KYRAN FITZGERALD: Unions wary of Brexit complacency

Not so long ago, people regularly advised one to “wake up and smell the coffee”.

Patricia King, general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), is certainly wide awake and she reckons she has recently caught a whiff of something altogether more rancid.

Ms King was on hand to address a conference on Brexit, organised by the trade unions Impact and Siptu, along with the Charter Group, a pro-EU civil society group.

The union boss did not mince her words. She had a predictable cut at the employers group Ibec and also at the Department of Jobs and Enterprise Ireland over talk about the introduction of ‘lean’ systems of manufacture in response to the challenges posed by Brexit.

“They talk about ‘lean systems’. All of us know about lean systems and where they take us,” she said.

She took note of recent advice sent out from Ibec to its members to focus on “cost reduction opportunities”, such as process automation, greater use of data analytics and “restructuring to avail of low cost country alternatives.”

As Ms King sees it, a line is being put out there by the establishment.

“We had an interesting meeting with the Department of Jobs,” she said. “They said that companies that leave it too late to adapt to Brexit will be in an irretrievable situation. Later, I listened on the car radio to Feargal O Rourke [of PwC]. Effectively, his message was: ‘This is about the survival of the fittest.’ ”

The ICTU general secretary warned of the prospect of “devastation” if the situation is not handled correctly.

“There is not much point in telling a meat boner in Monaghan that his job is gone, but that there are two extra financial jobs being created in Dublin,” she said,

Ms King reminded her audience of her origins as a clerical worker with British Leyland, back when it still assembled cars in this country.

“Twelve thousand jobs went in three and a half years,” she said. “We fought very hard to save them. There was a nine-month strike and a ten week sit-in. I saw the insides of police stations.

“At the end of the day, we lost. Nobody cared. There was no plan. We moved on. We cannot allow this to happen. We need to negotiate a plan to correct the jobs. It is the job of trade unions to ensure that there is no acceptance by the establishment of the fact that the jobs [in sectors hit by Brexit] are gone.”

With this in mind, she is calling for the setting up of a transition fund to help companies diversify, adding that “diversification will take longer than two years [the period provided for before Britain exits the EU]... whatever Enterprise Ireland says”.

She also insists that the Government must put in place, with EU backing, a substantial reskilling and training fund to assist people such as the Monaghan boner who face the prospect of redundancy.

“The [Government’s] negotiation strategy cannot be based on the survival of the fittest, or an acceptance that jobs go, that people can be thrown overboard,” said Ms King.

The ICTU general secretary’s tough comments are a signal that the union movement will be pressing the Government hard when it comes to its approach to the Brexit discussions. Ms King went out of her way to criticise the approach of officials. This may reflect a concern out there that there is a degree of complacency in official Ireland.

People on the ground faced with the tornado grimace whenever well-intentioned bureaucrats in Dublin or Brussels rather blithely talk about how companies — frequently small and poorly financed — will have to diversify into new markets.

Andy Pike, the national secretary of Impact, was more diplomatic — if less colourful — in his assessment than Ms King, but he, too, is pretty concerned about the direction of events.

Mr Pike called for a more proactive approach, warning that the alternative will be lost tax revenues and increased social welfare demands as businesses fail and workers lose their jobs. The unions will be pressing the EU to step up its efforts, but his union is pressing the government here to invest to meet the greatly increased bureaucratic demands posed by Britain’s exit.

Few can doubt that the added burdens placed on officialdom by Brexit are immense. Businesses can expect to strangle in plenty of red tape, assuming that they even remain around to enjoy that fate.

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

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