'It's time to end low skills and low pay cycle'
Tomorrow in Westminster, the Chancellor Phillip Hammond will unveil his budget and undoubtedly assert that his proposals will tackle the ailments of the UK's economy. It could also be said that many of those ailments were caused by policy decisions made by Tory ministers since 2010, and that those policies have afflicted us here in Northern Ireland more than most of the UK.
Living standards and pay in both the public and private sectors continue to lag significantly behind the rest of the UK. Economic growth and productivity remain stagnant and also lag behind other regions of the UK.
Public services, and the number of workers delivering them, have been consistently cut back and curtailed and this has impacted upon people and communities right across NI.
The policy response to the economic and social challenges facing NI has been to 'rebalance the economy' by cutting public sector numbers by 11.5% and by promoting the idea of an even lower rate of corporation tax than the rest of the UK.
The 1% public sector pay cap which was instigated by the Conservative government to (amongst other things), bridge the gap between private and public sector pay, has led to a de facto pay cut of approximately 8.5% in real terms as pay has continued fall behind inflation.
Investment has suffered in line with the shrivelling of the block grant by 10.2% in real terms since 2010.
Meanwhile, pay across the private sector has remained as low as other peripheral regions of the UK, especially in comparison with London and the South-East of England. In fact, during this period we have seen an increase in the range and disparity of pay not between the private and public sector but within and between sectors in the private sector.
In a bizarre attempt to make an advantage of this weakness, Invest NI boasts that we are a cheap and low cost place to do business. With the added uncertainty of the UK leaving the EU, there are few assurances that can be made to offer confidence to workers, consumers or citizens.
It does not have to be this way. The policies that have been failing NI have not happened by chance, but by choice.
The trade union movement in NI, comprising of over 30 unions organising and representing 200,000 working people from across the community and all sectors of the economy, strongly believes that things must change and must change now.
We are caught in a cycle of low skills, feeding insecure work, delivering lower pay. We intend to campaign vigorously to seek to change and improve the lives of people across NI.
We need an appropriate forum whereby the various representative strands of NI society can come together with policy makers and government in order to chart a way forward for this society and economy.
Ideally, this will take place under a restored devolved NI Executive and Assembly (the trade union movement fully supports the restoration of devolution).
If not, the arguments we are making to all parties and political views, and at as many forums as we can, are consistent.
Our Better Work, Better Lives campaign seeks to build a broad and shared consensus across society whereby we work to change things for the better for all of society. We want to:
Promote better, decent and more secure work and challenge the prevailing scourge of low pay in Northern Ireland;
Argue for better, improved and targeted public investment in our public services for all our people;
Demand the end of the self-defeating policy of austerity on public sector pay by lifting the 1% public sector pay cap.
We also need to look at policies such as strengthening and improving employment law, changing minimum wage setting mechanism, developing a shared industrial strategy, boosting productivity in the interests of all, addressing our skills deficit and inequalities in the labour market as well as promoting collective bargaining.
We will engage with politicians, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), our own movement and wider civic society to drive a debate about how we can improve our society for all, so that everyone can enjoy Better Work and Better Lives.
Owen Reidy is assistant general secretary at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU)