Pandemic fallout offers chance to change work and living for better, says President

More activist State is needed to meet challenges, Michael D Higgins tells trade union conference

Michael D. Higgins: ‘out of such a crisis we are presented with perhaps a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do things better’. File photograph: Collins

Michael D. Higgins: ‘out of such a crisis we are presented with perhaps a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do things better’. File photograph: Collins

 

The fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do things better in relation to work and living and with the world, President Michael D Higgins has said.

In an address to the biennial conference of the country’s largest public service trade union Fórsa on Thursday, he also said the challenges of the future would require a more activist and more democratic State.

Mr Higgins said the economic paradigm over the last four decades that saw the shrinking the State, as well as the undervaluing of frontline workers and those providing essential services across the economy, had failed.

“From this demonstrably failed, disconnected model of economy, we must liberate ourselves, replace it by making a new balance between economy, ecology, society and culture.”

Mr Higgins said the future challenged required a State that “can plan, co-ordinate, manage and intervene when necessary in an open and transparent manner, placing the needs and welfare of its citizens at its very heart”.

“Competence in decision-making at macro and micro levels of economy and society, the fullest forms of participation, must be achieved by a movement for economic literacy of a new kind that will empower every worker.”

The President said the Covid-19 pandemic had resulted in devastating personal, social and economic consequences.

However, he said, “out of such a crisis we are presented with perhaps a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do things better, to embrace and bring to fruition a new paradigm of existence with each other, in relation to work and living, and with the world itself; a renewed and healthier connection of society, economy and ecology”.

“The pandemic provides an opportunity to rethink the connections between climate neutrality, a sustainable economy, social welfare and labour itself.”

The President said the pandemic had “forced a return to fundamental questions which we as a society ignore at our peril. What are the essential tasks and needs of a society as we live together? How did it come to be that so little value was placed on essential work and the contribution of essential workers? The consequences of privileging those remunerated in a financialised global economy over those who worked in the provision of universal basic services, or indeed in what must be accepted as the real economy, have been laid bare in the regressive outcomes since 2008 in particular”.

“The task now at hand is to create a society that is more equal, one in which all work is valued, and all jobs are decent, fulfilling and secure, together with adequate social protection,” Mr Higgins said.

“This task is far from an easy undertaking given current geopolitics and the recent, if now thankfully fading, fixation with a neoliberalism that was not open to critique in terms of assumptions, practices or consequences.”

The President said the pandemic had “clearly shown, too, how highly mobile workers who frequently move within, or in and out of, the European Union are irreplaceable during a public health crisis, yet they often remain the least protected”.

“ We continue to witness increases in precarious employment, contract working, and an ongoing casualisation of labour, with new and emerging trends in work practices that are often deemed ‘innovations’ insofar as they provide new means to maximise profits for employers, but in their practical delivery reveal the ongoing erosion of employees’ hard-won labour rights.”

The President said the trend towards digitalisation continued but maintained such a trend needed not be wholly negative “if offered within a social-economic model”.

“We see how online workers often are not covered by the most basic employment law or collective agreements, all rationalised in the name of efficiency, flexibility, productivity.”