I thank the Chair and committee members for the opportunity to appear before them today. I am joined by my colleagues, Ms Michelle Quinn of SIPTU, and Mr. Gerry Light of Mandate, on behalf of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions' retail sector group, which I co-ordinate. The retail sector group is an all-island body that is comprising affiliated unions North and South, representing workers in retail and distribution sectors in both jurisdictions, including Mandate, SIPTU, Unite, Usdaw and GMB trade unions.
I would like to outline some key points of the campaign that we launched late last year, A New Deal for Retail and Distribution Workers, which sets out the need to see real change for workers in these crucial sectors, as a matter of urgency. As mentioned already, we are an all-island grouping and despite the differing currencies and the differing political structures, we see a remarkable commonality to the problems faced by workers in these sectors, North and South. If anything, the strength of those shared interests has been underlined and emphasised over the last 18 months. What is often forgotten - and I concur with the previous comments - is the size and scale and the importance of the retail sector to the wider economy. Prior to the pandemic, in this jurisdiction, it employed up to 300,000 people and it is one of the largest contributors to the annual tax take, contributing €7 billion in direct taxes alone, twice that of the financial sector. Clearly, the sector played a pivotal role in the economy prior to Covid-19, and will be a key driver of any post-pandemic recovery that we hope to put in place, but that cannot be a recovery that comes at any price.
Over the last 18 months, workers in the sector have suffered the shock of sudden closures and the loss of their jobs, while others have coped with a dramatic shift to online trading. Crucially, many thousands of workers in the sector have spent the last 18 months on the front line of the public health emergency, and have been transformed overnight into newly essential workers, without whom large sections of society would have ground to a halt. If the pandemic did us at least one favour, it helped to reveal that terrible hypocrisy at the heart of the modern economy, our shameful dependency on workers who are among the lowest paid and the most insecure in the workforce. In Ireland, according to the OECD, we have a low pay rate of 23%. The OECD average is about 15%. Our low pay rate is the third highest in the EU and applies to a disproportionate number of those employed in sectors such as retail and distribution.
In addition, there is a gender pay gap of up to 19%, which again impacts heavily on the high number of female workers in this sector. Retail is also the largest single employer of young workers and 36% of their number are on part-time and temporary contracts. However, these workers still face the same exorbitant childcare and housing costs that afflict all of us, and reflect the very poor social wage that exists here, relative to other EU states. Housing costs are now some nine times average earnings and the average house price in Dublin, the area of greatest housing need, is now beyond the financial reach of 85% of the population, which is a truly shocking indictment of housing policy over recent years. Threshold points out that average rents in Dublin are now €1,717.50 a month and upwards - that is not the highest, but the average - which is greater than the monthly income of minimum wage workers. Many lower wage workers have been entirely priced out of the rental and the housing market.
In that context, it is hardly surprising that retail workers alone account for 19% of all HAP recipients, the largest for any employment sector. When the pandemic eventually ends, many of the workers on whom we relied so heavily during these critical periods will face a very uncertain future in terms of employment and issues such as housing, given the underlying difficulties within sector.
The same arguments have been made very coherently by the ESRI and by the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, as part of what it calls the Good Jobs Agenda under its shared island initiative. The same case has also been made quite forcefully and frequently by the Tánaiste. It is our view that the living wage provides the crucial benchmark for any society that wants to think of itself as decent, and in the aftermath of the pandemic it should be our goal to ensure that workers in this sector can enjoy a proper standard of living. In this regard, the recent request made by the Tánaiste to the Low Pay Commission in respect of how we might progress to the living wage is to be welcomed.
As a society, we now need a detailed and robust conversation about these glaring contradictions and how we can transform bad jobs into good jobs and meaningful careers. Applause and praise are important, but they will not pay bills or find a place to live. What we need now is very concrete action on pay and conditions for workers in the sector and some very lasting and tangible recognition of the essential role they play. They need decent pay, they need job security and they need a voice at work, and that means collective bargaining rights across the sector. They also need to see a stronger social wage, particularly affordable childcare and affordable housing.
As a first step, there should be an immediate restoration of the joint labour committee across the sector, which would help at least establish a basic level of decency around pay and conditions. The support of this committee for this very tangible measure would be very welcome and very valuable.
Good employers have nothing to fear from this agenda. Employer and lobby groups that are often vocal about upwards pressure on wages might be better served directing their attention and energy at Government and the policies that make so many crucial services unaffordable for low wage workers. In tackling these issues, we have the opportunity to rebuild and to reimagine the sector as one that is characterised by decent work and by high employment standards. We need a new blueprint for the sector into the future and this would be best undertaken by a new, dedicated retail stakeholder group comprising all relevant stakeholders.
That is a call we have made repeatedly, or has been made repeatedly by the congress representative on the retail consultation forum, which is headed by the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Damien English. As I said at the outset, the applause has long since faded. It is time for action and for real change.