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27 February 1997 Edition

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Workers in struggle: IDA's dead letter legacy

Do you ever wonder how economic and social policy decisions get taken in the 26 Counties? We know how they are supposed to happen. Policy should be formulated by the elected legislature, voted on and passed into law. Simple really, isn't it?

The Dublin Government last week, along with associated interest and pressure groups, gave a glimpse of another policy making process - a much more real one.

The topic was a new piece of health and safety legislation called the Working Time Bill. The bill will limit the working week to 48 hours. It also envisages that employees must have a break after six hours of consecutive work, that every working day should have a minimum rest period of eleven consecutive hours with at least one day off a week. Night workers should not have to work a shift more than eight hours long. Finally, all workers should get a minimum three weeks paid holiday a year rising to four weeks in 1999.

EU Paternalism

This legislation, however desirable, was not introduced because the Dublin Government felt such a bill was needed to protect Irish workers. They had to introduce the legislation before the end of last November. Otherwise they would have been in breach of an EU directive agreed by them with 10 other member states in 1993. Britain abstained on the vote and have ignored the directive.

Labour minister of State Eithne FitzGerald introduced the legislation right on the deadline last November.

Opposition to the bill from the PDs and Fianna Fáil was expected. As elected representatives they are supposed to comment critically on all legisation.

Other voices included the employers' organisations who were opposed to the bill. There was, though, little difference between their case against the bill and that of FF or the PDs. The bill was debated briefly, voted on, and sent to committee where it was discussed this week.

IDA pressure

Enter the IDA chief executive Kieran McGowan, an unelected official, a government appointee, who is responsible for a budget of over £89 million of taxpayers money. McGowan wrote to the Leinster House committee considering the legislation warning them that the bill would reduce workforce flexibility.

Britain, McGowan said, would take advantage of their opt-out from the legislation creating an image that Britain is ``more company friendly than Ireland''. He admits that the advantage of Britain not having the legislation ``may be more perceived than real'' but goes on to claim that the bill would ``put an unnecessary administrative burden on companies''. McGowan even argued that the legislation creates unrest among workers.

This view, put in a three page letter, was sent apparently in error. Someone in the IDA drafted the letter, possibly McGowan himself, he signed it, and someone posted or delivered it to Leinster House.

Rightwing Dogma

The next steps are more bizarre, the IDA over a matter of weeks formed a ``more mature view''. The letter didn't reflect current IDA policy. However, its contents were still leaked to the media last Friday. The leak prompted a wave of reaction.

Nowhere however was there surprise that the IDA as an unelected government agency were using their public position to influence legislation. There was no surprise as this is the way the IDA has always behaved.

The IDA is and always has been a government agency whose public pronouncements show an ideology rooted in right wing free market dogma. The IDA has always been a conduit for the needs of the multinationals it solicits investment from. Its voice has never been that of the Irish people.

This week the Dublin Government pulled back on the Working Time Bill saying that the legislation would be introduced over the next three years instead of immediately and a monitoring committee will oversee its implementation.

The IDA intervention won a small victory for multinational Ireland last week, and shows us all what it takes to influence economic policy in Ireland. All you need is a sheet of paper, an envelope and 32p for the stamp.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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