Precarious work

Precarious work is a concept that does not have a universally accepted definition across Europe. Nevertheless, the need to address this complex phenomenon is widely recognised, given its multifaceted nature. Olsthoorn (2014) distinguishes between three components of precarious employment:

  • insecure employment (for example, fixed-term contracts and temporary agency work);
  • unsupportive entitlements (that is, few entitlements to income support when unemployed);
  • vulnerable employees (that is, few other means of subsistence such as financial means or a partner with a significant income).

Precarious employment can be defined as the intersection of these three characteristics, leading to vulnerable employees who have an insecure job and few entitlements to income support.

On the other hand, a 2016 report commissioned by the Commission as part of a research project on 'Reducing precarious work in Europe through social dialogue' emphasised that all forms of employment could be at risk from poor working conditions and insecurity, stemming from ‘protective gaps’ in the system of economic and social protection. These include gaps in employment rights, social protection, representation and enforcement of rights.

Despite the lack of an agreed definition, the issue of precarious work is a topic of interest at European level. In July 2017, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on working conditions and precarious employment. The resolution defined precarious employment as 'employment which does not comply with EU, international and national standards and laws and/or does not provide sufficient resources for a decent life or adequate social protection'.

The resolution calls on the European Commission and the EU Member States to tackle precarious employment, including undeclared work and bogus self-employment, in order to ensure that all types of work contracts offer decent working conditions, with proper social security coverage in line with the ILO Decent Work Agenda and, at European level, Article 9 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Social Charter. The resolution also notes Eurofound’s European Industrial Relations Dictionary entry on atypical work, which refers to employment relationships not conforming to the standard or typical model of full-time, regular and open-ended employment with a single employer over a long time span.

The main concern of policymakers at European and national levels is the negative impact on working conditions as it is acknowledged that these jobs fail to give workers what a ‘good job’ should: notably skills recognition and improvement; and adequate resources – especially financial – with a view to making ends meet and developing employability.

Through successive waves of the European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) , Eurofound has studied working conditions trends across Europe including the overall impacts of precarious forms of employment on job quality – for more than 20 years. Occupations where job quality is consistently low are labelled ‘occupations with multiple disadvantages’, in which the conditions are such that it is difficult for people to stay in such jobs. Using data from the fifth EWCS in 2010, Eurofound’s report in 2014 on Occupational profiles in working conditions: Identification of groups with multiple disadvantages showed that workers in mid-skilled manual and low-skilled occupations fare relatively poorly when it comes to earnings, prospects and intrinsic job quality. Furthermore, looking into how the these jobs score on the various job quality indicators, data from the sixth EWCS in 2015 show that there are still 20% of jobs in Europe that score poorly in all job quality indicators (that is, lowest skills usage, lowest salaries and lowest job prospects). These jobs are mainly offered to or taken up by workers on either a fixed-term or no contract. Young people and workers with primary education are overrepresented in this category.

The incidence of non-standard forms of work has increased in the EU over the past decade. According to research carried out for the European Parliament in 2016, the incidence of standard open-ended, full-time contracts fell from 62% in 2003 to 59% in 2014. A further research study for the European Parliament analysed patterns of job quality across types of employment along the dimensions of working conditions reported by the fifth and sixth EWCS. The report, published in 2017, details the relations between status of employment and precariousness. The study found that full-time and part-time open-ended contracts as well as the category of self-employed with employees continue to be associated with a low risk of precariousness, whereas marginal-part-time work, fixed-term contracts and freelance work had a medium level of precariousness risks; the risk was at its highest and tended to increase for temporary agency workers.

Many factors contribute to the rise of precarious work. The financial crisis and its aftermath have been a key driver affecting the risk of precariousness. As employers and employees find themselves operating in a more competitive and uncertain context post-crisis, new hiring has increasingly taken place on the basis of temporary and marginal part-time contracts. Job-seekers have accepted these contracts, as the alternative would be continued unemployment. This rise in atypical contracting has meant that job insecurity has increased significantly in some countries. The crisis has also meant that lower levels of funds have been available for enforcement services in EU Member States, with the result that abuses of employment relations, such as non-compliance with labour legislation or collective agreements, may be going undetected.

The institutional framework is also a major driver in this regard.

  • The absence or presence of a statutory national minimum wage can be significant in helping to reduce the risk of in-work poverty.
  • The interaction of tax and social security systems with low pay have impacts on labour market participation and on reducing the risk of in-work poverty.
  • The existence of collective bargaining systems help to balance worker protection and flexibility.

Labour market regulation is also a key factor and the extent of active labour market policies is important. Labour markets that afford protection to workers in the areas of working conditions, protection against discrimination and dismissal, and access to social and collective rights are likely to have a lower overall risk of precariousness than those which do not. However, they can be seen as favouring an increasingly dualised labour market, where high levels of employment protection for ‘insiders’ develop along high and rising levels of fixed-term contracts for new recruits.


Olsthoorn, M. (2014), ‘Measuring precarious employment: A proposal for two indicators of precarious employment based on set-theory and tested with Dutch labor market-data’, Social Indicators Research, Vol. 119, No. 1, pp. 421–441.

See also: adaptability; casual work; contract of employment; crowd employment; economically dependent worker; fixed-term work; fragmentation of the labour force;  ICT-based mobile worknew forms of employmentseasonal work; self-employed person; temporary agency work; undeclared work; zero-hours contracts.

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