Sinn Féin - On Your Side

Workers rights are a basic requirement of a just society

22 February, 2006


Sinn Féin leader in the Dáil, Caoimhghin Ó Caoláin speaking at the end of the Sinn Féin Private Members motion on the establishment of a Department of Labour Affairs said, “Workers rights are not an add-on extra – they are basic requirements of a healthy economy and just society”.

Deputy Ó Caoláin said, "Established rights of workers are under attack in Ireland, in Europe and throughout the world. Rights, freedoms and protections built up through the efforts of generations of trade unionists are being eroded.

"The Department of Labour Affairs that Sinn Fein is proposing would not be a substitute for trade union organisation and a strong grassroots union membership. Rather it would be an essential step to ensure that the full range of labour rights, including the right to trade union membership, are totally vindicated.

"I would like to address a number of comments made by Minister of State Tony Killeen when he spoke last night.  He spoke of the “deep and unwavering commitment of the Government in the area of employment rights”.  This is, with respect, quite untrue.  The lack of commitment was evident during the Irish Ferries dispute in particular when the Government showed little interest in intervening to protect workers’ rights.

"The bottom line is that existing employment rights legislation is not being enforced and will never be enforced until the labour inspectorate has the resources and the number of staff necessary to carry out ongoing spot checks on employers to assess compliance levels.  There must be an immediate increase to bring the inspectorate up to 75 inspectors.  

"Workers’ rights are not an add-on, an optional extra which can be enjoyed at the whim of employers or when the economy allows. They are basic requirements of a healthy economy and a just society.

"Sinn Féin is committed to defending and extending workers’ rights.  That is why we want to see a stand-alone Department of Labour Affairs, that is why we want an Oireachtas Joint Committee on Labour Affairs, that is why we tabled this motion." ENDS

Full text of speech follows:- 

Ba mhaith liom buiochas a ghabháil le gach duine a ghlac páirt sa diospóireacht ar an rún tábhachtach seo. Buiochas ach go háirithe do na Teachtai atá ag tacú leis an rún. Tá bagairti nua ar chearta na noibri in Éirinn, ar fud na hEorpa agus ar fud an domhain faoi láthair. Má táimid chun na cearta sin a chur chun cinn caithfimid tosú sa bhaile agus tá an rún seo mar chuid de na hiarrachtai atá á dhéanamh ag daoine ar an eite chlé agus i ngluaiseacht na gceardchumann chun cearta a chosaint agus a chur chun cinn.

I thank all the Deputies who have taken part in the debate on this important motion, particularly those Deputies who have expressed support. A number of members pointed out that this is a timely motion and so it is. Established rights of workers are under attack in Ireland, in Europe and throughout the world. Rights, freedoms and protections built up through the efforts of generations of trade unionists are being eroded. How is that possible? One of the main reasons is the fact that the very basic right to be a member of a trade union is not vindicated. While the right exists in theory in this State under the 1937 Constitution, in practice, employers are allowed to deny workers that right by making non-membership of a trade union a condition of employment.

An RTE TV programme on Monday recalled the Dunnes Stores anti-apartheid strike of the early 1980s. I attended that picket line myself. It was a shining example of selflessness on the part of young workers who refused to handle the fruits of apartheid and who, after a long and gruelling strike, succeeded in forcing an Irish Government to impose an embargo on South African goods. For anyone who thought those days of solidarity and popular protest were over they were proved wrong with the widespread support for the GAMA workers, the Irish Ferries workers, the Rossport Five, Joanne Delaney and many others in recent years who have stood up to exploitation. These include immigrant workers who have been disgracefully treated by certain employers, something every Deputy, including myself, has seen in his or her own constituency.

So let us be clear. The Department of Labour Affairs that Sinn Fein is proposing would not be a substitute for trade union organisation and a strong grassroots union membership. Rather it would be an essential step to ensure that the full range of labour rights, including the right to trade union membership, are totally vindicated.

I would point out to Deputy John Perry, who misinterpreted this point, that we are not calling for trade union membership for employees to be mandatory. We are most definitely calling for mandatory recognition by employers of the right to trade union membership. That is something Irish workers have been struggling for since the 1913 Lockout, yet employers are still allowed to bar unions from their workplaces.

I note that while Deputy Perry supported the tone of the motion on behalf of Fine Gael, Deputy Breen, also on behalf of Fine Gael, stated that they could not support it in its totality. Unfortunately we did not have an opportunity this evening to hear which parts they object to. I’m sure many of their prospective partners in the Labour Party would be interested, as would many trade unionists.  

I would like to address a number of comments made by Minister of State Tony Killeen when he spoke last night.  He spoke of the “deep and unwavering commitment of the Government in the area of employment rights”.  This is, with respect, quite untrue.  The lack of commitment was evident during the Irish Ferries dispute in particular when the Government showed little interest in intervening to protect workers’ rights. 

The Minister of State mentioned a commitment to statutory rates of pay yet the minimum wage is not even being enforced and wages of some skilled workers are being dragged down to minimum wage levels.  He spoke of a commitment to health and safety and yet as my colleague Deputy Crowe pointed out last evening, there was a 42% increase in workplace deaths in 2005 on the 2004 figure. This dreadful and very disturbing trend must be reversed.

Minister of State Killeen also spoke of substantial increases in redundancy payments yet statutory redundancy payments consist of only 2 weeks pay per year of service and workers over the age of 66 have no entitlement whatsoever.  On work-life balance there is not an entitlement to as much as one day’s paternity leave while maternity leave falls behind European norms and parental leave remains unpaid.  Bringing the labour inspectorate up to 31 inspectors did not constitute a substantial increase nor is it anything near what is required. Is this what the Minister terms a deep and unwavering commitment to workers’ rights?

The bottom line is that existing employment rights legislation is not being enforced and will never be enforced until the labour inspectorate has the resources and the number of staff necessary to carry out ongoing spot checks on employers to assess compliance levels.  There must be an immediate increase to bring the inspectorate up to 75 inspectors.  

Then there are the difficulties in terms of the Labour Court.  When a worker seeks to take an action for unfair dismissal, for example, he or she is confronted by the fact that it takes a minimum of around six months for a case to be dealt with by the Labour Court. The case of the three NCT testers at the Monaghan Test Centre comes to mind at this point.

Minister, the Government is taking no action to deal with the anti-union actions of certain employers.  Deputy Ferris has spoken of the case of Joanne Delaney.  Many of the multinationals who have come into the state over the last decade are virulently anti-union. In the construction sector there is a strong belief that some trade union members are being black-listed from building sites because they are trade union activists. 

Tonight there are three men in Mountjoy Prison for contempt of court for picketing a building site.  This is unacceptable. How many employers have served even a day in jail for creating unsafe working conditions that have led directly to injury or death? The answer, of course, is none.

A previous Sinn Féin Private Members motion strongly opposed the privatization of Aer Lingus. We pointed out then, as we do again tonight, that privatization invariably leads to lower pay and poorer working conditions. This is the most serious concern in relation to the imminent privatization of the Great Southern Hotel Group. These State sell-offs are another form of downsizing as far as working conditions are concerned.

The Government presents the case that they have successfully blended enterprise and labour in one Department as if it was as easy to blend these two competing but not always opposing interests as it has been to mould the current Government coalition. Deputies Ardagh and Greelish’s performed the well-practised FF/PD two-handed reel of ‘when in doubt attack Sinn Féin’. They reminded me of  Podge and Rodge. But they impress no-one. An undazzling performance as bankrupt as their arguments against the common sense in the Sinn Féin proposals before us tonight. But the reality being experienced by workers includes:

·        legislation passed but not enforced

·        growing numbers of their colleagues injured and killed because of a lax attitude from employers on health and safety

·        the government waxing lyrical about social partnership while refusing to intervene as employers intimidate and black list workers who wish to be represented by unions.

In all the claims from the Government benches that the arrangement has worked well, absolutely no evidence has been given or could be given to back up the assertion that the current configuration is working well for workers.  The Minister denies that enterprise and labour affairs are competing interests but in many cases they are.  Deputy Morgan gave the glaring example of the attack by the Competition Authority on the right of freelance workers to collective representation. 

Workers’ rights are not an add-on, an optional extra which can be enjoyed at the whim of employers or when the economy allows. They are basic requirements of a healthy economy and a just society.

Sinn Féin is committed to defending and extending workers’ rights.  That is why we want to see a stand-alone Department of Labour Affairs, that is why we want an Oireachtas Joint Committee on Labour Affairs, that is why we tabled this motion.I urge all Deputies to support it.

 

 

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