Message for International Workers’ Commemoration Day
Áras an Uachtaráin, Tuesday 28 April 2020
Is pribhléad mhór í cuireadh a fháil bheith páirteach i lá idirnáisiúnta comóradh na n’oibrithe atá imithe uainn ach atá beo fós in ár gcuimhne agus in ár gcroí.
It is indeed a privilege to receive an invitation from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to be part of your International Workers’ Commemoration Day, when we celebrate the lives and contribution of those no longer with us but alive in our minds and hearts.
For thirty-one years now, the 28th April has been a day during which people around the world pause and remember, together, those who have tragically lost their lives in the course of their work.
In Ireland we have, in recent decades, made considerable progress in recognising the rights of workers, including the moral and legal duty of employers to protect the health and the safety of their workers in the workplace. The introduction, in 1989, of landmark new legislation saw the establishment of the Health and Safety Authority which was, followed by significant and fundamental reform of Irish health and safety law.
That new chapter of Irish labour history addressed an important area of employment vulnerability, it acknowledged that the protection of the lives and health of workers was, as an issue, profoundly ethical in nature that placed a general obligation on State and society.
This year, sadly, we gather with our fellow workers across the globe at a time of unprecedented risk for those who work tirelessly and selflessly in our health services, and those who ensure the continued delivery of essential services and utilities on which our citizens depend.
Today we commemorate the many thousands around the world who have, through their generous and willing efforts in the service of others, lost their own lives to COVID-19, giving their lives for others with whom they shared the public world.
Let us, on a day like today, remember and celebrate also the many thousands more who continue to put their lives at risk in order to continue their important work, for the benefit of their fellow citizens.
To all those workers, who have responded to the Coronavirus crisis with such a generous spirit of solidarity, we owe, and future generations will owe, an enormous debt of gratitude. Gratitude, whose expression is so important, however, cannot be, and must not ever be, perceived as any adequate substitute for the dignity, well-being, and security of employment that is the right of all workers in any fair and inclusive society.
We have, in recent weeks, witnessed outstanding work carried out by those in jobs and professions that have been so often undervalued. The statistics tell us that over a quarter of confirmed cases of COVID-19 relate to healthcare workers, and our heart goes out to their loved ones. We have seen, and continue to benefit from, a dedication to public service and public safety, and a selfless response to the needs of others by those who have been, and are prepared to put their own health at risk for the health and safety of all.
We must welcome the praise, private and public, for those selfless and much appreciated workers. Yet praise alone, however, will not adequately protect the lives of vulnerable workers or safeguard them from subordination to economic efficiency.
It is only by closing the gap between words and action in relation to conditions, safety and provision that we can sufficiently and ethically commemorate those workers we honour here today.
The challenges we face in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, as we rebuild our society and economy, are critical as are the practical choices facing employers, workers and enterprise.
We are fortunate that such aspects have been thoughtfully and rigorously addressed, in a consensual way, in a new report by Ireland’s National Economic and Social Council – ‘Addressing Employment Vulnerability as Part of a Just Transition in Ireland – N.E.S.C. 149’.
It would be regrettable, indeed a loss of historic proportions, if the pressure of contemporary events led to the neglect of this valuable report addressing as it does the challenges that will endure beyond the current crisis and identifying recommendations to help Ireland’s response.
We must embed, through a shared consensus in the economy and society, the wisdom that has been unearthed during the COVID-19 pandemic with regard to the value we place on frontline workers and those providing essential services across the economy. It would be an egregious error if, through some form of collective amnesia, we as a society were to forget the efforts of these workers, and revert to the place we were too often before the crisis – a society that often failed to value sufficiently these essential, valuable workers who have made such a contribution to the country during this dark chapter, many, as we acknowledge today, paying the ultimate price.
As we navigate our way towards a shared and better future we must resolve to build a lasting memorial to those brave and selfless workers. Indeed let us recall the battle cry of Cork born activist Mary ‘Mother’ Jones and the motto that lies at the heart of this important day:
“Remember the dead, fight like hell for the living”.
Today as we remember, then, those workers in our shared history who lost their lives, some on the right to decent work, some on the right to organise, some in the practice of their work. Let us ensure their legacy will be an enduring one.
Let us commit to continuing our appreciation by being in solidarity with all those whose contribution is so vital during this difficult time, recognising and enabling their right to protection, to be represented, to participate, to job security and decent working conditions, now and into the future where work will, in an enduring way, be recognised for the defining human activity that it is.