Dunnes workers need action not words

Posted: April 6, 2015 in Uncategorized

There was a rare display of consensus in Leinster House this week.

Politicians from all sides of the house spoke in support of the Dunnes Stores workers’ demands for decent hours and earnings, job security and trade union representation.

How could they not? Dunnes treatment of their staff is nothing short of a scandal. What is worse it is a cornerstone of their business model.

At the centre of the dispute is the company’s abuse of 15 hour flexi contracts.

It goes like this.

Management want to keep labour costs as low as possible. They don’t want workers to mobilise their collective strength to strike a better deal.

So they need a system that keeps their staff in a perpetual state of fear.

Workers are employed on short term contracts. Their hours are kept to a minimum, spread over the maximum number of days.

If they show any sign of standing up for themselves they are shifted to less social hours or have their hours cut.

From week to week they are denied any certainty of rostered hours or pay. All the time they know that a wrong word or action could result in loss of income or worse still loss of their job.

The human impact of this system is frightening.

Mary has worked for Dunnes for 12 years. Her husband has been with the company for 9. They have a young daughter. Both are on 15 hour flexi contracts.

From week to week they do not know how much they will earn. Some weeks they go hungry because after paying the rent and feeding their daughter there is nothing left for themselves.

Keith works nights getting home at 1 in the morning. Mary is on the early morning shift. They barely see each other.

Because they work less than 19 hours per week across five days they are not eligible for either Job Seekers Allowance or Family Income Supplement.

They are living on a combined household income below what the Government sets as acceptable for their family size.

Mary talks of her embarrassment of not being able to provide for her family, of bringing her daughter up in a bed sit, of taking charity from her mother.

She says, ‘I’m a grown woman and I have a job. That job should give me enough money that I can feed my family and pay my bills. On this contract I’m picking one or the other.’

When management at her store got wind of possible strike action they started taking ‘walks’ with the staff. She was threatened that she would be put on nights, have her hours cut or even lose her job.

On the day of the strike she was visibly nervous. The pressure she was under was palpable.

All she wants is for Dunnes Stores to sit down with her union representative in Mandate and agree what employers such as Penny’s, Tesco and M&S have done – to provide their staff with decent hours and earnings.

Is that really so much to ask after giving 12 years’ service to her employer? Surely people deserve a basic level of job and financial security when employed by a company as profitable as Dunnes Stores.

It would be a brave politician who would refuse to stand with people like Mark and Keith. How could they not?

But Dunnes Stores can only abuse Mary and Keith and all the other workers because the government lets them.

Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour have all failed to provide the necessary legal safeguards that would prevent employers such as Dunnes treating their working in this abusive way.

Successive government have refused to fully transpose the EUs 1997 Part Time Workers Directive, particularly that section that would give part time workers the right to extra hours when they become available.

The 2001 Protection of Employees (Part-Time Work) Act and its accompanying code of practice are voluntary – placing no legal obligation on employers to comply with the EU wide standards.

Likewise successive governments have failed to introduce collective bargaining legislation which would compel employers to engage with the chosen representatives of their workers.

Under questioning from Mary Lou McDonald at Leaders Question last Thursday Tánaiste Joan Burton said that the legislation would come before the Dáil during the next session.

This Bill has been a long time in the making and we have heard such announcements before. But the real test will be whether the Bill provides workers with the protections they urgently need.

Our economy is increasingly dependent on low paid part time work. The percentage of the labour force who are underemployed has risen dramatically from 0.4% in 2008 to 7.8% in 2013.

We now have the third highest rate of underemployment in the EU, after Spain and Cyprus and one of the highest rates of low pay in the OECD.

With 20% of workers on low pay and one in seven people at risk of poverty in employment this is a major social and economic issue.

It is also set to become a major electoral issue.

The real test of the Governments so called recovery is whether it is fair and people like Mary and Keith benefit.

Empty rhetoric and crocodile tears from politicians won’t cut it. Mary and Keith deserve the full protection of the law. They deserve decent hours and earnings, job security and trade union representation. Is that really too much to ask?

  1. Karina McGovern says:

    I’m a dunnes stores worker and management are only bullies and I’ve learnt that justnow

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