We’ve lost sight of some essential truths in recent years. But given the depth of the crisis we have experienced and the damage that been done to the lives of so many people and communities, that may not be too surprising.
As of yet, there appears to be no clear vision as to how we can build a recovery that will benefit working people and their families, who have shouldered most of the burden of this crisis.
In the scramble to preserve the European financial system, governments and successive commissioners neglected the economic welfare and well-being of their citizens. In fact, for some in high places it was an article of faith that the welfare of the citizen had to be sacrificed to ensure the well-being of high finance.
Wages were attacked and driven down, not by chance, but as a matter of policy. Labour rights and protections were eroded and dismantled, in the name of ‘reform’ and ‘competitiveness’. As if paying someone a euro or two above the minimum wage or insisting on their right to be heard in the workplace was somehow to blame for the near-collapse of the European Union, as compared to the amoral antics of high finance.
Untold trillions have been expended to maintain that same financial system on life support, while the economic health of households has suffered and work has become ever more precarious and insecure. In addition, a whole generation of our youth has been lost to emigration and scarred by unemployment, while our failure to retain and develop our national skill base is likely to hamper potential future growth.
It’s no surprise that people are angry – here in Ireland and across Europe. They have yet to see a real dividend from the years of sacrifice. It’s even less of a surprise that we now see clear evidence of growing inequality in Ireland – as revealed recently by TASC – with exorbitant pay and bonuses at the top, while half our wage-earners take home less than €28,500 a year.
The simple truth is that Ireland needs a pay rise.
After eight years of stagnation, that is the only hope we have of injecting real life back into our economy – by tending to the economics of the household. Start there and you have a strong foundation for real recovery and a more equal society.
That will be a key focus of the trade union movement on this island and across Europe, in the coming months. But diminished income is not the only problem that confronts working people. In the boardroom and at financial summits, practices such as ‘zero hour contracts’ may be greeted and cheered as wonderful innovations, the ultimate in workforce flexibility. But in struggling homes across this island, they represent no less than a denial of the right to family life and a steady erosion of the value of work itself.
Such practices are incompatible with any notions of equality, justice or respect and are entirely at odds with the basic ethos of the trade union movement. Every worker – no matter their creed or colour – is entitled to enjoy fair pay and decent working conditions. All workers must enjoy the right to negotiate collectively with their employer, without fear of retribution or victimisation.
And every single worker is entitled to be treated with respect and dignity, as they carry out their job.
These are values we need to rediscover and reassert, as a matter of urgency.