The Euro is expected to last yet the European Central Bank (ECB) is, as many other International Organisations, intensely relying on the use of temporary (and chained) contracts. This is quite a paradox for an institution whose main role is to foster stability.
Temporary Contracts at the ECB
As evidence that the situation is not something to be proud of, the ECB no longer shares figures with the public regarding the proportion of temporary contracts in its workforce. According to IPSO sources, the proportion of permanent contracts is compared to the total “official” workforce (that is: disregarding permanent functions outsourced to third parties, such as the helpdesk, the security agents, the caterers, etc.) stands at ca 55%. Including the outsourced workers would bring that figure down to ca 40%. Trainees represent 10% of the ECB workforce. The age profile is also interesting, as it is only among the 45 years olds that the share of permanent contracts reaches at least 75% of the total.
History and underlying reasons
The wide-spread use of temporary contracts was introduced in 2004, under the aegis of Vice-President Papademos (in charge of HR), who chaired the so-called Vice-President Task Force on Human Resources, during President Trichet´s mandate. Until that date, permanent contracts were granted from the start, and temporary contracts were used for replacement needs.
As of 2004, only time-limited contracts were granted, which could be either convertible into permanent contracts after 3 or 5 years, or not convertible at all. The first official reason to switch to that model was to keep the capacity of the organisation to adjust the composition of its workforce, depending on the evolution of technology and business needs. The second reason was to simplify the management of the termination strategy.
Indeed, by default, a temporary contract elapses at the end of its term. There is no need for demonstrating that the worker is not performing to the expected level (should that be the alleged reason for termination), nor to go through the administrative hassle of an underperformance procedure. As a side remark, it is worthwhile flagging that such a precarious contract model also extend to the promotion domain, where roughly half of the promotions are granted on a temporary basis – and possibly rolled over from one budgetary exercise to the next – even when the worker has a permanent contract.
Once introduced in the ECB legal framework, the temporary contracts developed a dynamic of their own. A main factor was the so-called conflict of interests of the members of ECB´s Governing Councils, who are both deciding on ECB´s budget and staffing policies, and at the same time heading their own central bank. As head of their central bank, they are competing with the ECB in order to recruit talent. The better the ECB conditions, the harder it is for them to remain attractive.
Furthermore, the centralisation of monetary (and, later, supervisory) functions also comes at the cost of their own scope and competence. In a nutshell, the more the ECB grows, the more the National Central Banks (NCB) will have to shrink. There is therefore an incentive since the very beginning for ECB Governors to slow as much as possible the growth of the ECB, by making use of their budgetary prerogative and imposing a cap on headcount growth.
This conflict of interest is the root cause of many issues faced by ECB staff, be it the lack of available space or the high risk of burnout (see the open letter written by IPSO to NCB´s Governors in 2015). Whereas there was a theoretical cap imposed on ECB staffing, since 2004, the needs of course continued to grow, in particular but not only at the time of the 2008 financial crisis. Therefore, one way to finance such staffing needs without increasing the headcount was to rely on “off-balance sheet” temporary contracts, be they agency staff, contractors, short-term contracts, project-based time limited-contracts, etc.