Belfast Telegraph

Owen Reidy: Devolution would help to restore province's productivity


Many NI workers earn below the real living wage
Many NI workers earn below the real living wage

By Owen Reidy, NIC-ICTU leader

Any trade union or business negotiator will tell you that there are five things you need to be certain of when you are negotiating (say) a pay increase and restructuring or even (say) extricating your country from the EU.

You need to know what you want. What you want has to be achievable. You have to have a thought-out strategy to achieve it. You have to bring your people with you.

Finally, the understanding that you don't have to like the people you are negotiating with, but they have to know what will ultimately settle the issue. On each of these five areas the Tories have failed miserably.

This Brexit debacle and the suspension of Stormont should be sparking a debate in how we organise our affairs here. Last week the Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI) published key research - Bad Jobs and Productivity: the Flexibility Paradox. The paper charts the mantra known as the Washington Consensus that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s with its apostle Margaret Thatcher pursing an insatiable drive for deregulation and a one-sided flexibility from workers.

It promoted a move away from what has been traditionally viewed as standard, permanent full-time employment, which is secure (in as much as anything can be), to a position whereby labour costs were more flexible and lower and employment contracts were incredibly loose.

Its supporters argued that this approach is a key driver of economic growth and productivity. The NERI paper clearly debunks this myth, and finds that deregulation could actually be a drag on our productivity.

The research makes the point that there are a number of factors required for any economy and society to prosper and the data around NI clearly shows that we are not. Many commentators will say unemployment is very low and yes it is. But let's look at the quality of the jobs as opposed to the quantity. The data shows that:

  • 1 in 3 workers in Northern Ireland today deem their job to be insecure;
  • 4 in 10 are in non-standard contracts of employment;
  • 1 in 5 workers earn below the real living wage;
  • 4 in 10 earn below the real living wage wholesale and retail, our largest employment sector;
  • 7 in 10 earn below this wage in our accommodation and hospitality sector.

Productivity in Northern Ireland is weak and continues to lag consistently behind the rest of the UK and the EU average. Therefore, it is clear that things are not working.

It has been said that one should never waste a good crisis and merely bemoaning our difficult and challenging circumstances is not good enough. That is why the ICTU in Northern Ireland which represents 24 trade unions that organise over 200,000 workers is running the Better Work Better Lives campaign.

We are engaging with workers, politicians and other representative organisations right across the social and economic spectrum. Along with a range of policy options that we feel can improve our economy and society, we are seeking support from all for a new institutional forum of social dialogue here in Northern Ireland.

Such a forum could have the capacity and potential to bring key social partners and representative bodies together in a structured way to work with a future devolved government on key initiatives.

Done well, this should make Northern Ireland an innovative and great place to do business, with improved productivity and where workers have better pay and more secure conditions of employment with the opportunity to invest in their skills.

It is not nor can it be an either/or, but must be both. Such a forum could bring together key voices of workers, employers and the community and voluntary pillar to share ideas to seek to improve the economy and society we live in. This proposal is not radical or indeed novel but entirely logical and sensible.

It is important that we restore devolution whereby our politicians again share power, but this time not just horizontally, but vertically as well.

Belfast Telegraph