13 June 1997 Edition
Workers in struggle
New governments must face up to low wage problem
What are the building blocks of social justice? The right to housing, to education and healthcare are among the core requirements that spring immediately to mind and there can be no doubt that these are the most basic of human rights. However, another vital cornerstone of a just and equitable economy is the right to decent wage for your labour.
Throughout Ireland there are tens of thousands of workers whose wages and working conditions leave a lot to be desired. The difference in wages between the top fat cats and the lowly wage slaves are enormous. Wages in the Irish economy can vary from #2 an hour for exploited retail workers to six figure annual salaries for their bosses.
Take for example the case of Ryanair where baggage handlers had a basic wage of #9000 per annum while the company's chief executive had a salary package of over #17 million over the past four years.
Two new administrations in Britain and Ireland will over the coming weeks be coming to grips with government and the power it brings. They both have now a chance to set in motion the steps towards removing wage inequality in the Irish economy.
In Britain Tony Blair has set up a Low Pay Commission. Its deliberations will have a significant impact on the Six-County economy where an hourly wage of less than #2 is common in some occupations. The West Belfast Economic Forum told An Phoblacht that it intends to make a submission to the Commission and has begun assessing the impact of a minimum wage on the local economy.
One of the Forum's concerns is that a realistic minimum hourly rate must be set because too low a wage would only ``legitimise low pay''.
Tackling low wages is also an issue in the 26-County economy. In the run up to last week's Leinster House election Fianna Fáil promised an hourly minum wage of #3 an hour. Even though this would be an increase on the rate currently paid to thousands of workers, a spectrum of trade unionists contacted by An Phoblacht thought the hourly rate should be significantly higher.
Mick O'Reilly, General Secretary of the ATGWU, favoured a minimum wage of #5 an hour. National Bus and Rail Workers Union General Secretary Peter Bunting pointed out that the European Union had a decency threshold for the minimum weekly wage. In the 26 Counties this was #239 a week (just over #6.12 an hour for a 39 hour week), Bunting said. He added that he ``cannot understand why anyone would accept anything less'' and that he wouldn't expect his members to work for a lower weekly wage.
MANDATE national official Maurice Sheehan whose union represents the lowest paid workers in the economy said he believed that at the end of the current wage round in three years we should be targeting a minimum hourly wage of #5.
Sheehan also highlighted the complexity of the problem in terms of how such a wage would be implemented so that it would not result in lost jobs and other negative effects. Recent research from the USA, he said, showed that in one US state a minimum wage actually led to increased employment and economic growth.
Whatever about the complexities of this issue, one thing is clear, here is an economic problem that can be tackled on an all-island basis. It would be madness if different minimum wages were set either side of the border. Both of the new governments have a unique opportunity to act on the injustice of slave wages in Ireland. They can deliver this basic first step towards social justice.
Law Society accused of ``bullyboy tactics''
MANDATE negotiators had agreed a compromise formula for resolving the strike with the President of the Law Society but the local management rejected the deal
Forty seven secretaries, employers, porters and cleaners are beginning their 19th day on the picket line today. The MANDATE members are in dispute with the Law Society over what the union describes as an ``unnecessary episode'' when the society dismissed a young staff member. MANDATE have accused the Law Society of ``bullyboy tactics'' and breaking existing agreements.
The decision to take to the picket line was triggered by what the union claims is the unfair dismissal of a staff member. They believe that the dismissal is symptomatic of a much deeper problem between staff and management at the society that has ``festered for years''.
The strikers want to secure the following: Adherence by the Law Society to agreed rates of pay; The introduction of a grievance procedure; The removal of clauses in contracts of employment which specifically exclude certain staff from the protection of the Unfair Dismissals Act and deny them the modest wage increases provided for under the Partnership wage agreements; Full implementation of Labour Court Agreements and the introduction of fair rates of pay and holiday entitlements for all canteen staff.
MANDATE negotiators had agreed a compromise formula for resolving the strike with the President of the Law Society but the local management rejected the deal.
Maurice Sheehan, MANDATE national official, told An Phoblacht that he was disappointed the strike had not been resolved and that ``the behaviour of the Society in relation to this unnecessary episode has fallen way short of what one would expect from a professional body such as the Law Society, which represents the interests of 10,000 solicitors throughout Ireland''.
The dispute now goes to a hearing at the Labour Court tomorrow.
Burger King role model
Who can argue against the proposal that the World Bank be restructured and made more effective? Those interested in the plight of less developed economies in the Third World can usually cite a litany of cases where the free market dictats of the World Bank along with its sister organisation, the International Monetary Fund, wreaked havoc on the living standards and way of life of countless communities and states across Africa, Central and South America.
It stands to reason then that the World Bank needs to be reformed and the bank's President James Wolfensohn won approval for a restructuring programme. The only problem is that Wolfensohn is sending 300 of his top managers back to business school to learn to think more like Burger King. Yes, Burger King.
``They never knew the bank was so like Burger King, facing the same problems of improving the effectiveness with which it serves it clients,'' Wolfensohn said last week.
Just for the record, examples of Burger King ``thinking'' includes its policy of making staff take unpaid breaks when business was quiet. In one example an employee was paid the huge sum of #1 for a five hour shift. Publicity of the wage structure led to Burger King back pedalling and paying out #106,000 in back wages. One wonders what lessons can the World Bank learn from the home of the Whopper.