The news that the High Court of Ireland has upheld a challenge from the 'Quick Service Food Alliance' on the constitutionality of laws setting the mandatory minimum wages of 200,000 low paid workers, is indicative of the race to the bottom in pay and conditions of workers in Irish society. It is also illustrative of the rotten system we live under. When High Court judges, who on hugely over-inflated salaries themselves refuse to take a pay cut, an issue that will need be put to a referendum, can condemn the lowest paid workers in Irish society into further poverty, we know we live in a screwed up system. The Joint Labour Commission (JLC) wage setting mechanism was there to set minimum pay rates for workers in the retail, bar, restaurant, hairdressing and catering sectors amongst others. These workers, most often women, students or migrants, already victim to low pay, will now face the prospect of further pay cuts in their meagre salaries.
The case to slash the pay of the lowest paid in society was taken by John Grace Fried Chicken of Cork and the Quick Service Food Alliance, which represents a group of fast food outlets. This "alliance" includes the likes of Burger King, Subway, Abrakababra and Supermacs among its ranks. "Speaking after the ruling, Mr Grace said the pay of existing workers in fast food sector would not be affected by today’s ruling. However, he said that new employees taken on in the future could have to work on inferior terms and conditions such as the national minimum wage." Anyone who is familiar with the recent case of the Davenport Hotel workers case will know that this type of talk from employers means nothing, and as soon as employers can, they will attempt to reduce the pay of existing employees wherever possible. Luckily for the Davenport Hotel workers, they had the organisational capacity to tackle their employers and win their case. However, many thousands of young women, students and migrants will not be in the same position.
A quick look at the companies that took this case to the courts shows that hugely profitable companies are using the cover of the financial crisis to attack the pay of workers on the basis that they can't afford to take on new staff. For example, Supermacs, a member of the 'Quick Service Food Alliance' enjoyed a fourfold increase in pretax profits to €5.2 million in 2009. The same company profits increased by 18 per cent to €6.2 million in 2010. Abrakebabra was on such a sound financial footing last year that it was able to purchase O'Brien's Sanwich Bars when the company went into liquidation. It was pointed out during the court case that "workers in the catering sector have the lowest average earnings across any sector." Disregarding this, these Irish companies, along with multi-nationals like Subway and Burger king want to cut their pay.
This judgement will give employers a free reign to implement the Fine Gael led government's plans to reduce the wages of many workers, across all sectors of the economy, to the minimum wage of €8.65 per hour. This, we are told, will make the Irish economy "competitive" again. The reality of the situation is that it will create very few jobs, and will only further enrich employers who are already raking it in. The judgement will also leave the sheepish Labour Party TD's free to say that their hands are now tied on the issue, and that there is now nothing they can do. In reality, it was quite obvious that Labour had no intention of standing up for the low paid on this issue, as my previous correspondence with Labour TD Sean Kenny illustrated.
The race to the bottom in pay and conditions of workers continues apace in Irish society, and will continue to do so unless workers get organised and make a stand against these attacks. Both employer's groups IBEC and ISME, as well as Chambers Ireland have campaigned and lobbied to have these wage cuts implemented. Organised capitalists are colluding to enrich themselves further off the backs of Irish workers. It is well past time that organised labour, through their unions, should be fighting back. Unfortunately, the leadership of ICTU lack any real desire for a fight on these issues. Workers need to become vocal and challenge the desperate leadership from ICTU that they are receiving, whilst at the same time getting behind the only political organisations that are truly committed to fighting for the rights of workers, the Socialist Party and the United Left Alliance.
Be Moderate? We Only Want The Earth.