Higgins: Decent work our defining issue
by Bernard Harbor
President Higgins and Sabina Higgins with volunteers at the EPSU conference in Dublin.
President Higgins and Sabina Higgins with volunteers at the EPSU conference in Dublin.

The battle for decent work “is a defining battle of our times,” according to Michael D Higgins. Speaking at the five-yearly congress of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU), which took place in Dublin earlier this month, the Irish President applauded the role of trade unions in upholding the “hard-won rights of workers across Europe as we continue to face the challenges and obstacles to a fairer society.”

Delegates from unions representing eight million public servants across the continent were wowed by a wide-ranging speech that covered gender equality, workers’ rights, climate change and the civilising role of public services.

President Higgins said the abuse of digitalisation was helping to undermine hard-won workers’ rights as staff were required to register as self-employed, which he likened to nineteenth century working practices.

“Online workers often are not covered by employment law or collective agreements and seldom have access to social security, paid leave or paid training. The co-ordination and direction of employees by an algorithm owned by a company should never be allowed to divest the employer of their responsibility any less than a bogus self-employment does,” he said.

President Higgins criticised the displacement of secure jobs with precarious work in large parts of the European economy. “Workers are too often expected to demonstrate what is called flexibility, by which is meant a willingness and ability to readily respond to changing circumstances and expectations without adequate information or recompense.

“This flexibility is often not matched, however, with any security of tenure or appropriate income by employers, with the vista of zero-hour contracts now appearing ever-more prevalent,” he said.

He outlined a vision of Europe with excellent public services at its core. “Good jobs in the public sector mean quality services for citizens. Your members appreciate only too well that the services they deliver are not a cost to society, but an investment in our communities. This message must be taken to the heart of Europe,” he said.

The President lauded the trade union movement for its “powerful, proud tradition” on which the civil rights, anti-apartheid and equal rights movements could look to for support.

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