On the evening of the 5th of May the James Connolly Festival held a panel on the topic ‘Trade Unions -Radical or Redundant’. UY DAG was very pleased to have been offered a seat, and we took full advantage of it. Photos and possibly video to follow, for the time being, find the speech (more or less as spoken) below.

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My name is Laura Duggan and I am a member of the Unite youth committee and the #WorkMustPay campaign. Work Must Pay is a small network of activists in Dublin and Cork campaigning to end the widespread use of free labour by the public and private sector through the JobBridge scheme.

I’d like to start by outlining some background on JobBridge and our campaign before moving on to discuss how the failure of trade unions to challenge the use of free internships highlights the growing problems with the labour movement. A movement that seems unwilling or unable to engage on a practical basis with the issues affecting young workers and the unemployed, and one that appears committed to retreating further into the exclusive territory of representing privileged workers in secure jobs.

JobBridge the first unpaid internship scheme in Ireland was introduced in 2011. To date over 17,400 businesses, organisations, government departments and charities have used it. Many of these organisations have used more than one JobBridge intern and most placements last 9 months with no guarantee of employment after completion. A JobBridge intern works simply to maintain their current dole payment plus €50. That works out as €3.75 an hour for a person under 25, far below the ‘legal’ minimum wage of €8.65 an hour.

Unite Youth Dublin recently made a Freedom of Information request to the Department of Social Protection and secured the names of 11,394 employers who had used JobBridge. These names included every single governmental department, from county councils right up to the president’s office. This even included the Department of Jobs which took on unpaid research assistants to help write their employment policies.

This list highlights that every sector of society is making use of this exploitation. For example over 300 schools, 10 churches, 160 hotels, 40 credit unions and 50 golf clubs have using this free labour. Ironically NGO’s like the National Organisation for the Unemployed have used them as well. But most damning of all were the number of unionised workplaces named, where union inaction has allowed employers to eliminate employment rights.

In response to the declining situation, a group of concerned activists from the Connolly Youth Movement, Unite Youth Dublin and Sinn Fein Republican Youth got together about a year ago to build a grassroots campaign against JobBridge called #WorkMustPay. Rather than attempting to lobby for a change, we sought to challenge the acceptability of companies using JobBridge through pickets and protest. We have had a number of victories and removed several internships before they were filled, ensuring that at the very least future workers would be paid a wage. While pleased with these successes, we are not under the illusion that this small scale approach is a solution to JobBridge or the impending threat of JobPath, its replacement.

Our small group taking on small businesses and challenging exploitation is fine but it should not be up to such a small group to break the silence around JobBridge, when there are over six hundred thousand trade-union members in Ireland. The silence from unions in a practical sense beyond the occasional press statement has been deafening. Some notable exceptions would include Mandate taking on Tesco or the INTO taking disciplinary action against members who did not oppose the scheme in their schools.

Sadly, such principled action is rarely found, including in Unite workplaces. The recently flurry of union reports calling for an end to JobBridge sound very hollow as they arrive years too late and the actions which could have been taken in unionised workplaces to make the scheme unviable were never done when there was the chance.

On the back of the ‘success’ of Jobbridge, the state is going to introduce a mandatory version called JobPath. Two of the providers of this scheme will be G4S and Seetec, the latter being renowned for being the most punitive with sanctions when running workfare schemes in the UK. To put the scale of the upcoming JobPath project in perspective: the current number of unemployed people in Ireland is approx. 160,000. This scheme proposes 120,000 placements a year. It would appear that we are already losing the battle against unpaid placements in Ireland.

Unpaid internships devalue both work and worker, making the fight for even a basic wage that much harder. We welcome efforts from unions to push for a living wage, but even talking of this when large sections of the workforce aren’t paid just serves to highlight the disconnect that exists between trade-union aspirations and the harsh realities facing young workers.

A recent report from the Department of Child and Youth Affairs hammered this point home by stating that only 1% of people under 25 are members of a trade-union, with only 8% aware that they could join one. The continued refusal by trade-unions to address the changing nature of employment and their failure to defend the rights of young workers is a damning indictment of the state of the labour movement.

Most young people will rightly perceive unions as something you join when you make it to a privileged job, not something you can join when you work in a shop, bar, hospitality jobs or even just part time. For example, #WorkMustPay has been contacted by young workers in distress and while we have forwarded them on to unions for advice, at no point prior to this were they aware such organisations existed to help them.

Would we consider trade-unions radical or redundant?

We would have to regard them as both. Radical with regards to the continued promoting of progressive values in society, such as the Right2Water Campaign, Trade Union Campaign to Repeal the 8th and Marriage Equality. They are however becoming increasingly irrelevant when it comes to young workers situations and the exploitation they face.

Young trade-unionists will continue to challenge this attitude as much as possible, but when there are over six hundred thousand trade-union members in Ireland and the #WorkMustPay campaign has to mount ten person pickets to eliminate unpaid internships one position at a time; it is hard to remain enthusiastic about the state of our movement.

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