaGoogle Scholar
- Stiglitz JE, Sen A, Fitoussi J (2009) The measurement of economic performance and social progress revisited. Nº2009-33. OFCE - Centre de recherche en économie de Sciences Po, Paris. https://www.ofce.sciencespo.fr/pdf/dtravail/WP2009-33.pdf
- The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (2018) Temporary employment. https://data.oecd.org/emp/temporary-employment.htm. Accessed 06 July 2018
- United Nations (UN) (2018) Sustainable Development Goals. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/
- Vandekerckhove S, Van Peteghem J, Van Gyes G (2012) Wages and working conditions in the crisis. https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/sites/default/files/ef_files/docs/ewco/tn1203015s/tn1203015s.pdf