Closing the gap on the inequality of power – Larkin Commemoration Speech -Tuesday, 30th January 2024

Senator Marie Sherlock
31 January 2024

***Check against delivery***

Comrades, it is a great privilege to be here today with SIPTU to mark the passing of Jim Larkin and indeed to commemorate all that he and those of his time did to create the labour movement that we have today.

It is 150 years since the birth of Jim Larkin and the grinding poverty that he and his sister Delia were born into in Liverpool seems a world away from the liberties, the consumption and the lifestyle that so many experience today on this island.

But when we look scratch below the surface, look behind the superficiality of the employment numbers, we see a different country.

A country that has become very frustrated.

A country, that despite its eye watering public finances and its incredible economic performance has become bedevilled by twin crises.

A crisis in the social contract where the expectations the State should be able to deliver are not being met –  whether that is in social and affordable housing, access to affordable childcare, services for children with disabilities and care for vulnerable people- the list goes on.

And secondly we have a purchasing power crisis.

Where average wage increases of 18.5% over the past five years, are simply no match for the 29% increase in home prices over that time.

Even those on good incomes, in secure jobs, are not able to purchase a modest home for themselves and their family here in this city, but also in many parts of the country.

This is the purchasing power crisis that we are seeing all around us.

And there is a shocking reality in this city that a salary of €100,000 combined with savings in the bank of €40,000 is now not enough to get a mortgage to buy an average 3 bed house in two thirds of all the post codes across Dublin.

This psychological blow to workers cannot be underestimated. That some will have crossed the rubicon into high pay and still, they are not able to afford to buy.

Make no mistake, these twin crises did not happen naturally, they did not happen overnight. They have happened because of a political viewpoint that believed that merit and market would deliver for the people of this country, that it simply would allow people to get ahead, when the predictable reality is that it has not.

And the challenge, the collective challenge, within the labour movement, within our workplaces, within our communities and within the political system is to call out the inequality of power that we have all around us and to indeed to change it for the better.

Right now within our workplaces, we are witnessing a growing inequality of power in how workers are managed, monitored and remunerated at work.

Technological advances have created two camps; the optimists and the pessimists. I for one, am an optimist as to the incredible capacity for greater digitalisation, increasing algorithmic management and artificial intelligence to augment how we all do our work.

But I am also frightened.

Labour has already set down legislation ensuring that they would ensure algorithmic transparency for platform workers. So that the delivery cyclists cycling our streets will not be solely at the mercy of an opaque algorithm that determines their pay and worklife.

We see that these employment protections also have a much broader application across all workplaces in how decisions are made on the basis of monitoring performance and productivity. Increased surveillance of computer key taps, processing times and other surveillance measures has instilled fears and stresses into workers, that must be regulated and managed.

Despite the establishment of an expert working group on AI and lots of talk by Ministers about it, the reality is that Government policy is to effectively sit back and wait for EU’s AI directive to be introduced.

The horse is bolting in Ireland. Back in 2019, the NSAI told us that at least 40% of all companies here were using AI technologies. I believe we are very close to seeing it in every workplace and in order to properly protect and control the use of technology within our workplaces, within our media and so many other settings, we in the Labour Party believe Ireland must act.

We believe Ireland must forge ahead in ensuring that AI is regulated at source. That clear legislative responsibilities and safeguards are set down at development stage with regard to future uses of the technology.

Spain have already moved ahead in setting up a AI supervisory agency and it has published draft legislation tightly regulating image and voice simulations. There are lessons for Ireland in this.

For sure, regulation is no easy task and I am alive to all the arguments about balancing innovation with protection. But for me, the potential risks are too great to human lives to let AI off unregulated. Much like why biological agents are regulated, the clock cannot be turned back when the damage is done.

Of course, the inequality of power within our workplaces is not just driven by technology.

There is an inequality of power rooted in the shortfall of rights for workers; whether it is those bogusly classified as self employed, those seeking remote and flexible work patterns or those trapped in low wage employment.

Disgracefully, the Government has yet to publish a code of conduct on remote working in this country. And its legislation is an own goal in failing to recognise that access to flexible work is not some anti-employer plot, but instead would open up joining the workforce to significant numbers of additional workers.

Just before Christmas, the Government showed firmly whose side it is on by voting down the EU Directive on Platform work. This would have finally settled the long running injustice of workers being forced to become bogusly self-employed. Yet despite public pronouncements to doing the right thing, the Irish Government sided with 12 other member states in voting down the draft directive just days before Christmas.  We in the Labour Party brought forward legislation on this in 2020 so that every worker would be automatically classified as an employee and would then have to meet certain criteria to opt out.

And for the 30% of women in the workplace who work part time, nothing has been done to help  them pull out of the part time low paid wage trap. We see a lot of plaudits for the gender pay gap legislation. But for as long as it fails to compare full time to part time workers, we will not see any changes to how part time workers, women in the main, often forced by their circumstance at home,  are treated in the workplace.

We know that on average, they get less access to promotions and benefit from smaller pay increases. This needs to change.  Collective bargaining is the only mechanism to ensure that part time workers get a fair crack.

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Any one of us out in our communities knows only too well, that that a lack of power, that a sense of powerlessness can be very potent. It can be harnessed to enable people to take a stand for themselves and to fight for better conditions. It can be harnessed as a force for good or crucially it can be exploited and pushed into very insidious places.

That is the great challenge that is facing our workplaces, our political system at this present time- a threat posed by those who have no interest in advancing the rights of any workers, but who will all too readily exploit their sense of grievance.

The best bulwark against this sense of powerlessness and this exploitation of powerlessness is to give workers a greater power in being able to shape their incomes, their progression and their own destiny – that means power in our local democracy, power within workplaces and power at central Government.

Over the next number of weeks, the development and launch of a new Labour Workers Charter will be my focus as we prepare our political offering to the people in the local, European and General Election (whenever it is called!)

For the Labour party, we see that that giving power to workers and to people in their communities must take many forms.

Ultimately, collective bargaining between unions and employers is the most important means to give workers a greater say over what and how they are paid.

The EU Directive to be transposed this year will be important but we’ve to take care not to fall into the trap of believing it will be the gamechanger we in the labour movement have sought for so long.

Any expansion of collective bargaining coverage can only happen and sustainably continue if there is a right to organise. This will require legislative change.

We in Labour want to see changes to the unfair dismissals legislation so that all workers are covered from day one.

We need to ensure that unions can access the workplace and workers.

And we must clearly put beyond legal use, the insidious reliance on non-disclosure agreements to silence workers and cover up pay outs to make disputes with employers go away.

I note that Senator Lynn Ruane’s bill on NDA’s has passed through the Seanad and we will watch closely its progress in the Dáil.

Finally, we must send out the message to employers that a wrap on the knuckles is no longer a sufficient penalty when breaking employment laws. There are far too many stomach wrenching examples of employers getting away with the most egregious breaches of payment of wages law and unfair dismissal legislation and only being subject to making good a a workers’ losses.  There must be a penalty for bad behaviour.

Closing the gap in the inequality of power, as Larkin himself knew, will only come from people like us working together as a collective both politically, industrially and economically.

Over a century ago, the working people in Dublin sacrificed everything for what they believed in – the right to work, the right to housing and the right to unionise.

Building on the truest spirit of Larkinism; of hope, of hard work, and strength of will, of an injury to one is the concern of all, we can, working together, make this happen. Thank you comrades.

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