Mandate General Secretary speech to ICTU BDC Conference

Wednesday 27 October 2021

President, Delegates

In moving motion 25 the last thing I want to do is to fuel or intensify the competitive nature of the debates that have being doing the rounds in recent months as to which group of workers provided the most essential service and made the greatest contribution since the beginning of Covid-19. It is clearly obvious to all at this stage the workers we are talking about and the vital roles they performed and indeed continue to perform during this unprecedented global public health crisis. Delegates we owe them all our deepest gratitude and respect and we should as a union movement never stop fighting for the permanent recognition and reward that the undoubtedly deserve.

However, I make no apology in using my time at the podium here today to highlight the selfless bravery of the many thousands of retail workers who from day one faced the great unknown of the potentially life threatening dangers that the virus presented. They performed courageously and displayed a standard of not only service but indeed public duty that belies the low earning levels and poor working conditions that many have to endure. Given the statistical evidence that shows retail workers were amongst the highest cohorts exposed to contracting the virus there can be little doubt that some consequently died and paid the ultimate price in the performance of their duties. It is doubly tragic to think that some were brought to this point because of economic necessity.

Short of contracting the virus and becoming ill many others had to suffer the indignity of losing their jobs or significant reductions in income as the businesses they worked for either closed for good or shut down for lengthy periods of time.  In particular it would be wrong not to use this opportunity to mark the struggle of the men and women who paid a heavy price through the loss of their livelihoods in the likes of Debenhams and Arcadia to name but two major retailers who permanently ceased trading since March 2020.

It is indeed unfortunate that it has taken the pandemic to raise sufficient public awareness of the vital role played by retail workers however gratitude no matter how genuinely expressed will not in itself be enough to ensure that their efforts are not soon forgotten. Delegates the purpose of the motion before you that seeks your support is an attempt to lay the foundations to ensure that this does not happen. In this regard the work of the Retail Sector Group within Congress through its campaign “A New Deal for Retail and Distribution Workers” paves the path that we now must follow. The main objectives of the campaign are relevant now more than ever. Objectives such as:

  • The right to collectively bargain through a trade union
  • The right to a decent income
  • The right to other decent terms and conditions of employment such as paid sick leave, pensions, paid maternity and paternity leave
  • The right to adequate staffing levels

These are only some of the demands outlined in the main campaign document which can be accessed on the Congress website.

Of course we all know the attainment of these enhanced terms and conditions of employment are more likely to happen through a statutory right to collectively bargain and however achieved this key objective must remain the primary focus of the movement for delivery before we meet at the next BDC in two years’ time.

Despite the gratitude and reward that is unquestionably due to the men and women who staffed our retail outlets during the course of the pandemic some employers still don’t accept the reciprocal obligation this places on them. For many years representatives from Mandate have stood at podiums such as this decrying the behaviour of one of Irelands’ biggest and most profitable indigenous retailers, Dunnes Stores. Remarkable as it might sound Dunnes workers despite their heroic efforts over the past 20 months are still being denied by their employer the right to collective bargaining by a union of their choice. If Dunnes were ever looking for an appropriate moment to move their industrial relation model out of the dark ages surely they now have it. In an effort to highlight the ongoing plight of our Dunnes members we have commenced a public awareness campaign which up to this point has not surprisingly attracted huge support. I want to thank the trade unions and trade union members who have signed our petition on Uplift for their support, and I would also ask that each affiliate union places the link to the campaign on their own communication platforms in order to build maximum support and pressure on the employer.

As highlighted in our motion one of the important aspects of the New Deal for Retail & Distribution Workers campaign is it’s all island focus. Already in the south we have had opportunity to present the main objectives of the campaign to the relevant Dail committee and separately to the Minister for State with responsibility for retail. We are also part of a government initiative which has commissioned a study into the future of traditional bricks and mortar retailing. Our initial approaches in the north have been positively received and it is hoped to have similar productive political engagements in the near future.

Delegates the work of the Retail Sector Group within Congress has only just begun and the sister unions that make up its numbers are determined to deliver for retail workers who without question should command our gratitude, loyalty and support. The greatest manifestation of this is through supporting motion 25. Delegates I urge you to support.