On the 23rd of July Unite the Union hosted a seminar on precarious work entitled Strategies to End Precariousness: The Case for Decent Work. The event was chaired by Uplift Director Siobhan O’Donoghue and NIPSA General Secretary and ICTU President Brian Campfield. The programme and a full list of speakers is available here.

Unite Youth Dublin and the #WorkMustPay campaign had a speaker representing them during the panel discussion. The speech given by our representative on the day was an edited version due to time constraints but we have posted the original full text version below.

Precarious Panel

“Precarious work is known by many names – atypical, flexible, zero hour and casual – but it all means the same thing; an easily exploited worker – a worker out on the edge of the workforce with no security, no protection and no fixed contract; a worker that can be forced out on the whim of an employer all while working part time or flexible hours for low pay.

When people speak of precarious workers they often assume it means students with student jobs which would be part time anyway so why would it be a big deal? But over a fifth of the workforce in Ireland today is precarious and that number threatens to grow. As has been discussed earlier today, every sector of employment is seeing an increase in precariousness but it is the usual suspects, the typically vulnerable workers that are being used to fill these vacancies.

Women, migrant and unskilled workers as well as those on both sides of the age range, young and older workers, are those most likely to end up precarious – these are the new working poor with no job or income security, no chance to save or budget effectively as well as having a harder time accessing and keeping social welfare payments. These were the conditions that trade unionists fought against until their most recent history.

The Government, through the Jobbridge scheme, has in effect told private-sector employers to embrace precarious work as the model contract of the future. Joan Burton speaking earlier this year said as much when asked about compelling employers to offer permanent contracts after completion of a Jobbridge Placement “In the real world that we live in that’s not possible.”

Jobbridge is a try-before-you-buy model of employment that uses the promise of a possible job and a possible future wage to steal nine months of free labour. Jobbridge has taken the one thing all workers can take for granted, a wage, and made it an aspiration. Its end goal is to individualise unemployment and make job-seekers blame themselves for their unemployment.

Jobbridge is a stepping stone to the precarious workforce. By successfully lowering standards to the point where a worker is thankful to be paid at all, the government has created a worker who is so atomised and powerless that demands for improved conditions, sick pay or basic health and safety adherence is beyond them. Jobbridge and all forms of unpaid intern-ships are just another way to control and beat down workers rights.

This is where we start; firstly, by blocking intern-ships in unionised workplaces and secondly, by protesting their use in others to show that we stand with non-unionised workers and offer them a means to demand dignity in the workplace.

Unions know, and we have only recent experience of it, that the precariat are incredible hard to organise. They are the ones who are the most controlled by their employers; who are known to use threats of cut hours or summary firings to maintain discipline. These are the workers with the most to lose.

If we attempt to organise precarious workers then we must be able to defend them from repercussions. Say for instance, we gained members in a fast-food establishment and they bravely vocalised their union membership. When they are summarily fired, and this is the inevitable conclusion for the workers involved, what would our response be? How could we get their reinstatement within the period of time which wouldn’t seriously damage their lives? When we talk about workers in precarious sectors, we’re talking about people living on the breadline who won’t be able to pay rent if they lose even a weeks work from negative repercussions for union activity. They won’t have time to wait for a hearing at the labour court or legal efforts by the union; like the Paris Bakery workers before them, they will simply find another precarious job as quickly as possible and move on.

Organising in precarious sectors is new terrain for our movement and it will require new tactics, detailed planning and dedicated struggle in order to first gain members in these businesses and then hopefully; win victories for them. In the early history of trade-unionism; union organisers got lynched in America and regularly jailed in England and Ireland. This happened because employers feared us because we gave the lowest income workers the one thing they’d never had before; hope for a better life. The context is different today but one thing is clear; the trade-union movement is no longer seen as a threat and when it comes down to it, our movement is disconnected from the most exploitative jobs and the workers that most need our help.

The Unite executive recently removed the ‘so far as may be lawful‘ line from our rule book for industrial disputes and this is an important step in rekindling a different style of union organising; one which will fight at all costs for a better life for our members regardless of the repercussions union organisers may face in the process. When we talk about the victories the trade-union movement has won over the years like sick pay, fixed hours, weekends off, maternity leave and permanency; we’re talking about all the things that precarious workers do not currently have.

But if we won them once, we can win them again. Its time we started.

To find extracts from some of the other contributors please have a look at the Unite the Union report, the coverage the event got in the Irish Times or listen to Drivetime’s report here.

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