As the EU line up to kick Ireland again, unions must lead in defending jobs, sustainable Irish business & provision of improved public services
Brendan Ogle: As the ESRI predict the worst recession in our history, trade unions and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) have led the way in providing a comprehensive and workable counter-analysis to the hawkish calls for austerity from Ireland’s crushing neoliberal consensus.
In the very weeks when Fine Gael and Fianna Fail first seemed to rule out tax increases going forward (including the ongoing refusal to accept the Apple Tax), and then state-led borrowing, an attack began on the COVID-19 payment, with people who have been forced into isolation being targeted for ‘being better off’ on €350 a week. Now we learn that, of €750bn targeted by the European Commission in a recovery fund of grants and loans for 27 member states, Ireland is earmarked for just €1.9 billion, a tiny 0.25% of the total. This for a country that Eurostat found had been forced to pay 42% of the total cost of the European banking debt following the financial crash.
Karen Doyle and Julia Marciniak from Unite Hospitality & Tourism branch take a look at the conditions workers face in Ireland’s Tourism sector.
What should be a time when most people are planning holidays, going on day trips, or planning some weekends away we find ourselves wondering if perhaps next year will be better? The global pandemic of Covid-19 has brought life as we know it to a standstill. Throughout Ireland the Hospitality and Tourism sector has been hit extremely hard with mass layoffs and the effective closing down of an entire industry. This blog aims to take a closer look at the tourism industry before, during and after this emergency and will offer some ideas on how workers within this vital sector can organise to better protect themselves for a better future. The time has never been more pressing than it is now to join a union and through collective actions demand for a better, fairer future as this vital sector recovers post crisis.
The Government website (gov.ie) ascribes that “Tourism is one of Ireland’s most important economic sectors. According to the latest estimates, in 2018, out of state (Overseas and Northern Ireland) tourists generated €5.6 billion for the Irish economy. This figure rises to €7.3 billion when fare receipts to Irish carriers are included. Domestic tourism was worth 2 billion, meaning the sector as a whole was worth €9.4 billion to the economy”
Tourism and the Economy
According to the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation www.itic.ie Tourism is Irelands largest indigenous industry employing up to 265,000 people with 68% jobs outside Dublin. This is hugely significant given the number of tourists visiting here, up to €9.3 million overseas visitors came to Ireland in 2018 spending €5.1 billion in the local economy. Given the figures it is easy to see why governments, both local and national, businesses and workers are reliant on this sector to remain viable into the future. Therefore, in organising this industry it is vital that workers are viewed as essential components to help rebuild our local economies as the sector looks to welcoming tourists once again.
Tourism and Céad Míle Fáilte
Since the beginning of this crisis our government, media and the wider public has rightly lauded frontline workers labelling themas essential. Indeed, these workers are helping to keep our communities safe and our shops open so that we can take care of ourselves and our families in these uncertain times.
Within all sectors of our economy there exists many other frontline and essential workers without whom the various sectors and the economy would simply grind to a halt.
Tourism workers are the face of Ireland. They are the storytellers of times past and the ones who give the world renowned céad míle fáilte to millions of tourists who visit our shores every year.
Working in the tourism industry is about telling the story of Ireland, workers draw from its unique and ancient culture with its vast and often troubled history in a way that brings the past to life, encapsulates the best of us at present, while showcasing Ireland as a future destination that has something to offer everyone.
Frontline workers in this industry are local ambassadors too, often helping tourists find their way about, answering queries and giving recommendations for where to eat, drink, visit and stay. These factors all help to contribute to the famous Irish welcome that visitors have come to expect, and it is one of the reasons why this industry thrives and why local businesses reap the benefits too, this is the beating heart of tourism, it’s where workers on the frontline of this industry excel at helping to deliver the best of what Ireland has to offer.
Working in Tourism: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly
Working in tourism can be rewarding, those workers we spoke to for this blog stated that getting to meet people from different parts of the world is a pleasure, educating tourists about Irish history and culture makes their job satisfying and for those workers who are outdoors or working in heritage and popular tourist sites work brings a sense of doing something different than the norm which these workers appreciate.
However, like their counterparts in the hospitality industry, tourism workers often have precarious work, earn low pay, get no extra pay for working on a Sunday, most workers have no job security and working conditions can be less than desirable.
Some workers do not receive their contracts or proper breaks, some complain of not getting their work roster in a timely manner, while one business we know of does not provide a toilet for their staff, yes, you read that correctly. Despite several attempts to resolve the issue workers here are still without the most basic of rights.
Many tourism workers have extensive knowledge of local and national history they hold university degrees, while many more attend related or professional courses to further their education in relation to their jobs, yet the pay and conditions these workers receive does not reflect the skills many of these workers have nor the overall input these workers deliver for the industry as a whole.
Another area of concern raised by some workers in the sector is the use of social media and apps such as TripAdvisor, some reviews can lead to added stress for workers. Bad reviews or even no reviews can lead to some workers experiencing their hours being reduced. The worker in this instance has little by way of right to reply to the complainant and must rely on management to step up when workers are wronged.
All these issues show how little respect is given to many workers in this sector without proper site inspections vital workers rights can be disregarded and ignored.
Tourism in a Post Pandemic Workplace
Workers returning to their jobs over the coming months must be satisfied that all health and safety measures are in place to keep them safe.
At a recent Covid-19 briefing on RTE, the Minister for Business, Heather Humphries, called for ‘every workplace to appoint one lead workers representative who will work with the employer to ensure Covid-19 measures are adhered to’, of course we would argue these ‘lead workers’ should be union members.
In the recently published research paper, commissioned by Unite and titled, Hope or Austerity, Dr Conor McCabe lays out clearly why we need to have confidence that measures are working as we reopen for business. ‘Guideline or ‘best practice’ procedures will not be enough. These protections must be on a legal footing and subject to workplace checks by trade unions. This is to ensure that our members are protected, and that employers adhere to the regulations’.
As the Hospitality & Tourism industry returns and rebuilds post pandemic, the public must be assured that conditions in the workplace are satisfactory for the workers, and that it is a safe place for them to visit.
Therefore, it is the workers themselves in this sector who need to become unionised. Strengthened by their collective power they will then be better positioned to protect themselves and the public too. The workplace that has a unionised lead worker can be an advocate on broader work issues, raise health & safety matters with management and be a voice for workers grievances.
This is the best way forward for workers in an industry that has disregarded its front-line staff for too long while the industry has taken billions into the Irish economy on the backs of the hard work done by skilled and dedicated employees.
Tourism & Hospitality have much in common, the Covid -19 pandemic has had, and it will continue to have, a massive impact on tourism not just in Ireland but globally too. It is the sector that took the biggest hit and will take time to recover, jobs created by this sector and the economic impact is undeniable. Let us hope that Ireland’s key sectors, and those who run, regulate, and profit from them are taking this time to reflect on a little bit more than the bottom line.
And let us hope that workers too are reflecting and realising some important lessons this pandemic has given us; that all workers have value and their contributions are necessary to keep the wheels of the economy running, that it is the front-line workers in all sectors who are the biggest asset any company or business has.
It is now time to reflect, recharge, rethink and unionise.
Unite member Micheál Kelliher explains how the Public Health Emergency has exposed some of the structural inequalities in access to information for Deaf people.
Since Irish Sign Language (ISL) was recognised as Ireland’s third official language in December 2017, it has been a long and difficult fight to get the Act fully implemented. I am Unite member and a spokesperson for a campaign called #StopHidingISL. We started this campaign when RTÉ refused to include ISL in their broadcast during the national anthem at the All Ireland GAA finals in Croke Park in 2018.
The GAA were very good in including a Deaf person and an ISL interpreter to sign the national anthem at Croke Park on finals day so that the Deaf people at the game could be involved with their hearing friends and family members. However, RTÉ failed to feature this in their broadcast. This excluded the Deaf people at home and in pubs across Ireland from participating in their national anthem before the game began. RTÉ at that time said that it was technically impossible to include the ISL user on screen, in a bubble for example. However TG4, a significantly smaller station and the GAA managed to do just that without any issue.
In the same month, the Pope was visiting Ireland and was sharing a large, bright stage with the Taoiseach. The interpreter was off the stage, far away in a dark corner away from the cameras. It was somewhat ironic that the Pope was speaking about how society should be more equal, while my access was actively hidden from the screens?
The #StopHidingISL campaign has asked RTÉ about this situation, and their response was that they were filming for an international audience, and that ISL is ‘obsolete’. Wow! It’s a strange word to use. When someone is speaking Irish, does RTÉ tell this person their language is obsolete or edit them out? I’ve never seen this happen, but somehow it keeps happening with ISL! There are clear signs of discrimination and active exclusion of our language.
COVID-19 Health Warnings
When the global COVID-19 pandemic came to the forefront of news broadcasts in Ireland, the Deaf community was initially excluded from access to crucial information in their preferred language for more than a week. Without having access to critical information, we were vulnerable to misinformation and misinterpretation.
Some of you may be wondering why written English is not an adequate form of communication for Deaf people in these circumstances. Sign language is a visual language which like all languages develops organically and for some Deaf people, spoken and written English is like a foreign language. It’s critical that everyone has access to information in their first language so they won’t put themselves and everyone else at risk. Inclusion is not a luxury, it’s a necessity to protect society as a whole.
After a campaign involving the Irish Deaf Society, Chime, and the Deaf community, we got our first briefing with Irish Sign Language on the 5th of March with the HSE (or Department of Health) but it was still a disaster for us. The camera kept focusing in on the speakers and cutting the ISL interpreters out of the shot. The interpreters kept trying to walk into shot so they could be seen by viewers. It was clear that the media team needed some Deaf Awareness training. Slowly, we ISL is becoming more prominent in briefings, because of media teams becoming more aware, but it has been slow and difficult to make progress.
Despite the passing into law of the Irish Sign Language Recognition ACT there is still no consistency across government and state institutions. When we achieve access to information in our language with one agency, we have to do it all over again with other agencies, departments, media companies and staff. In recent weeks we have observed briefings and announcements by the Ministers for Health, Education, Finance, and the department of An Taoiseach without Irish Sign Language interpreters.
Another situation which is of great concern to our community is the education and inclusion of Deaf children. RTÉ launched a valuable initiative called the Home School Hub, to help with home schooling that children all over the country are facing. However, RTÉ yet again failed to include Deaf children who are ISL users.
For the first week or so, out of concern for the children Deaf teachers and special needs assistants stepped in and volunteered their time to translate the content into ISL. The Deaf community and its organisations again mobilised to campaign to get ISL included in the Home School Hub.
The approach to sharing information in ISL is not consistent across platforms either. For example, there are regular videos with ISL on RTÉ’s social media pages coming from the HSE’s daily briefings. But when the Taoiseach made an announcement about restrictions on the 1st of May, there were no videos with ISL on their social media pages, leading to confusion and stress when trying to access the new information. The ISL videos were only on the RTE News Now TV channel, and RTÉ Player. Each Deaf person has their own preferences on where they get news, e.g. TV channels, newspapers, websites, social media. And besides, not everyone has TV or the Internet. Access to information in Irish Sign Language should be on all media platforms.
Deaf communities around the world are experiencing similar barriers. British Sign Language users and the #WhereIsTheInterpreter campaign have started a class action legal case against the UK government. The World Federation of the Deaf and World Association of Sign Language Interpreters has made a joint statement “reminding governments on all levels of their commitments under the Convention on the Rights of Peoples with Disabilities (CRPD) to ensure full access to information and accessibility to all services under CRPD Articles 9 and 21.” The Irish government ratified the CRPD, but they, their agencies, departments and public owned companies consistently fail to follow the convention.
Moving forward, I hope that seeing ISL interpreters on screens will be normalised and not only during exceptional events. Interpreters are signs of an inclusive society and can inspire some people to learn ISL, and to let Deaf people play a bigger part in our inclusive society.
Here is a list of demands that I, and members of the Deaf community, would like to see all media companies, agencies and departments follow:
When interpreters are at televised events, they must be beside speakers and on camera, no matter if the audience is national or international.
Media teams should receive Deaf Awareness training and always keep access and inclusivity in their minds.
Full time and well paid staff who are fluent in ISL at RTÉ to always be ready for exceptional announcements or sudden changes (e.g. red warning weathers, COVID-19), in a timely manner (information translates immediately, not a few days later).
Consistent access to Irish Sign Language and subtitles across all media platforms, from TV channels (including the main one) and websites to social media.
Provide full access to ISL and subtitles for important events in our society like political debates.
Roles such as policy officers with a focus on access to ISL across all departments, agencies and media.
The demands above are so simple, and some of them don’t cost anything. We are aware that there won’t be any ‘getting back to normal’ after the COVID-19 pandemic. RTÉ shouldn’t get ‘back to normal’, actively excluding ISL from screens. The government departments and agencies shouldn’t get ‘back to normal’, forgetting about the Deaf community’s needs. The media companies shouldn’t get ‘back to normal’, having inconsistent approach on sharing information in ISL on all of their media platforms. I’m hopeful that we will keep going forward, not backwards.
“Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance” – Verna Myers