Address by Ethel Buckley, SIPTU National Equality and Campaigns Organiser to the National Women’s Council Members and Friends Meeting, Mount Errigal Hotel, Donegal, 12 December, 2011
12 Dec 2011
I want to start by saying that I was delighted when the first invitation that I received to speak in my new role as SIPTU’s National Equality and Campaigns Organiser was from the National Women’s Council of Ireland. As a trade unionist and a feminist I am pleased to be here with you today to speak on the topic of women, low pay and the trade union response.
I am particularly pleased to be doing so in a hotel that has been designated as a ‘Fair Hotel’ due to the manner in which the staff that work here are treated and for its recognition of their fundamental human right to a collective voice at work. I salute the National Women’s Council of Ireland for making the ethical choice and choosing a fair hotel venue for this event. By doing so you demonstrate your willingness to put your money where your mouth is in respect of low paid workers’ rights.
The Fair Hotels campaign is an example of a modern strategic response by trade unions to the pernicious problem of low pay and poor working conditions. The hospitality industry is the largest low pay industry in the country. The majority of workers in the industry are women and it is the industry employing the highest proportion of migrant workers. It is also an industry characterised by minimum wage pay rates, long and unsocial working hours, low job satisfaction, little career progression, high turnover and weak employer commitment to training. According to government inspections, it is also an industry that persistently denies workers’ their legal entitlements.
The most recent data from the National Employment Rights Authority, which is based on inspections to June 30th 2011, show us that 74% of hotels inspected did not comply with their statutory obligations to their employees. In other words 3 out of 4 hotels did not provide workers with their legal entitlements.
SIPTU organises and represents the interests of hotel workers and their families. We launched the Fair Hotels campaign last year in order to address the issue of the denial of hotels workers’ basic employment rights and to campaign for better jobs in the industry. The campaign now enjoys the support of a very broad-based coalition of trade unions, non-governmental organisations, fair trade campaigners, women’s organisations, businesses, community groups, migrant rights campaigners, faith based organisations and individuals who wish to make an ethical choice when they consume in the hospitality industry.
Hotels that agree to treat staff fairly by paying the appropriate rates and recognising the fundamental human right to a collective voice at work are designated as ‘fair.’ We now have over 50 hotels across the island participating in the campaign. All of the hotels are listed and can be booked through the campaign website www.fairhotels.ie.
The campaign is a way for us to of work with decent employers to promote those enterprises that provide quality jobs for the women and men that work in them. Already this strategy is making an impact on the largest low pay industry in the country. In an independent investigation of the initiative by a Swedish university, 80% of participating hotels said that they were enjoying increased business as a result of their designation as a ‘Fair Hotel.’
These results and the broad scale support for the campaign among traditional and non-traditional allies demonstrates to industry that when presented with the facts upon which to make an informed choice, many organisations and individuals will make the ethical choice and switch their consumption away from businesses that deny workers’ rights.
In June of this year we launched a similar strategy for the contract cleaning industry. Cleaners, as you know, play a crucial role in ensuring that vital facilities are clean and safe for users. But, unfortunately the work that they do is often undervalued by society and indeed by their own employers. Women make up the majority of contract cleaners and migrant women comprise over a quarter of the total cleaning workforce.
Contract cleaners clean our hospitals, schools, colleges, public transport, factories, offices and workplaces. Often they do so in the dead of night while the building is empty. Working alone cleaning these buildings while users are resting can be terribly isolating. It also contributes to the work being undervalued. Cleaners often talk about the lack of respect for their work – they say that once a woman puts on that cleaner’s uniform it’s as if she becomes invisible, nameless without an identity, de-humanised.
Contract cleaning, by its nature, is based on competitive tendering. The tendering process often results in contractors underbidding one another to secure or retain contracts. With labour cost representing the bulk of operating cost, some employers in the industry are engaged in a ‘race to the bottom’ cutting already low pay, reducing working hours and intensifying workloads. The ‘speed-up’ of work rates is dangerous for the health and welfare of the staff who are forced to risk their own safety in order to get the job done on time. International research shows that more than half of women cleaners self-medicate in order to alleviate the pain caused by speed up and workplace injury.
SIPTU launched the Fair Deal for Cleaners campaign in 2010 to organise workers in the industry to campaign for a better deal. Where workers have formed a strong union on the job and demanded a voice at work real gains have been made on proper pay rates and agreeing appropriate working hours that allow workers to get the job done in a safe and professional manner.
The contract cleaning companies that pay the appropriate rates and treat workers decently should not be tarred with the same brush as the operators who are little more than modern day gangmasters. For this reason, in June of this year, workers in the industry launched the ‘Responsible Contractor’ initiative. Companies that treat staff fairly and facilitate their workers organising in the workplace are designated as ‘responsible.’
The success of this tactic in a contract services industry is dependent upon raising awareness among clients and end-users that while they may have outsourced the cleaning of their building, they cannot outsource their moral responsibility to ensure that the cleaners who come in and clean for them are treated fairly and have quality jobs. Clients that switch away from the disreputable operators and chose a responsible contractor will play their part in professionalising the industry and ensuring better safer jobs for cleaners.
I am pleased to say that on the 15th of June, which is International Justice Day for Cleaners, Orla O’Connor from the National Women’s Council spoke at a Fair Deal for Cleaners rally at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. She brought a message of solidarity from the National Women’s Council of Ireland to the mainly women’s protest to protect wages and conditions in the cleaning industry. The Council is an important and valued ally in our Fair Deal for Cleaners campaign.
In fact, our two organisations have collaborated on many occasions on issues affecting working women and the broader fight for women’s equality. It is in that context that I want to take this opportunity to publically add SIPTU’s voice to the chorus of organisations, communities and individuals who are calling on Alan Shatter TD, Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence to rethink his Department’s decision to reduce core funding to the Council by 35%.
Now more than ever this society needs a strong, effective, independent and adequately resourced voice and infrastructure for women. In SIPTU we are deeply concerned that the commitment to advancing equality, between women and men, and in the workplace across the 9 grounds specifically provided for in the Employment Equality Acts, is being undermined in this time of fiscal adjustment. The chance of us emerging from this crisis with a better, fairer society is all the more remote if Government dismantles the architecture of fairness in our society.
Despite a raft of equality legislation, labour market activation initiatives and access interventions, economic inequality between women and men in Ireland remains entrenched. Women working in Ireland still earn significantly less than their male comparators, women work fewer hours, women on average have fewer assets, retired and older women can expect to subsist on drastically smaller pensions, and women are more likely to live in poverty than men –particularly women rearing children on their own. The link between women’s poverty and children’s poverty is absolute.
Not alone does low pay inhibit the economic freedom of women, but it also impedes our equal participation in public life, including our ability to attain positions of power and influence in the workplace, in business, in trade unions, in community and non-governmental organisations and of course in politics. It is in this context that SIPTU adds its voice to say to Government that a cut to the core funding of the National Women’s Council, which appears disproportionate, is bad for women, for children and for social cohesion and really calls into question the Minister’s commitment to achieving equality between women and men.
Vulnerable groups in society and their representative organisations –be they women, low paid workers, migrants, children, people with disabilities, older people- will have to coalesce and work together to fight for the better fairer society that we have all have our sights set on. In doing so, we need to recognise and value our victories.
In that regard, and as this year of misery for many comes to an end, I want to bring you back for a short moment to a great victory for low paid workers that that was fought and won by women earlier this year.
Back in February a group of migrant women from Lithuania and Poland working at hotel in Dublin were brought into a series of meetings and asked to sign a document in English that they could not understand that would give their consent to signing new contracts that would reduce their wages. The women refused and despite all the odds for success being stacked against the union, SIPTU backed the women and pickets were placed on the hotel. The infamous Davenport Dispute formed part of the campaign to reverse the cut to the National Minimum Wage fought by you in the National Women’s Council and by us in SIPTU together with other unions and civil society organisations as part of the Coalition to Protect the Lowest Paid. The long days and nights spent campaigning right through the General Election and the many cold hours spent on the picket line and with banners and placards on Kildare Street paid off. It was that work, that campaigning, that put €1 an hour for every hour worked back into the pockets of low paid workers the length and breadth of this country. Tens of thousands of women in minimum wage jobs are better off as a result of our work together on that campaign.
My comments here today are drawn from our collective experience in SIPTU of over 100 years of organising and representing working women across the economy in both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland. This year is the hundredth anniversary of the formation of the Irish Women’s Workers’ Union. Announcing the establishment of the new union, Delia Larkin wrote, “all we ask for is just shorter hours, better pay than the scandalous limit now existing and conditions of labour befitting a human being.” Unfortunately, Delia could be standing here before you today iterating that same statement and not a word would seem out of place.
Within a year of its establishment, the new women’s union already had 1,000 members and by the following year Delia and other women labour leaders would go on to play a critical role in the events of 1913 which left an indelible mark on our nation’s labour and gender histories. It is important to remember that one of the reasons why the union and the strikers were supported by female suffrage activists generally and specifically by people such as the Sheehy Skeffingtons and Countess Markievicz was because James Larkin and the Irish Transport and General Workers Union were such strong champions of women's rights not just in the workplace but across society, including of course the right to vote. The centenary of 1913 is quickly approaching and like all significant events in the nation’s past its re-telling will be contested. History is often just that; his-story. It is important that in the recollection and reinterpretation of the significant events of 1913 that her-story is also told.
We cannot always rely on outside commentators to tell the full story. In fact, many times over the past three years reading the newspapers, listening to the radio or watching the television one could mistakenly believe that it was ordinary workers that were the cause of the collapse of our economy and attendant misery for families and communities and not the bankers or speculators or property developers or politicians.
Commentators in the media set their target on different groups of workers at different times in order to pulverise the public into accepting the next swathe of austerity. For the entire year of 2010, for example, the public was relentlessly spun the line that it was public sector workers who were to blame for all our woes. I discern in the media over the past few weeks that they are about to crank out this line again in the New Year. I suspect that the chattering class will try again to pit worker against worker. Wait and see, the new mantra will be that private contractors delivering public services will be the answer to all ills.
The majority of women in my union who work in the public service work in low paid jobs in the delivery of front line services in our hospitals, nursing homes, child care facilities, home help service, schools and colleges, local authorities and public transport. These low to mid-income women are the back bone of our economy. These are the workers who spend what they earn and they are the only hope for demand led growth in our economy. But, next year and the year after that their jobs will come under massive threat from outsourcing and wage cuts. Of course the real agenda at play here is to dismantle the Croke Park Agreement –an agreement that provides these women with some protection while giving them a say in the changes that are required in the public service. The thinking being it is if they can achieve a cut pay in public sector pay then their path to driving down wages across the economy is cleared.
But the most immediate crisis for low paid women in this country is the threat brought about by the High Court decision of the 7th of July, 2011 to strike down the Employment Regulation Orders (EROs). In a case taken by a group of fast food employers, the Court effectively declared EROs unconstitutional. EROs set the legal minimum wages and conditions for over 200,000 workers in many of the sectors that are the traditional preserve of women such as contract cleaning, catering, hotels, retail and hairdressing.
In the immediate aftermath of the Court’s decision, SIPTU welcomed the commitment by the coalition government to put the ERO mechanism back on a legislative footing. But that was back in July. It is now mid-December and these vulnerable workers still linger in legal limbo.
I want to take the opportunity of this address here to you this morning to appeal to Richard Bruton T.D., Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to publish the draft Employment Regulation Order legislation as a matter of urgency so that the legislative protections that these vulnerable workers need are restored.
We in SIPTU will need to analyse carefully the draft legislation to ensure that the mechanism envisaged for the establishment of new Employment Regulation Orders is workable and that it does what the Joint Labour Committees were set up to do in the first place; provide protection from exploitation to vulnerable workers the majority of whom are not unionised and are women and young people in low paid, precarious employment. We need to ensure that employers cannot get out from under their obligation to pay the new rates and that the unscrupulous employers are not allowed to undercut the decent ones.
We need also to ensure that the rates of pay in the new EROs are sufficient to provide a living wage for workers. Cutting the wages of the lowest paid will further depress consumer demand and will do nothing for the growth led recovery that this country so desperately needs.
I want to finish by drawing attention to Sunday working. I call on Minister Bruton to give the necessary recognition for Sunday working in the new legislation and to provide a mechanism for employees and employers in a particular industry to agree appropriate statutory compensation for those workers who have to go out to work on a Sunday.
Sunday is not a normal day. When a woman goes out to work as a cleaner or shop worker, in a restaurant or a hotel on a Sunday and leaves behind her family who are on their day off it is not the same as going out to work Monday to Friday. No amount of spin will convince working women that Sunday is a normal day. There has been a sustained attempt in this country to convince the public that Sunday is a day like any other. We cannot allow the cheerleaders for an ideology that would see every worker on the basic minimum rate for any day or any hour worked win the day on this.