It may not have dominated the news cycle, but a low-key press release that issued from Strasbourg in late March 2023 will have profound implications for how we do business here and, crucially, for the lack of priority typically afforded to trade union rights. Owen Reidy, General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), writes.
In essence, the news release revealed that a key European body – the European Committee of Social Rights – had found Ireland to be in serious breach of several critical labour rights provisions of the European Social Charter.
It is important to note that the European Social Charter is a fundamental building block of the modern European Union and acts to guarantee essential social and economic rights across all member states. It is equally important to note that the charter is a binding human rights treaty which this country ratified in 2000.
That Ireland could be in found in serious breach of such a pivotal piece of the EU’s architecture comes as no surprise to any trade union member or the wider labour movement.
It should also have come as no surprise to the Government, as the head of Committee of Social Rights – Aoife Nolan – very pointedly highlighted on the publication of their report: “These issues were identified four years ago, the Government has had fair warning there are problems, but they are going unaddressed.”
The breaches outlined by the committee relate to minimum wages for younger people and the failure to ensure a decent standard of living. More fundamentally they arose from the failure of successive governments to vindicate and uphold the core trade union right to organise and bargain collectively, for improved terms and conditions.
As the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), pointed out by way of response: “The Council of Europe clearly states that in many areas Ireland is failing to protect all its workers equally and adequately. Workers’ rights are crucial to ensuring that many other rights, such as health and housing, can be accessed.”
“In our view, the directive on adequate minimum wages in the EU is the vehicle to address the sort of breaches identified by the European Committee of Social Rights and the failure of successive governments…”
As any trade union member or official will tell you, Ireland remains one of the most challenging places in western Europe to exercise your right to organise and access collective bargaining at work.
Essentially, these crucial rights remain in the gift of the employer. That itself serves to undermine the core principles of human rights, which hold that they are universal and inalienable and not subject to the whim or favour of others. As all trade unionists and human rights activists know – as the European Committee of Social Rights has clearly demonstrated – this is outdated, anti-democratic and is no longer tenable. But this is about to change.
The EU’s new directive on adequate minimum wages requires member states to promote and facilitate collective bargaining and to develop action plans to enable more collective bargaining, where such coverage is lower than 80 per cent. The average rate across the EU is 60 per cent. Here in Ireland it is a lamentable 35 per cent. The new directive must be transposed into Irish law in full by November 2024.
In our view, the directive on adequate minimum wages in the EU is the vehicle to address the sort of breaches identified by the European Committee of Social Rights and the failure of successive governments on this issue, over many decades. The full and complete transposition of the directive in both the spirit and the letter, is a key priority for the trade union movement here.
The process also provides an opportunity to abolish once and for all the penal and unjust reductions and deductions under the minimum wage, for all young workers.
We know there is broad and widespread support for workers to exercise their rights and receive their fair share. This has been demonstrated in repeated studies, surveys, and polls, especially those conducted in the aftermath of the pandemic.
We intend to mount a robust and comprehensive campaign to ensure that this happens and to ensure there is no attempt to carry out a ‘light touch’ or barely minimal transposition of the directive. It is long past time for change.