That Dáil Éireann:
— the structural problem of low pay in the Irish economy, resulting in many people living on the breadline, denying them the opportunity of a decent standard of living;
— the precarious nature of many jobs, resulting in many workers being underemployed and dependent on welfare support;
— the lack of entitlement to basic protections such as sick pay and statutory leave for many workers;
— the increasing casualisation of work, with uncertainty about hours and days of work;
— the absence of the right to collective bargaining and representation in the workplace;
— the recent High Court decision to strike down a sectoral employment order, leaving many workers unprotected, and while the Government intends to appeal this judgement, the ultimate need for legislation; and
— the need for a clear pathway to the living wage;
— that since the emergence of the Covid-19 crisis, there is an even more urgent need to recognise the valuable contribution to our State of the large number of essential workers who are in lower paid and precarious jobs;
— the exceptional efforts of such workers involved in our food production and supermarkets, care assistants, those who collected our waste throughout the crisis and those who provided support services to our frontline healthcare workers to enable them to carry out their duties in conditions that were sanitary and safe, amongst many others; and
— that the Irish State owes a debt of gratitude to its workers, particularly those on low pay and in insecure work; and
— to ensure an enhanced focus within Government on creating good jobs and protecting workers’ rights;
— that access to jobs, where workers have a voice that provides a level of autonomy, a decent income, security of tenure, satisfying work in the right quantities and decent working conditions, should be integral to public policy given how this contributes to better health and well-being by tackling inequalities, building self-efficacy and combating poverty; and
— to establish a task force to give effect to this Resolution.
Allow me to begin with a simple truth: a state should never have to afford standard rights to its citizens as a form of thanks. This is not the intention of the motion we have tabled. My colleagues in the Social Democrats and I will speak about a contribution made by some of our most vulnerable workers that is unquantifiable. We will speak of a debt that remains unpaid. That contribution from our workers and the debt the State owes them for the manner in which their labour has been undervalued was prevalent in our society long before Covid-19. We hope and expect the motion we have tabled will give Deputies throughout the Chamber the opportunity to turn words into action, give substance to the applause and take meaningful action that will improve the pay and conditions of workers, which is the end point of the appreciation that has been expressed over recent months.
At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and in the midst of our national lockdown, I stood in the Dáil and thanked front-line workers, many of them in low paid and precarious employment, for risking their lives and health to keep our society and economy going. These workers are all over Ireland, in every one of our constituencies. They have been essential in ensuring our food production lines remained operational and our supermarkets remained open. They collected their wages throughout the crisis and ensured our hospitals were clean and our essential workers could carry out their duties in conditions that were sanitary and safe.
My words are similar to those of many other Deputies who stood in the House during the first weeks of the new Dáil, many of whom find themselves in government now. Together we promised that when the opportunity came, we would offer more than thanks. Today is the first opportunity we have to live up to this promise. This is a chance to ensure an enhanced focus in government on creating good jobs and enhancing workers' rights. We can recognise that access to jobs where workers have a voice and to jobs that provide a level of autonomy, a decent income, security of employment and decent working conditions are an integral part of public policy, given how they contribute to better health and well-being and tackle inequalities, build self-efficacy and combat poverty. We have sought to be constructive in the motion to achieve this aim. I hope the wording as originally presented will look familiar. The Minister of State, Deputy Troy, will recognise it as being almost identical to that which was part of the New Decade, New Approach agreement that restored devolved Government in the North of Ireland and was approved by the previous Government in January.
Our request in this regard is very modest. We accept that the Social Democrats and Fine Gael view the world with a very different gaze and have sought to meet Fine Gael at its level, because the advancement of better workers' rights is all we seek in the motion. We ask that workers in the Republic be afforded the same recognition and promised protections as those in the North. We thought that while we can disagree on many issues that pertain to Government spending and taxation, the advancement of workers' protections during these unparalleled times could be a point of unity throughout the Chamber. However, the Government's needless amendment has clearly sought to deny even these modest gains.
Establishing a task force to give effect to this resolution and to propose concrete actions is essential given how weak the programme for Government is on workers' rights and how silent it is on the issue of collective bargaining. According to the document, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party have absolutely nothing to say about trade union rights, workplace representation and collective bargaining. The section in the programme for Government on a better work-life balance contains a measly two sentences comprising only 30 words, which in themselves are vague and non-committal.
The Minister of State's amendment has purposely sought to remove any reference to collective bargaining, workers' protections and workplace representation so as to completely undermine the spirit of the motion and leave behind something that is self-serving and meaningless. This is in keeping with Fine Gael's market force laissez-faire approach to workers' rights that we have witnessed over the past nine years of Government, which has been to the detriment of our lowest paid workers. This is not the change that Fianna Fáil and the Green Party promised the electorate in February. If the Green Party will not take a stand for workers so that environmental justice can truly go hand in hand with social justice and a just transition for our workers then what is the use? If Fianna Fáil is not going to be a more socially conscious worker friendly version of Fine Gael in government then who exactly does it intend to be?
Recent research by Oxfam indicates that Ireland has the fifth largest number of billionaires per capita in the world. Ireland has the second highest incidence of low pay in the EU, affecting 23% of our workers in 2019. In further contrast, last year also saw Ireland registered the highest GDP in the Union for the third year in a row. This is directly connected to the fact that only 32% of employees in Ireland are covered by a collective agreement. This drops by almost half when considering only workers in the private sector. This is compared to an average in our EU peer group of 76%, with 78% in the Netherlands, 90% in Sweden and Finland and more than 95% in Austria, Belgium and France.
This is not simply a moral issue; it is an economic one. There is a very strong correlation between countries with higher trade union density and levels of collective bargaining coverage and countries with lower levels of income inequality. Labour's share of income has been falling in most of the western world in recent decades and this phenomenon is particularly prevalent in Ireland. This means those on lower and middle incomes, those who tend to spend a much higher percentage of their incomes and, in turn, boost our local economies have much less money to spend. Collective bargaining, therefore, does not damage our economic competitiveness but enhances it. Ireland is ranked 24th in the global competitive index, lagging behind those aforementioned countries with much higher levels of collective bargaining, including Austria, Belgium, France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland, despite those countries often also having premiers who consider themselves to be radical centrists. Ireland is unusual in the European context in that employers are not legally obliged to engage with trade unions to negotiate pay agreements or other conditions of employment. This explains much of our lower level of collective bargaining coverage. We are simply way out of line with EU norms in the area.
It is an undeniable fact that the State owes a debt of gratitude to its workers, particularly those in low paid and insecure work. However, let us be very clear that while Covid-19 has made this invisible work visible, this does not mean the work did not exist before Covid-19; it was merely that those in power placed little value on it. Those who work in low pay and precarious work, among whom women, migrants and younger workers are over represented, have always done the most crucial work to keep our economy and society thriving. They have always received the least recognition for it. Although this recognition changed somewhat during Covid, the pay and conditions of workers did not.
Despite increases in the national minimum wage in recent years, it is wholly inadequate and, currently, it is 18% less than a living wage. We have an opportunity to turn this around, starting tonight, and to turn our claps for these workers into secure jobs with at least the security of a minimum wage and access to collective bargaining rights. There is a structural problem with low pay in the economy, resulting in many people who work living in poverty or working multiple jobs to give themselves and their families a decent standard of living.
We have a shameful situation where too many workers are in precarious work or underemployment and dependent on welfare support. For many women working part-time due to childcare costs or care responsibilities, the work simply does not pay and is a major contributing factor to increasing child and family poverty. In many sectors there is a lack of entitlement to basic protections such as sick pay and statutory leave and an increasing casualisation of work, with uncertainty about hours and days of work.
A task force is critical because of the interlocking and reinforcing nature of these individual issues. For example, if a living wage were to be introduced overnight, if an employee is on a precarious contract his or her hours will just be cut. We know this. It is for this reason that a task force must look at a holistic approach to examine the issues as a whole and institute a suite of measures to ensure that workers are paid well in secure jobs.
We must also acknowledge the gender implications of low pay. The majority of those in low-paid and precarious work are women, and the motion would be an important measure in going some way to help to close the gender pay gap. In the midst of the critical Black Lives Matter movement we should also acknowledge the critical role played by migrant workers in keeping our economy going, again often in insecure and underpaid work. It is critical that alongside the trade unions and employers on the task force we envisage, there would also be women's groups, migrants' groups and representatives from civic society. All should be around the table to discuss how we can improve the lives of our workers.
It is time to turn a collapse into action. This is a chance for the Government parties to show that their failure to make substantial commitments on progressing workplace protections and collective bargaining in the programme for Government was simply an oversight and that this Government will not adopt the same old approach when it comes to workers' rights.