Advancing the cause of Working People

26 January 2018

Address by Labour Party Leader Brendan Howlin TD to the Labour Trade Unionist Conference

Saturday 27th January 2018, Wynn’s Hotel, Dublin 1.

Check against delivery.

Since I became Leader we have engaged in a process of rebuilding our Party and reforming our structures.

Recognising our history and traditions has been central to that, and the role of trade unionists has never been more important in today’s changing world.

So first off, I want to thank you for coming on that journey with us and participating in a most important forum for the Labour Party.

The Political side of our movement which I have the honour to lead not only has its roots in, but is a twin sister of the organised side.

For well over a century we have worked together to advance the cause of working people.

It is my commitment to strengthen the bonds between the party and trade unions and to work to convince trade unionists to become ever more involved in the Party.

On occasions the Trade Union side of our movement by necessity sat down and negotiated deals with conservative parties.

And on occasions the political side was required to do likewise. Always our objective was unswerving support for workers.

I know am speaking to the converted here, but I want to take a few moments to speak about what we secured and preserved in recent years for workers.

Because if we don’t recognise those successes, you can be sure those who oppose us won’t.

If anyone wants to know what the misery a government without Labour at its centre would have inflicted between 2011-2016, we just have to look at FG’s 2011 election manifesto.

They planned an unprecedented assault on protections and job security for workers, mass lay-offs in the public service and a privatisation and outsourcing agenda that would have made Thatcher blush.

Indeed, we only have to look at what the Conservatives have done in the UK since 2010 to have an understanding of the risk we faced.

Instead in Ireland, when the trend internationally in response to the global recession was to hollow out the rights of working people, we did the exact opposite.

Remember our country was on its knees – unemployment heading towards half a million people, tax revenues fallen by 30%, and nobody willing to loan us money bar the Troika with painful strings attached.

In that climate when hope itself was evaporating from our people what did the Labour Party do?

We put job creation and maintenance at the top of government’s agenda.

We helped create 200,000 jobs.

We learned the lessons of the past when too many in the ‘80’s and early 90’s were denied the dignity of work for far too long -by helping those who were out of work into meaningful training, upskilling and new jobs.

We had reduced unemployment from 15.1% to around 7% (and falling) when we left office.

We introduced strong new collective bargaining laws.

We set up a statutory Low Pay Commission to report annually on a recommended rate of minimum wage.

We re-established JLCs which have delivered successive pay increases and improved terms and conditions for 50,000 contract cleaners and security personnel.

We introduced a new Sectoral Employment Order system under which 50,000 construction workers received a pay increase of 10% last October.

We re-introduced registered employment agreements with the first one negotiated by the transport unions to protect the jobs, pay terms and conditions of public bus workers in the event of the future privatisation and outsourcing of routes.

We gradually unwound FEMPI and prevented the mass outsourcing of public services.

We also negotiated two public service deals with the Unions in an open and transparent way.

We started the process of banning zero hour contracts and better regulating precarious work.

And we gave political leadership to the Living Wage campaign.

We stopped the wholesale privatisation of State companies – the ESB, Coillte, our Ports, our land banks.

And importantly too, as recent analyses have shown, inequality reduced in Ireland through this difficult period because we maintained a robust redistributive mechanism through the tax and welfare codes.

So Labour’s work protecting the most vulnerable and advancing equality operates in good times and bad.

Of course you will have heard this before, but if we, the card carrying members of the Labour Party do not have the confidence to speak of what we achieved, no one else will.

And since we left Government we have kept up the campaign for workers.

Last summer Labour’s Competition Amendment Act became the first opposition piece of legislation to pass both the Dáil and Seanad and become law.

This new Act returned the right to collectively bargain for freelance workers, including journalists, actors and others who perform their work on a self-employed or contract for services basis.

With just 11 PLP members, we were the first opposition party to get a piece of legislation enacted in what Jan O’Sullivan has memorably called the do nothing Dáil.

Be under no illusions the hard work done by Ivana and Ged to get this Bill through.

It has also given us a template for how we can tackle bogus self-employment providing in legislation the first definition of false self-employment.

So last November Ged also published his Bill to take on this scourge that has plagued the construction sector in particular.

It would take on rogue employers, and apply tax avoidance laws.

Because there is no good reason why an employer who decides to deliberately misclassify the status of an employee should not be considered to be a tax and PRSI cheat –

And to have the same penalties applied to them as is the case for other tax avoiders.

We have also led on tackling the gender pay gap, and as it has always been the case – where Labour leads, others soon follow.

Working with Fórsa, Ivana Bacik has spearheaded legislation on gender pay gap reporting that is now nearly through the Seanad.

With a pay gap of 13.9% in Ireland, we are effectively telling women that from 3.50 pm every day they stop getting paid.

Women have already waited long enough – so in the centenary year of women’s suffrage, we need effective change now – to achieve real equality.

In the Dáil last year at the height of the Bus Éireann dispute Brendan Ryan also introduced a novel bill that would require all those applying to operate a bus route tendered by the NTA to sign up to collective bargaining or recognise an SEO for the industry.

This is the type of practical solution we want to see to set a floor on terms and conditions across all economic sectors – from transport to childcare to cleaning to catering.

So what next?

At the Budget we argued against tax cuts calling instead for investment in public services so that people get real value for what they contribute to society.

And we will take on the scaremongering by FG about the risk of wage increases.

Workers have every right to demand their fair share when the economy is growing, when profits are soaring and when the cost of living like rent, fuel and insurance is rapidly increasing.

A lot of employers have used fear to drive down terms and conditions.

To increase casualization and get more work out of people outside of contracted terms and conditions

Precarious work and the gig economy make the work of trade unions and efforts to strengthen workers’ rights all the more important.

Our Party, the Labour Party is the party of work – we believe we can chart a path towards a future of work that can make people feel hopeful and optimistic.

And we have a shared task to persuade people of the relevance of the Labour movement to their challenges.

We need to convince them that joining a union and supporting its political wing is a fighting response to the challenges they face.

A fighting response prepared to take up the challenge of working in Government to improve their lives not leaving political power the preserve of a privately educated Taoiseach in a privately educated cabinet.

We need to convince people that a social contract which ensures that each generation has a better life than the last can be restored.

Work should always pay.

The Labour Party believes that everyone who is working should earn enough to live on, and that’s why we support the Living Wage campaign.

The Living Wage is good for workers, good for families, good for business and good for society.

Last year a group of trade unionists, civil society organisations and economists set the Living Wage in Ireland at €11.70 per hour.

We have continued to push the case that the terms of the Low Pay Commission be amended to make the living wage their goal.

We have also called on the State to lead by example to ensure all those in the public sector are paid a living wage

Because if Aldi and Lidl can do it, why can’t Paschal Donohoe?

As our economy recovers, we need to campaign for decent pay for all.

Work is always the best way to get out of poverty.

Too many people work without knowledge of how much work they have the following week.

People need security and stability in their working lives.

There is a profound difference between flexible work arrangements that are freely negotiated to mutual benefit, and multi-nationals hiring huge chunks of their workforce on low-hour, if-and when contracts.

Part-time work, fixed-term contracts, agency work and, in recent times with the large-scale adoption of smartphones, the so-called gig economy, have been part of a trend of casualization of workforces in many countries.

When the Government’s bill on ‘if and when’ contracts comes to the Dáil we will seek to amend it to ensure it is as robust as possible

Because there is no point in passing bad legislation.

Tech companies like Uber, Deliveroo, Airbnb and Handy are revolutionising the service industry, providing consumers with instant access to lower cost on-demand facilities at the swipe of a screen. The challenges for those working in the gig economy are monumental with normal rights like pensions, holiday pay and decent wages often denied.

That is why our project on the Future of Work is so important. That i why this issue is at the heart of our policy development.

We face many challenges in the years ahead; the strengthening of the right across Europe, the growth of unrestricted free market principles; the impact of policies coming across the Atlantic from the Trump administration.
Ireland also faces the challenge to workers posed by Brexit.

Our movement must ensure that whatever type of future relationship develops between the UK and the EU that the rights of workers in both the North and in Britain are protected

That Brexit is not used an excuse to drive down hard fought terms and conditions.

Ours is also an all-Ireland and an all island movement and while we must work hard to protect the hard won peace, we must make sure too that workers, unionist and nationalist, are protected from Hard Tory plans for a Hard Brext.

And we must ensure that workers in the most affected industries like manufacturing and agri-food do not lose out

Like our sisters and brothers in Congress, we have called for the European Globalisation Activation fund to be repurposed to help save jobs in the sectors most impacted.

We must also work to ensure that the European Pillar of Social Rights is delivered on in real and tangible forms.

So that workers have access to decent, quality affordable childcare, to lifelong education and training, and to secure pensions and peaceful retirements.

Across Europe social democracy our century of progress is at risk.

We face a monumental task to rebuild our movement not just here, but across the EU.

Ireland is at a crossroads and the Labour Party wants to present a vision of what our future republic can be.

We now have a once in a generation opportunity to shape our next century and plan for the future,

In each Budget over the next 4 years there will be up to €5 billion available.

In the First Dáil, 99 years ago, Tom Johnston published the Democratic Programme

It is still an inspiring document for the left in Ireland and resonates with us all nearly a century on.

We are planning a project to look at that vision, to imagine a different Ireland, based on liberty, equality and justice for all

That will be at the heart of our politics for the next 100 years –

On housing, on health, on jobs, on education, on the future of work.

Solving problems for people.

A new vision for Ireland.

A vision I hope you will work with us on over the next year.

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