We gather in Belfast this year to review key events since we last met at our Biennial Delegate Conference in Dublin in 2019.
Our theme this year is ‘No Going Back– A new deal for a safe and secure future for all’, and it speaks directly to the key issues facing us as a society, post pandemic, across our island.
At the outset, we must acknowledge the personal losses, suffering, grief and loss experienced by so many across our island and further afield since the start of last year.
Many of us have been personally affected in some way or another, or knows someone who has. The Covid-19 crisis has also been a major and transformative shock to the economy and to society.
It is one that has had profound and long-lasting social, economic and political implications. It led to the rapid adoption of major and often quite radical policy measures, many of which would have been considered completely unthinkable, unacceptable and unfeasible before the pandemic.
We should salute the major contribution of our frontline and essential workers across the public and private sectors, who each day went out and risked their lives to safeguard our health and ensure our security and welfare.
Covid-19 laid bare the consequences of the inequalities which for so long have failed these very often undervalued and under-paid workers. Although the nature of our pandemic-induced crisis represents a very different set of challenges to those we confronted in 2008, it is remarkable that 10 years on we once again find ourselves faced with the difficult task of economic recovery, and this time from an even deeper economic shock.
At the very early stages of this crisis, Congress formed the view that we needed to develop a ‘new social contract’. Together with NERI, we published “No Going Back – A new deal for a safe and secure future for all”, in May 2020.
This analysed and highlighted the implications of past policy choices and charted a course to fund and attain a new and better society for all. A key lesson from the 2008 crisis is that cutting back public spending during a recession, i.e. ‘austerity’, not only does not lead to recovery but only prolongs the misery and leaves permanent scars, particularly on the long-term unemployed and on young people.
The pandemic has shown that threadbare public services are one of the greatest threats to the resilience of our economies. We can no longer shy away from the structural underfunding that we have all had to ‘work around’ for years. We must insist on adequate revenue measures that enable us to provide decent public services and resist any moves towards contractionary fiscal policies.
We need to call out the revenue gaps that others try to ignore or hide, such as the fact that employers in the Republic of Ireland and in the UK pay less than half of the European average in social contributions. Important policy choices will ultimately have to be made. In our view, these must be to deliver better public services, particularly in housing, health, education, early years, social protection as well as a Just Transition to decarbonisation, digitalisation and automation.
In order to progress our interests, we must be in the right rooms, at the right time, to make the right arguments to shape those choices. More and better jobs and rising wages are the keys to a fair recovery. Across this island hundreds of thousands of workers are low paid and have precarious jobs.
Vast swathes of the labour ‘market’ operate on the basis of bogus self-employment and casualisation, often misrepresented as ‘innovative’ and offering ‘maximum flexibility’. And all at a time when the Irish government continues to deny workers the right, in law, to collectively bargain with their employer through a union they choose. Ensuring decent wages for all through collective agreements are the best wealth distribution mechanisms in the economy.
They lower inequality, create jobs, ensure safer workplaces, and as we established in our 2019 paper on collective bargaining, drive productivity increases. For these reasons Congress is campaigning alongside trade union confederations across Europe through the ETUC for the improvement and adoption of a draft directive on ‘Adequate Minimum Wages in the European Union’, which promotes collective bargaining.
We firmly reject all attempts to water down this legislation. We continue to engage through the Labour Employer Economic Forum (LEEF) with employers and government with a view to enabling the full and timely implementation of principles that underpin this directive. Congress engaged with both the Irish government and the NI Executive at a very early stage in this pandemic to develop detailed workplace safety protocols with the primary purpose of advancing health and safety measures to ensure maximum protection of workers.
In Northern Ireland we succeeded in establishing a social dialogue forum in dealing with the pandemic, the NI Labour Market Engagement Forum, to deal with these matters. Such processes included the appointment of a ‘lead workplace representative’ in every employment with a view to ensuring workers direct input to the implementation of these health and safety procedures.
The practice of contractor and employers misclassifying workers as ‘self-employed’ is an ongoing scandal in Ireland. Over the past decade Congress has campaigned to have a legislative remedy enacted to secure workers’ rights to the full range of social protection benefits together with access to employment rights and protections.
One of the most pressing issues facing both jurisdictions is decarbonisation and the achievement of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, at the latest. Climate change policies must be based on a Just Transition as envisaged in the 2015 Paris Agreement. The Republic’s track record on this is weak, as demonstrated by the case of the Bord na Móna workers and their local communities who have been required to make huge sacrifices for the common good.
Notwithstanding the appointment of a Just Transition Commissioner, with whom Congress is working, the government has no integrated plan to ensure workers’ upskilling as well as replacement employment. This must be addressed immediately. Across the island we continue to experience a very substantial gender pay gap. The Congress Joint Women’s committees recently engaged in extensive debate with other civil society groups, public representatives, academics and other stakeholders as to the various remedies that are needed to address this long-standing issue within our society.
We support our Women in Leadership programme which has had very positive participant feed-back. Since we last met, Northern Ireland has been taken out of the EU against its will. As an all island trade union federation we are determined to ensure that our members and all workers in Northern Ireland will not be left behind when it comes to employment rights
Congress and the wider movement will continue to champion social, economic and industrial issues facing our members, and their families across the island. And we continue to so with the primary aim, through solidarity, of building a better future for all.