SIPTU’s bulwark against exploitation
“TO BOLDLY go where no union has gone before” could well have been the mission statement of the Workers’ Rights Centre when it started operations in 2010, with apologies to Star Trek!
Formerly known unremarkably as MISC, the Centre was a product of internal restructuring within SIPTU with the purpose of having a specialist one-stop shop to advise and represent individual SIPTU members in disputes with their employers.
No other union on the planet, to our knowledge, has taken such a step and on such a scale. Adopting the Larkinite slogan of “an injury to one is the concern of all”, the Centre has progressed to develop a legal expertise that is second to none in the complex area of employment law.
There have been seismic changes in this whole area over the last eight years, not least the passing of the Workplace Relations Act, 2015 which saw the dissolution of the Employment Appeals Tribunal, the Equality Tribunal and the Rights Commissioner service to be replaced by the Workplace Relations Commission Adjudication service.
Staff at the Centre were trained and prepared for such a change to ensure that SIPTU members were not placed at a disadvantage in pursuing claims. The Workers’ Rights Centre, on behalf of SIPTU members, remains the single biggest user in the state of the Workplace Relations Commission.
We are constantly building up our knowledge and experience at the Centre and a lot of effort is put into resolution at workplace level. The best results are obtained in organised employments with the help and support from shop stewards and officials from the various divisions of SIPTU.
The work of the Centre is not about individualising members’ problems but ensuring that this specialised unit is part of the organic whole that is the union.
The Centre comprises of information assistants, a centre supervisor and advocates under the overall stewardship of SIPTU’s Legal Rights Unit.
The information assistants normally are the first point of contact for a member with an individual issue and they impart advice where appropriate.
More complex cases are elevated to the centre supervisor for distribution to the advocates.
The supervisor has the role of analysis of the cases and then allots them to the appropriate advocate.
There are ordinarily 11 advocates based in Dublin with a further 15 based around the country in various locations.
The Centre has a fully integrated case tracking system and the members enjoy the facility of availing of specialised staff with developed advocacy and employment law skills to protect them in employment and pursue legitimate grievances where necessary.
The Centre has achieved success in many landmark cases that have, in effect, changed the interpretation of the law in favour of working people.
The figures have been impressive. Since the recording of awards in 2012, the Workers’ Rights Centre has recovered more than €21.9 million for our members in individual rights cases and over 20,000 case files have been opened.
These are not happy statistics for the affected members who might have been unfairly dismissed, discriminated against, bullied or seen their wages cut.
However, for a lot of our members, it wasn’t just the recovery of monies that mattered but the reclamation of dignity and reputation in the uneven power relationship that exists between employee and employer.
In each successful case, the value of trade union membership was seen to be borne out. Quite a high percentage of cases are settled at an enterprise level. It is shown consistently that the higher the level of SIPTU organisation in the employment, the greater is the chance that the member’s problem will be resolved without recourse to an Adjudicator.
2016 saw the setting up of the first Workers’ Rights Welcome Centres by the union. These Centres give a localised contact point for SIPTU members and cater also for potential members who may be experiencing difficulties at work.
Advice is given in a friendly, empathetic environment and, if needed, SIPTU’s expert advocates can refer cases for members on to the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court, if necessary.
Welcome Centres have been established in Dublin, Navan, Cork, Kerry, Sligo, Kilkenny and Carlow. More centres will be opened in the months ahead.
Such are the challenges faced by our members daily from precarious employment relationships, out-sourcing threats and attacks on hard-won employment gains, that it may be indulgent, and definitely premature, to say that something has been a success story.
Nevertheless, I think we can afford to be proud of the foresight, of the leadership, and the ongoing commitment of the Centre’s staff that has undoubtedly made the Workers’ Rights Centre a bulwark against the outright exploitation of working people in Ireland.