Retail workers’ income curtailed by caps on hours - Mandate

Union calls for changes to law to make it easier for workers contracted for certain number of hours to obtain more where available

Almost two-thirds of workers in the retail sector earn less than €450 a week with barely 20 per cent paid more than €500, according to research commissioned for the trade union Mandate. The union is now calling for legislation to allow employees easier access to additional hours in order to boost their pay.

The report, Smoke and Mirrors, compiled by Dr Conor McCabe of Queen’s University Management School in Belfast and based on a survey of 3,000 Mandate members, found that restrictions of the number of hours available to retail workers was a key factor limiting earnings in a sector which is among the poorest paid in the economy.

The union is seeking amendments to the 2018 Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, which effectively banned zero-hours contracts, to allow employees easier access to additional hours where they are available.

CSO figures show that the average salary across the sector was €484 per week based on an average of 27 hours worked in the early part of last year but, the report says, that figure includes management grades. Among the Mandate members surveyed, hourly rates varied from €10.50 per hour to €18.70 with the average at €14.50.


Retail accounts for roughly one in every 10 jobs in the economy with 213,193 people said to have been employed in 23,709 enterprises in 2020, slightly down on the peak number of workers a year earlier. Additionally, there were 11,000 proprietors working in businesses.

Although the number of enterprises has declined significantly since the economic crash in 2008, with areas like toys, books and music particularly affected by online sales and other factors, there has been significant growth in areas like supermarkets, clothing and pharmacies with the result that overall numbers of employees has actually risen.

The report names Dunnes Stores and Tesco as the sector’s two largest employers.

Hourly rates within the sector have also improved but only 22 per cent of retail workers were found to be contracted to work more than 36 hours with a resulting impact on total pay. Of those surveyed, 40 per cent said they would like to work more hours if the opportunity existed but the union says many employers find it less expensive to maintain the cap on hours, or favour newly hired staff members over experienced ones on higher hourly rates.

“I was six years on the Low Pay Commission and you see there that hourly rates are only part of the equation; you need people to be able to work enough hours to have a decent weekly income too,” said Mandate general secretary Gerry Light.

“You can have cases where a company gives an improved rate but then individual managers can look to manage costs by manipulating the distribution [of] available hours; there can be an element of discipline and control about it too. That’s why we feel the law needs to be changed.”

Overall, the union says earnings in the sector are well below the national average, resulting in staff being disproportionately affected by increases in the cost of living and by rises in the cost of rents and childcare. In many cases, the union argues, the Government is having to top up incomes through the Working Family Payment scheme just to allow them make ends meet.

Social Justice Ireland (SJI) has criticised the decision by the Commission on Taxation to recommend a rejection of Universal Basic Income, meanwhile, saying the move was influenced by a number of factual errors.

In advance of an appearance before the Oireachtas Committee on Budgetary Oversight by the SJI’s chief executive, Dr Dr Seán Healy, the organisation said an estimate by the commission of the level of taxation that would be required in the event that Universal Basic Income was introduced was outdated and the ESRI had revised this figure down significantly.

It said the commission failed to recognise that various experts had argued that such an introduction could be cost neutral and the commission’s view that such a move would not benefit many low-income households contradicted, without any basis, the conclusions contained in a Government Green Paper.

The organisation alleges that “the evidence and the logic” on which the commission’s recommendation is based is “erroneous, misleading and inappropriate” and calls for what it says are the errors to be corrected.

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Work Correspondent at The Irish Times