The chief executive officer of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, has been declared the richest person in modern history, with a personal fortune of €152 billion.
This massive accumulation of wealth did not just appear in his bank account or property portfolio: it was created by the labour of others, coupled with the natural resources of this planet.
It is ironic that at the same time that Bezos is being declared the richest person in the world his workers are on strike for better pay and safer working conditions in several countries round the world, including Spain, Poland, Germany, and the United States. In the United States the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health has named Amazon as one of the most dangerous places to work. His wealth has been created by poverty wages, with little concern for the health or safety of the workers.
The British clothing company Burberry is also in the news at the moment, because it has burnt €32 million worth of clothes and cosmetics, because of overproduction. It says this is to stop its products reaching the “wrong people,” who want to make illegal copies of their products and sell them at reduced prices.
Over the past five years Burberry has destroyed more than €100 million worth of clothes. This is done at a time when one in eight children in Ireland lives in consistent poverty, most probably as a result of struggling on the poverty wages paid by transnational corporations such as this.
So, those are a couple of stories from the world of our corporate masters. What about the rest of us? Average rent in Dublin is at a record €1,875 a month. This is more than the average repayments of a mortgage on a three-bedroomed house in Dublin; so it would actually be cheaper to buy a house than to rent one—that is, if you are not on poverty wages and precarious contracts, which exclude workers from qualifying for a mortgage. This reserves property ownership for an elite, and so the rest of us are forced to rent from this landlord class.
Rents have increased by 12.4 per cent annually, while the only thing the so-called left, the yes men and reformists can offer is the “cost-rental model,” which comes in at between €1,400 and €1,500 a month in rent.
Meanwhile wages have been stagnant for over a decade. Average income is €35,600 per year; but half of all workers earn less than €28,500 per year.
The “living wage” has been increased by 20c per hour and is now at €11.90; this is less than €22,000 a year. The minimum wage, at €9.55 per hour, comes to is just under €18,000 a year. Wage rates like these put cost-rental rents well beyond the means of most workers.
A permanent, pensionable job is very much a thing of the past, while short-term and minimum-hour contracts are the order of the day. This leads to not only low pay and poor working conditions but also total uncertainty about what one will earn at the end of each week.
But workers are fighting back, with a noticeable increase in industrial action. Ryanair has been unionised for the first time in its history. Pharmacists and pharmacy assistants are on strike in Lloyd’s for better pay and conditions. Industrial resistance is spreading to areas where we have not witnessed activity before. During the current Lloyd’s dispute local communities have come out in support of the striking workers and joined them on the picket lines, coupled with thousands of posters in support and solidarity with the workers throughout Dublin. This is a change and shows a new-found confidence in the way workers, communities and the population at large are reacting to the inequality dished out by the system.
For the first time in many years, union membership is on the increase. Though the increasing numbers are small, it is significant. The decline has stopped; the tide may be turning. People are waking up to the fact that “austerity” worked, and worked very well, for those who it was designed by and for: the ruling class.
Though there are signs of change, with the increase in industrial action and union membership, make no mistake: workers and communities have a huge struggle ahead. A class war has been waged against workers for decades, and the ruling class are winning. Workers and unions must become radical or redundant.
So what rights do workers have in Ireland? They have the right to be a member of a trade union, but they do not have a right to collective bargaining. Employers, on the other hand, are under no obligation to recognise the union, or to allow access to the workers by the union. Employers do not have to take part in the industrial relations mechanisms of the state, the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court. Under EU laws, workers have a right not to be a member of a union; so the day of the closed shop is gone.
“Social partnership” led to the lessening of demands by the trade union movement. Union officials became very cosy with the Department of Labour and were happy to be wined and dined there while concluding one overall agreement for all workers nationally, rather than having multiple agreements for a multitude of employees.
Workers wondered what the point was in being a member of the union, as the national pay agreement would be agreed, and they would get the benefit of it whether they were in the union or not. This led to a fall in union membership and a complacency among union officials.
It was also during this period that the Industrial Relations Act (1990) was brought into being, leading to a plethora of new work practices in the work-place.
The battle ahead is huge, largely because of to many of these new practices. Today workers are often on various types of contracts, with different pay and conditions, within the one company, so making it very difficult to have effective strike action. A prime example of this would be in Ryanair, where a hundred pilots are employees of Ryanair but the rest are in bogus self-employment or are agency staff. This has the effect that on a given day of strike action by pilots it affects only about a tenth of flights.
Under the 1990 act workers must give Ryanair at least seven days’ notice of strike action, which gives the employer time to prepare and to minimise the effect of the action. Once again this demonstrates how the 1990 act is tying the hands of workers. It makes it very difficult to have effective industrial action that would force the employer to negotiate and to compromise with the workers.
Th increase in trade union and workers’ activity will bring added class-consciousness to those involved. But it needs to be built on if it is to reinvigorate the solidarity and brotherhood of the trade union movement, which has not been evident for many years.