Taoiseach Enda Kenny has opened the door for Government and unions to create a new form of social partnership on workers’ rights.
In an address to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions conference in Killarney, the Taoiseach insisted old style pay talks are not on the agenda.
But he suggested that there was no reason negotiations, which collapsed in 2009 after 21 years, could not be revived in a new format.
“It may be that formal social partnership agreements are not appropriate at this time,” he said.
“But I recognise that social partnership is a status which derives, not from formal agreements, but from the role played by key interests in civil society, including the trade unions.
“That is a valuable European tradition and I will uphold it.”
Pay agreements for low earners, the banking crisis and job creation will be top of the agenda for the 800 trade unionists attending the conference.
Congress insiders said general secretary David Begg would tackle the Taoiseach on the controversial issue of pay cuts for low earners in sectors such as hospitality and security.
The Government is examining ways to rewrite wage contracts known as Joint Labour Committees, including Sunday premium rates, and Employment Regulation Orders and Registered Employment Agreements.
The Taoiseach attempted to ease fears that the low-paid were being targeted.
“We are all in this together. We all have to play our part and show example in how we approach our own responsibilities,” he said.
“Those who neglect to play their part can expect no sympathy from this Government.
“That goes for those operating in sheltered sectors of the economy, in the professions and in other areas where extraordinarily high incomes have persisted even in this time of deep recession. That has to change, and it will change.”
Mr Kenny said there is common ground on wage cuts despite reports of rifts in Cabinet over cuts for the low paid.
He added: “Our decision will be a careful and measured one.”
Arriving at the biennial conference, the Taoiseach assured Congress that there is an avenue for discussions with unions.
“I commit myself and commit the Government to continuing dialogue and discussion with the trade union movement. I think this is very necessary,” he said.
“We are in different circumstances now, we face a different kind of challenge and this is a requirement for the entire country to be involved as we face what is the most unprecedented economic challenge our country has ever faced.”
More than 40 motions dealing with the economic crisis, the bank bailout, job creation, improved worker rights, the future of the EU and the Middle East will be debated during the week.
A new report on future trade union structures will also be discussed.
Other speakers are Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, Sister Stanislaus Kennedy of the Immigrant Council of Ireland and Sharan Burrow, head of the global International Trade Union Confederation – which represents over 175 millions workers in 150 countries.
Jimmy Kelly, regional secretary of the Unite union, said the Government will be judged by how it treats the low paid.
“The Government must be fair to low paid workers and fight employer moves to dismantle their rights and wages,” he said.
“It’s treatment of low paid workers will be a marker of it’s commitment to a just society.”
Mr Kelly called for new laws on workers’ rights and pension protection before a new talks system is created.
“Once those commitments are made, then we can have a meaningful debate among equals on the ways in which employment can be maintained and grown as the only sustainable way out of this crisis,” he said.