Wages and conditions for up to 200,000 of the lowest paid and most vulnerable workers in the country are under serious threat.
The government, IMF and employers’ organisations are out to abolish or seriously weaken Registered Employment Agreements and Joint Labour Committees that nominally set minimum wages, conditions and provisions for overtime, working hours and training in low paid sectors like retail, hospitality, hairdressing and cleaning as well as construction and contract cleaning.
These workers are predominantly female, low paid and non-unionised. Employers’ organisations have been trying to have REAs and JLCs abolished for some time, claiming that they are uncompetitive and a barrier to employment. Chambers Ireland even went so far as to claim in a headline on their website that “Reform measures (read pay cuts) can help protect vulnerable workers”! (I June 2011)
The recent Duffy/Walsh review found no evidence to support the claim that pay cuts would support job creation and the reality is that although it may benefit individual employers initially, it would enable a further race to the bottom in wages and conditions and actually hurt small businesses by decreasing the spending power of hundreds of already low paid workers. People working in these sectors don’t keep their money in vast bank accounts waiting for an opportunity to invest profitably, but tend to spend all of the income on goods and services.
At present the Quick Service Food Alliance, spearheaded by companies like Supermacs, who have seen profits increase by 18% for the year ending December 2009, have a constitutional challenge to the JLC system in the High Court seeking to have the whole system abolished. This follows similar attempts by electrical contractors and hoteliers in recent years.
The existing rules of REAs and EROs are routinely flaunted by employers whenever they feel that they can get away with it. Of 4,000 inspections of firms by the National Employment Rights Authority, less than half were found to be compliant with employment laws. In the hotels sectors compliance was only 23% and in retail only 17%. In fact, part of the fast food companies argument is that if all of their workers lodged retrospective claims for the money owed to them in unpaid wages etc. they wouldn’t be able to cope with the claims!
Nevertheless, REAs and EROs remain a vital aspect of workers’ protection, especially as a tool around which they can organise. This is the real fear of many employers – that workers will become aware of their rights and pursue them.
Government politicians and the media have consistently repeated lies about the pay and conditions afforded to workers. For instance, Fine Gael TD Olivia Mitchell recently claimed that it was impossible to get a meal out on a Sunday outside of the cities because restaurants had to pay workers €20 an hour to wash dishes. In reality the rate, for an experienced adult worker with time and one third Sunday premium is €12.42, with a rate of €9.31 for the rest of the week. For a worker under 18 the Sunday rate would only be €8.69 with a normal rate of €6.52 an hour.
Now minister Richard Bruton has his intention to finalise an action plan before the end of June. His intentions include:
- REA/JLC rates tied to any future cuts in the minimum wage
- Abolition of Sunday premiums
- Abolition of any protection under REA/JLC for workers under 18
- Abolition of any recognition of training, experience or higher level of skills
- Attack on sick pay provisions
- Ability of employers to opt out through “inability to pay clause”
- Removes obligation on employers to keep proper records of working hours etc
These last two alone would mean the end in reality of any chance workers might have to enforce their rights.
It is absolutely vital that we waste no time in organising vigorous resistance to these attacks, defend sectoral agreements as an absolute minimum and simultaneously begin a drive to educate and organise all workers to defend their rights and livelihoods.