WHERE OTHERS TALK, LABOUR ACTS ON WORKERS' RIGHTS - Speech at Labour Trade Unionists AGM

Issued 25 February 2017

Good afternoon, and thank you all for being here.

This is my first time speaking to the Trade Unionists as a group.

As a lifelong trade unionist, it is an honour to be here, and an honour to be leading the party that fights for trade unions.

Our history as a party is inextricably linked with the trade union movement.

Over the last 105 years, we have argued that the cooperation of both organised and political Labour is the single best way of strengthening the hand of workers and their unions.

For 105 years, we have been unswerving in our support for workers.

Despite the disappointment of the election last year, that support has been steadfast as we have set about the rebuilding of our party.

In early June last year, the Labour Party had the opportunity to table a private members’ motion in Dáil Éireann.

It was the first motion after my election as leader, and I was determined to focus on workers’ rights.

For the first time since 1989, a Government was beaten on a private members’ motion.

I won’t recall all of the detail of that motion, but it called for the minimum wage to rise to at least 60% of median earnings over time - to create a genuine Living Wage.

It demanded the ending the abuse of “if and when” contracts, and action to combat bogus self-employment.

It did much, much more than that, and it won the support of a majority of the members of Dáil Éireann.

So, we have a Government, with a democratic mandate to improve the lot of workers in Ireland.

What is there response? Practically nothing.

The increase to the national minimum wage amounted to a paltry 10c per hour.

And the recommendations of the UL report into zero hours contracts, and the Cahill-Duffy report into what happened to the Clery’s workers, seem to languish on the desk of our new Minister for Jobs.

We have a do-nothing Government - we’ve been making that point for quite some time.

But usually, they claim as a defence that they don’t have a majority of the Dáil supporting action.

Here is an area where a majority of the Dáil demanded action. The response of our Government? To frustrate, to block, to obfuscate - anything but taking action that might be regarded as a meaningful action in support of workers.

Faced with such hostility from the Government, have we backed down? Absolutely not.

In the Seanad, we have been advancing a Bill, tabled originally by Ivana Bacik, to give collective bargaining rights to freelance workers.

That Bill would give rights to those working as session musicians, as freelance journalists, as tour guides or as actors - to bargain collectively without breaking competition law.

It is the first opposition Bill to have fully passed through either House of the Oireachtas.

But, even though the Government supported it in the final stages in the Seanad, they wouldn’t give time for it to be debated in the Dáil.

So we will.

Next week, we will give over our Private Members’ time once more to workers’ rights.

And we’ll begin getting this Bill on the road through the Dáil.

Enough time - more than enough - has now been spent debating this Bill.

I am determined that it will become law by the summer.

If it does so, we will have once more confounded expectations.

With just 12 PLP members, we will become the first opposition party to get a piece of legislation enacted in this parliament.

Where others talk, we act. This is just another example of that.

We’re also fed up with Mary Mitchell-O’Connor doing nothing on workers’ rights.

While the UL report into zero hours contracts gathers dust on her desk, Ged Nash brought a Bill into the Seanad to tackle uncertain hours contracts.

Put simply, we cannot continue to stand over a situation where people go to bed on a Sunday night, and lie worrying about whether they will get the hours, and therefore the income, to pay their bills over the weeks ahead.

This Bill isn’t revolutionary.

But it is an important step, even if a small one.

It would mean that people get contracts for a certain number of weekly hours, based on their recent pattern of work.

This will give them certainty.

And it will protect them against vindictive action.

SO, we have two pieces of legislation underway.

Ged is drafting another bill on bullying in the workplace, and we’ll get that one going over the next few months.

And next week, we will publish legislation relating to the gender pay gap.

At 14.8% in Ireland, we are effectively telling women that they should work six hours a week for free.

it is difficult to fathom that the gender gap remains this big.

And it is beyond time we did something about it.

When IMPACT raised the issue last week, I asked the Taoiseach about it in the Dáil.

He mumbled and muttered, and gave absolutely no commitment that the Government would do anything about it.

So, yet again, when the Government refuses to act, Labour will step up.

Our Bill will require all large employers - whether public or private - to publish the gender pay gap within their organisations.

By shining the light of transparency onto companies, we will empower women, and their trade unions, to begin taking meaningful action to close the gap.

Not everything is about legislation, of course.

Sometimes, it is the bully pulpit that we must use.

We haven’t been shy about using that avenue to stand for workers rights either.

On public sector pay, the Government has created instability

On the minimum wage, they have been found wanting.

On public transport, we have an absent Minister, and a public company who seem determined to ignore a Registered Employment Agreement.

In the childcare sector, workers are expected to work to high standards, for low pay.

On each of these, and many other issues, we have been shouting our opposition to Government action and inaction.

As trade unions organise, campaign, and take action, only one party consistently stands by their side - on the front lines and in the Oireachtas - that party is Labour.

I am proud of all of this work - I hope that you are too.

As we continue the Labour rebuild, this type of concerted action will become ever stronger.

But it won’t be enough.

We also need to begin to map out a hopeful vision of the future of work.

At Labour Party Conference in April, we will begin exactly this discussion.

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

One which can reassure people that the social contract, the deal which ensures that each generation has a better life than the last, can be revitalised.

Because that contract has been called into great question.

Casualisation of work has become more prevalent; and the emergence of the gig economy makes people think that will only get worse.

Globalisation has benefitted many, but has also hit hard on some of our communities; the emergence of increasing automation through robotics makes people think that this too will only get worse.

And so we see, all across the developed world, communities retreating into themselves.

Protectionism and xenophobia become the hallmarks of those seeking to prey on vulnerable communities.

Well, they won’t be ours.

I am an optimist by nature.

And I believe that we can lead the way in pointing towards an optimistic vision of the future.

We will start that discussion by talking about a new deal for those in work.

Our new deal will include the living wage we have been calling for for quite some time now.

It will include new ideas to embed collective bargaining rights and decent terms and conditions in all workplaces, regardless of how people are employed.

We will look once more at interesting forms of workplace democracy.

And we will say loudly that flexibility should not be something open only to employers - workers should be entitled to flexibility that suits them also.

To underpin all of these improvements, we need a strongly functioning economy.

And so we believe it is time for a new industrial strategy for Ireland.

For too long our industrial strategy has consisted of one central point: a 12.5% corporation tax rate.

As we face Brexit, Trump, and all of the other foul winds that blew through the last 12 months, that won’t be good enough.

So we will argue for a refocussing of Ireland, focussed increasingly on the skills and talents of our people.

And we will argue for much neglected sectors to grow.

The co-operative sector, so strong in many other countries, needs help to expand in Ireland.

The social economy - letting people earn a living while giving a social service - should also be rebooted.

A positive and ambitious approach to emerging digitisation must also be part of it.

If we get these pieces right - a new deal for workers, and a new industrial strategy for Ireland, we will have done our nation some service.

And we will have given our people much cause for hope.

But we will still have fallen short.

Because we also need to look once more at how our social welfare system is working.

Where are the poverty traps, and who slips through the cracks of our system?

We may well need to consider very radical alternative systems.

One of these, I believe, could be the idea of a universal basic income.

And idea that can be traced back to Tom Paine, it has found real currency of late.

Trials are beginning in some areas;

And new advocates from both left and right are emerging.

I think we should lead that debate here in Ireland.

If Universal Basic Income can eliminate poverty traps;

If it can empower people to try different ways of getting back to work;

Then it simply has to be looked at.

And so, we’re going to look at it.

It’s a real honour to be here with you today.

Good luck with your discussions throughout the day.

And the very best of luck to your incoming executive, who I look forward to meeting soon.

Every one of you is gathered here today because you share two characteristics: you are Labour, and you are trade unionists.

Thank you for being the best of both!

And thank you for being here.