Trade union sets out key targets for national talks

The recent national conference of Ireland’s largest trade union, the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), made it clear that employment rights for temporary agency workers will be a key demand in national negotiations in early 2008. Other items raised at the meeting included the right to representation and the pensions issue. At the same time, the SIPTU leadership remains positive in relation to the principle of social partnership.

Speaking at the biennial conference of the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), held on 2–5 October 2007, SIPTU General President Jack O’Connor warned that ‘certain issues’ must be faced up to if the trade union is to continue in social partnership under the national agreement Towards 2016 (2.86Mb PDF). The union leader highlighted a number of issues, including equal treatment for temporary agency workers, the right to representation at work and the pensions ‘time bomb’. As the country’s largest trade union, SIPTU is a hugely influential voice within the Irish trade union movement.

Mr O’Connor stated that:

the social partnership process should be capable of addressing these vitally important issues and providing for pay increases to improve the living standards of all workers, while simultaneously strengthening the medium-term competitiveness of our economy – indeed it may well be the only way of achieving these ends.

Temporary agency work

Several speakers referred to SIPTU’s desire for legislation on temporary agency work. Mr O’Connor noted that Ireland was one of only three EU countries which had not legislated for equality of treatment for agency workers. The trade union’s Dublin Regional Secretary, Patricia King, declared that the move towards temporary agency work was ‘a major attack on employment standards in this state’.

The issue of temporary agency workers has become a serious one for SIPTU in recent years, as some of the main sectors in which it operates – such as construction, hotels and restaurants, and retail and wholesale – have seen greater than average use of temporary employment agencies. This strategy is partly being adopted, the trade union believes, to save on labour costs, rather than the originally intended purpose of meeting peak labour demand.

SIPTU’s campaign in this regard may be occurring at a fortuitous time, as there could be a change in the UK’s approach to a long-stalled EU directive on temporary agency work (EU0204205F, EU0212201N). This would provide a right of equal pay for comparable full-time workers after a certain period; the deadlock at EU level up to now has been whether this period would be six weeks or 12 months.

Right to representation

Little consensus has emerged so far on how to deal with a Supreme Court judgement in a case involving the low-cost airline Ryanair, the Labour Court and pilots represented by the Irish Municipal Public and Civil Trade Union (IMPACT) (IE0702019I). The finding effectively neuters the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act, 2001 and the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 2004, which grant workers the right to be represented in the Labour Court by a trade union and to secure a binding decision on claims. The acts do not allow for collective bargaining rights, merely representation on issues.

When Mr O’Connor referred to the issue at the SIPTU conference, he rarely used the term ‘union recognition’, but referred instead to ‘people’s right to organise and be represented at work’ or ‘the right to participate’. This may indicate a willingness to consider something short of traditional trade union recognition, possibly based on the 2001/2004 Act model or even the European Directive 2002/14/EC establishing a general framework for informing and consulting employees in the European Community, which has been implemented in Irish law but is often ignored in practice.

Pensions

In relation to the dilemma over long-term pension funding due to changing demographic circumstances, the National Equality Secretary, Rosheen Callendar, declared that the time for new reports had ‘come and gone’. She proposed that the level of tax relief should be set at the higher rate of 41% for all taxpayers for two years and, if this did not increase pension coverage, then mandatory pensions could be introduced.

Brian Sheehan, IRN Publishing

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