From Socialist Voice, April 2006

Employers not interested in enforcement of labour laws

The talks on a new “social partnership” deal appear to be making slow progress. The ICTU has been holding to its position that it will not discuss pay or other items until agreement is secured on the enforcement of existing employment laws and on possible new legal guarantees for the tens of thousands of migrant workers now working in Ireland.
    Given the slow progress of the talks, it’s clear that employers are playing tough and are resisting any new labour legislation. But they are not completely united in their approach. The unions in the construction and electrical contracting industries are seeking legislative change to give statutory powers to the joint union-employer organisations EPACE (Monitoring Agency for Electrical Pensions and Conditions) and CIMA (Construction Industry Monitoring Agency) in enforcing the agreements covering these industries, which are registered employment agreements and are therefore legally binding.
    Despite the fact that the electrical contracting employers support this change, their masters in the Construction Industry Federation are not and are putting pressure on the electrical contractors to toe the line.
    This would suggest that the bigger employers are not interested in any new laws, nor in the vigorous enforcement of existing legal obligations. They see an opportunity for increased profits and are not concerned with the enforcement of current labour regulations. The approach of the CIF is indicative of how big business views “partnership.” They are not interested in giving workers any say or involvement in the industries.
    The legislative changes sought by the unions would give statutory rights to the monitoring agencies to visit construction sites and demand access and information from employers, instead of the present situation, which allows employers to deny inspectors access as a right.
    Other legislative changes sought are in relation to the burden of proof. At present the onus is on the unions to prove non-compliance. They wish to reverse this situation by way of legislative change, to place the onus on employers to prove that they are compliant—a reasonable demand, being opposed by the employers. Clearly this is not the type of “partnership” that has been sold to workers for decades within the trade union movement.
    The exposure of the conditions of the Gama workers and the Serbian sub-contractors working on the Laing-O’Rourke site in the midlands and the recent exposures by the TEEU about Polish workers employed by a sub-contractor working on the ESB power station at Moneypoint, Co. Clare, and by SIPTU about Hungarian workers on the huge Spencer Dock site in Dublin point to widespread abuse and exploitation in the construction industry.
    Workers are being forced to work more than the legally enforceable maximum of 48 hours per week, for hourly rates of between €5 and €7. This is below the national minimum wage of €7.56 and far below the industry rate of between €17 and €20 per hour.
    These gross abuses of immigrant workers were exposed by the trade union movement, not by the government’s labour inspectors. This is adequate proof, if proof were needed, that the Labour Inspectorate needs to be expanded significantly to take account of the dramatic increase in employment in the construction industry.
    If the Labour Inspectorate cannot enforce the law, or hasn’t got the numbers and resources to fulfil its statutory functions in an area covered by registered employment agreements, it is reasonable to assume that the situation in areas of the economy that are not covered by legally binding agreements is worse.
    It has further come to light that Latvian and Lithuanian workers employed picking mushrooms in Cos. Cavan and Monaghan are receiving €2.50 per hour! Agricultural workers are poorly organised and as a result are very vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
    The trade union movement must get serious about organisation and recruitment and conduct a concerted campaign throughout the county to get workers to join unions and to demand, with the support of their unions, the proper rate for the job.
    The continuing attempt by employers’ organisations to uncouple the current talks about the enforcement of employment legislation from the question of pay is an attempt at dividing the trade union movement between public and private-sector unions. There are many within the public-sector unions who have still not grasped the fact that the undermining of wages and working conditions is not confined to the private sector but will affect all workers, regardless of who employs them.
    There is a basic lesson to be learnt by those active in unions who have swallowed all the sociology jargon from the various courses sponsored by industrial relations gurus in universities and colleges. Employers don’t see workers as their equals, nor will they give them any meaningful influence at the decision-making level. No quantity of papers and seminars will change this fact. “Social partnership” is about emasculating and neutralising trade unionism and hindering workers in developing a different set of economic and social goals for society.

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