"The battle for decent work is the defining struggle of our times" - Patricia King tells SIPTU Conference

8 Oct 2019


Congress General Secretary Patricia King addressed delegates at the SIPTU conference in Cork on the issues of Brexit, the housing crisis, climate change and Just Transition, collective bargaining and the battle for decent work.

The General Secretary said by the end of this month we may know the final course of Brexit.  “As we know, Brexit was the consequence of narrow, self-obsessed nationalism based on the debased values of free-market economics which places no value on human dignity or the concept of global solidarity.  Leaving aside, the right-wing Tory antics we have witnessed over past months, we have to recognise that, Brexit has the capacity to gravely damage to our island economically, socially and politically”.

She told delegates “The Republic of Ireland, as a member of the EU, will experience some strong negative economic consequences considering its current close trading relationship with the U.K.  This may include elevated levels of job loss in particular sectors and locations. We are also facing the possibility of higher prices on basic food goods, which will impact on lower-income households in particular. The scale of the Brexit effect will depend on the future trading relationship agreed between the parties into the future.

But Patricia King said Congress had initiated direct discussions with Government over recent months to develop agreement on a Brexit related Short-time Working scheme.’  The aim is, that in the event of a company downturn, preservation of workers’ incomes and jobs rather than job loss would be the primary approach.  IBEC have supported this proposition and we are expecting to conclude a scheme in the coming weeks.  The terms of EU Globalisation Fund has also been extended for utilisation in circumstances where required.

However, she said “The situation regarding Northern Ireland is far more complex and could be very bleak. Northern Ireland’s societal fabric is fragile and sometimes unstable and for the past two and a half years it has had no functioning Assembly or Government. Its economic activity is largely driven by small businesses heavily reliant on cross-border trade.  One senior NI official recently described the ‘no deal’ Brexit scenario as akin to a blockade of the Northern Ireland economy, where disruption would be severe and economic and social effects profound and lasting. We are right, therefore, to be concerned at the possibility of the re-instigation of the border on the island of Ireland which we believe would be a highly regressive step”.

The Belfast/ Good Friday Agreement, as we know, provides for the protection of the Civil and Human Rights of the citizens of Northern Ireland and commits both Governments to take no action that could undermine the economic and social wellbeing of the region into the future.  It is essential therefore that protecting this Agreement, in all its parts, remains paramount and that both Governments live up to their international obligations in this regard.

It is also worth noting that recent pronouncements from the UK Prime Minister regarding future worker rights in the UK have been very worrying, to say the least.  We will have to be extremely vigilant that any post-Brexit future trade discussion between the EU and the UK effectively deals with this issue. There can be no ‘race to the bottom’ when it comes to worker’s rights and workers and their families on this island must not be forced to pay the price for Brexit.

The Housing Crisis continues to create social chaos among families and communities across the country. It is leaving deep scars on innumerable families and children threatened with homelessness, forced to subsist in low quality, insecure accommodation or forced from the place that they had called home. Those scars may never heal and the damage that has been inflicted may prove costly to our society in the future. 

An entire generation of younger workers and families are now locked out of the housing market for years to come, given the lack of affordable homes available and the almost total collapse in public housing provision. For many, the only option is to take up insecure and expensive accommodation in the rental sector or join the ranks of the hidden homeless.

The Housing Crisis represents a stain on our society and is a catastrophic failure of public policy. In that context and arising from the impact the crisis is having on workers and their families, Congress was duty-bound to take a lead role in the campaign to reverse and change public policy for the better.

The Raise the Roof campaign, in which SIPTU has played a leading role,  has proven  successful to date, insofar as it has built a broad civil society alliance to push for this policy change, comprised of trade unions, housing agencies and homeless advocates, political parties, women’s groups, student unions, traveller organisations and those representing the aged. In addition, Raise the Roof has succeeded in having its campaign demands and platform endorsed and passed by the Dail in October 2018.

In now falls to the government to fully implement the motion passed by a majority of the Dail and backed by wider civil society – something which Raise the Roof will continue to campaign and push for. That motion sets out clear solutions to the crisis.

The state needs to reverse the policy of outsourcing housing to the private sector and to take a lead role in housing provision, through the construction of public housing. It needs to tackle tenant security in the rental sector, promote rent certainty and end evictions into homelessness. We need measures to end land speculation and also the creation of a legal right to housing. In short, housing must be treated as a human right, not as the plaything of speculators.

Patricia King said “climate change is the greatest challenge of our generation. Climate action is essential and the cost of inaction catastrophic.  As the UN Secretary-General recently remarked, school children have accepted the science and grasped the urgency of climate action better than some global leaders.  The Paris Agreement has set the framework to move forward and was clear in setting out nations’ responsibility to provide a ‘Just Transition’.  Our own Government recently published it’s ‘Climate Action Plan’. It was disappointing to discover that it was devoid of any implementation plan to provide decent work in circumstances of job displacement. 

The first and immediate challenge they face arises in the case of Bord na Mona. Congress and SIPTU have recently met with the Minister for Climate Action and have made the following points to him:

  • That a WRC forum should be established to assist Trade Unions and Management to agree the future pathway for this Company.
  • That the Government should facilitate a multi-faceted proactive transition strategy.
  • This should involve the establishment of a National Transition Taskforce to drive the system-wide changes necessary to manage the impact of transition.

At the ICTU Biennial Conference, last July Patricia King said: “We marked the beginning of a renewed effort to secure, in this country, collective bargaining rights for all workers and the enactment of a Trade Union Rights Act”.    

As we all know collective bargaining is the most effective instrument to achieve more equal redistribution of wealth, to drive down inequality, to achieve gender pay equality and improve productivity.   Without it, there is no balance between capital and labour.

We also acknowledged the words of our President Michael D. Higgins that the battle for decent work will be the defining struggle of our time’

“Within weeks the extent of that struggle became clear to me when I attended the ILO Centenary Conference in Dublin Castle. It was my first experience of attending a conference where the objective was decidedly not to deal with the topic at hand. 

There was no reference to the definition of Decent Work, not a mention of the collective worker voice or their representative Trade Unions and at best lip service only to a pathway to the achievement of this particular Sustainable Goal (8) decent work and economic growth’”.

At the recent ILO centenary Conference an employer spokesman lauded the ‘voluntarist tradition’ of   collective bargaining in Ireland while acknowledging the right to withdraw labour and engage in industrial action, ‘however primitive such a tactic might be considered in the 21st century’

Very shortly after this event, Congress was invited to take part in a consultation on a project sponsored by the Irish Human Rights Commission to develop a framework for monitoring economic and social rights in Ireland.  They have commissioned the ESRI to assist them with this work and have decided to begin by building a prototype on the topic of the definition of decent work. 

We have made a strong submission to ESRI outlining that any definition/indicator of decent work which does not encapsulate the right to collective bargaining and trade union representation would render this exercise completely meaningless.

I have suspected for some time now that there is a concerted effort, supported within the system to take control of the agenda of defining decent and sustainable work, to ensure that they effectively dilute if not eradicate the influence of the Trade Union Movement.

The Labour Movement has always drawn its greatest strength from its collective ability, from its members and their solidarity in the workplace and indeed beyond.  It is in this context, therefore that there is such an assault on workers’ rights and hostility to collectivism.  

General Secretary Patricia King concluded by saying “for these reasons, it is now more important than ever that we succeed in our organising campaigns.  This Union has proven many times that strong and well-resourced campaigns can succeed. 

Let us not doubt, the ‘battle for decent work is the defining struggle of our times’. It will be complex and challenging. But for those of us who believe in the transformative powers of collectivity, solidarity and equality we should never be discouraged.  We will take on that struggle as we always do and we shall win”.