There is currently much justified political commentary about our current, and growing, pension crisis. I say ‘political commentary’ because, while the matter is political in every respect, the discussion avoids the political ‘hot potato’ issues that underpin the crisis in the same way that Irish political commentary generally ignores most inconvenient truths. The inconvenient truth this time?
The labour and housing markets are both deliberately designed and constructed in a manner that can only perpetuate and grow a pension crisis.
The easy elements that make up the crisis are routinely discussed in a circular fashion that takes the issue nowhere. For example, many people quite rationally expect their state pension at age 65 and righteously oppose the age increases that have taken place. Moreover, the full pension (which not everyone gets) of €12,912 may be ‘generous’ by international standards, but it’s not that much over half of what a full time worker gets on the minimum wage (€20,685). How comfortable are the lives of our massive band of minimum-waged workers? Not very.
Laura Broxson: Do you have a management company where you live, and do you know what they do? Being stuck at home during the lockdowns gave me a huge insight as to what was going on in my estate, and more so, what our management company was not doing.
Within days of the first lockdown, I witnessed drug dealing, anti-social behaviour and a number of cars were broken in to – as well as the front door of my apartment block. Clearly the only way to eliminate all this is for a shift in society and for more resources and educational opportunities to be put in communities, but in the meantime myself and others were living in fear and needed to take action in terms of preventative measures.
“With life and work, it was easy to allow oneself be fobbed off”
Now, all the above mentioned activity obviously isn’t the fault of the management company, but myself and others had been requesting CCTV for years to at least help put people off – and we had been constantly ignored and fobbed off. With life and work, it was easy to allow oneself be fobbed off, but lockdown meant I now had the time to focus on this.
Conor McCabe: On 26 July 2021 Cork City Council called on ‘residents, workers, the business sector, community, sporting and voluntary groups in the city and beyond to have their say’ on the proposed 2022-28 Development Plan, with submissions open until 4 October. This was extremely nice of them, but it is also clear that as far as the Council is concerned all the major investment and planning decisions have already been made.
It has left a mere 12-week window from 4 October until 31 December to make any adjustments based on the ideas of the public. The decisions around transport, housing, the docklands, and other so-called regeneration projects are years in the making and have already been signed off on at local and national level.
Bernadette Maughan: Three reports published this year investigating conditions faced by the Travelling community in Ireland have once again brought to the fore a structural prejudice that has existed for decades (see, for example, this report on the experience of Travellers in the mainstream labour market). The most stark report, published by the Ombudsman for Children,No End in Site, described the living conditions on one site in Co Cork. Despite Cork County Council’s attempt to defend the lack of progress, the reality is that it is not an isolated case. In fact, it is the lived reality for the Travelling community on many sites across the country.
Laura Broxson: Driving is a life skill. Whether you want to get your own car or not, having a driver’s licence gives you options both at home and when on holiday. But when you took your driving lessons, did you give any thought to what’s involved in being an ADI (Approved Driving Instructor)? I know I didn’t, and it’s more complex than you would think.
A common question I get asked is: do we work for the RSA (Road Safety Authority)? No. We just do our exams with them, like members of the public would for driving tests. For those that don’t know, the RSA is a state agency formed by the Irish Government to promote road safety within the Republic of Ireland.
Brian McLoughlin: Last week brought homeless soup runs to the forefront of the media as long-time soup runs The Homeless Street Café and Friends Helping Friends received visits from the HSE Environmental Health section prior to setting up their tables for the week. The HSE workers informed them that an inspection regarding food safety compliance was unsatisfactory. They were provided with a list of steps that need to be taken and informed that failure to comply “may result in formal enforcement action being initiated by the HSE”. These included a hand sanitising station, monitoring food temperatures and using HSE-approved kitchens. The HSE also informed them that they were being classified as a food business/charity despite being neither.
Conor McCabe discusses the truth about the government’s summer economic statement and the continuation of austerity through high rents, low wages, increased costs and a lack of investment in our social infrastructure.
Last week the government published the Summer Economic Statement and laid out the broad spending parameters for the budget in October.
Released late on Wednesday 14 July, less than 24 hours before the Dáil summer recess, it was quickly hailed by the media as proof positive of a dramatic and significant turnaround in economic policy by the government parties of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens.
The Irish Times stated that the apparent change in direction was ‘undeniably linked to the housing crisis and the political fallout awaiting Coalition parties if the status quo continues’.
At the same time the Irish Independent loudly proclaimed that Paschal Donoghue had loosened the purse strings, with the expected post-pandemic boom funding ‘four years of tax cuts’.
The good times, it seems, are on the horizon. The government has learned the error of its ways.
Only The Journal.ie voiced a note of caution, having read the actual document instead of just quoting from the executive summary and assorted press releases.
It found no specific financial allocation to housing anywhere in the Statement, merely a commitment to fix the housing crisis – which is, after all, already government policy.
‘We don’t know exactly how much the Government plans to allocate specifically to housing in Budget 2022’ it said. Nor will we have a clear idea until the Housing For All strategy is published on 26 July.
In fact, far from being a dramatic change in direction, the Summer Economic Statement reveals a government and a state that remains in thrall to the market and the fiction of tax-cut-led growth.
In terms of expenditure, the Statement says that the government will allocate an extra €1.1 billion to capital projects in 2022. (Sinn Féin has pointed out that once allocations are made to the Brexit Adjustment Reserve, in reality this figure will be in the order of €800m.)
This extra funding will stretch across all government departments, including not just housing but health, education, transport, as well as climate action measures.
To put that into context, the ESRI recently said that the state would need to spend an extra €2 billion a year on social housing alone in order to have any chance of tacking the housing crisis.
Whatever measures the government comes up with in the Housing for All strategy and in the October budget, it is clear that any net increase in housing spend will be of the order of hundreds of millions, and nowhere near the €2 billion that is actually needed for 2022.
The one figure that is crystal clear in the Statement, though, relates to tax cuts.
At a time when the need for capital investment in our social infrastructure has never been stronger nor clearer, the government has announced €500m in tax cuts every year for the next four years.
In other words, instead of putting €2 billion into social housing, the government has instead committed itself to €2 billion in tax cuts.
This defies all logic and is completely geared towards the minority of voters in Ireland who crave such cuts over services – a minority that nonetheless in all likelihood votes Fine Gael.
This would explain why the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has been calling for such cuts, despite a clear majority of people in Ireland in favour of investment in social services.
The Tánaiste and his party, with the support of Fianna Fáil and the Greens, are engaged in an ideological project that sees tax avoidance as a God-given right and to hell with the consequences.
For all their talk of the national interest, the government parties are pandering to their base with a rugged determination.
At the same time, there is a grain of truth in the ‘lessons learned’ line of the establishment media.
The Summer Economic Statement shows that there are no overt austerity cuts on the horizon for at least the next two years.
It has placed warning signs on the period 2024 onwards, saying that the EU fiscal rules in all likelihood will have returned by then, and that in 2023 the government will borrow for capital spend only.
This approach, however, will have the benefit of sparing the coalition government any attention-grabbing cuts to services.
However, austerity will continue as in its present form, through high rents, low wages, increased costs and a lack of properly focused investment in our social infrastructure.
This includes a lack of investment not only in housing, but also in health, education, transport, care (including childcare) – as well the type of visionary climate action plan that present circumstances demand.
And by investment we mean genuine public investment – not privatised outsourced solutions that end up costing billions with no net long-term benefit to the state.
The lack of an overt austerity agenda also means that for those of us on the left, there will be a need for a more focused and analytical approach to the right-wing agenda of Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Greens.
The devil, for the next two years at least, is going to be in the detail. Shouts of ‘cuts’ are not going to be enough, and with that in mind, now would be a good time to adapt our research and analysis accordingly.
Unite member and FSU Official Mandy La Combre provides a guest blog this week on how domestic violence relates to work places and the policies needed to give protection to workers suffering abuse by domestic violence.
The Irish Government ratified the Istanbul Convention in 2019. Amid much publicity we were told that the ‘Council of Europe Convention on Preventing Violence against Women and Domestic Violence’ was a significant step forward. And so it should have been. The purpose of the Convention is to set out a comprehensive framework of policies and measures to ensure the ‘protection of women from all forms of violence, and prevent, prosecute and eliminate violence against women and domestic violence’. On International Women’s Day of the same year Taoiseach Leo Varadkar famously announced that he was calling for an end to the ‘epidemic’ of violence against women.
Ireland has less than one third of the number of refuge spaces than the convention requires.
Yet, since 2019, figures for violence against women, and domestic violence statistics have risen dramatically. Statistics show that Women’s Aid had 19,258 disclosures in 2019, and in 2020 calls were up 43%. Alarmingly Ireland has less than one third of the number of refuge spaces that the Convention requires. 1 in 4 women now experience domestic abuse in Ireland and, according to the World Health Organisation, 1 in 3 women will experience some form of domestic abuse in their lifetime. The over reliance on outreach and charitable services provides cover for government delays to follow up on the Convention and their commitment.
As reported cases spiked heavily during the Covid-19 pandemic Sinn Fein’s ‘Organisation of Working Time (Domestic Violence Leave) Bill 2019’ gained cross party support. The bill provides for legislative proposals for the establishment of a statutory entitlement to 10 days paid domestic violence leave. This is a significant step forward in not only highlighting the challenges workers in abusive situations at home face, but also in attempting to eradicate the stigma surrounding domestic violence in the workplace. The Bill will be brought forward by the end of 2021. As a trade unionist active in this area however I believe that, while the 10 days leave is extremely important and having it legislated for is absolutely warranted, on its own and without robust workplace policies it could well see little take up. This is why it is essential that domestic violence workplace policies must be a serious focus for all unions in all sectors.
But what about employers?
Equality Minister Roderic O’Gorman’s Department has met with ICTU to discuss the need to marry good domestic violence workplace policies with the 10-day statutory entitlement. This move was most welcome. ICTU affiliates and members of the ICTU Women’s Committee were afforded the opportunity to put forward our case in this regard. However, at an ICTU seminar about the Bill this year the Minister stated ‘I am seeking the views and advice of employers groups regarding the potential impact of such leave and how the proposals could be implemented in a manner that would mitigate any potentially negative impacts on business.’
This is worrying. Safety and wellbeing is the absolute priority here and, as such, unions should be ensuring that we do not fail our members at this vital juncture. ICTU’s strong submission to the Department points out that the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, who provide data for Ireland on domestic abuse disaggregated by employment status, shows that 31% of employed women have experienced some form of violence by a partner since age 15 years. That is a staggering finding.
This Summer also saw the consultation commence on the ‘Third National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender based Violence’, an important piece of work steered by the Department of Justice (DOJ), partnering with Safe Ireland and the National Women’s Council of Ireland. The strategy is to be published by year end and will be a living document aimed at addressing the needs of victims, holding perpetrators to account and changing societal attitudes. The Department itself recognises the failure of the previous strategies and hope that the third strategy has a more successful implementation. Unions hope so too and we must demand that the necessary Government resources are allocated this time.
As part of the consultation process with ICTU a small group of us met with the DOJ and put forward suggestions from a worker’s point of view. We addressed the Istanbul Convention, sexual harassment in the workplace, ILO Convention 190, and domestic violence workplace policies. It is important that we continually emphasise to Government the importance of holding employers accountable on all equality issues. We must also demand that Government agencies encourage employers to be more amenable when Unions seek agreement on implementing new policies to support vulnerable workers.
When a worker is living with domestic violence there are very real negative impacts that flow into the workplace.
So why do we need domestic violence workplace policies?
One would assume with all the fanfare from Government on their ‘strong equality agenda’, that employers would be encouraged to line up to do the right thing but, unfortunately, it has been difficult to get employers to listen.
In 2014 ICTU launched a landmark all-Ireland on-line survey on people’s experience of domestic violence and the workplace. The findings were remarkable:
82% of respondents were women
75% of those abused women were targeted in the workplace
53% missed at least 3 days of work a month
94.4% said they thought domestic violence can have an impact on the lives of working people.
When a worker is living with domestic violence there are very real negative impacts that flow into the workplace. The survey results highlighted many of these issues; increased sick days, lower productivity, low morale, impacts on relationships with co-workers, and of course health and safety itself.
Since 2014 ICTU have been advocating for domestic violence workplace policies to be introduced in all workplaces yet it still remains difficult to convince employers that it is indeed a workplace issue. But with domestic violence highlighted so much over the last year, as reported figures soared during the Covid pandemic and with the increase in homeworking, employers can no longer use ignorance as an excuse.
The pervasiveness and severity of domestic violence impacting the workplace demands the attention of employers, yet employers may be reluctant to dig into employees’ personal lives. However, through providing support for abused employees and having a policy in place an employee knows that an employer is aware of the issue, can provide training for the workforce, and most importantly can direct victims to resources. Employers are not expected to be experts but they should be cognisant of the fact that sometimes the workplace is the only avenue of respite that a victim has. The workplace is often a place of refuge and safety for someone living with abuse. Perhaps the only one.
Equally domestic violence has no boundaries and often doesn’t ‘stay at home’. We know many abusers also target their victims in the workplace in various ways. Sometimes harassment can be by phone or email, through stalking on the way to and from work, by physically preventing a victim from going to work or even showing up at the workplace. Co-workers have also been threatened. Once employers understand that domestic violence can impact their workplace the real policy work begins. Any program’s success will depend on its integration into the company’s culture and business practices. Notably it has been private sector unions and employers that are leading the way in securing policies.
Recent policies have been agreed by the Financial Services Union and the Communication Workers Union in both the finance and communications sectors. These policies include provision for a number of significant practical support measures including:
Proper information and education on the subject
Access to confidential and independent counselling services paid by the employer
No negative actions for ‘excessive absences’ in sick leave policies
No negative actions for under performance with victims/survivors
Special paid leave (minimum 10 days)
Paid time off for visits to support agencies, Solicitors, court hearings, re-housing needs or childcare issues
Flexible working arrangements
Temporary or permanent changes in location / work times / front facing public roles
Diverting phone or email
Salary advancement if an employee is escaping a violent situation or suffering financial abuse
Ensuring the victim/survivor never works alone if that is what they request
Proper security procedures in place should a perpetrator show up at the workplace
Procedures for dealing with perpetrators in the workplace
List of support services
Commitment to confidentiality
It is important that any policy is not just a ‘paper policy’ and is backed up by a proper support system with specialist training and safety planning.
These workplace policies are crucial because losing a job can often mean losing a way out.
Research shows that women with a history of domestic violence are more likely to have lower personal incomes due to a disrupted work history. They may have to change jobs more often or be employed in casual or precarious employment. Keeping a job is a key pathway to leaving violent relationships. Being in work is often the only time a person being abused has the freedom and capacity to plan their escape without their abusers knowledge. The ICTU survey revealed how rarely those experiencing domestic violence disclose it to anyone in work but having a policy in place that addresses domestic violence breaks the stigma and shows workers experiencing violence that they are not alone.
Minister O’Gorman described the issue as ‘a multifaceted problem that requires all arms of the State to work together to address the issue and support those who are experiencing such violence’. He is right.
It is time for employers to step up.
Unite member and FSU Official Mandy La Combre provides a guest blog this week on how domestic violence relates to work places and the policies needed to give protection to workers suffering abuse by domestic violence.
Need help? Support is available:
The 24/7 National Freephone Helpline for Women’s Aid is 1800 341 900. There is an online chat service on womensaid.ie operating mornings and evenings and a text service for people who are deaf and hard of hearing on 087 959 7980.
SafeIreland.ie offers a list of 38 domestic abuse services in towns across Ireland.
For urgent assistance, call An Garda Síochána on 999 or 112.
The case for including animal rights in ‘left’ campaigns
Laura Broxson: Animal rights, often last on the list of social justice campaigns, is actually where I began my journey as a ‘left’ activist, over eighteen years ago. With almost 120 million – yes, million – animals killed in slaughterhouses in Ireland in 2020, according to figures obtained from the Department of Agriculture following an FOI request, isn’t it time we included a fight against speciesism in our campaigns?
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted how catastrophic zoonotic diseases can be for the human population, and has made a lot of individuals re-evaluate their choices in terms of what they consume. Climate change has also resulted in a reflection in this regard. But let’s take away pandemics and climate change, and look at this from a purely anti-speciesist perspective.
Brian McLoughlin: In March 2017, then housing minister Simon Coveney officially opened the first family hub in Dublin for families experiencing homelessness. He said this was a response to the negative experiences of homeless families being accommodated in commercial hotels. Coveney then confidently stated that the use of commercial hotels to accommodate homeless families would end in July 2017.
In Inner City Helping Homeless, we knew this was yet another empty promise that couldn’t possibly be delivered, but Coveney persisted with the publicity tour. When asked by The Journal if he really thought the goal of no longer using hotels for homeless families was achievable, he stuck to his guns that it was possible and that people were working hard to make it happen.
Fast forward four years, and the use of commercial hotels and B&Bs for homeless families continues as more and more hotels pop up around the city. A recent DRHE report stated that in April 2021 there were 113 families still being accommodated in commercial hotels. Families cramped in to one room with their children, their children’s toys, school books – all at a huge cost to the state. While we were all told to stay at home during Covid-19, these families had to spend day after day sharing one room, putting huge mental health pressure on both the children and their parents. It is well documented that living in emergency accommodation impacts a child’s development, creating physical and mental health issues for children in primary school. Homelessness is creating a trauma for a generation of children, and we will be seeing the fallout of this for years to come.
“There’s nothing nice about how I feel” – Charlie, aged 6
In 2019, the Ombudsman for Children brought out a report called No Place Like Home. For the report, they spoke to children living in emergency accommodation, from small children right up to teenagers. They asked them to explain what life for them was like in their own words, and some of the answers would break a heart made of stone. Children feeling like they were prisoners and were being punished when all they are guilty of is becoming homeless in a country that would rather pay huge money to hotels, B&Bs and family hubs than develop a proper public housing building plan to give these children homes. When asked what they liked about where they live, the answers spoke for themselves:
“I like nothing about living here, I have none of my friends here, I can’t do a sleep over … [it] makes me feel sad. There’s nothing nice about how I feel”. (Charlie, aged 6)
“It’s like a prison …. It’s just horrible” – Rebecca, aged 10
“The rules are very strict. The worst is that you are not allowed to have friends in your room. They just expect you to sit on your own. And not being allowed to be anywhere without your mam, you’re not even allowed to sit in the room for ten minutes by yourself. I know it has safety issues but nothing is going to happen … If we break the rules we will get kicked out. It’s like a prison … it’s just horrible”. (Rebecca, aged 10)
“Some days I didn’t even want to wake up” – Rachel, aged 10
“Some days I didn’t even want to wake up because I didn’t want to face this day … I am tired in school. Some days I would just sit there and not even smile”. (Rachel, aged 10)
When there are ten-year-old children having suicidal thoughts we as a society are failing these children. Many speak of not being allowed to have visitors or sleep-overs – even prisoners are allowed to have visitors. Why are we allowing this?
“Children … were struggling to learn to walk in a cramped room”
In 2018, Temple Street Children’s Hospital experienced a big spike in children being released to ‘No Fixed Abode’ and wrote a report on the impact of homelessness on children. The report stated that homeless children are most likely to get sick from their cramped accommodation. The main reasons children presented to Temple Street were burns (kettles in hotel rooms), scabies from dodgy mattresses, injuries from falls, and respiratory issues. Even more shocking is the fact that homeless children were not developing quickly enough: they were struggling to learn to walk in a cramped room and even the development of their swallow was effected due to the food they were having to eat as their parents had no available cooking facilities. Research shows that homelessness influences every facet of a child’s life, from conception to young adulthood, and that the experience of homelessness inhibits the physical, emotional, cognitive, social and behavioural development of children.
“As of April 2021 there were 167 families, 247 adults and 475 children, who are in emergency accommodation for over two years”
These children are this country’s future generations, and they are being let down over and over again by an incompetent government who lack empathy, compassion and vision. A government which continues to outsource state responsibilities to private developers, vulture funds, commercial hotels, B&Bs and privately-operated hostels. Not only do we have a government who lack empathy and compassion, but they are also economically incompetent. Report after report has highlighted what we are doing to children’s development by keeping them in emergency accommodation. As of April 2021 there were 167 families, 247 adults and 475 children, who are in emergency accommodation for over two years.
And what does family emergency accommodation cost? What is the price the taxpayer pays to put children into these environments that cause so much pain?
Fact: it costs more to accommodate a family in emergency accommodation than in a luxury apartment
The figure for accommodating a family of four in emergency accommodation for a year is a staggering €69,000-€80,000. To put a family in one room, to put a huge strain on the mental and physical health of both the children and their parents. For context, American real estate fund Kennedy Wilson are renting out units in Dublin’s Capitol Dock Development, originally marketed as Dublin’s Most Desirable Address. On-site amenities include a concierge service, gym, fitness studio, business lounge, residents’ lounge, chef’s kitchen and a cinema room. Nearly half of these apartments are vacant today, potential homes sitting empty as families struggle through life in emergency accommodation. And the cost of renting one of these apartments is considerably less than what the taxpayer is paying per family for emergency accommodation. The biggest unit in the Capitol Dock building is a three-bed and the monthly cost is €4,017-€4,410. This is between €20,000 and €30,000 cheaper annually than putting a homeless family into a hotel or B&B for the year. Is this acceptable to people?
We owe it to these children to fight for them, to tell the government that we will no longer accept their hyperbole and broken promises. These children deserve a safe and secure home, something stated in the original constitution, and we have gotten further and further away from that in the last ten years. We all need to work together to get a referendum on the Right to Housing, and as Covid restrictions lift we need to see feet on the street for water-charges-level protests to shame the government into immediate action.
As the Manic Street Preachers song says, If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next.
Brian McLoughlin is Head of Communications for Inner City Helping Homeless and one of the four contributors to Unite’s Take Four group blog, along with Conor McCabe, Ber Grogan and Laura Broxson.