Only Labour in government guarantees fairness and decency for workers

Ged Nash TD
11 February 2016

Speaking at the Trade Union Council of the Isles Annual Dinner, Mansion House, Dublin, Thursday 11th February 2016 

Good evening, Lord Mayor, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you to Patricia and ICTU for your kind invitation to this Council of the Isles dinner.

I am delighted to address this annual meeting of the four trade union congresses. I know the Irish Congress greatly values these fraternal relations, just as my own party values its deep-rooted relations with our sister Social Democratic and Labour parties. 

Connections across these islands are many, varied and deep-rooted, at the institutional and at personal levels. This is nowhere truer than in the labour movement. 

Four years ago my party celebrated 100 hundred years since it was founded by James Larkin, born to Irish parents in Liverpool, and James Connolly, whose Irish parents had emigrated to Edinburgh.

Larkin organised in Liverpool, Preston and Glasgow before moving to Dublin, where he founded both the unions which eventually merged again to form SIPTU. He was the first to organise unskilled workers in Dublin, under the slogan “A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay”.

The lockout in 1913 lasted seven months and affected tens of thousands of Dublin’s workers, amongst the poorest in Britain and Ireland, who survived on donations from the British Trades Union Congress. The lockout was a watershed in Irish labour history, because it established the principle of union action and workers’ solidarity. 

Meanwhile, Connolly served as secretary of the Scottish Socialist Federation and in Kier Hardie’s Independent Labour Party. During a stint in New York he was active in the Industrial Workers of the World, the ‘Wobblies’. 

And this year we commemorate James Connolly’s signing of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, his military command of the Easter Rising and his execution.

The labour movement has always been internationalist in its thinking and this cross-border solidarity has helped preserve and develop connections on this island and between these islands during the most testing times. There are few enough bodies that have maintained a consistent space on this island where workers of all religious and political allegiances could meet and unite in pursuit of common goals. 

Keeping those structures intact and available was a delicate task for union leaders in Britain and Ireland, but it was a worthwhile job and a job well done. In a deeply divided Northern Ireland, the trade union movement was able to unite in a commitment to peace, equality and human rights. It campaigned to protect the welfare state and strong public services and a rights-based, just and equal society.

And the trade union movement was a strong supporter of the Good Friday Agreement, including in particular the equality and human rights provisions. 

And so it was perhaps inevitable that you took the lead from the Good Friday Agreement, and its British-Irish Council, that promotes east-west dialogue and co-operation, to establish a similar body to promote trade union dialogue and co-operation on cross-border issues.

Your council is built on more than a century of interconnections, formal and informal, and a great deal of cross-fertilisation of personnel and policy. I wish you continuing success. 

During this Decade of Centenaries, we commemorate significant events in our history that took place between 1912 and 1922. Among the events that shape who we are today we also include the Ulster Covenant and the First World War.

Negotiating our way through the commemoration of these events can be difficult. Some of them mark growing divisions on this island and the establishment of a separate Irish state, and so they retain potential for bitterness and divisiveness. 

Our approach is to mark what is important to each tradition, in a tolerant, inclusive and respectful way, and to celebrate what is common to us all.

And one legacy that is indeed common to us all and worth celebrating by the labour movement is a product of the Great War. In the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, the signatories agreed that a universal peace can be established only if it is based on social justice. 

They warned that, where conditions of labour involve injustice, hardship and privation to large numbers of people, it can produce unrest so great as to imperil the peace and harmony of the world.

They declared that an improvement of the conditions of labour was therefore urgently required. And they listed as examples: regulation of hours of work; prevention of unemployment; provision for an adequate living wage; and recognition of the principle of freedom of association.

So they agreed to set up what is now the International Labour Organisation, in order to achieve these objects through binding international agreements.

The Treaty spells out “principles of special and urgent importance”, which include the guiding principle that labour should not be regarded merely as a commodity or article of commerce, the right of association for all lawful purposes, and the payment a wage adequate to maintain a reasonable standard of life. 

This treaty and its institutions have set the agenda for reforms in the conditions of labour at national and international level in the century that followed. The agenda of the labour movement has become part of the human rights agenda, not just in Britain, Ireland and the European Union but throughout the developing world. 

I firmly believe we need to rededicate ourselves to what they called at Versailles the ‘guiding principle’: that labour is never merely a commodity or an article of commerce. 

What I mean by that is that labour is not just another input, to be costed and factored into production at the cheapest available price, or to be warehoused off-site and then provided on a ‘just in time’ basis. 

Labour is about livelihoods. It is about arranging working lives, and personal lives, and personal finances. It is about having the wherewithal to plan for a future, for a family, for a mortgage. It is about human dignity and respect.

Common to all our agendas right now is the decline of the standard employment relationship and the increase in atypical work. The world of work is changing at a pace unknown to previous generations. Managing and responding to that change is a shared responsibility.

The challenge for all of us is how to do this while remaining true to our guiding principles. In all this innovation, the basic requirements of a decent working life must be protected. Employment policy must strike the right balance between enterprise’s need for flexibility and adaptability with a worker’s right to job security – to a basic level of predictability in the terms and conditions of work.

There are in the workplace some relatively low skilled individuals who work essentially as casual day labourers. Non-standard terms and conditions can be imposed on the vulnerable, the low paid and those with little social protection.

And an important aspect is that women are over-represented in non-standard employment that is poorly paid, or insecure, or outside or at the very edge of our employment protection laws. 

We must ensure that whole cohorts of our workforce in precarious employment do not fall permanent victim to low pay, or insecure hours, or enforced and bogus self-employment. 

You will have gathered that there is an election campaign underway. I believe that jobs must be at the heart of this campaign. Decent well paid jobs lift families out of poverty and provide economic security. They are the means by which all our people can share in the dividends of a recovering economy. 

Five years ago jobs were disappearing at a rate of 1,000 per week. Now we are creating 1,100 jobs a week and there are now almost 2 million people at work. I believe we can achieve full employment – a job for everyone who wants one – in another term in office. 

But our vision is not just for full employment but for fair employment – as Jim Larkin put it: “A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay”. A good job deserves a wage that provides for a decent standard of living, without having to depend on State supports. 

One of the first actions of this Government was to reverse a €1 cut in the minimum wage. We appointed an independent Low Pay Commission to advise on the National Minimum Wage and we implemented its first recommendation. Some 125,000 workers have, since the start of January, seen an increase in their pay packets as a result. A minimum wage worker now earns €3,000 per year more than in 2011. 

In the next Government, we aim to do more – to increase the minimum wage until it is pegged at 60% of median earnings. 

My party has also embraced the Living Wage initiative. We aim to ensure that the Government itself and all State bodies become living wage employers. We will make the living wage a pay floor across the public sector.

Labour is, of course, the party of workers’ rights. As well as tackling low pay, we remain committed to fairness and decency in the workplace and to tackling the causes of insecurity at work.

Elsewhere in Europe, governments responded to the economic crisis by curtailing workers’ rights. Labour and this Government did the opposite. We broke new ground with collective bargaining legislation, which strengthens workers’ rights to negotiate with employers. We boosted protection for workers by reinstating Registered Employment Agreements and we introduced new Sectoral Employment Orders, on a constitutionally sound basis. 

Already, 55,000 low paid security and contract cleaning staff have received a pay rise, after wage agreements were agreed under the legislation passed last year. 

I believe the package of legislation I was able to introduce under this Government has brought about the most significant shift in the industrial relations landscape in many years. Workers are now well equipped to seek to better their terms and conditions through collective bargaining. And trade unions that demonstrate the benefits of collective negotiation are well equipped to recruit new members.

I also believe this would not have happened without Labour in Government. And I don’t believe our manifesto commitments to fairness and decency in the workplace will be delivered unless Labour is part of the next Government as well.

That is why we are emphasising that Labour’s return to Government is needed for both stability and for balance.

As I said earlier, fairness and decency means special protection for those in precarious employment. And so we have said that we will not permit abusive terms and conditions of employment – low pay, insecure hours or enforced bogus self-employment – to be imposed on the vulnerable, the low paid and those with little social protection.

We have committed to legislate for common and comprehensive definitions of employment and self-employment, which will apply for tax, social welfare and employment protection purposes, and we will crack down on bogus self-employment.

And we will address abuses of zero hour and low hour contracts, we will legislate to prohibit the casualisation of workers and we will safeguard the rights of workers whose jobs are swallowed up in insolvencies.

We will do this because we believe that decent workplaces aren’t just good for employees: they are good for business, for our economy and for society as a whole.

In conclusion, in our century of existence the Irish Labour Party has never been in the majority but we have always punched above our weight. We have fought and won many battles which have changed Ireland for the better.

It was Labour that provided women with equal pay for equal work, Labour that brought in our employment protection laws, Labour that introduced the legislation on equality and anti-discrimination, on standards in public life and freedom of information, Labour that freed separated people from the dogmas of the past and allowed them remarry, Labour that made it legal to buy a packet of condoms, Labour that abolished homosexual offences and, just last year, it was Labour that insisted on a popular referendum to endorse same sex marriage on a free and equal basis.

Labour has changed the agenda of Government in the past and we will do so again. 

Thank you for your attention. I want again like to thank Congress for asking me here today. I very much appreciate the invitation.

I am sure that you have a busy day ahead of you tomorrow, and I wish you all a successful meeting.

 

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