Poverty: Precarious Employment and the Working Poor
The level of social inequality in the EU has been rising for years, both between the employees of different European member states and between the employees in any given country. This had led to the emergence of “social divisions“. There are many different and complex causes for this development. One key driver for this negative trend is the persistently poor situation on the employment market which has, in many European countries, even further deteriorated in the wake of the economic crisis. Other causes include the hardening mass unemployment, the rapid growth of the low-wage sector in many European countries and the increase in the number of atypical employment contracts – which can very quickly turn into precarious employment relationships. The term “atypical employment“ covers temporary, short-term, part-time and infrequent or marginal jobs. Atypical employment bears a high potential for uncertainty and precariousness, and the pay is often inadequate, short of a living wage and much lower than similar work under a different arrangement would fetch. Many of the rights ordinarily claimed by other citizens and employees – such as the rights for protection against unfair dismissal, social insurance cover, maternal leave and co-determination – are totally or largely ignored. Workers in atypical employment relationships can often only dream about establishing a family, purchasing a home of their own or acquiring additional qualifications.
The low-wage sector having grown considerably across the EU for a number of years, being in employment alone is no longer enough to protect workers from slipping underneath the poverty line. In the 1980s, unemployment was still the most common cause for poverty. Since the 1990s, however, poverty has begun to affect even people who do have a job, due in large parts to the emergence of the low-wage sector. The “legal minimum wages” introduced by many EU member states have been exposed as ineffective instruments in the fight to prevent this – particularly shameful – form of poverty. The low-wage sector also threatens to pauperize a large part of our ageing societies: increasing numbers of European citizens will not be able to count on adequate pensions when they retire.