Sunday Read – Hope for a better tomorrow

Ireland is set to reopen at the end of June as we prepare to exit the lockdown following the outbreak of the coronavirus on our shores. However, health experts, the world over, say there is a good chance the coronavirus will be with us for a long time yet.

A coronavirus-tinged world without a foreseeable end may be the cause of great fear for millions of people but with fear comes hope. Hope for a better tomorrow. Hope for a “new normal” that works for the many.

Precarious work – the challenge for workers

We live in precarious times. Tens of thousands of workers in Ireland wake up early in the morning unsure whether they will earn a living that day, or whether they will earn anything at all.

Ending the scandal of precarious work is a significant challenge facing workers and their trade unions in Ireland. It affects workers across a range of employment sectors, including hotels and restaurants, early and third level education, retail, child and home care services, home care, construction and agriculture, to name just a few.

The spread of casualisation, ‘if and when’ and zero hour contracts under which mainly low paid workers are forced into uncertain irregular hours of employment and short-term contracts must be stopped.

The system destroys the physical and mental health of workers and forces them into a cycle of endless poverty. Precarious employment means a worker only gets paid for the hours they work, often doesn’t know when they will be employed and are denied the benefit of even meagre pensions, holiday and sick pay.

Pushed into long-term, low paid precarious work, often without any contract of employment, young workers are unable to secure the loans, mortgages or the rent they need to make plans for a decent home and family life.

For employers, the attraction of casualised employment, or of outsourcing work to sub-contractors, means they are freed of their obligation to meet their responsibilities to provide for the health and well-being of their employees including their entitlements to normal career progression, holiday and sick pay and decent welfare and retirement benefits.

This is not a new scandal. Indeed, the modern Irish trade union movement, including SIPTU, was moulded in the resistance of low paid workers to casualisation, low wages and extreme poverty in the early years of the 20th Century.

Over decades of struggle, improvements in wages and in their terms and conditions of work, including the reduction in working hours, were won across the economy and the country by an organised and unionised workforce.

Advances were made by women workers demanding equal pay for equal work, the introduction of, and increases to, a minimum wage and in the creation of industrial relations machinery to tackle exploitation and discrimination by ruthless employers.

Many of those welcome changes are in danger of being reversed on the new battleground where workers are forced into anti-social work practices which undermine hard-won employment standards.

The spread of precarious, casualised work is endemic across the country, as it is across other EU states and the scale of mistreatment by some employers of workers, over whom they exercise control by virtue of the insecure jobs they provide, is massive.

Over 160,000 workers cannot rely on steady and guaranteed hours from day to day, week to week or month to month. The abuse of bogus self-employment means that 10% of workers in Ireland are wrongly described as sole traders who do not employ anybody else. It is deeply shocking that 44% of workers between 18 and 29 years, or almost 100,000 young people, are on short-term contracts in the Republic.

The figures in the North are similar with a 25% increase in the number of workers in temporary employment since 2008. These figures make a lie of the claim that the economic recovery is lifting all boats. There has certainly been a dramatic reduction in the numbers of unemployed which has come down from over 15% in the depth of the recession to just over 6%.

Behind this statistic, however, is the cruel reality that many of the jobs created in recent years are in low paid, precarious employment. Women, in particular, who have taken up tens of thousands of jobs in the recovering services sector, find they are unable to meet the costs of childcare, rent and other basic needs from the wages they receive.

Migrant workers and young people entering the workforce are equally marginalised when it comes to decent work and properly paid jobs.

By driving down wages and standards, casualisation will also undermine those with secure, better-paid jobs across the economy. The attempt by employers to drive down wages and demolish employment protections in Ireland will undoubtedly intensify when Brexit takes hold as their competitors in the UK seek to remove hard-earned worker’s rights, as well as the environmental and consumer protections, required under EU laws.

SIPTU has joined with Congress and other interested organisations and groups in determined efforts being made to strengthen the law and the rights of employees and to get rid of zero hour and so-called ‘if and when’ contacts, most recently under the Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill currently passing through the Oireachtas.

The Bill is an important piece of legislation to assist vulnerable workers but is flawed, in many respects. The Government has claimed that under the proposed legislation, zero hour contracts will be banned.

However, this is disputed by opposition parties while SIPTU, the ICTU and other unions are lobbying for substantial amendments in order to ensure that precarious work is tackled in a meaningful way and that zero hour and ‘if and when’ contracts are completely eliminated.

The first defence for workers facing unscrupulous employers seeking to diminish their wages and conditions is to join a trade union.

For SIPTU the scandal of precarious work is a top priority among the various campaigns which union members are pursuing across all employment sectors in which we organise.

Join the campaign in the battle against precarious work.

Keep our campaign moving – vote ‘YES’

SIPTU members have been voting in their thousands over the last four weeks on the Public Service Stability Agreement (PSSA) in workplaces across the country.

Since November 2016 SIPTU representatives demanded that pay talks begin earlier than anticipated by Government in light of the Gardai pay deal.

This strategy complimented our division’s long standing campaign to get three key demands delivered at the recent public service pay talks.

Early pay restoration, job security, pension certainty and a road map to meaningful pay progression.

Together, we ensured that the Public Service Stability Agreement (PSSA) achieved the following in terms of pay:

The Lansdowne Road agreement was due to expire in September 2018. The proposed Public Service Stability Agreement implements the first tranche of pay restoration from January 2018. 

  • A combination of pay and pension levy adjustments worth 7.4% to those earning €30,000 a year or less, over the lifetime of a deal.
  • A combination of pay and pension levy adjustments worth between 7.0% AND 7.4% to those earning between €30,000 and €50,000 a year, over the lifetime of a deal.
  • A combination of pay and pension levy adjustments worth 7% to those earning between €50,000 and €55,000 a year, over the lifetime of a deal
  • A combination of pay and pension levy adjustments worth between 6.6% and 6.9% for those between €55,000 and €80,000 a year, over lifetime of a deal

We did not make these gains alone. Our colleagues in IMPACT, TEEU, CPSU MLSA and others also stood with us as we argued with Government to protect decent jobs in the public service, to be carried out by public service workers, and not by “for profit” companies.

From the get go, SIPTU representatives have vigorously campaigned against the draconian FEMPI bill but the fact remains, FEMPI is still the law and will have significant adverse effect on us when the Lansdowne Road Agreement ends. A Yes vote will undoubtedly tip the balance back in favour of public service workers.

Not only does the proposed agreement provide tangible concessions on outsourcing and pay, it gives us a sight of stepping stones we need to make further progress on achieving a better work life balance for workers, a road map to the full restoration of twilight hours allowances and keeps a continued freeze on professional fees.

A strong Yes vote will send a message to Government that discussions to address the iniquities in pay arrangements for staff who entered the public service after January 2011 must be happen in the Autumn.

If accepted, the PSSA facilitates negotiations on the so-called ‘new entrants’ issue, which saw lower pay scales introduced for staff who joined the public service in 2011 and after.

Although the scales were merged in 2013, it still takes ‘new entrants’ two years longer than other public servants to reach the top of their pay scales.

If you have missed a workplace ballot please contact your local organiser or shop steward as soon as possible. Alternatively, if you would prefer to receive a postal ballot please apply here and we will send a leaflet, a ballot paper and free post return envelope to you.

Don’t let someone else decide for you. Use your vote and have your say.

For any further details on the agreement please click here

Outlook for the Irish Economy: Trends, Projections and Storm Clouds

In recent years Ireland’s headline national accounts have become increasingly distorted by multinational activity.

Indeed the distortion is now so pronounced that it has become difficult to interpret Ireland’s economic performance at all. Even so, it is clear that the real economy has been growing strongly despite Brexit related headwinds and the fall in the value of Sterling. Year-on-year personal consumption grew by 3% in real terms in 2016 while investment in dwellings and building and construction grew strongly with construction sector output up 11.4% in real terms in 2016.

Agricultural activity also grew strongly at 6.4%. Activity indicators such as retail sales have been performing well.

Recent labour force data has been very positive. Net employment grew by a robust 2.9% in 2016 with end-year total employment reaching 2,048,100. Even so, employment is still over 100,000 below its 2007 level. Unemployment and long-term unemployment are on steady downwards trajectories. The fourth quarter seasonally adjusted unemployment rate fell year-on-year from 9.1% in 2015 to 7.1% in 2016 and then fell again to 6.6% in February.

There is significant regional variation with unemployment highest in the South-East of the country.

Average weekly earnings grew by 0.6% year-on-year in the fourth quarter with private sector earnings up by 1.4%. Average hourly earnings grew 1.1% in the same period with private sector hourly earnings increasing by 1.9% and public sector earnings declining by 0.2%.

Hourly earnings increased in 10 of the 14 principal economic sectors. Real wages are benefiting from the general lack of inflation in the economy. The CPI inflation index was flat in 2016.

Ireland’s ‘deprivation rate’ declined from 29% of individuals in 2014 to 25.5% in 2015 but deprivation remains well in excess of pre-crisis levels (it was 13.7% in 2008).

Similarly, the ‘at risk of poverty’ rate declined from 17.2% in 2014 to 16.9% in 2015 but is still above pre-crisis levels (14.4% in 2008). Household debt fell to €145.3 billion or 144.8% of disposable income in third quarter 2016. However, the Republic is the 4th most indebted country in the EU by this measure. Household net worth increased 3.9% in the third quarter driven by a rise in housing assets. Residential property prices were up 7.9% in the year to January with prices outside of Dublin increasing 11.3%.


According to NERI, the current projection for the economy is very positive, albeit there are a number of storm clouds on the horizon. We expect the size of the economy measured as GDP to increase by 3.8% in real terms in 2017 before slowing to 3.0% growth in 2018.

Domestic demand will drive the bulk of this growth. Personal consumption should grow strongly on the back of very robust employment growth, increasing wage and income levels, and continued improvements in household wealth and debt dynamics. There is also significant scope for catch-up growth in underlying investment given the persistently low levels of investment in recent years and the expected increase in housing output.

The outlook for trade is uncertain given the volatile policy environment and the outsize impact of a small number of multinationals. Brexit effects could manifest as weaker foreign demand while changes to US policy could affect the scale and type of economic activity undertaken by US multinationals in Ireland.

Total employment should continue to grow strongly for at least the remainder of 2017. We project unemployment will fall to 5.8% by the middle of 2018. Growth in average hourly earnings should accelerate in response to the tightening labour market.

Storm Clouds

There are always major uncertainties inherent to our projection. For example, recent political developments in the US and the UK have added to the uncertainty surrounding economic policy and prospects in these countries. Upcoming elections in a number of European countries have the potential to produce similar shocks.

The impact of a Trump presidency on Ireland is difficult to assess. Fiscal stimulus will boost growth in the US as well as demand for imports. However, tightening US monetary policy should dampen demand. In addition, a move towards protectionism and/or a significant change in corporation tax policy both represent significant downside risks to the Irish economy.

Brexit will exert a negative effect on the economy. However, the scale of this effect is impossible to quantify as it is a historical event without clear precedent. In any event, we expect the bulk of the negative impact on Ireland to manifest in 2019 and 2020 reflecting the worsened trade relationship. In the interim, we anticipate that some investment decisions will be delayed. A further weakening of Sterling would damage Irish exports and negatively impact on retail sales in the Border counties. Sterling is likely to weaken if the probability of a hard or contentious Brexit is seen to increase. At any rate, the fluctuations in the Brexit process should manifest as increased exchange rate volatility.

A tightening of euro area monetary policy would reduce internal and external demand and could be particularly problematic for the Irish economy given the still-high private and public debt overhangs. Monetary tightening seems unlikely in the short-term despite the improving outlook for the euro area economy.

Finally, Ireland is an energy importer and a faster than expected rebound in energy prices would negatively impact on corporate balance sheets and investment as well as on real household disposable incomes and personal consumption.

The outlook is good for now but storms are on the way.