Michael D Higgins will warn soaring inflation is leading to rise in ‘working poor’

Siptu will press for pay increases that address high inflation, conference told

President Michael D Higgins: ‘The pandemic has prompted a profound reassessment of how we work, where we work, even why we work.’ Photograph: Maxwells

President Michael D Higgins will today warn that soaring inflation is leading to a rise in the “working poor” as the cost of living soars while wages stagnate.

The President will tell the Siptu Biennial Conference in Sligo this morning that the prevalence of in-work poverty was a “consequence of unstable, precarious, low-paid and temporary jobs.

“Entering work does not, by definition, provide a sustainable route out of poverty owing to the widespread prevalence of low-paid jobs, flexible and zero-hours’ contracts and other innovations that are increasing the numbers who are now termed ‘precariats’.”

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He will say low-paid, temporary and insecure jobs have created a new poverty trap, “one made all the more difficult to escape in the aftermath of the pandemic”.

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“There is a danger that an ‘any-job-will-do’ mantra may dictate welfare and enterprise policy as countries struggle to cope with the political, economic and societal pressures that the pandemic is likely to bring in its wake.”

Mr Higgins will say that trade unions have a key role to play in any reshaping of the working world in the aftermath of Covid-19.

In a speech that will also touch on the role of unions and their members in addressing issues such as the humanitarian crisis arising from the war in Ukraine, climate change and sectarianism, the President will highlight what he sees as the potential for an ongoing benefit from changed work practices widely adopted over the past two years. He will argue unions have a central part to play in negotiating this new normal for workers.

‘Profound reassessment’

“The pandemic has prompted a profound reassessment of how we work, where we work, even why we work, all of which has to come out of negotiation and in the design of which there must be a lead role for trade unions and their membership,” he will say.

“Covid-19 has demonstrated the effectiveness of remote working in appropriate circumstances and . . . survey after survey indicates that a blended form of remote and office-based working is the preference for the majority of workers as we emerge from the pandemic,” he will tell the conference.

The President will cite the environmental benefits that can accrue to society as a whole, with much-reduced commuting and the related potential for financial benefits to workers themselves.

The financial threat currently posed by rising prices, particularly in relation to fuel, was one of the key elements of Siptu general secretary Joe Cunningham’s speech on the opening day of the conference on Monday.

He said current rates of inflation amounted to “a test of social solidarity” but told delegates Siptu would fight for its members, particularly the most vulnerable, with the number of workers already enduring low pay a “social obscenity”.

“We need to work together if we are to see out this crisis. But we are making this clear: we will pursue wage claims to assist workers and their families to meet this crisis. We will be particularly mindful of low- and average-income earners as inflation hits them harder.”

Mr Cunningham called on the Government to engage with unions on how to address the problems caused by rising inflation “as a matter of urgency”.

He suggested the economic lessons learned over the past two years should feed into a reshaped system of social protections, and insisted the union would firmly oppose any attempt to press ahead with the raising of the pension age.

There are “political forces” that still favour the measure, he said, but “we will continue to campaign until we bury the unfair and unwanted proposal”.

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Work Correspondent at The Irish Times