The challenges posed for workers — and the trade union movement — in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic was a central theme running through a more than 40-minute speech by President Michael D Higgins in Sligo today at SIPTU’s biennial conference.
Speaking for more than 40 minutes, he spoke of work changes that have been accelerated by the pandemic, not all of which, he said, are positive for workers.
Speaking to the more than 300 delegates in the Clayton Hotel, President Higgins pointed to work changes that have emerged faster as a result of the Covid pandemic, as well as the rising costs of living with stagnant or declining wages in real terms, and the importance of the trade union response to those changes..
He said now is the time to challenge how we think about work and technology, to make work and employment as satisfying and rewarding as it should be for everyone in every sector.
He added that not all of the trends resulting from the pandemic are positive from a labour and trade union perspective, saying there needs to be an awareness of the downsides, which include isolation, burnout, low morale, workers feeling disconnected and excluded, as well as the risks of intensified work and extended working hours.
President Higgins, a lifelong union member himself, said we owe it to the victims of the pandemic, as well as those, including SIPTU members, who risked their own health working in frontline and essential services, not to shirk the opportunity that now presents itself to reflect, take stock and learn the lessons that the pandemic has provided.
For example, he said that for women, the work-life balance has suffered disproportionately throughout the pandemic, especially for women with young children.
And he said the appalling statistics regarding increased domestic violence has been a shocking trend during the pandemic.
President Higgins went on highlight the increasing prevalence of in-work poverty that has resulted in a growing phenomenon of ‘the working poor’, adding that entering work does not, by definition, provide a sustainable route out of poverty owing to the widespread prevalence of low-paid jobs.
He suggested now was a good time for an all-out effort by unions to drive up membership among workers not traditionally represented by unions,
And he specifically referred to those working in the so-called ‘gig economy’ who, he said, had effectively been ignored.
And he had strong words for the ill-effects of digitisation, an example being the changes in how banking services are being delivered, an issue particularly relevant here in the north west.
For longtime SIPTU members in the north west, President Higgins’s address to the conference in Sligo was a particularly proud moment, people like locally- based SIPTU nursing member Padraig Peyton, who was first elected honorary president of the union in 2017, the first to hold such a position.
He first became a union member while working in the former St Columba’s Hospital, the iconic building that now houses the Clayton Hotel, where this week’s conference is taking place.