When we met in Trinity College, Dublin in July 2019, none of us would have predicted the events we have experienced, across our island, over the last two years. One occurrence which shocked and saddened us all in Congress was the very sudden, sad, untimely, and unexpected passing of our late colleague Eileen Sweeney. As we all know Eileen was a stalwart, conscientious, loyal and longstanding member of the congress team. In the past year, many deserving tributes have been paid to her, and given her central role in the organisation of this conference, we will particularly miss her presence here in Belfast this week.
Delegates, every generation faces its own prophetic events and the Covid19 pandemic will define the 21st century. In fact, together with Climate Change, it may be the global event that has done most to shape our still-young century.
At the outset, we must acknowledge the personal losses, suffering, and grief experienced by so many over the past two years. We salute the major contribution of all those workers across our frontline and essential services who risked their lives daily and, in cases of some, lost their lives, to keep us safe and well.
In the face of this Public Health emergency, the trade union movement itself has had to play a central role in putting forward solutions to address these unprecedented circumstances. It has been our role to represent the interests of organised and unorganised workers across this island. We have been the sole worker voice and we have had to be effective and be heard.
Immediately it became evident that extensive lockdowns were necessary, alongside our colleagues across Europe, ICTU was the first to advocate to Government that they should introduce a ‘temporary wage subsidy scheme’ comparable to schemes operating in some EU countries. alongside the ‘furlough scheme, which was introduced by the UK Government. Such schemes would, we argued, assist in maintaining the income of workers and crucially preserve the direct link with their employment. Following a period of intensive discussions, a ‘temporary wage subsidy scheme’ was developed. It has long since been acknowledged that this Wage Subsidy Scheme was one of the most valuable instruments in the economic management of the Pandemic.
In the case of laid-off workers and those whose jobs were in abeyance through insolvency, unemployment, or sick leave as a result of the virus, it was the Trade Union Movement who advocated that the social protection benefits available would not provide workers with adequate incomes and would have to be augmented. This resulted in the Pandemic Unemployment Payment being applied to all workers regardless of circumstance.
For those workers who continued to be in the workplace and those expected to return to the workplace at various stages post lockdowns, their health and safety were paramount. ICTU was first to propose to Governments, in both jurisdictions, that a National ‘Workplace Safety’ Protocol, should be drawn up, incorporating extensive measures, in line with Public Health advice, to keep workers safe in their workplace.
One key provision of this protocol included the appointment of a ‘Lead Worker Representative’ in every workplace, organised or unorganised, to ensure that workers could have ownership and influence in the delivery of these critical safety measures in their own workplace and not just rely upon the trust and goodwill of their employer.
The inadequacy of the State Sick Pay benefits and the absence of employer-supported schemes were graphically highlighted by the plight of Meat factory workers. Workers who had to go to work sick, with the virus, because they couldn’t afford to stay at home while unwell. A number of Affiliates together with Congress through Oireacthas Committees and every other means available, strongly contended that a suitable national ‘Sick Pay Scheme’ in line with most other European partners should be initiated. Such a scheme is now being legislatively prepared.
Alongside our Affiliates, we also put forward detailed proposals relating to the right to seek ‘Remote Working’ and we have participated in the development of an agreed Code of Practice on the Right to Disconnect’.
This pandemic, delegates, has brought to the surface many questions that now require answers. It has tested our institutions and has overseen a massive expansion of the State and fundamentally changed the relationship between the state, businesses, and workers. It has afforded us the opportunity to closely observe the depth of the business reach into the decision-making processes in our State and their failure to bring forward viable solutions.
It has revealed the fragility of some of our social structures and the rising scale of our inequalities. The indispensability of basic services and the welfare state have been brought into sharp focus. As a society we have had to recognise our reliance on the very people among whom are the lowest paid, least secure and most undervalued in our workforce. And as this pandemic dissipates it will become more and more untenable for Governments to persist in facilitating the current ‘low pay economic’ model to which they are so robustly aligned.
For our part, we must be clear as to what we mean by ‘decent work’ and that core standards include fundamental respect being afforded to every worker in employment without equivocation. This movement has a key role to play in shaping our new world of work around human dignity and solidarity and it is essential that there is no erosion of our core values.
Delegates, future policy choices, and the values that guide them will determine how we tackle and eradicate the inequalities in our society. Threadbare public services are one of the greatest threats to the resilience of our economies.
We must therefore resist moves towards contractionary fiscal measures and call out the revenue gaps that others ignore, such as the fact that employers in the Republic of Ireland and the UK pay less than half of the European average in social contributions.
For all these reasons Congress in conjunction with NERI, in June 2020, published our policy document ‘No Going Back’ which advocates a’ New Social Contract’ across this island to include a number of key principles:
• The creation of a society built of equality within a human rights framework that would eradicate poverty, reform our social welfare systems to provide adequate levels of social protection, and preserve workers' incomes in periods of job loss.
• Immediately address the current housing crisis providing a right to adequate safe, secure, and affordable housing for all who require it.
• Deliver a decarbonised economy through a Just Transition.
• Make the necessary public investment in our education systems including the delivery of Childcare as a direct public service available and accessible to all.
• Invest in a universal public healthcare system free at the point of use, State resourced, including publicly provided long-term care.
• Vindicate the rights of workers across the island of Ireland by ensuring that their voice is heard through their Trade Union and without obstacles to engaging in collective bargaining.
Delegates, these Congress policies, if applied would uphold human dignity and equality in our society. Successive governments, across both jurisdictions, have continuously failed to deliver on them. We should undertake to pursue them vigorously and use all our influence and leverage in their pursuit.
Delegates, economic growth, and social justice will not now be the only objectives a modern economic policy must pursue. Environmental sustainability is now a third and equally important goal. Climate change is with us and not just in the abstract or as a future risk yet to happen, it is being played out, in real-time, across the globe as we speak. We have seen the recent examples, throughout the world, of increased numbers and intensity of storms, hurricanes, floods, droughts, and abnormal weather temperatures.
Evidence is mounting that the world is far closer to abrupt and irreversible changes than previously thought. Average global temperatures have increased by 1 degree Celsius since pre-industrial times but if we take no further action they will rise by (1.5) one and a half to 3 degrees Celsius by 2050. According to the EPA, Ireland emits 59.78 million tonnes of Co2 annually. The Oireachtas recently enacted the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment)Act which lays out a series of measures to be implemented over coming decades including a 51% reduction in our GHG emissions by 2030.
These are very ambitious targets and will undoubtedly have implications for workers. There will inevitably be employment gains and losses. Our task, as a movement, is to ensure that we decarbonise our economy through a Just Transition. This will necessitate massive investment in our training and upskilling infrastructure so that displaced workers can re-enter alternative employment as necessary in the low carbon economy. We have an opportunity to determine organised green jobs. It will also be important to recognise the potential impact on vulnerable households of the costs of the low carbon economy transition and to mitigate this through appropriate supports.
Delegates at our last Conference in Dublin in 2019 we launched a comprehensive policy document setting out a strong case as to why we should overhaul and seriously improve our current collective bargaining arrangements. As are well described in motions to follow in this section of Conference some employers continue the use of exploitative work practices such as ‘Bogus Self Employment’ in various forms, across specific sectors.
It is also worth noting that the labour market backdrop for adjusted wage share in Ireland was 60% of GNI# (star) in 2019 as against 63.3% in the Euro area. The total share or disposable income for the top 10% of households is greater that the bottom 40% combined. As we know a lower wage share implies greater income inequality.
Over the past two years, we have seen an emerging political paradigm in which labour market fairness, improved employee rights, and access to collective bargaining have moved centre stage. This has occurred following decades of a prevailing political view that such policy instruments created obstacles to economic growth and progress. As Commissioner Schmit has outlined the proposed European Directive on Adequate Minimum Wages represents such a’ policy shift’ which is driven by the concept of a ‘Social Europe’. Similar strategies are being pursued internationally: In the US President Biden’s “Right to Organise Act” has been approved by Congress, In New Zealand the Government has introduced legislative proposals for a ‘Fair Pay System’.
It was in this context that Congress set up an Executive Council, subgroup, advised by Kevin Duffy BL, on this subject: we also discussed the matter directly with IBEC and then proposed to Government that through the LEEF process, a High-Level Group should be established to provide a strategic review of the collective bargaining and industrial relations landscape in Ireland. The Officers of Congress participate in this Group.
The terms of reference of this Group include:
“Examination of the issue of Trade union Recognition and the implications of same on the collective bargaining processes.
“Consideration of the legal and constitutional impediments that may exist in the reform of the current systems”. “Reviewing the current statutory wage setting mechanisms and, where appropriate, make recommendation for reform.”
The work of this Group has been ongoing since March and has primarily focussed its review on the legislative and operational options in relation to existing sectoral and enterprise collective bargaining mechanisms and the current system of employer/ trade union engagement in the context of European norms.
To date I believe it is reasonable to conclude that it is now acknowledged, by this Group, that the JLC system is not currently functioning optimally and the Group are committed to exploring options to ensure this Sectoral Bargaining mechanism operates effectively.
On the matter of Enterprise bargaining, and in particular, the operation of Part 3 of the 2015 Industrial Relations (Amendment)Act the Group is open to addressing the challenges encountered by referring parties mainly relating to comparators issues.
The final matter of Employer/Trade Union engagement, is the least progressed and one of the most challenging. So far, the group is still in the exploration phase and has not as yet agreed a viable preferred option.
I have no doubt that the adoption of the motions being put forward in this section will only serve to enhance our prospects of progressing this agenda in the context of the expected European Directive.
Notwithstanding the ‘Paradigm Shift’ I have referred to earlier, in this movement, we are always alert to the ‘feral capitalism’ ( as one commentator recently described it) which pervades several of our economic sectors. We know that there will be considerable resistance to any shift from the status quo and we know why.
Decent and fair wages, collectively bargained, are the most effective instruments of wealth distribution. But some of the players in these sectors regard workers as expendable commodities, instruments only to expanding their own profits and gain. They despise the notion that trade unions could enable workers to achieve such fairness. They vehemently oppose any attempt to alter the status, and effectively they disenfranchise workers who may wish to become organised but the fear and risk is too great.
These sector players are ably abetted in their efforts by a distinctive ‘litigation strategy’ on employment law, pursued for a number of decades now, by a coterie of our very expensive friends in the Law Library. One only has to look at the case history, including the 2011., challenge to the JLC system, 2013 challenge to the REA system, 2018, challenge to the SEO system. All costly challenges against the State by relatively lightly resourced parties, which raises its own questions. All being pursued to ensure that the legislature will never enable workers to get a fair deal as against satisfying their own avarice.
Therefore, and in conclusion, delegates, let the message from this conference be clear, the measure of our strength is not just in our density but very much in our levels of impact and influence. As evidenced during the pandemic, we are the voice of workers, organised and unorganised, across this island.
Every representation, by every trade union representative in workplace matters. Empowering all worker voices to be heard is crucial in the pursuit of the egalitarian society we all aspire to, and we must continue in this mission.