Some 42 million workers in the EU were employed part-time in 2011, according to a survey by the European statistical office, Eurostat, up from 41.3 million the year before.
Of those, 8.6 million – more than 20% – said they were available to work more, a situation of so-called "underemployment" that is raising concern at the European Commission.
“Many people who are self-employed, in part-time or fixed term contracts, continue to be inadequately covered by social protection," the European Commission said on 18 April in a strategy for a 'job-rich recovery'.
This category of workers is "often being rewarded unfavourably compared to people in full-time permanent contracts,” the EU executive added in an accompanying working document, referring to "levels of pay" and "holiday rights".
In some countries, part-time workers who consider themselves underemployed are half or more than half the total. In Greece, 58% of part-time workers declare themselves available for working longer hours. In Latvia, this percentage reaches 57%, in Spain 49% and in Cyprus 42%.
However, underemployment is not necessarily associated with part-time work. In a statement issued on 19 April, Eurostat noted that the countries with the highest percentage of self-declared underemployed people are those where part-time work is relatively low.
“The smallest proportion [of underemployed] was found in the Netherlands and Belgium [both 3%], where part-time working is common,” the note points out.
Moreover, part-time jobs are often chosen voluntarily by certain categories of workers, especially students, young mothers and elders in the last phase of their career.
“People are increasingly interested in new ways of working that combine both flexibility and security and give them the opportunity to extend or reduce the work they undertake in line with personal commitments,” said Denis Pennel, managing director at Eurociett, which represents private employment agencies such as Adecco or Randstad.
“In the Netherlands, for example, almost 50% of the workforce now chooses to work part-time,” he said.
Involuntary fixed-term contracts
More difficult to estimate is the number workers kept in part-time jobs which tend to be much more time-consuming than originally stated. It is not by accident that most underemployed people are women who may also face discrimination at work. A similar call comes from those with involuntary fixed-term contracts who tend to have wages and benefits lower than the average.
“The crisis has increased concerns about growing labour market segmentation resulting from the rise in the use of [involuntary] fixed-term employment and successive fixed-term contracts in some member states, which rather than acting as a stepping stone can trap workers for many years in precarious employment,” the EU executive says in its working document.
Regulation can help. The Netherlands, where workers often prefer alternative contracts, is one of the few EU countries with legislation limiting the number of consecutive fix-term contracts to three. After that, contracts are automatically become open-ended.
But many member states remain reluctant to change. In 2011, the Commission proposed to address the issue through the introduction of a “single open-ended contract” to encourage employers to hire workers on a more permanent basis. “The issue has been debated at length in some member states though as such it has not been adopted in any,” admits the EU executive in a working paper.
The Eurostat survey sheds a light on another worrying phenomenon hitting Europe, which is the increased number of unemployed people who no longer seek a job.
Their numbers have grown to over 8.5 million, equal to 4.6% of the entire EU workforce. In Italy, the figure has reached a height of 3 million people, equal to over 12% of the Italian workforce.
The majority of people who lost any chance to find a job are those with low education (46% of the total according to 2010 figures), but another 41% are those with an average education. Some 13% of people with a high level of education also give up seeking for a job, according to those statistics.
Overall unemployment in the EU hit 10.2% in February, up from 9.5% a year earlier, according to figures released by Eurostat in April. That means 24.5 million Europeans are without work.