This week has seen the discredited outgoing Fianna Fáil government launch yet another shameful attack on workers.
Fianna Fáils DETI minister Mary Hanafin
Not satisfied with cutting €1 per hour from minimum wage workers and crucifying workers through income tax hikes and the so-called Universal Social Charge, the Twenty-Six County Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation announced what it termed as an ‘independent review’ of the Registered Employment Agreements (REAs) and Employment Regulation Orders (EROs).
The REAs and EROs set minimum rates of pay and working conditions for hundreds of thousands of workers in various sectors, including retail, construction, catering, hairdressing and contract cleaning. They are legally enforceable agreements upheld by the Labour Court.
The review will be conducted by Kevin Duffy, chair of the Labour Court, and UCD economist Frank Walsh. The presence of an economist will, no doubt, be used as an attempt to present the findings as somehow ‘value free’ and simply ‘hard-nosed’ economics. Walsh will no doubt play the same role as his fellow UCD economist Colm McCarthy, the Dublin government’s favoured hatchet man and author of the infamous McCarty Report, which proposed €5 billion public spending cuts in 2009.
Rates of pay for workers in many of these sectors are only a little above the minimum wage, which was officially reduced this month by €1 to €7.65 per hour. The rate of pay for agricultural workers is set at €9.10; for fully trained bar and restaurant workers the rate is €9.31; for contract cleaning, it is €9.50; experienced retail workers get a minimum rate of €9.78, while, for hairdressing, the rate, including commission on tips, is €9.83.
The narrow terms of reference set out for the review and the commitments already made by the Dublin government in the IMF/EU deal give a good indication as to the likely outcome of this supposed independent review. The IMF is explicit in its view that REAs and EROs should be abolished – which makes a mockery of the review and its terms of reference.
The IMF and Dublin government have already agreed the outcome, which is set out in page 27 of the IMF staff report, published last December: “concurrently, the authorities also intend to lower by €1 (to €7.65) the national minimum wage… followed by a review of sector-specific minimum wage agreements, with a view to their elimination.”
The outcome, therefore, could not be clearer, the battle lines have been drawn and the Dublin government/IMF intends driving down wages and working conditions across all sectors. Having spent two years demonising public sector workers and driving down their rates of pay by up to 15 per cent, they are now coming after workers in some of the lowest paid sectors in the economy.
ICTU General Secretary David Begg
The response of ICTU in the face of this latest attack on wages and working conditions does not inspire confidence that the trade union leadership will mount a vociferous campaign of opposition. ICTU general secretary David Begg seems to believe that the ‘review’ offers an opportunity to end the attack on incomes across the board. In a statement, he said: “the review now provides an opportunity to end this policy [to refute the ideological attack on incomes] and start focusing on jobs and growth.”
What Begg fails to acknowledge is that this latest attack is simply a continuation of the war on workers and reflects the failure to protect the wages and conditions of all workers during the recent onslaught. This ‘review’ is merely a cosmetic exercise to mask an agenda that is clearly set and an outcome that the Dublin government has already agreed with the IMF.
Without doubt, Twenty-Six County government representatives and their allies in IBEC will present the slashing of wages within the context of so-called economic competitiveness. In other words, workers will work harder for less pay, while the bosses maintain their incredibly low rate of corporate tax.
It should also be stressed that this is also part of a much wider agenda to dismantle the social welfare system, which will see the introduction of a workfare programme and a single payment for the ‘working age population’. Proposals to keep the unemployed under constant surveillance and force those claiming jobseekers payments into low paid jobs are already on the table.
Over the coming years, the Dublin government will abolish schemes such as the One Parent Family Payment and Disability Allowance. It will replace these schemes with a single ‘social assistance payment’ for what is termed the ‘working age population’. In other words, the Dublin government will deem all of those outside the paid labour force as ‘eligible’ for work and will therefore provide additional cheap labour for workfare programmes.
As unemployment grows and wages are savaged, the economy will continue on a deflationary spiral. Workers should also be aware that the IMF will propose that this deflationary spiral be addressed through the facilitation of union busting companies such as Walmart into the retail market, in order to provide cheap goods to workers experiencing ever depleting wages. The proposal contained within the IMF deal to lift the cap on the size of retail units should be seen in this context.
Hoping that the ‘review’ of REAs and EROs will somehow force the bosses and the Dublin government to ‘see the light’ as David Begg implies, is a negation of the duty of the trade union leaders to defend the wages and conditions of their members. However, we have long come to expect nothing less from the toothless tigers in the ICTU leadership.
Workers in these sectors currently under ‘review’ should take inspiration from student nurses, who, following their protest actions this week have, at the time of writing, forced the Dublin government into relooking at attempts to employ them as slave labour.
While it is not clear what the outcome will be, without mounting a fight it is clear that the Dublin government would have driven student nurses into slave labour.