Urgent Plan Needed to Save Jobs & Prevent Race to the Bottom on Rights

30 Mar 2017

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Congress General Secretary Patricia King says we need to plan now to protect vulnerable jobs and ensure workers rights are not diminished. A version of this article originally appeared as an opinion piece in the Irish Times 

I have first-hand experience of the turmoil that can arise in the wake of an event of major significance. 

In 1984, the British Leyland car assembly plant in which I worked closed its doors and I was among the hundreds that found themselves out of a job. 

The shutdown was yet another chapter in the slow, painful demise of a once thriving sector and a direct consequence of Ireland’s entry into the then European Economic Community (EEC), in 1973.

The sector simply could not compete in the new trading conditions that obtained following our accession to the EEC.

Some 12,000 good, skilled jobs were lost in companies such as British Leyland, Ford, Datsun, Chrysler and Fiat - jobs that the Ireland of the time could ill-afford to do without. 

Those losses sent a seismic shock through the economy and contributed in no small part to the severity of the 1980s recession.

We did not go quietly and fought hard to hold on to our jobs and what followed was a period of unprecedented turmoil and strife.  

What angered many at the time was that the fate which befell our sector was entirely predictable. 

No one in officialdom could have been surprised that the industry had been left vulnerable by our entry to the EEC. 

Yet there was no official response, no plan to deal with the collapse, no strategy to assist those deprived of their livelihoods.

Now I fear history is about to repeat itself as we face an event of far greater significance and portent in Brexit. 

But on this occasion, I fear the consequences may be even more damaging and destructive and the lack of official preparedness of far greater concern. 

Thus far, the UK government has published a detailed white paper setting out its policy objectives for Brexit, while the European Commission has entered the fray with its own contribution. Congress also published its own briefing paper on Brexit


Need for a Plan to Save Jobs, Protect Rights

To date, all we have from the Irish government is broad, brushstroke objectives, focussing on the maintenance of the Common Travel Area, preventing a hard border, and protecting the terms of the Good Friday Agreement 

These are objectives Congress fundamentally agrees with, particularly given our position as the largest civil society body on the island. 

But in an uncanny echo of the late 1970s, the government has had nothing of substance to say to workers in key sectors of the economy, such as Agriculture, Food & Engineering and Manufacturing generally, all of which trade heavily with the UK.  

Some €39 billion was traded between the UK and Ireland in 2016 - €15.5 billion in goods and €23.5 billion in services.

According to CSO figures, this trade supports in excess of 700,000 jobs across a wide range of sectors. 

Obviously, not all are vulnerable post-Brexit, but many thousands may be.

While we will gain some jobs, where is the plan to protect employment in these vulnerable sectors and to ensure that Brexit does not lay waste to whole swathes of the domestic economy?

Read the Congress Bulletin on Brexit here

Publication cover - Brexit Bulletin March 2017

What measures will be deployed to secure decent work and protect employment rights? 

Even the UK’s Tory government dealt with the issue of workers’ rights in its white paper. 

Some 82% of Agri-Food jobs are in the regions, where employment opportunities can be minimal. 

In the event that the sector runs into trouble, EU State Aid rules will almost certainly prevent the government from extending support to ensure their viability.

Therefore reform of those rules should be a key plank in the government’s Brexit strategy, allied with a willingness to veto any Brexit settlement that does not afford the state greater capacity to support vulnerable sectors and save jobs.

Along with the threat to jobs and livelihoods at risk, we face the possibility of losing many hard won employment rights and protections. 

Once out of the EU, the UK will no longer be obliged to uphold any rights or protections that have emanated from Europe. This will create severe downward pressure on those rights. 

This could give UK companies a ‘competitive advantage’ over those based here and lead to the business lobbies clamouring to have the lowest common denominator – in terms of employment standards and rights – established as the norm.

In fact, employers have already begun to make this case, with Ibec chief Danny McCoy recently informing a business audience of the post-Brexit imperative to “keep labour costs in line with competitor economies.”

If a race to the bottom is the best strategy that either government or employers can devise, we may brace for a period of unparalleled economic turbulence and industrial turmoil. 

In short, Congress could not tolerate a situation where working people – on either side of the border – are forced to pay the price for a policy that is not of their making, nor for a failure to plan for the expected.