Precarity and its Consequences on the Staff

Precarity and its Consequences on the Staff

Agora #87

The fears of the precarious employee who is uncertain about the possible extension of his or her contract or the evolution of his or her career.

For most of us precariousness means: fixed-term contracts and/or low income. The interest from the employer’s point of view, this would mean in theory an increasing proportion of fixed-term contracts, with cost savings, or greater flexibility. This flexibility echoes the fears of the precarious employee who is uncertain about the possible extension of his or her contract or the evolution of his or her career.

In the case of a precarious employee on a low income, it is about his or her desire to progress quickly in their career in order to earn more. In short, a precarious employee is ready to accept almost anything and everything. There is also an unhealthy competition between the precarious employee and the permanent staff. Those colleagues on precarious contracts could think that permanent staff are well off, lucky and should not complain. They may think that permanent staff are the “privileged few”. This is obviously not the case!

We will look in particular at the permanent staff of the European Institutions who are subject to the Staff Regulations of Officials of the AST and AST/SC “categories” (see below). First of all, a word of explanation on the acronyms specific to the field of the Staff Regulations (Communautaire). Here is a simplified typology:

  • AD: Administrator officialpermanent contract, university studies, design and/or management tasks.
  • ASTAssistant official, permanent contract, secondary education, assistance and implementation tasks.
  • AST/SC*Assistant/Clerk officialpermanent contract, secondary education, secretarial tasks.
  • AC: Contract Agentfixed-term contract (mainly), all levels of education, all types of tasks.
  • TA: Temporary Agentfixed-term contract (mainly), all levels of education, all types of tasks.

The decrease in the proportion  of AST’s in the Institutions has been very marked in recent years. On the other hand, the proportion of precarious employees (CA, TA) relatively to permanent Staff has slowly increased actually ranging around 20%. For the permanent staff (AD, AST, AST/SC), the evolution is as follows:

  • AD 2009-2021: from 53.5% to  65%.
  • AST 2009-2021: from 46.5% to 28.5
  • AST SC 2014-2021: from 0 to 6.1%.

What is behind these figures or beyond these figures? Here is the analysis from the point of view of the Commission, the largest institution in terms of number of colleagues. We notice that AST posts are slowly being ‘exchanged’/’transformed’ into AD posts. This is also accompanied by an evolution in the distribution of types of tasks. In theory, ADs focus on reasoning and management, ASTs on production.


*This is a slimmed down and, above all, cheaper version of a permanent contract assistant/secretary. It was legally created in 2014. Salaries at the beginning of the career are close to the national minimum/’social’ salaries in some places of employment.

In practice, however, there is a growing shift from AD to AST tasks and in some cases, we are witnessing the contrary. We note that more and more ASTs and even ASTs/SCs have been formally given team and/or project management tasks, thereby relegating production to CAs or “external” contractors. We have also observed that CAs and TAs (non-permanent contracts) are increasingly taking on design and management tasks. In fact, CA colleagues (to a lesser extent, TAs) are direct “competitors” (performing many of the same tasks and responsibilities) of AST and AST/SC colleagues. A real mix of genres which seriously blurs the references and the essential definition of who is supposed to do what, with what level of responsibilities and with what salary. The legal basis (the Staff Regulations) which covers these elements is in fact not respected. Overall, we see a race to the bottom. ASTs and AST/SCs suffer from a discrepancy between their grade (the types of tasks provided for in the Staff Regulations) and the tasks they actually perform (which are much higher than those provided for in the Staff Regulations).

In practice, the European Commission applies the policy of minimum recruitment, i.e. at the lowest grade and at the lowest cost. It makes the most of the few posts and the meagre human resources funds at its disposal.

We are in fact faced with “social dumping” linked to the lack of resources (financial and human) which affects precarious staff, but also ASTs and AST/SCs. Indeed, the latter can occupy posts with responsibilities higher than their grade without their skills being formally recognised. Cases where the AST colleagues concerned benefit from a faster career progression exist, but are rare. Furthermore, there is no difference between the secretarial tasks performed by AST/SCs and ASTs; however, their salaries and progression margins are totally different. A fundamental problem is the non-recognition of additional tasks, in quantity or at a higher level, accepted formally or informally with the promise of a possible promotion, attestation or certification. These are three statutory means of career development, the fourth being the internal competition for changing category, the existence and/or implementation of which is practically anecdotal as there are few or almost none. AST and AST/SC careers are limited by the Staff Regulations (Annex IB: SC6 grade which is reached quickly and blocked in AST7 and AST9). Finally, AST colleagues often exercise, in fact, specific professions and present specific skills (like the professions in the Publications Office) and find it difficult to change posts, as was shown by a mobility exercise in Luxembourg, which benefited very few colleagues.

Very logically, given this situation, many AST and AST/SC colleagues progress in their careers through external competitions, as this is often the only solution to blockages or to a real recognition of their skills and or level of responsibility. Others are rushing to retire as soon as possible.

At present, a new model for recruiting permanent staff seems to be emerging: on the one hand, the Junior Professional Program (JPP) and, on the other, the announced reform of EPSO (inter-institutional recruitment office), which suggests that this new model will be extended. The JPP, which has been implemented in practice since 2018, gives priority access without a competition to former blue-book trainees – typically young people with very little experience (thus implying age discrimination) – who are offered a contract which will eventually lead to an AD post (and thus to a permanent post). The access of Contract Agents, Temporary Agents, ASTs or AST/SCs to this career program is limited or non-existent. A major drawback of this new tool is the age of the candidates. This model, which HR seems to want to perpetuate as a new means of recruiting at the lowest cost,  and at the same time ensuring greater loyalty from ADs, unfortunately discriminates against a part of the staff. Apart from this apparent evolution, the situation of ASTs has not improved, quite the contrary. This is an undeniable and sad fact.

ASTs have no career prospects (notably a lower promotion rate than their AD colleagues) and certainly do not receive the same attention from the Commission’s Administration as ADs. The situation of ASTs and AST/SCs can be summarised as a group of colleagues who perform more and more tasks and are entrusted with more and more responsibilities, but who are not recognised for their level of investment. They are caught between AD colleagues on one side and AC and TA colleagues on the other. The Commission has in fact invested everything in permanent ADs and CAs (and to a lesser extent, TAs) on temporary contracts, while abandoning permanent ASTs and ATS/SCs.

In the context of the increasing precarity motivated by savings and theoretical flexibility, it is logical to think that the AST category is destined to disappear. Whether the intention exists or not, it is indeed the ASTs (and the few ASTs/SCs) who carry out the majority of the tasks decided by the management of the institution (certainly at the Commission, and to a variable extent, also in other statutory institutions). They are also the ones who suffer from the difficulties mentioned. The fate of these colleagues is therefore, at least, a major collateral consequence of the precariousness of jobs. Their status as permanent employees in no way justifies ignoring them, quite the contrary.

Arty Kyramarios

About The Author

Belgian-Greek; born, raised and educated in Brussels. Currently working at the European Commission (Eurostat) in Luxembourg. Active since 2001 in various USF member organisations. Currently active in the member organisation USFL (Vice-President) and in the Local Staff Committee of the Commission in Luxembourg (President).

Isabelle Wolff

About The Author

Isabelle works at the Publications Office in Luxembourg. She is a member of the USFL (Vice-President) and of the Local Staff Committee of the Commission in Luxembourg (Vice-President).