First, I want to thank Owen for his address and ask him to take back our fraternal greetings to Patricia and the members of the ICTU National Executive Council. I also want to reassure Owen that Mandate will continue to be proactively engaged across the various functions of Congress and in this regard, we intend to remain a driving force behind the New Deal for Retail and Distribution Workers’ campaign.
Delegates, it is truly a great honour and pleasure as General Secretary to address this our first delegate conference in four years. As previous speakers have already said little could any of us have imagined as we departed from our last conference in Wexford back in 2018 the unprecedented and life changing circumstances we were about to face into and the massive disruptive global impact that the Covid 19 pandemic would have on us all. Of course, the reality is as we gather here for this conference that these consequences still prevail, and their chilling effects will sadly be felt for many years to come. The current infection rates have seriously impacted on the attendance levels at this conference, and I want to wish all our delegates who had to cry off at the last moment a speedy recovery.
Covid only served to rapidly replace and distract us from the worries and challenges created by Brexit, however that is not to say they have gone away as we have yet to experience the full fallout of the UK’s decision to leave the EU.
Just when we thought we had seen off the worst of the pandemic we were then thrust into dealing with the disastrous global impacts arising from the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. As we all know the fallout from the war in Ukraine also directly impacted the running of this conference and I have to say the way you the delegates responded to the inconvenience caused is a clear demonstration of what true solidarity and compassion is all about, and I thank you for that. As we attempt to deal with our own domestic challenges our minds must never drift too far away from the trauma being endured by our Ukrainian visitors who temporarily dwell a mere hundred meters or so from this conference hall.
So much has happened in such a short period of time and one thing is certain none of it has been good for traditional bricks and mortar retail or indeed retail workers. The fact that we have been able to gather so many of you in this room under these difficult circumstances is an indication of your true activism. Even at the last moment a failure of the postal service could not deter your collective commitment. It’s great to have you back at a physical conference so let’s make the most of our few days together.
Though many have attempted to claim the mantle there are few groups of workers who can justifiably say that over the last two years in particular, they performed not only essential work but indeed work that went beyond contractual obligation and far into the realm of civic duty, retail workers are one such group. From day one of the pandemic, you turned up for work to face the great uncertainties posed by the potentially deadly virus. You 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 of you must endure. Statistical evidence shows retail workers were amongst the highest cohorts exposed to contracting the virus so 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 they were brought to this point because of economic necessity. The moment of silence that we observed earlier was not only fitting but truly deserved.
Delegates, I think this moment is appropriate to reaffirm our call for the reintroduction of mandatory face masks to be worn by the public in retail settings. After what our members have been through over the past two years, they deserve nothing less. We must not let our guards down and strive to protect them to the highest level possible until the current wave of excessive infection rates has passed. Even if this call falls on deaf ears in the government we ask all shoppers to mask up and give retail workers the genuine respect and support that they have truly earned.
Short of contracting the virus and becoming ill, many other retail and bar workers 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. Specifically, 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 two major retailers who permanently ceased trading since March 2020. For 406 days ex Debenhams workers stood on picket lines fighting for what they believed was rightfully theirs and to ensure that other workers in the future would not endure the same mistreatment they suffered. Delegates I am not going to stand here today and pretend that the Debenhams dispute from the perspective of everybody involved in it was easy to prosecute. Neither am I going to suggest that the union got everything right during the dispute, however much unjustified and harsh public criticism was directed mainly at the National Executive Council and in some cases, this was done by those not directly involved in the dispute.
To this day your union continues to support the ex-Debenhams members whether through direct involvement on the oversight committee responsible for the distribution of the €3m training and development fund or through the handling of the thousands of outstanding cases that have still yet to be heard at the Workplace Relations Commission. However, the greatest recognition we can give to the ex-Debenhams strikers is to make sure that their struggle was not in vain, and to continuously show we are doing everything in our power to ensure that the legacy of their dispute is both meaningful and tangible. From the early stages of the dispute Mandate joined with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in a call for changes to both employment and company law in order that workers are treated in a fairer and more equitably way in the event that the business in which they work goes into liquidation. I want to assure you that the campaign for such change is still ongoing. Whist some initial steps have been achieved much more needs to be done.
That is why delegates I am calling on the government to accelerate the process of change and introduce what’s necessary as a matter of urgency. The names of retail giants such as Clerys, Debenhams and Arcadia have gone down in history for all the wrong reasons as far as their ex-employees are concerned. So, in their wake let there be no more reports left gathering dust on a shelf, no more hollow words of sympathy and support from our legislators, the time for action is now. Let the message go out loud and clear from this conference we are not prepared to wait for the next big closure along with the consequential job losses and mistreatment of workers, we demand change, and we demand it now.
One of the great characteristics of the trade union movement is an ability to strengthen and grow out of adversity, and Mandate Trade Union is no different. That is why delegates this conference, and its theme “essential work-decent wages” is very much focused on the future in a confident and determined fashion. We must now draw a line in the sand to ensure that society never again undervalues the role of retail workers and that the many fine accolades directed at you and your fellow members during the course of Covid are not allowed to drift away and be quickly forgotten. Once off payments or indeed public holidays will simply not cut it, what is needed from this point forward is meaningful and permanent improvements to your terms and conditions of employment. Of course, saying this is one thing, setting out a credible pathway to achieve it is another. The route of greatest possibility opens up when employers are prepared to collectively bargain with trade unions and their members. However, we cannot depend on the good will of employers to act decently. The government must step up to the plate and introduce legislation which allows workers and their union of choice the statutory power to collectively bargain, with all employers not just the willing few. A constitutional right to be a member of a trade union is meaningless unless workers are afforded the opportunity to fully vindicate that right. The interests of workers will never be afforded parity unless they are allowed collectively bargain with their employer in a meaningful way. The time is long overdue for the introduction of legislation which mirrors that of other European States which afford workers this status. So today delegates I’m setting the Minister with current responsibility, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, a task and that is to introduce this legislation as a matter of urgency. Would it not be appropriate that he marks his return to the role of Taoiseach in December of this year with having this legislation in place?
Delegates I am also using the occasion of my address today to call for the current living wage of €12.90 to be immediately introduced as the new hourly entry point of pay for all retail workers along with commensurate pay increases for longer serving members of staff in recognition of the selfless way they served us during the course of the pandemic. No longer can it be argued with any justification that the value of your collective contribution to both business and society generally doesn’t deserve such recognition. It goes without saying that such hourly increases must not negatively impact on the number of weekly hours available to workers in order to ensure the maintenance of the highest weekly earnings thresholds possible. I know that the Low Pay Commission is currently tasked by the Tánaiste to explore the possibility of raising the minimum wage to the current living wage rate and I would urge that the Commission recommends this as a matter of urgency.
Clearly delegates the negative impact of Covid has also been greatly felt by all associated with your union not least those charged with the responsibility of overseeing its operation. In this regard I want to recognise the efforts of the outgoing members of the National Executive Council. Because of the unique circumstances they had to deal with never in the history of the union has a Council held office for so long and during the past four years, they have had to deal with not only significant losses in membership but also key activists. But they did what was required and indeed went beyond the call of duty and we should all feel indebted to them. I want also to mark the contribution of the staff of the union who ensured that we moved in a seamless fashion to deal with the many challenges created by Covid. Their number one priority was and always will be the needs of our members.
Covid robbed us of many things and as the President, Denise has already alluded to one of these was an opportunity to afford a decent farewell to my predecessor as General Secretary, John Douglas who retired in 2020. John and I soldiered for many years going right back to the INVUGATA union and I know better than most the degree of dedication he has given to the cause of working people and his was a working life well served. I’m delighted that John could join us here in person and I want to add along with you good wishes to him, Patricia, and the family for many years of healthy and happy retirement.
Delegates notwithstanding the significant challenges we have had to face in the past few years I want to assure you that Mandate Trade Union is still alive and well and the extent to which we can shape and influence working conditions within the retail sector in the future is only limited by our willingness and commitment to make things happen. Truly the time has come for retail workers to assert themselves like never before. We must leave behind once and for all the perception that retail work and the conditions associated with it, along with its overall contribution to society, belongs to some kind of secondary and passive workforce. Together all of us must join in common purpose to strengthen and grow our proud union and create a force to be reckoned with. Never forget greater density whether that be at the individual business level or across the sector generally means greater power. Used appropriately we can use that power to create a better future for all our current and prospective union members. Of course, this power extends beyond the negotiating table and must be used to bring political pressure to bear to shape the broader socio-economic changes that all workers and their dependents not only demand but deserve. However, we need the proper tools to argue for and achieve these objectives, and, in this regard, information is key and that is why your union has commissioned for the first time in nearly ten years relevant research, the potential value of which you will hear more about when Conor McCabe addresses conference tomorrow. Already in his preliminary findings Conor points to the many inequalities that exist and the clear imbalances of power when it comes to workers, capital and indeed the state. His final work will no doubt inform and empower us in the fight for the removal of these obstacles which have prevailed and worked against the interests of working people for far too long.
Delegates, I wish you a successful and enjoyable conference and yes given the past two years it’s important that you also use this occasion to socialise and enjoy yourselves. Let us vow to look to the future with a sense of confidence and renewal. Finally, I want to wish those running in the various elections the best of luck and I know regardless of who is elected, this union will be in good and safe hands for many years to come.
Have a great two days