From Socialist Voice, January 2011

We have rights only in so far as we are able to defend them

While much has been written about the imposed EU-IMF financial package and the budgetary strategy that they have demanded, other aspects of the agreement and their possible impact are now slowly coming to light.
     Under the imposed deal, the Government has agreed to set up a committee to review employment regulation orders and registered employment agreements.
     These agreements regulate the terms and conditions of workers in a range of industries, from the building industry to hairdressing. They ensure that there is a uniformity of wage rates within a particular industry, below which wages and conditions cannot go. The rates in these industries are greater than the national minimum wage.
     These agreements have been under attack for some time by employers who wish to see either the legislation on which they are based repealed or at least the regulations severely weakened and curtailed.
     It is against this background that we must look at why the European Union demanded a cut in the Irish minimum wage. This is just another step in the continuing assault on workers’ rights and conditions throughout the European Union. They wish to remove or greatly restrict all legal protection for workers.
     The working group is now being established by the Government, but its make-up may ultimately be decided by the EU itself. At the time of writing, the chairperson of the Labour Court, Kevin Duffy, was being floated as chairperson of the review body, which has come under strong pressure to limit if not to prevent him being given that position. The review group is being established in accordance with the EU-IMF “memorandum of understanding” on the Government’s four-year plan, which, under the EU-IMF “Programme for Ireland,” provides for “consultation with the EU Commission Services.”
     What the employers and the EU are hoping for is to determine the outcome of the review before the process has even begun by determining who is or is not on the review body. They want to establish a committee of “independent” experts. It is the classic situation: don’t ask the question unless you already know the answer. That is how things work in our society. Those in economic power always know what they want and then set about securing it.
     The undermining of registered employment agreements and the employment regulation orders is very important for both the employers and the EU, so the outcome of any review is critical to the continuing assault on workers’ right to statutory protection. They want the full application of “market forces” to be brought to bear, with wages being driven further down to the level of the minimum wage, which they cannot do at the moment. They want to break what they call “rigidity in the labour market”—the fact that workers have statutory wage rights, which need to be broken.
     This follows from the announcement by the Minister for Labour Affairs and Public Service Transformation, Dara Calleary, that he would introduce legislation to have rights commissioners appointed by other means than the existing procedure where they are nominees of either the employers or trade unions. That would have a significant effect on their decisions and the little justice that workers receive in these industrial forums.
     This will be a great test and challenge for the trade union movement in defending its members and their rights and conditions. The movement has been demobilised for many decades and suckered with a plethora of tribunals and commissions, rather than securing its rights through the strength of its own members, organisation, and mobilisation.
     We have rights only in so far as we are able to defend them. That is now the central challenge facing the trade union movement.

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