“On the Post-Covid World of Work: The Centrality of the Trade Union Response”
SIPTU Conference, Sligo, 29th March 2022
May I say how delighted I was to receive an invitation to be here with you in Sligo as you gather for the SIPTU Biennial National Delegate Conference. May I begin by thanking Secretary-General Joe Cunningham for the invitation to address you all at what is an important event that is discussing the future form of economy and, within it, work. The world of work is on the cusp of great changes. Work represents the expression of our human essence – the way we work, what it means to us, and how we balance our lives together, define the society of which we are a part.
As we emerge from two brutal years of pandemic which have had such devastating consequences at so many levels – personal, societal, cultural and economic – we owe it to the victims of the pandemic, as well as those who risked their own health working in the provision of frontline and essential services, not to shirk the opportunity that now presents itself to reflect, take stock and learn the lessons that the pandemic provoked for us. We have an opportunity to return to neglected questions that pertain to the world of work, how we valued it, ranked its different forms, appreciated it, acknowledged it in payment terms.
Experiencing the pandemic has informed a heightened recognition which, I believe, now exists across society regarding issues that are inextricable related, such as work-life balance, employer flexibility, remote working and, most importantly, the need to value our essential and frontline workers who have been undervalued, and, in so many instances, underpaid, sometimes egregiously, for so long.
The pandemic has eroded the often artificial and divisive distinction between the public and private sectors. Regardless of their sector, employer, or occupational activity, SIPTU members were engaged in maintaining the essentials of the economy. Day after day, they took on risks to personal health to ensure the continued production and delivery of goods and services without which a modern society cannot function, and on which so many depended.
In doing so, SIPTU members secured the public good, kept society and economy operating at an essential, basic level while we attempted to suppress the virus’s spread. How appropriate it is then that your first motion today relates to frontline workers, whom I once again wish to acknowledge, and to whom I express gratitude on behalf of all citizens of this country.
In some respects, the world of work and labour markets around the world had already commenced a process that was yielding significant transformations when Covid-19 first emerged in early 2020. Now it is clear that the pandemic has accelerated such changes in the labour market that had already begun to take effect. The pandemic has prompted a profound reassessment of how we work, where we work, even why we work, all of which has to come out of negotiation and in the design of which there must be a lead role for trade unions and their membership.
As the pandemic recedes, we must not fall for the fallacy that there will no longer be challenges and disruptions that face society and workers in particular. These challenges had already been recognised by trade unions and the consultative bodies of which they are a part, such as the National Economic and Social Council who had outlined these quite brilliantly in NESC Report No. 149: Addressing Employment Vulnerability as Part of a Just Transition in Ireland.
There will be other disruptions, and regrettably possibly other pandemics or crises that undoubtedly will have profound consequences for our societies, our economies and the world of work. Yes, this means adapting, adjusting, prioritising, and creating resilience to manage the changes already recognised, but also we must anticipate externally sourced instability. This means embracing some new insights and capabilities that experiencing Covid-19 has revealed. Those insights, however, have to be expanded, reimagined to create the connectedness between economy, society and ecological sustainability that we now need.
Now is the time to define a new period of leadership to achieve these outcomes, not just for the trade union movement, but for all of us. It is the trade union movement that can be credibly looked to for both ambition and realism, to focus on what might be termed ‘the art of the possible’ that is embedded in the international vision that unions have historically exemplified.
By the art of the possible, I suggest this can be envisioned in terms of what we can achieve together, tapping humans’ endless capabilities within a framework of protective, inclusive labour rights that safeguard workers, particularly the most vulnerable, from the recent, often regressive, trends in the world of work – so-called innovations that merely represent advances insofar as they maximise productivity, efficiency, profitability, often at the expense of workers’ hard-won rights.
Now is the time to challenge how we think about the world of work, and technology, so that we can identify and unleash human potential and flourishing, make work and employment as satisfying and rewarding as it should be for everyone in every sector of the labour market, and protect those who, for whatever reason, are outside the basic protections and possibilities of the labour market, from falling into poverty and exclusion.
I have so often been struck by the reluctance of those who claim to be fervent, enthusiastic democrats to acknowledge the contribution of trade unions. What they have secured, what they have protected us from, how they are our bond to democracy.
Members will know that I am preparing reflections on how we experienced our lives in desperate conditions a century ago. I have been struck by how the noble – and I call it that – contribution of the trade union is not given proper place in the historiography.
Now is a good time to reflect on the unique role that the trade union movement has played in quelling sectarianism, violence and intimidation on this island. As the only mass organisation that unites workers from all communities to fight for their common interests, the trade union movement must redouble its efforts, undertake that vital role of reaching out to all workers and overcoming sectarianism. It is trade unionists who can best do this. For example, there are writers who, with credibility, have suggested that if the trade unions had held out in the period 1965-68, civil rights would have been the prevailing emphasis, that trade unions were better at managing extremists than any narrow version of Nationalism or Orangeism.
At key points during the course of the ‘Troubles’, the trade union movement was able to mobilise workers in united action – with demonstrations, walk-outs and strikes – in response to sectarian threats or attacks. This is a tradition of which trade unions can always be proud, and to which I know they will always return. It must not be confined to the floors of conference halls.
Of course when one looks at what would have saved lives, be it in the War of Independence, the Clune Proposals for instance, the lives lost in the Civil War, the calls for peace, it is the trade unions, and the Labour Party led by Tom Johnson, who are most active in making that case. They too are the ones who spearheaded the visits to prisons and were the first in the field for every piece of legislation dealing with rights as to one’s sexuality or identity. It is easy to list where they gave way to conservative forces. It is, however, only fair surely to acknowledge where and when they and trade unions stood alone.
The most effective way that we can challenge sectarianism is to bring workers from both communities together in the struggle for our common interests. I know that union activists do this, are doing so in their branch and their workplace, and can respond to a rise in sectarianism which is devastating working class communities and which has been fuelled, in part, by those anti-EU sentiments that have been galvanised as a result of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
Preparations that must anticipate any false divisions in the workplace must go hand in hand with a renewed discussion on how unions can, in the same way that they challenged the austerity agenda in Dublin, Stormont and Westminster, contribute now to the delivery of a new paradigm of an ethical, sustainable and inclusive society – an eco-social model that I and others have been advocating which has emerged ever stronger from the scholarly work of some of the best heterodox economists. It is now finding its way into the discussions and reports of the OECD, European Commission and other international organisations not known for espousing radical or left-wing ideas. The eco-social model represents our best hope, too, of recovering lost social cohesion.
Trade union members, I feel, are best positioned to give leadership. They are not single-issue activists and can best see how forms of consciousness must combine to achieve change.
The unfolding disaster in Ukraine brought about by the completely unjustified, unprovoked, immoral military invasion by Russia, presents great challenges to our international institutions, to the various protections in international humanitarian law. It is leading to great economic and societal upheaval, and mass migration on a scale not seen since the Second World War. These developments are already impacting on the Irish economy and society. They will have impacts on the world of work, and will fundamentally challenge us all. The leadership that the trade union movement will be called on to give will not be confined to the workplace. Theirs is a perspective that can define the society of justice and ecological responsibility.
Facing these challenges, we can draw on the type of solidarity demonstrated during the pandemic, but also on so much of the trade union history and tradition, including opening our borders, offering refuge and a safe haven for people on a scale never witnessed before. The values of solidarity, so amply demonstrated during the pandemic, will need to be re-invoked, given new expression and meaning.
In the immediate days and weeks since the invasion on Ukraine and the assault on its citizens, it is heartening to witness how so many Irish citizens, and indeed those across the globe, have united in their support for the Ukrainian people, offering food, aid and other forms of assistance to those fleeing the war.
May I suggest, as has often happened in history, be it in Ireland, Chile or Columbia, that the trade union movement has always played an important initiating role in response to humanitarian crises. It already is happening: Ukrainian trade unions have been providing food and shelter amid invasion, organised labour is helping to welcome refugees across Eastern Europe countries, and unions across Europe have been calling for greater humanitarian and emergency support from Governments.
When those who have come to join us have settled in Ireland, I suggest that Irish trade unions will be among the already incredibly welcoming people who will play a vital role in ensuring that Ukrainian refugees will enjoy all of our rights, including full access to the labour market, and other economic and social rights, such as financial supports, as provided for in the Temporary Protection Directive. This important Directive gives those seeking refuge an immediate right of access to the labour market, housing, social welfare, healthcare, education, training and other supports.
New Ways of Working
As to the new ways of working – remote working, working near home, and hybrid or blended working, are set to become one of the biggest global trends that remain with us as lockdowns ease and the normal patterns of life return across societies. Covid-19 has demonstrated the effectiveness of remote working in appropriate circumstances and provision of means of, for example, technology access, and survey after survey indicates that a blended form of remote and office-based working is the preference for the majority of workers as we emerge from the pandemic.
During the pandemic, remote working undoubtedly saved countless lives and prevented the closure of many businesses. One-in-three workers across the labour market started working from home in the last two years. Many companies – from small to multinational giants – have publicly announced a long-term shift to permanent remote working, claiming that office centricity is a thing of the past, and surveys demonstrate that 80 percent of European employers require or are considering more employees to work remotely once the pandemic is over.
This cultural shift places demands on employers across the private and public sectors to endeavour to accommodate these new preferences that have emerged in the expanded work environment—which includes the ecosystem of physical and virtual workplaces. This shift to home working requires, too, the management of expectations around how we collaborate, engage, and relate to each other in virtual settings.
What is at stake here is not a concession of options, but a negotiated practical agreement in how work and workers’ rights are best protected. There is a real challenge as to how the concept of collective action – central to trade union organisation – can be crafted so that the unity that has been trade unions’ strength can be maintained.
Importantly, we need to be aware of the real possibilities of a downside –isolation, burnout, low morale, workers feeling disconnected and excluded, as well as the risks of intensified work and extended working hours.
Such detrimental effects are with us already and can be seen, if neglected, as a serious erosion of workers’ fundamental rights, fair working conditions, fair remuneration, working time and work-life balance, health and safety at work, and gender equality.
We thus need better, newer, innovative and realisable protection for workers in our new digital reality to ensure the wellbeing of all workers, both when they are not working—at home with their family in the evening, on leave, or on holidays—and when they work from home. It is possible that these new paradigms of working can be turned, indeed used as an asset that benefits everyone, both workers and employers, but the trade union movement has a crucial role to play, not just in a protective sense, for example in mitigating their adverse effects on workers’ rights, but in their design and implementation. We have examples available to us.
The European Parliament’s ‘Right to Disconnect’ Resolution, and proper legal frameworks for telework, including the Code of Practice signed by the Tánaiste on behalf of the Irish Government on 1st April 2021, should be seen as essential policy instruments that can be used to protect workers’ rights and ensuring decent working conditions in the future of work post-Covid. Unions’ role in ensuring that this Code is enforced across all sectors will be vital.
The benefits of these new ways of working are potentially many and significant, far beyond the workplace. The reduced congestion and environmental emissions reductions that will arise from forgone trips travelling to and from the office are just one very significant advantage.
Then, too, are the financial savings for many, who face reduced commuting costs. We can think also of the manner in which such a model, if implemented correctly, with safeguards to protect employees, can facilitate better work-life balance, improved quality of life and human happiness, with the potential to make our world a healthier place and foster a sense of community and support for local businesses and communities. It can address the two-sided problem of rural decay and urban congestion and help implement real regional planning.
What is essential is seeing the full picture of economy, society, environment as connected. Activists must combine, see and respect each other’s priorities.
In addition to how we work, the past two years have also seen workers rethink why we work, and what we most want to do with our careers and our lives. Globally, data from the World Economic Forum demonstrates that employees are voting with their feet. In October 2021, the share of members changing roles was up a quarter compared to the pre-pandemic period in October 2019, as employees are taking their experience and skills to new roles at an accelerated pace.
Such survey data also reveal how workers are more likely to transition into new industries, reporting a desire for many, not just for better compensation, but for better alignment with their values. It is a fallacy to suggest, however, that it is an evolutionary inevitability for all, and age matters. Work, income, life and community are connected to the stages of the life cycle for many workers, and they have established and earned rights.
Such a move, as the World Economic Forum speaks of, can prompt positive change in the labour market, with employees more empowered to negotiate terms than in the past and to play their part in the transformation to a paradigm of a more ethical and sustainable society and economy.
Not all of the trends that we have experienced resulting from the pandemic can be seen as positive from a labour and trade union perspective. The economic uncertainty of the pandemic has caused many workers to lose their jobs and has exposed others for the first time to non-standard, precarious work models.
While some organisations have recognised the humanitarian crisis of the pandemic and prioritised the wellbeing of employees, others have pushed employees to work in conditions that are high-risk, with precarious or little support.
A survey by the Dublin-based European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions suggests that women and young people have borne the greatest burden of the crisis. Shockingly, it found that two-thirds of 18-34-year-olds are now at risk of depression.
For women, work-life balance has suffered disproportionately throughout the pandemic, especially for women with young children, and the appalling statistics regarding increased domestic violence have been a shocking trend during the pandemic. Trade unions, I know, are anxious to play an important part in ensuring that wellbeing will become a central element in human resource policies so that workers’ mental and physical health is safeguarded.
We are far from being likely to see in the short term that which we seek, knowing, as we do, what is best for our shared, peaceful future. Oxfam’s latest report, Inequality Kills, indicates that the world’s richest 10 men have doubled their wealth during the pandemic, and a new billionaire was created every 26 hours. On the other hand, 160 million people globally have been pushed into poverty during the same timeframe, and, shockingly, the incomes of 99 percent of humanity are worse off because of Covid-19.
Widening economic, gender, and racial inequalities—as well as the inequality that exists between countries—are tearing our world apart, ripping apart the remaining shreds of social cohesion and solidarity.
Here in Ireland, the pandemic has deepened existing inequalities. That is a fact that has been empirically demonstrated – and the welfare state now faces huge challenges in dealing with the pre-pandemic structural issues that Covid-19 has exacerbated, issues related to accessing appropriate and affordable housing, healthcare, childcare and education.
The distributive effects of the pandemic response were, overall, more favourable to the already privileged and well-off. What we now need is not surely a just recovery, but a release of energy for a decent society, equal in all of its aims. Campaigning for universal basic services seems very logical, and of course it is not at the cost of the movement for basic income
Rising consumer price inflation, driven primarily by rapidly increasing energy prices, which itself drives price increases in other goods, is resulting in the cost of living soaring while wages for many remain stagnant or declining in real terms.
The increasing prevalence of in-work poverty has resulted in the growing phenomenon of the ‘working poor’, a consequence of unstable, precarious, low-paid and temporary jobs. Entering work does not, by definition, provide a sustainable route out of poverty owing to the widespread prevalence of low-paid jobs, flexible and zero-hours’ contracts and other innovations that are increasing the numbers who are now termed ‘precariats’.
Low-paid, temporary and insecure jobs have created a new poverty trap, one made all the more difficult to escape in the aftermath of the pandemic. There is a danger that an ‘any-job-will-do’ mantra may dictate welfare and enterprise policy as countries struggle to cope with the political, economic and societal pressures that the pandemic is likely to bring in its wake.
Archaic assumptions persist on the part of some employers about the achievement of often crude metrics based on efficiency and productivity. This fixation is based on an unchallenged set of assumptions grounded in a neoliberal economic paradigm that dates from the early 1980s and had continued for four decades gaining momentum, which has not gone but run into hiding in the thickets of bad capital and destructive economics.
Chief among this paradigm’s assumptions is the notion that an organisation can only thrive if it strives to achieve the maximisation of productivity and efficiency at any cost, regardless of social or human welfare impacts. I believe there is now a recognition that we need to move away from this paradigm and embrace a transition from designing for efficiency to designing for resilience and ethical sustainability in a post-pandemic world.
Then, too, is the trend of rapidly increasing digitalisation of the global economy, galvanised by the pandemic, and the need for safeguards to protect those who will be left behind or exploited by such a trend.
We see the adverse impacts of digitalisation manifesting across society, perhaps most acutely in the banking and financial services sector where branches continue to close, staff are redeployed to back office services or made redundant, and the customer experience is ever-diminished, all of this rationalised in the name of efficiency, flexibility, productivity.
Digitalisation can yield positive, shared results. It need not be wholly negative if offered within a social-economic model, ensuring that workers are covered by employment law and collective agreements.
The pandemic has the potential to usher in a new era for workers’ rights. May I suggest that trade unions are presented now with an opportunity to ensure that a major change is brought to fruition with regard to workers’ rights in Ireland.
This could include advancing crucial policy agendas, such as a move to achieving support for universal basic services and an appropriate living wage, the need for access to an occupational pension, the right to disconnect from work, the right to seek remote working arrangements, new legislation for statutory sick pay arrangements, and, perhaps most importantly, a new approach to collective bargaining and industrial relations giving greater power to trade unions which is the subject of several motions of your conference
May I suggest, too, that now is a good time for an all-out effort to be made among unions, such as SIPTU, to drive up membership among those workers in sectors that are traditionally less well represented by union membership, such as the technology and pharmaceutical sectors, as well as those in the so-called ‘gig economy’ who have been effectively ignored.
Climate Change and Just Transition
Climate change remains the biggest existential crisis we face as a society. Yet, Covid-19, and now the Ukrainian defence against invasion, with all its consequences, has pushed climate change down the policy agenda. While there was some progress at COP26, and the green skills we need to transition our economy are growing, it is clear that the pace we need in order to achieve the low-carbon transition is far too slow. The latest IPCC reports make for grim reading and constitute a dire warning about the consequences of inadequate action.
The window of opportunity to act on climate change is closing worryingly fast: climate change is “widespread, rapid, and intensifying” and “major climate changes are now inevitable and irreversible”. Over 40 percent of the world’s population is already being significantly impacted by climate change, with the poorest being impacted most adversely.
A mindset shift is thus needed across all of society, not only from governments to employers, but to citizens who are asked to set aside their indifference, and may I suggest that unions can be at the vanguard in helping to deliver this shift now urgently needed if we are to avoid runaway and catastrophic climate change.
Every worker and employer has a role to play in the transition to an eco-social paradigm of ecological sustainability and inclusive and ethical society. This does not mean the mere application of a green lens to specific aspects of our jobs and lifestyles.
Rather, it requires a new way of existence, in harmony with nature, resonating with the world, recognising the importance of resiliency, the limits of the world’s natural resources, as well as acknowledging the role that unrestrained greed has played in creating the climate crisis.
The suggested new paradigm envisages a more equal and moral society, one in which the State is seen as a provider of quality universal services for its citizens, services that are seen as an investment in society rather than a burden, services that provide decent jobs for workers. Such a model has gained traction, achieving a consensus in many parliaments.
An eco-social paradigm encompasses, too, the need for a just transition for those impacted by the closure of unsustainable carbon-intensive electricity production, for example, who must be offered re-skilling opportunities to enable them to find suitable jobs in other areas, such as the green economy, or upskilling opportunities that can achieve sustainable incomes in other parts of society.
At the European Union level, the European Green Deal is a crucial strategic intervention aiming to transform the EU into a resource-efficient economy, ensuring no net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050, economic growth decoupled from resource use, and a just transition in which no person and no place is left behind. A model for such a just transition has been made available to us by Ireland’s National Economic and Social Council, whose 2020 Report, as I have already suggested, provides a framework within which the transition to a new political economy may be a just transition.
The importance of achieving a just transition – based on the principles of equality, participation, and protection of the marginalised – is ever more relevant because of the Covid-19 crisis, its aftermath and how we design our recovery, and is aligned with our obligations under the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda.
The trillion-euro European Green Deal has the potential to be a lifeline out of the pandemic, may assist in bringing to fruition a paradigm shift away from the Anthropocene to a new era that brings about an eco-social industrial revolution. However, such a strategic intervention requires that education, training and skills development be placed at its core, together with improved co-operation between member states.
We also need, it has been suggested by a diversity of scholarly and spiritual thinkers and writers, a new social contract between citizen and state. Minouche Shafik, in her recent book, What We Owe Each Other, presents a compelling case that a more generous and inclusive society would also share risks more collectively.
Acknowledging Amartya Sen’s Capabilities Approach, she suggests that such a society would broaden opportunities, and ask citizens to contribute for as long as they can and wish to, so that everyone can fulfil their potential. Shafik identifies the key elements of a more generous social contract, one founded on solidity, solidarity and harmony, one that recognises our interdependencies, supports and invests more in each other, to build a more inclusive, cohesive society together.
How we emerge from this pandemic will be vitally important to the future of workers’ rights. Let us all commit to play our part in the creation of a society that removes the obstacles standing between so many of our people and their full participation. Let us commit to valuing those heroic workers who have risked their lives and their security to support us. Let us keep defending their rights as the founders of the trade union movement did more than a century ago.
There never was a more appropriate, more exciting time to be a part of the trade union movement for a future of equality, justice and sustainability, one that will carry the imprint of the trade union’s emancipatory imprint.
I wish your conference every success.
Míle buíochas is beir beannacht.
 See European Foundation (2021). ‘ Workers want to telework but long working hours, isolation and inadequate equipment must be tackled’ – available here: https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/publications/article/2021/workers-want-to-telework-but-long-working-hours-isolation-and-inadequate-equipment-must-be-tackled
 European Foundation (2021). Op. cit.
 Nabil Ahmed, Anna Marriott, Nafkote Dabi, Megan Lowthers, Max Lawson, Leah Mugehera (2022). ‘Inequality kills: The unparalleled action needed to combat unprecedented inequality in the wake of COVID-19’. Oxfam International.
 See, for example, ‘Pandemic exposes income inequalities in Irish society’ by Deirdre Curran, Lucy-Ann Buckley, Kate Kenny, Gary Goggins, and Áine Ní Léime (2021). Work Organisation & Society Cluster of the Whitaker Institute at NUI Galway – available here:
 IPCC (2021). ‘Sixth Assessment Report’, United Nations: Geneva.
 IPCC (2022). IPCC Working Group II Report, ‘Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’, United Nations: Geneva
 NESC (2020). ‘Addressing Employment Vulnerability as Part of a Just Transition in Ireland’, March 2020, Report No. 149, NESC: Dublin.
 Shafik, Minouche (2021). What We Owe Each Other: A New Social Contract, Penguin: London.