Friday, May 27, 2011

Resist the Latest Attacks on Workers Pay & Conditions

The Dublin governments enterprise minister Richard Bruton yesterday (May 26) issued a series of proposals designed to undermine the current system of Joint Labour Committees (JLC's), Employment Regulation Orders and Registered Employment Agreements (REA).  These are the structures which set basic rates of pay and conditions of employment across a variety of employment sectors.

Under Bruton's proposals, more than 200,000 workers could face further wage cuts and deterioration of their working conditions, particularly in the catering, hotels, security and hairdressing industries.

Minister for Enterprise Richard Bruton

Amongst his proposals are plans to cut overtime and end workers entitlement to Sunday premium payments that they currently are obliged to receive under the legally binding ERO's. He also plans to scrap half of the existing 13 joint labour committees and 'review' the remit of the remainder. Extremely worrying also for workers is the creation of a new procedure whereby agreement would no longer be necessary to change legally binding registered employment agreements.

Defending his plans, Bruton described them as “a fair and balanced set of proposals that would be in the interest of creating employment”.

Unsurprisingly, employers organisation IBEC welcomed these proposals but urged Bruton to go even further and abolish the JLC's completely. They too are pushing the line that the JLC's and ERO's are causing job losses and that cutting overtime, ending Sunday premium payments and abolishing these structures completely would actually create jobs.

According to Torlach Denihan of Retail Ireland (IBEC), the Retail JLC “is destroying jobs, is unnecessary because of the minimum wage and should be abolished.”

Not everyone agrees with IBEC or Minister Bruton's jobs claims. On Tuesday the government published the review it had commissioned on this whole area of JLC's. The authors of the report, Chairman of the Labour Court Kevin Duffy and UCD professor of economics Frank Walsh, made clear that abolition of this system will NOT create employment.

However, Brendan McGinty, IBEC's director of industrial relations, was more revealing in outlining the real motives in attempting to abolish the JLC's which has nothing to do with job creation.

IBEC's Brendan McGinty

Calling for the complete scrapping of the JLC system McGinty said: “These employers and workers (in the sectors covered by the JLC's) should be free to determine their own arrangements in the same way as the overwhelming majority of those in the private sector do.”

That is precisely why workers should be very worried about any attack on the JLC's. Let's be clear - the JLC's are no radical bodies acting on behalf of workers awarding them excessive rates of pay.

They are very basic structures designed to provide basic rates of pay and minimal conditions of employment for workers in extremely vulnerable sectors of employment. These are areas where trade union representation and collective bargaining are quite often non-existent.

When McGinty says he wants employers and workers to be free to sort their own arrangements like most in the private sector do, what he actually means is they want empoyers to be free to exploit their workers, to drive down wages and working conditions without any legal recall for their employees. They want their members to be free to intimidate, to bully, to hoodwink and to pit worker against worker in order to maximise their profits at workers expense.

One of IBEC's main arguments for abolition has been that employees rights are already covered by existing employment rights legislation. Once again however, this was dismissed by the authors of the government review who outlined quite clearly that primary legislation does not adequately cover matters currently dealt with by joint labour committees and registered employment agreements.

Even despite the presence of the JLC's and of the National Employment Rights Authority (NERA), an office of Minister Bruton's department whose mission statement claims that it “aims to secure compliance with employment rights legislation and to foster a culture of compliance in Ireland”, exploitation of workers is rife by McGinty's members within the private sector.

NERA's quarterly report for September 2010 (click here to read it) revealed that in the first nine months of last year, almost €600,000 in wages owed was recouped by workers following investigations by the authority of industry sectors governed by Employment Regulation Orders (EROs) or Registered Employment Agreements (REAs).

Last year also seen the highest ever numbers of cases being referred to the Labour Relations Commission (LRC). More than 15,000 complaints were made by individuals in 2010, an increase of more than 1,100 on the figures for 2009.

For anyone in any doubt the figures above are a compelling reason for workers to, at a minimum, maintain the protection and the rights afforded them through the JLC's and other legal mechanisms.

As éirígí have repeatedly pointed out, current legislation and its enforcement is inadequate. Employers have been forced to pay back money that they owed to their workers. However, the absence of fines in most instances or the miniscule fines when they are actually imposed coupled with the lack of prison sentences, means there is no effective deterrent for employers who break the law.

So rather than diminish and abolish JLC's and reduce the rights of workers, what is actually needed is that those already in existence need to be enhanced, enforced properly and punished severely when breached. A slap on the wrist and 'pay back what you owe' is not enough.  Employers who break these laws need to be going to jail for their crimes.

Condemning this latest attack on workers, éirígí Sligeach activist Gerry Casey described them as the the “thin end of the wedge”. He said that all trade unionists and workers must unite to resist what is “a serious attack on the living standards and working conditions of employees in already vulnerable sectors”.

Casey said: “These proposals to slash rates of pay and conditions have nothing to do with creating jobs as Bruton and the employers organisations would have us believe. This is part of a long term ideological strategy to drive down wages and diminish the rights of workers using the recession as their excuse. They are about creating even larger profits for employers and making it easier for them to exploit their employees.”

They must not be allowed to succeed. If they do they will turn back the tide of all the hard won rights and entitlements that workers struggles have achieved over the past century, imperfect as they may be."

He added: “According to IBEC, Bruton should go further and abolish the JLC's altogether to bring the wage setting framework 'into the 21st century'. In reality, abolition of the JLC's, further restricting workers rights and scrapping premium payments would not be taking us into the 21st century as IBEC suggest, it would be taking us right back to the start of the 20th century.”

All trade unionists and workers need to unite to defeat these proposals. Low paid workers have already suffered massive reductions in income in order to bail out the banks and pay off the private gambling debts of big business. There can be no compromise with these proposals.”


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