Tackling precarity: lessons from abroad

Some of the the world’s leading lights in the battle with insecure work

September 29, 2021
Seattle is one of the first places in the US to implement “fair workweek laws.” Image: Scott Anderson / Alamy Stock Photo
Seattle is one of the first places in the US to implement “fair workweek laws.” Image: Scott Anderson / Alamy Stock Photo


According to a weighty University of Limerick study from 2015, more than 5 per cent of Irish workers were working “constantly variable” hours, often through no-strings “if and when” contracts which offered scant security to either side of industry. The pattern of unstable work bore many similarities to that in Britain, with the report finding it was “especially marked” in hospitality, wholesale/retail, and health and social work.

But a law that came into effect in 2019, effectively bans zero-hours contracts by creating a “banded” system for employees, entitling them to a contract broadly reflective of their usual weekly hours. The Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2018 gives employees the right, after a year of service, to request a contract for guaranteed hours based on the average number of weekly hours worked in the preceding year. Employers aren’t obliged to provide the exact number of hours worked previously, but instead have to place employees in one of eight bands and guarantee them the minimum number of hours in that band. For example, one band covers 16-21 hours, so if you’d worked 20 or 21 hours a week the previous year, you’d now be guaranteed at least 16.

Industrial relations expert Juliette McMahon of Limerick University suggests that whereas the zero-hours contract ban is marred by its inability to deal with workers who have “no clear contract of employment” at all, the banded hours protections “appears to have more teeth.” Many Irish employees are contracted to work a small number of basic hours, but then regularly work more—at managerial discretion. A recent court case involving Aer Lingus ended up with an employee being given additional contractual hours, a “tentatively positive” sign that the reform is working.

European Union 

The European Commission has also taken steps to tackle insecure work, by introducing a Directive in 2019 that will give workers on unpredictable schedules a reasonable notice period for their shifts. The directive has a broad scope, including zero-hours contracts, domestic work, casual work and “platform” work (where workers use an app such as Uber to match themselves with customers). Member states will have until 2022 to transpose this directive into their domestic laws. 

The reform comes through the update of an old directive which Professor Catherine Barnard—an EU law expert at Cambridge—says was in fact based on aspects of UK law. But after Brexit, will British workers
have the benefit of the change? “There is,” says Barnard, “no evidence we shall implement it.”

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Several places in the US including San Francisco, Seattle, Emeryville in California, Philadelphia, New York City, Chicago as well as the state of Oregon have introduced “fair workweek laws” to make working hours more predictable for employees in industries such as retail and fast-food. As Sarah O’Connor writes in the FT, many US employers had been operating using “just in time scheduling” practices, calling employees into work with little notice, and sending them home during shifts if no longer required. The new laws, with slight variations across different areas, provide employees with a right to request their schedule in advance, with (usually) two weeks’ notice.


The first to bring in state-wide fair work-week scheduling laws, which came into effect in 2018, with employees entitled to compensation when shifts are cancelled or changed without notice. The law also entitles employees to a “Good-Faith Estimate,” requiring employers to give workers a rough idea of the hours they will be given on a consistent basis.


In some of the cities, the regulations are tightly focused on the very lowest-paid in sectors like hospitality, but here the law extends to workers earning up to $50,000 in healthcare, building services and manufacturing. 

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