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Decent work. A battle we must win.

Last week, President Michael D Higgins spoke at our sister union, Fórsa’s first national conference. The keynote speaker at this historic event for the Irish trade union movement, the President congratulated all those involved in the “great task” of uniting the Civil and Public Service Union, the Public Service Executive Union and IMPACT under one banner.

Uachtarán na hÉireann, himself a member of SIPTU, gave a thoughtful, passionate and stirring address on the critical role that trade unions can play in the future of work and in society in the vital years ahead.

In the President’s words, the trade union movement has always been to the fore in organising the people of this country. Whether it be in our battle for independence, in opposition to the waste of human life in war, and of the irreducible indivisible right to dignity in society, as well as the work-force.

In these testing times, he said the people of Ireland must stick together and in the spirit of solidarity extend the hand of friendship to all those who may feel excluded or isolated. To help organise the unorganised. To remember that an ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’.

He told delegates that the battle for decent work will be one of the defining struggles of the coming decades, and the success of the trade union movement will be determined by the quality and dignity of work.

Citing a recent report by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions he said that the proportion of the workforce on temporary short-term contracts has been growing since 2008 and that 160,000 people endured significant variations in their hours of work from week to week or month to month.

He said this creates a new category of worker, the precariat, whose social and economic rights are more restricted than those they work alongside. In the shadow of rising rents, chronic job insecurity can be a source of deep anxiety. He said the trade union movement owes a duty of solidarity to these workers, and that we must all work together to continue the fight to vindicate these rights.

“The commodification of labour is increasingly visible in contemporary forms of work, with a sometimes-monomaniacal emphasis on performance and output at the expense the dignity, well-being and security of the workers. 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. A pin-ball machine is hardly a suitable substitute for workers’ rights.”

He added that there is an increasing and unspoken assumption that employees will stretch their working day far beyond their contracted and paid hours.

That workers have no right to disconnect and that the greater freedom and flexibility that technology has afforded us has been used by some employers to the blur of the line between what is viewed as an employee’s work and home life.

Recognising the contribution of public servants and their unions, President Higgins said: “As trade unionists, you will be at the forefront of efforts to bend this new world of work towards the end of human dignity and universal solidarity. Public sector trade unions have fought tirelessly, across the decades, for the achievement of equality and dignity for their members and must continue to do so.”

He told delegates that as President he had witnessed the “outstanding” work carried out by public servants across the country. “I have met with those whose lives have been immeasurably improved by our dedicated health service staff. I have witnessed, during the hazardous flooding that various parts of the country have experienced in recent years, the selfless response of local authority staff,” he said.

You can see some of President Higgin’s address here

For the full speech click here

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