• NotH Team

Northern Ireland: Workers Interests Centre Stage?

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

Workers Interests Centre Stage?

Originally posted in Unity - Weekly of the CPI

The challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic continues to expose the structures of inequality and the politics that sustain it.

At the start of this week the Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU issued a statement about its involvement with the Engagement Forum set up to advise the Executive on labour market issues related to Covid19.

Almost a month ago direct action by workers, with the support of their trade unions, made it clear that they would not be exposed to risks of infection to maintain and bolster the profits of their employers.

In the case of food firm Moy Park, Sean McKeever, a regional officer for the trade union Unite, stated that: “Unite attempted to secure commitments to ensure a minimum two metre social distancing between workers and other measures to enable infection control in the face of the Coronavirus threat but our proposals were dismissed by management"

“Workers are refusing to return to work in unsafe conditions. This is an entirely foreseeable outcome of both management greed and total inaction from Stormont.”

Those walkouts and the public debate they prompted created tensions in the Executive between the DUP, with their reactionary politics, and their partner Sinn Fein, forced to dust down some of their socialist republican politics. But, as so often the way in that relationship of mutual convenience, an administrative sticking plaster was found: The Engagement Forum.

Bringing together 6 employer representatives, 6 NIC-ICTU representatives, 2 junior Ministers in the Executive and other relevant state agencies, it has so far produced a controversial list of employment sectors that should stay working and safety guidelines which have no statutory enforcement.

It’s title, “Covid-19 – working through this together”, sums up the social partnership approach behind it; that unfortunately NICTU continues to be wedded to.

NICTU acknowledged that “the Forum is merely advisory” but said it had agreed to take part “to ensure that workers’ interests are centre stage” and because it “has been campaigning for some time for a forum for social dialogue in Northern Ireland.”

It is not social dialogue but militant defence of their interests that workers need.That applies not only in the manufacturing sector but also in the health and social care sector – not just to benefit staff but also those they care for.

Figures finally published by the NI Department of Health under pressure last Sunday showed outbreaks of coronavirus have been identified in 53 care homes.

The trade union Unison has for some time now been pushing for an immediate programme of testing for all care home residents and staff. Unison’s regional secretary, Patricia McKeown, said the North must match the commitment by the Republic to test all care home residents and staff within 10 days.

“We are calling on the Northern Ire- land Executive and the Minister for Health, in particular, to activate the joint (Coronavirus) memorandum agreed between both governments and to commence a parallel programme of testing.”

Last week the highly respected Well-come Trust published research revealing the extent of the social care home problem: staff shortages; management instructions to ignore social distancing and self-isolation; carers with Covid-19 symptoms being forced to continue working; an almost complete lack of personal protective equipment.

It also clearly diagnosed the core problem being exposed: “adult social- care services are provided in a highly fragmented, privatised and resource- starved market in which staff shortages, breaches of employment rights and understaffing have become the norm.”

By John Pinkerton

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