News & Media

Time for a new social contract focused on Labour policies

1 May 2021

Speech by Alan Kelly TD
Party Leader and Spokesperson on Northern Ireland
  • Ireland becoming no country for young people.
  • Too many people are just about getting by or struggling.
  • Time for a new social contract focused on Labour policies.

Marking May Day, International Day of the Worker, Labour Party Leader Alan Kelly TD spoke to the #NoGoingBack online webinar of the relaunched Labour Trade Unionist section. In his speech he addressed the challenges facing workers during the Covid-19 pandemic and what the political response must be with so many people just about getting by or struggling. 

The pandemic has reawakened interest in social democratic Labour policies and the importance of our public healthcare system, the need for affordable state led childcare and a renewed social contract, access to a secure home, good education and continued improvements to workers rights like a Living Wage, Sick Pay and a Just Transition.

Deputy Kelly said:

Happy May Day to you all! I want to thank you for all being here this morning, I know we all have Zoom fatigue and are counting down the days until we can have some kind of normality in our lives again.

I want to thank Lisa and her colleagues on the interim committee of Labour Trade Unionists for organising today. It is a very welcome step to see this section back up and running.

Working with our comrades in the trade union movement, I want to see a renewal of trade unionism not just in our Party but across Ireland and Europe.

Our frontline workers have been our heroes in the last 14 months, and when I say frontline workers, I don’t just mean our doctors and nurses, I mean retail workers in our local Supervalus, local authority workers keeping our local areas looking good when we are out for our daily walk, teachers who have completely changed the way they engage with children, ambulance workers, those who work in section 39 organisations and so much more.

Covid has been a disruptor, many people will be gearing up to step foot in their workplaces for the first time in over a year in the coming weeks, the way we work has been turned on its head and I truly do believe that Irish people will examine their expectations of the State over the coming months.

We need to make sure that all workers have at least a minimum decent standard of living. Labour will campaign for a Living Wage and for all workers to have the right to negotiate with their employers through the trade union of their choice.

When it comes to the transition to a low carbon economy, we will work closely with trade unions to ensure that a Just Transition Fund is put in place to safeguard workers and communities who are most affected.

We’ll hear a lot over the coming months about the notion of building back better. But I’m not convinced that we need to go back to the type of country we had before.

Labour needs to regain trust from, and re-establish itself as the voice of, those who are running to stand still. There is significant wealth in sections of the country. A study from the Central Bank published in September found that the average net wealth, after taking debt into account, of the wealthiest 20% of Irish society was €853,000 per household, up from €560,000 per household in 2013. The net wealth of the poorest 20% of Irish society was just €1,200 per household. These are incredible figures, backed by rigorous research, but we all know deep down that they are true. A report from TASC in 2019 found that a disproportionate share of national income accrues to richer groups and that, consequently, poorer groups receive a lower share. It found that the bottom 40 per cent of the population receives 22 per cent of national income, while the top 10 per cent receives almost 25 per cent. Tasc found that the State’s unusually high incidence of low pay and weak labour protections is driving inequality, with the working and lower-middle classes struggling more to make ends meet.

In other words, the vast majority of people are just about getting by, and poor working protections is a large part of the reason why. For many, the weekly wage or monthly salary barely meets the cost of a mortgage or rent, childcare and living expenses. Any extra cost, an unexpected medical bill, back to school expenses, extra fuel costs, brings worry and concern to people.

When people are working all week but barely getting by, then we must realise that as a country we are failing our citizens. Working families should be able to afford a modest holiday, a pizza at weekends and to be able to change the car every five years. Work must pay. Labour must, by our very name, represent this and take on our political opponents uncompromisingly. We must ensure that people who work or want to work are not struggling to get by and see Labour as their political home.

Both the Labour Party and the Trade Union movement have a central part to play in improving this situation, and in making change happen to build a more equal society.

If we are to be truly revolutionary in these exceptional times, then we need a new social contract between the people and the State. The comprehensive proposal from Patricia and her colleagues in the Irish Congress of Trade Unions is a manifesto for recovery that draws on many policy ideas that the Labour Party has long argued for. I endorse this new deal, and call on others to add their support.

The COVID-19 pandemic has converted many free market advocates to social democratic Labour policies that for years they opposed. Some of us were incredulous this week, as a former leader of the Progressive Democrats, those cheerleaders of the market and critics of the left, had an opinion piece in the Irish Times decrying how capitalism left to is own devices is leading to gross wealth inequality, and damaging society. To which we say, welcome to the struggle comrades, we are glad you have finally seen the light!

The social contract should be a given. If you work hard, pay your taxes, contribute to society, then the state should assist you with housing, healthcare, childcare, education and a system of decent public services on which you could rely on.

But right now, it is not. Too many working people have too many worries. Too many people are running to stand still, and the Covid-19 crisis has shown the need for a new deal for a safe and secure future.

We have Leo Varadkar making promises on sick pay, the Living Wage, the right to disconnect. When really he is a false prophet when it comes to improving the lot of workers. This is the same man who is actively working to undermine a draft EU directive which would ensure each member state facilitates collective bargaining arrangements for workers within its country.

There is much work for us to do on a whole range of issues. The ICTU report calls for a universal public healthcare system. It notes the temporary nationalisation of private hospitals. The Labour Party believes that if we want a universal single tier health system then we must permanently nationalise private hospitals to give us the extra capacity we now need. The reality is that such will be the demands on the health service, even in a post pandemic world, that if the State bought every single private bed in the country, it still would not be enough to meet public demand by 2030.

The private childcare system is failing parents and staff, and the Congress proposals match our own. Now is the time for affordable care and salaries that value the work of staff.

People also deserve to be able to access a secure home, and we can build those on publicly owned land. Parents should also be able to know that their children will be provided with a good education in a properly funded system. They need to also know that public transport will be accessible to them and that our environment will be protected. That was not the case in the Ireland before the pandemic.

And in the debate on a united Ireland which is now well and truly up and running, both the Labour Party and the Trade Union movement have a central part to play in reaching out to the unionist community in a fraternal way, based on shared values of solidarity and workers’ rights, and if both jurisdictions vote in favour of unification, putting in place a vision for what our shared island could be for everyone on the island.

We need to tackle bogus self-employment, provide a living wage and ensure all State recovery supports to private enterprise are linked to trade union access and recognition. These are core Labour policies, and we will champion them in the Oireachtas to deliver a more secure workplace.

Young people have been especially hard-hit by this pandemic. They have been hard-hit in their education and work prospects as well as rents and the prices of homes and into the near future there is a strong possibility of a tsunami of evictions. Young people are over-represented in insecure and low-paid employment, despite a high level of education, skill and enthusiasm for the future. The pandemic has delayed a generation of talented youth from entering into and engaging fully with the workforce. This will have a massive knock-on effect on future earnings and progression. Nearly 60% of young people aged 15 to 24 are out of work with young women even worse affected.

This is becoming no country for young people. We need a new deal for a new generation.

People are looking at how much they’re paying in rent, looking at friends in Australia and New Zealand, doing the maths and thinking ‘I’m out of here’ and who can blame them?

As Labour trade unionists, we have a proud tradition as a party and as a political movement, but Ireland has unfinished business. We have much to do.

So, we are going to spend the next few months developing a new social contract that the Irish people deserve. We can’t do it without the input of everyone on this call. My door is always open, we need a strong and vibrant trade union movement and a strong and vibrant trade union section in the Labour Party. But I have full faith in this section, this Party and this movement that we can make a radical difference to improve life in Ireland.

Happy May Day. Up the Workers!