Ireland needs to plan now for inevitable Brexit job losses
All we have heard from the Government to date are broad, brushstroke objectives
Prime minister with a plan: “Thus far, the UK government has published a detailed White Paper setting out its policy objectives for Brexit.” Photograph: Jane Barlow/AFP/Getty Images
I experienced first-hand the turmoil of mass job losses in 1984, when the British Leyland car assembly plant in which I worked closed. I was among the hundreds who found themselves jobless after the shutdown, yet another chapter in the slow, painful demise of a once-thriving sector and a direct consequence of Ireland’s 1973 entry into the European Economic Community.
The sector simply could not compete in the new trading conditions that obtained following our accession to the EEC. Some 12,000 good, skilled jobs were lost in companies such as British Leyland, Ford, Datsun, Chrysler and Fiat – jobs that the Ireland of the time could ill-afford to do without. Those losses sent a seismic shock through the economy and contributed in no small part to the severity of the 1980s recession.
We did not go quietly in 1984 and we fought hard to hold on to our jobs. What followed was a period of unprecedented turmoil and strife.
What angered many at the time was that the fate that befell our sector was entirely predictable. No one in officialdom could have been surprised that the industry had been left vulnerable by our entry into the EEC. Yet there was no official response, no plan to deal with the collapse, no strategy to assist those deprived of their livelihoods.
Now I fear history is about to repeat itself as we face an event of far greater significance and portent in Brexit. On this occasion, however, I fear the consequences may be even more damaging and destructive – and the lack of official preparedness of far greater concern.
Thus far, the UK government has published a detailed White Paper setting out its policy objectives for Brexit, while the European Commission has entered the fray with its own contribution. All we have from the Irish Government is broad, brushstroke objectives, focusing on the maintenance of the common travel area, preventing a hard Border, and protecting the terms of the Belfast Agreement
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) fundamentally agrees with these objectives, particularly given our position as the largest civil society body on the island. However, in an uncanny echo of the late 1970s, the Government has had nothing of substance to say to workers in key sectors of the economy such as agriculture, food, engineering and manufacturing, all of which trade heavily with the UK.
Some €39 billion was traded between the UK and Ireland in 2016 – €15.5 billion in goods and €23.5 billion in services. According to CSO figures, this trade supports in excess of 700,000 jobs across a range of sectors.
Obviously, not all are vulnerable post-Brexit, but many thousands may be. While we will gain some jobs, where is the plan to protect jobs in these vulnerable sectors and to ensure that Brexit does not lay waste to whole swathes of the domestic economy? What measures will be deployed to secure decent work and protect employment rights? Even the UK’s Tory government dealt with the issue of workers’ rights in its White Paper.
Some 82 per cent of agri-food jobs are in the regions, where employment opportunities can be minimal. In the event that the sector runs into trouble, EU state aid rules will almost certainly prevent the Government from extending support to ensure their viability.
Reform of those rules should therefore be a key plank in the Government’s Brexit strategy, allied with a willingness to veto any settlement that does not afford the State greater capacity to support vulnerable sectors and save jobs.
Along with the threat to jobs and livelihoods at risk, we face the possibility of losing many hard-won employment rights and protections. Once out of the EU, the UK will no longer be obliged to uphold any rights or protections that have emanated from Europe. This will create severe downward pressure on those rights.
This could give UK companies a “competitive advantage” over those based here and lead to the business lobbies clamouring to have the lowest common denominator – in terms of employment standards and rights – established as the norm.
In fact, employers have already begun to make this case. Ibec chief Danny McCoy, for example, recently informed a business audience of the post-Brexit imperative to “keep labour costs in line with competitor economies”.
If a race to the bottom is the best strategy that either Government or employers can devise, we may brace for a period of unparalleled economic turbulence and industrial turmoil. In short, Ictu will not tolerate a situation where working people are forced to pay the price for a policy that is not of their making, nor for a failure to plan for the expected.
Patricia King is general secretary of Ictu