The Young Greens support the Dunnes workers in their strike action against the manner in which management have abused the zero-hour contracts that it placed employees on. No political party that wants to be taken even slightly seriously would speak against the striking workers. The problem with a lot of what we have heard so far though is that it is directed solely at the private corporation. While this is not in and of itself bad, and Dunnes’ management should be condemned for their abuse of the system, political parties seem afraid to tackle the underlying issue – why a system that is so easy to abuse exists in the first place. The fact is, it is a lack of proper legislation that allows companies to use workers in this way. While Dunnes have acted repugnantly, the lax laws governing zero-hour contracts mean it is essentially impossible to show that they have done anything illegal.
It is ironic that the Labour Party’s response to this situation is to wring their hands and ask the captains of industry to maybe be so kind as to treat workers better, instead of living up to their name and legislating so that this isn’t allowed to happen. Ask the owner of any large business what the main goal is and they will tell you that it is to deliver maximum profit. As such, the interests of workers often come second to businesses, and it is the role of government to step in and produce appropriate legislation to address this imbalance.
Responding by merely hoping that Dunnes might change their behaviour, when you yourself are in a position to enforce the correct treatment of workers is either extremely naïve or just cowardly. Saying that you’d like it if the workers got their way, while not lifting a finger to help them, when you have the capacity to settle the entire dispute shows just how blindly in thrall to business this government is. Wanting Ireland to have strong enterprise is one thing, but not bothering to fix one of the most serious sources of exploitation and abuse of employees – zero-hour contracts – is an entirely different matter and is entirely inexcusable. What is clear is that this dispute won’t be solved by politicians taking selfies with the striking workers to promote their own image, or vague statements in favour of the worker from parties who aren’t actually willing to do anything (If you want a lesson in vaguery check out the Labour Party’s statement of support which doesn’t mention zero-hour contracts even once). If you want to see another indication of how much the government is dedicated to appearance over action, just look at the low wage commission that they have established. By mandating it to examine the minimum wage and that alone, the government has chosen to ignore the multitude of other problems, some just as serious as the minimum wage. The flaw in this is illustrated perfectly by the Dunnes example – even if the minimum wage was raised, it would be small comfort to someone who has their hours cut in half by a vindictive manager.
The answer to the question of what is to be done is not a complex one. In general, we have a problem in this country with the expanding amount of low wage work and with employers employing people to do more work for fewer hours. They are able to do this because the recession has created a job market where the employer is free to exploit how badly people need jobs. Without the luxury of choice, employees are much more likely to accept worse terms of employment. The government is quite happy to take a laissez-faire approach to the growth of a low wage economy as long as they get some nice statistics about what a great place Ireland is for business – so that they can sell Ireland Inc. to more companies. This government relies on the support of those who are comfortable enough that they don’t need to think about the employment rights of the low-paid as important. In terms of this specific issue it is very clear that zero-hour contracts must be outlawed.
This would not be hard for the government to do, and the only reason they would not is for fear that employers would be annoyed at losing a tool that they can use to control and discipline employees without having to go through legal or regulatory obligations. There is no place for that type of contract in our economy or society. This is part of what we see as the Green solution for how employment is structured – we want to change how we value work and how we go about creating work in such a way that more people have access to meaningful employment, are allowed to live their lives outside of work, and work without fear of their employer abusing them because the state simply couldn’t be bothered fixing obvious legislative problems. We need to remedy this situation created by Labour and Fine Gael where the employer has capacity to exploit workers in a way that deliberately circumvents their legal protections, and to do that, zero-hour contracts absolutely have to go.
Lorna Bogue- Chair of the Young Greens