In government and opposition Labour unswerving in support workers

Alan Kelly TD
01 June 2016

I want to begin by welcoming former Clerys workers including Susie McGowan who I met yesterday and also her trade union colleagues. I also want to recognise the SIPTU members in the security and contract cleaning industries that helped negotiate new employment regulation orders which come into effect October 1st. I’m proud to speak on behalf of the Labour Party today in supporting our motion to enhance the rights of workers and to provide greater employment protections for those in precarious and low-paid work.

The foundation of the Labour Party in Ireland is inextricably linked with the trade union movement and we have argued throughout our history that the best means of strengthening the hand of workers and their unions is through cooperation of both organised and political Labour. This means that we have been unswerving in our support for workers in both government and opposition. I call on every Deputy in this house to support this motion and to ensure a threshold of decency for workers in Ireland, 103 years on from the Lockout.

‘’The longer the picket, the shorter the strike’’ is a common adage amongst trade union members and it refers to the solidarity between workers from all sectors and their representatives standing together against abusive employment practices. Today, myself and my Labour colleagues reaffirm our commitment to the cause of working people across Ireland.

Labour’s last term in government was marked by the economic collapse we inherited from Fianna Fail where over 250,000 workers lost their jobs. We also governed against a background where collective bargaining rights were being curtailed across Europe and where there existed a significant downward pressure on wages in already low-paid sectors, not least as a result of Fianna Fail cutting the minimum wage before leaving office. It is remarkable then, that during Labour’s term we increased the minimum wage on 2 separate occasions, we instituted collective bargaining rights, re-established Joint-Labour Committees and provided much needed protections for workers by way of Sectoral Employment Orders and Registered Employment Agreements.

We also established a commission to look at Low Pay in Ireland and we would call on the government to act on the recommendations of that commission. In addition we began to tackle so-called zero hours and ‘if-and-when’ contracts to end the pernicious cycle of precarious work amongst the low-paid in Ireland. It is also a credit to our party that despite the economic turmoil within which we toiled for the first few years of the previous government, there was not one single mandatory redundancy in the public sector. Our record on workers’ speaks for itself, our dignity-at-work agenda was evident in every decision we made over the previous 5 years which is why it is outrageous that the current Programme for Government pays little more than lip service to the rights of working people in Ireland. In fact workplace issues form just 2 paragraphs in the entire document. There is also no Minister for Labour Affairs so it appears that the hard work of former Minister Ged Nash in that department is to be forgotten.

It is undoubtedly true that under Labour in government, the economy revived. Unemployment fell from 15% to below 9% and currently over 1,000 new jobs are being created each week. While this is to be welcomed, with this recovery comes new challenges. We in Labour believe that any recovery must be jobs-led and should not be confined solely to large cities and big urban centres. The importance of balanced regional jobs growth cannot be understated and the quality of new jobs created should be to the highest standard. These new jobs should be well-paid and all workers should have a right to collectively bargain. However, stronger economic growth should not mean a race to the bottom in the conditions of workers. This is why Labour supports the Living Wage initiative which would increase the minimum wage in Ireland to €11.50 per hour and ensure that workers on low-pay can live and not simply exist. A rising cost of living necessitates wages to move upwards and to ensure that work pays in every instance. We call on the government to commit to paying a Living Wage, leading the way on progressive work practices in Ireland.

The house will remember the Taoiseach’s pledge that Ireland would be ‘’the best little country in which to do business’’. Labour’s ambition is much broader, encompassing the whole of civil society and in keeping with our traditions as a social democratic party. Our ambition is for an Ireland where work is rewarded and where working people benefit first from any economic prosperity.

The old model of trickle-down economics has failed and it is incumbent on us all as legislators to recognise this. It is hard to believe that despite the Lockout occurring over a century ago, there exists a cohort of employers willing to exploit their staff and undermine their conditions. The Clerys workers’ were abandoned by the new owners of their store with no notice, an example of vulture capitalism where profit supersedes human dignity at every level. It is a disgrace that these workers, who had been mainstays of Clerys for decades and were shown damn-all respect in the termination of their employment. We call on the government to legislate for the protection of workers in these ‘informal insolvency’ and collective redundancy situations.

Currently we have Tesco who are seeking to re-write the contracts of their workers without adequate justification or the agreement of representatives of the workers. I welcome that they have recently chosen to negotiate with Mandate as the representative body of Tesco workers while others have failed to, but the industrial relations mechanisms of the state must be strengthened to ensure that employers are compelled to engage with unions on every level. In the aforementioned instances of Clerys and Tesco, as well as in disputes with Dunnes Stores, Greyhound waste, La Senza and the Paris Bakery, Labour members and activists have stood in support of workers fighting to vindicate their rights not simply as units of labour, but as human beings deserving of decent conditions and protections against rogue employers.

Further, it is my fundamental belief as a former SIPTU shop steward myself that people have a right to feel safe and secure in their workplace. The government must legislate to provide statutory redress for the victims of workplace bullying. Bullying at work is a serious issue which employers should be aware of and which government should recognize the detrimental effects of.

I also want to highlight the rights of workers beyond just PAYE employees. We must support small business, local enterprise and the self-employed but this sector is being hampered by bogus self-employment which is diverting much needed government supports away from legitimate work and towards an exploitation of loopholes in our taxation system. We must tackle bogus self-employment to ensure that the resources of the state are put to work in the best interests of tax-paying, law-abiding citizens. Freelance workers also deserve the protections which union recognition brings and so we are calling on government to extend collective bargaining rights to freelance workers such as journalists in recognition of the unique nature of their job and the role they play in Irish society. We in Labour are committed to combatting the casualization of work and will pressure the government to enhance the rights of workers’ every step of the way.

We talk a lot about new politics in this Dail term. It is a shame, therefore to read the amendment forwarded by Sinn Fein in opposition to our motion. It is clear that Sinn Fein would rather party political point-scoring than meaningful engagement on this issue and that speaks to their true intentions. While Labour in the Republic is trying to form a coalition of political parties and trade unions to tackle ‘if and when’ or zero hours contracts, Sinn Fein in government in Northern Ireland stand over one of the highest rates of proliferation of zero hours contracts anywhere in the whole world. While Labour struggled against conservative interests trying to undermine trade union rights during the last government, a battle which we won, Sinn Fein cheerlead hard-left governments across Europe who equivocated on public sector pensions and collective bargaining rights and who enforced cuts to working people far beyond any measures introduced here. It was because of the sterling work of trade unions right across Ireland in concert with Labour in government that workers were protected during our last term. It is notable that Sinn Fein used their first Private Members Business to call for an abolition of Irish Water which would result in the forced redundancy of thousands of workers whilst Labour uses our first opportunity to advance the cause of workers’ rights in our country. It is clear that while Sinn Fein talks a big game in opposition, Labour actually follow through on our commitments to bettering the circumstances of workers when in government.

Just yesterday, I met a number of former Clerys workers and their resolve for justice should be an inspiration to us all. It is with those workers in mind that I think we can all agree such a situation should never be allowed to occur in Ireland again. In the spirit of supposed ‘new politics’ I call on all sides of this house to engage meaningfully with Labour’s motion and to send the message out to unscrupulous employers that the people of Ireland will not stand for any attempt to undermine the pay and conditions of workers. In an effort to build a decent society, we must protect the vulnerable and low-paid against greed and profiteering. We must stand up for a true workers’ Republic. A vote by this house in favour of Labour’s motion would be a vital first step in setting the agenda for the next few years of government and in advancing the cause of working people on our island. I commend the motion to the house.

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