Employees now expected to shape lives around work - President Higgins

Just one in four workers were now members of a trade union in this country, he tells Kerry conference

Short term contracts had been growing since 2008 and 160,000 people now endured “significant variations in their hours of work from week to week or month to month” President Michael D Higgins said. Photograph: Domnick Walsh

Short term contracts had been growing since 2008 and 160,000 people now endured “significant variations in their hours of work from week to week or month to month” President Michael D Higgins said. Photograph: Domnick Walsh

 

The President Michael D Higgins has urged the trade union movement to “reclaim” an understanding of work, and help tackle some of the worst practices of the 19th century labour conditions which he said had re-emerged.

Chronic job insecurity, lack of division between work and home, a sometimes “monomaniacal emphasis” on performance, an assumption that workers would work longer than contracted, and intrusion into family life, were among the recent developments, the President told delegates at the Forsa conference in Killarney

Neoliberalism which emerged in the Anglophone world had weakened trade unions, seeking privatisation of state assets, and dismantlement of labour rights, and some at the conference had been at the sharp end of that, he said.

Whlie the “leprechaun economics” here did not allow for proper analysis, the trend internationally was clear – less of the world’s income was going to those who labour for others, the president said.

Just one in four workers were now members of a trade union in this country and half of these were public servants; In 1980, over 62 per cent of Irish workers were members of trade unions, he said.

Short term contracts had been growing since 2008 and 160,000 people now endured “significant variations in their hours of work from week to week or month to month,”

“This creates a new category of worker, the precariat, whose social and economic rights are more restricted than those they work alongside,” he said.

This “chronic job insecurity” could be a source of “deep anxiety” in the context of rising rents.

The trade union movement owed a duty of solidarity to those workers to help vindicate their rights he said.

President Higgins also referred to “a monomaniacal emphasis on performance and output at the expense of the dignity, well-being and security of worker.”

“Rather than our workplaces being shaped to accommodate the needs of employees and the workplace is part of a life experience that should offer fulfilment, employees are increasingly expected to shape their lives, and indeed the lives of their families around the demands and economic interests of the workplace,” he said.

Many workplaces now had an unspoken assumption that employees will stretch their working day far beyond their contracted and paid hours.

“Meanwhile the greater freedom and flexibility that technology has brought into our lives has been used to blur the line between what is viewed as an employee’s work and home life,” the president said.

The stakes for trade unions were high – some of the recent developments in the world of work are nothing less than “ a recrudescence of some of the worst practices of the nineteenth century.

“Yet today is a moment for hope, not for despair. The ideas which gave rise to the neoliberal era have been exhausted,” he said.

And there was now, “a most rare opportunity” for the trade union movement to shape the agenda for the decades ahead.

Forsa with 80,000 members, formed from the amalgamation of the former Impact and two civil service unions, represents private as well as state and semi-state companies, and was now a powerful voice, the president said.

He urged the union to use its power “to seek to reclaim an understanding of work as the foundation for the achievement of other human rights and a strong base for a life of dignity, fulfilment and flourishing.”

The conference continues.