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Opinion Unions matter, and we need them more now than ever

On May Day, Labour’s Marie Sherlock looks at the importance of unions as a vital support for workers.

THIS MAY DAY, we are reminded that working people all over the world come together this week. It’s a chance to reflect on the real power that people have when they are part of a collective.

Anyone who is part of a club or a choir knows the potential for something great to happen when a team works well together. It is no different in the workplace. Good employers know the value of teamwork, giving respect, getting respect and having proper dialogue to fix problems as they inevitably crop up.

On the other hand, plenty of workers know the sting of injustice, secretive pay deals and the cold shoulder of bad bosses all too well; in many cases, they are left to fend for themselves, isolated and alone. Being a member of a trade union changes that — the strength in numbers, the protection if something goes wrong, the transparent process to collectively bargain wage increases or changes in work patterns.

Why unions matter

Research finds that unionised firms have typically a smaller gap between the highest paid and the lowest paid and a smaller gender pay gap. Claudia Goldin, 2023 Nobel laureate and pioneering economist on the gender pay gap highlighted that highly individualised reward packages and inflexible hours are a significant factor in why men earn more than women so it doesn’t take a genius to work out that collective bargaining would go a long way to narrowing the gap.

Despite all this, Ireland sadly finds itself at odds with most other EU member states in that there is no compulsion on employers to recognise or engage with trade unions.

This is no accident.

The Irish state has for a long time looked the other way when workers try to have their voices recognised and are pushed back. We see this hands-off approach in how employers are allowed to hold a veto over the negotiation of sectoral wage agreements.

We see it in the weak legal penalties that face bad employers when they are caught failing to pay proper wages or unfairly dismissing a worker. We see it in how Government departments themselves show appalling example and ignore Labour Court recommendations on improvements to the treatment of some State workers.

We also see it in how the Government blindly spend its €18bn public procurement budget on goods and services in this state and never bothers to see whether it is being spent on good employers and decent wages. That’s before we mention the millions in Government subsidies to employers, such as those in the National Childcare Scheme.

Last line of defence

The reality is that certain workers don’t stand a chance of trying to unionise if we don’t start by seriously tackling the behaviour of bad employers. We want to change that.

We need to increase the penalties for bad behaviour and send a message that worker victimisation, union busting activity should not be tolerated. In Ireland, we have a bizarre situation where certain breaches of employment law incur very minor penalties even if there is egregious behaviour whereas other breaches of employment rights incur the heavy wrath of the courts.

To take an example, a recent case before the Workplace Relations Commission saw a take away driver who was made to earn €5 per hour and was then unfairly dismissed, only be awarded €1,500 in total to cover his losses. The Unfair Dismissal Act caps payouts to 4weeks’ pay and only allows for compensation based on workers’ actual losses, and so an unfairly dismissed worker needs to demonstrate they are seeking work after the dismissal. Added to that, workers must have 12 months of service before a case can be taken.

In stark contrast, the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act allows workers to take a case from day one of employment and compensation is limited to two years pay or the whistleblower protection legislation provides for up to five years compensation for those unfairly dismissed. Separately, claims for underpayment under the Payment of Wages Act are only limited to the past six months with a recent claimant who was forced to earn €6 per hour only awarded €250 because of his delay in taking a claim. Surely paying slave wages or unfairly dismissing a worker deserves more than a tap on the wrist?

The reason for such a difference in approach is that workers’ rights legislation originating in the EU incorporates the principle of effectiveness so that fines are proportionate and dissuasive and reflect the seriousness of the workplace abuse, whereas legislation originating here, by and large, only requires the employer to make good the loss. There is no punishment for the appalling treatment of workers.

This week the Labour Party will be introducing legislation to amend the Unfair Dismissals Act and the Payment of Wages Act to lift the cap on payouts, to ensure compensation is awarded depending on the severity of the actions, to introduce heavy fines for egregious sacking and for victimisation of trade union activity.

Critically, these changes are about sending a message that bad behaviour in the workplace will not be tolerated. The next clear steps are to ensure workers can freely organise and collectively bargain and that the spirit and intent of the EU directive on adequate minimum wages is comprehensively incorporated into Irish law. This groundbreaking directive is ultimately about promoting a bottom up approach to improving working conditions as opposed to relying on legislation from above.

For us in the Labour Party, both a carrot and stick approach needs to be used – alongside the toughening of labour laws for those who egregiously breach, we must also incentivise employers to get on board. At a minimum, the State’s procurement budget should be used to support unionised workplaces and the payment of decent wages in small, medium and large firms across this country.

Marie Sherlock is a Labour senator. 

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