Mercille On Monday



Above: Joan Burton and Margaret Heffernen

Low hour contracts and useless internships.

How Dunnes Stores and the Labour Party devalued work.

Julien Mercile writes;

We live in a world of smoke and mirrors where words are turned upside down to hide the simple fact that ordinary people are being exploited by elites. For example, if words reflected reality, the “Labour Party” would be renamed the “Employers Party”, and Joan Burton, the “Minister for Social Protection”, would be renamed “Minister for Social Dismantlement”.

Last week, more than 6,000 Dunnes workers throughout the country staged a one-day strike. The problem is their zero-hour or low-hour contracts. These require that the workers be available to work, but they don’t guarantee a decent number of hours of work per week. Therefore employees never know how much income they will receive every week. The time of their shifts also changes, so they can’t plan childcare, leisure, or anything.

The Dunnes workers want guaranteed hours of work to ensure they’re not shuffled around as Dunnes’ owners see fit. This is not a revolutionary or radical request: others do guarantee hours, including Tesco, Arnotts, Marks & Spencers, to name a few.

Of course, this is a way for employers to control labour. Employees who make too many requests for better conditions or want to organise can see their hours cut or their shifts moved to hours which they can’t attend. That’s why 85% of Dunnes workers said that one method of control on the part of management is to preserve the system of insecure hours of work.

Actually, work conditions at Dunnes are so bad that Dunnes is the company that hires the most workers who depend on social welfare in the country. More than 1,200 of their employees depend on social welfare to top up their irregular Dunnes income.

Meanwhile, the chief of Dunnes Stores, Margaret Heffernan, is very comfortable. Her net worth is estimated at €600 million. She has a luxury home in Barbados. She has another luxury home in Stillorgan in south Dublin which she is currently remodeling by joining three other houses with an extension including a cinema and an indoor swimming pool.

It is telling that when Margaret Heffernan took over the company in 1993, about 80% of Dunnes Stores workers were full-time. Conversely, today, 80% of staff is on part-time contracts that guarantee only 15 hours a week. Most staff are young and female.

The situation has created enough of a stir for Joan Burton to make a public relations appearance for a few minutes standing next to the workers on strike in front of the cameras.

But the Labour Party has contributed to the casualisation of labour, unemployment, and bad work conditions over the last few years. This has been done in three main ways.

1) Austerity: Support for austerity has deepened economic problems, increased unemployment, and prevented the economy from recovering. That’s the fundamental issue on which the current government should be judged—and kicked out of power.

2) Labour “reform” (another word that’s supposed to make us think it’s a great thing) for those lucky enough to still have a job: The workforce in the public sector has been reduced by 32,000 since 2008, at a time when the population has been growing and demand on public services is increasing. That’s on top of pay cuts and other schemes to increase management’s control over workers, even when management itself is incompetent.

3) Degrading work conditions by compelling the unemployed to reintegrate the workforce under bad conditions: The best known example of this is JobBridge, but there are many other similar programmes. JobBridge is a national internship scheme that provides work experience placements for interns who are paid only €50 per week on top of their existing social welfare entitlement, which equates to an hourly wage of €3.65 for a 40-hour week.

This amounts to a huge subsidy to the private sector, which accounts for approximately two thirds of internships. Effectively, the rise of internships has replaced a range of full-time employment opportunities that would likely have been made available anyway in the absence of the programme. There is little doubt that businesses have been using the scheme to replace paid work and the difference is going directly to the bottom line.

To take one example, Tesco has been using JobBridge to advertise for positions such as filling shelves according to merchandising plans and ensuring that customers do not have to queue while other companies such as fast food chain Sbarro have used it for finding pizza chefs.

Despite the abuse of the programme, the minister responsible for it—Joan Burton—has defended it explaining that it has been much praised “particularly by the employers” which is hardly surprising given that they are the main beneficiaries.

Democracy is not just about voting once every four years for a short menu of parties that essentially all care about elites, not ordinary people. Real democracy involves people having a say over matters that affect their lives.

A crucial part of this is economic democracy, which means workers having a say over their work conditions and the business they work in. After all, we spend one third of our waking life at work, so that’s an important chunk of time. That’s what the Dunnes workers are attempting to do.

Economic democracy is also about citizens having a say in how the government taxes them and the corporate sector and how it spends those taxes. That’s what water charge protestors are trying to influence, just like many progressive groups around the country.

They face opposition from the established parties, who know very well that the success of those campaigns will translate automatically into a loss of power for elites and into a redistribution of power and income toward ordinary people. No wonder they’re scared and react hysterically to mild media reports that even dare mentioning the protests.

@JulienMercille is lecturer at UCD and the author of The Political Economy and Media Coverage of the European Economic Crisis: The Case of Ireland (2015, Routledge). His new book, Europe’s Treasure Ireland, will be out in July 2015.

(Photocall Ireland)

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48 thoughts on “Mercille On Monday

  1. Mike

    Spot on. But blah blah blah fringe leftie lunatic blah blah blah must delegitimise alternative viewpoint

  2. thatladthere

    While I would consider myself to be of a similar political persuasion to the good doctor there are some slight errors in the piece which can serve to muddy waters for all involved.

    The problem is their zero-hour or low-hour contracts

    Zero-hour contracts are covered by the 1997 Organisation of Working Time Act, more here

    To take one example, Tesco has been using JobBridge to advertise for positions such as filling shelves according to merchandising plans and ensuring that customers do not have to queue while other companies

    Not true. They advertised and under pressure from the union within Tesco these advertisements were withdrawn.

    Democracy is not just about voting once every four years for a short menu of parties that essentially all care about elites, not ordinary people

    Every 5 years no?

    Wouldn’t normally be so pedantic, but it’s a Bank Holiday and I’m a bit bored.

    1. bisted

      ‘…While I would consider myself to be of a similar political persuasion to the good doctor…’
      I’d say you are the only person that would make a favourable comparison between you and ‘the good doctor’.

  3. Paul Davis

    Missing the point here.

    Go into McDonalds on O’Connell St.

    Fully automatic order stations have been installed.

    Automation is coming and millions of people around Europe are going to be unemployed.

    Driving jobs alone will see 15 million redundant people in the next 25 years.

    People need to re skill.

    1. Jane

      I think I’m missing the point here too. Can you please explain clearly why automated self service booths mean the following:

      A. That Dunnes workers’ contracts should be structured as they are;
      B. That we should have no say in how this country is run;
      C. That jobs which don’t require what are normally understood as skilled labour should be undertaken by job bridge applicants.

      Anecdote alert: I know someone who did a job bridge internship. She has a degree in the relevant area. Since it’s the nature of internship in a small, privately owned business, she tolerated sexual harrasment I’m the hope of bring taken on. It was only when an employee told her that she had been preceded by sixty young women, all of whom had been harassed and quickly replaced under the scheme did the nature of the setup become clear.

      1. Parp

        “she tolerated sexual harrasment I’m the hope of bring taken on.”

        Hopefully she learnt her lesson.

  4. Stumpy

    Is it just me, or does Margret Heffernan look a bit like David Coverdale from Whitesnake? (circa now, obviously)

  5. David

    Moaning on Monday

    Someone get that man an Easter Egg and calm him down. Some supplementary facts for his consideration:

    1) Austerity has not increased unemployment in Ireland.
    2) Of all reasons to object to public sector staff reductions, population is probably the weakest argument. Our population rose by a meager 80,000 between 2008 and 2014. The returning home of many immigrants and emigration has quelled demand for services. In any case, public sector hiring has now begun again.
    3) 60% of those who JobBridge scheme are now in employment.

    1. Lorcan Nagle

      “3) 60% of those who JobBridge scheme are now in employment.”

      As a statistic, this is almost as meaningless as counting the people on JobBridge, FÁS courses, long-term disability, or that have had their jobseeker’s benefit cut as not being unemployed. Take me for an example: In December 2012, I lost my job. At that point I had 10 years experience in IT, I’d been working full-time pretty much constantly since 1998.

      I signed on (jobs were extremely thin on the ground), applied for (and got onto) a FÁS course (it was a way to nab a MCSA for free) a few weeks later – at which point I was off the live register for 6 months. I was approached by a small company to join them initially on a JobBridge with the idea that I’d go full time once it was finished. I basically took the offer because they were willing to give me an “expenses” payment each month that technically wasn’t income but certianly helped make ends meet.

      In the end, that position didn’t work out, and we went our separate ways about 5 months into the JobBridge. I aplied for a bunch of jobs in the corporate sector and was back at work in full-time employment after a couple of weeks. So technically, I’m someone who was in the JobBridge scheme and has a job now. But the only thing that the JobBridge contributed to my current position was occupying my time for a few months until this one became available.

      One of the most important questions to ask when someone presents you with a statistic is whatdoes this prove, and what does it not prove? Unemployment is down, but are jobs up?

      1. jungleman

        I also did a jobbridge and am currently in full-time employment. If anything, the jobbridge lowered my chances of employment.

    2. SOMK

      1) The number of employed people has increased by 90,000 January 2012-2015, which is good, but it says nothing of the quality of those jobs being created, that consumer spending has been relatively stagnant over the same period (there is more volume currently, but no correspondent increase in value, thus the growth could be as a result of deflationary pressure, source -> ), would seem to indicate that the quality of those jobs aren’t up to much. Lower quality of work is tied in with the very notion of austerity in a period of economic recession.

      2) If you are hosting a dinner with guests, does the number of people you know are showing up have any effect on how much food you cook, if say you cook 5 dinners and 8 people show up and the 3 that don’t get a dinner complain, would you respond “of all the reasons to object to the quality of the meal, how many meals I cook is probably the weakest argument”?

      3) Just because a system has some success doesn’t mean it isn’t open to exploitation. The government says 60%, a survey by the National Youth Council puts the figure at 27%.

      It’s pretty clear that things have gotten worse for employees of Dunnes Stores and things are exceptionally good for the people who run it, why should the income of their employees be subsidised by the state, why should luxury homes for executives in Barbados be partially subsidised by the fact they’ve reduced the working conditions of their employees to the point at which 1,200 need social welfare payments to top up their income?

      When house prices have been going up and wages remain flat, you have massive, world-beating debt levels, and you have the deflationary pressure of things like Jobsbridge, especially at the lower-end (which can be low-skilled or it can also be high-skilled, but with lots of competition for a limited number of positions), if it isn’t very carefully regulated, it’s highly open to exploitation, after all, from the POV of a business with an eye on the bottom line, why pay for something you can get for free. Surely then, it’s fair if you want to paint a broader picture, non-annecdotal picture of what’s happening to link these things with the news story that is the Dunnes Stores strikes? It’s not something that’s even specific to Ireland, in the US Wallmart workers were on strike recently too, in Britain you have jobsbridge’s, sociopathic, kitten drowning, cousin, Ian “I’d rather be stuck in a lift with the Ebola virus” Duncan Smith’s welfare to work ‘scheme’.

      You put in place austerity, where broadly most people are expected to make do with less, because if everyone makes do with less eventually the growth fairy will flying in your window and put money under your pillow. So when the growth fairy shows up and there’s no new money under your pillow, what should you do? Just be happy to have a pillow I suppose (until someone takes that too), or maybe low-paid workers demanding better conditions, asking for a bit of that growth, that recovery they’ve been promised for 7 years, the one they’ve been told so much about by the media and government, maybe that’s exactly how such growth gets into the real economy in the first place.

      1. timble

        THE NYCI study on JobBridge had just over 80 respondents, all self selecting – not statistically robust

  6. DubLoony

    Too early in the day for this.
    Economy fell off a cliff before present government came into office. Employment up, unemployment down for several quarters now.
    Job bridge is not compulsory, no-one has to stay on it if they find another job.
    There is a problem for workers in Dunne’s, hence the strike. Zero hours and underemployment a problem in many sectors. Many retailers now using self service machines.
    Very lazy piece of writing.
    Back to important things like banana pancakes.

      1. DubLoony

        No contest, the banana pancakes won. The maple syrup pushed it ahead. Happy Eaters Monday all.

    1. munkifisht

      Might not be compulsory, but try and get a career started without it. I was forced to emigrate. I am highly educated with an MSc in Bioengineering where I came top of my class. I also backed that up with 4 years experience as an engineer in the building ind. I got what I thought would be a temporary job to pay the bills when I finished my MSc and hunted everywhere for a job. After 3 years I was still in the same job. I was told more than once to quit my job and sign on and come back on JB if I wanted to get my career going, something I simply couldn’t afford to do financially and mentally. I am now living and working in London.

    1. SOMK

      Because gender is the most basic identifier we have, it’s even incorporated into language, thus if there’s an outlier in gender disparity, it’s relevant to bring it up, just like if there was an outlier in the number of people with one leg, to the point at which most of the workers on part-time were one-legged, it would be relevant highlight the fact that workers on low hours were mostly ‘one-legged’, for the sake of illustration, if nothing else. Sure you can read a point into that about women in the workplace and gender disparity, sure you can fairly assume what Mr. Mercille would make of it, as a creature of the left, but that doesn’t change the fact it’s all happening in your head.

      When you get a puncture on your bicycle do you refuse to fix it because that’d be pandering to the bicycle?

      And yes the Flann O’Brien references are aimed at the the silly nature of your critique, which isn’t a critique at all, you’re essentially just arguing with something you imagine the author might say, rather than what he actually is saying, you could have typed “I am a rightwing person”, and conveyed the exact same information, but more effectively.

          1. Joe the Lion

            She’s made up her mind, she’s not wasting no more time ( with the concerns of the little people)

          2. Joe the Lion

            She’s made up her mind, she ain’t wasting no more time ( with the concerns of the little people)

  7. dhaughton99

    Fas Dublin Area Jobs Available 1-2 Weeks Old 5 April 2015

    Internships: 112
    CE Schemes: 82
    Carers: 47
    Waged Jobs: 169

  8. Deano

    Would be nice if Broadsheet made even the slightest effort to bring some balance to their website when they put articles from unknown commentators such as this guy … Maybe some professionalism is a little bit too much to expect …

    1. ahyeah

      “unknown commentators such as this guy”

      Missed the bit at the end? It says:

      @JulienMercille is lecturer at UCD and the author of The Political Economy and Media Coverage of the European Economic Crisis: The Case of Ireland (2015, Routledge). His new book, Europe’s Treasure Ireland, will be out in July 2015.

      1. Deano

        So I obviously read who it was … But academics write books all of the time not all of which are good. It seems odd to me that in an era of 24 hour news coverage and proliferation of online and other content that this is the first time I’ve heard of this person … Also, strikes me that the comments made maybe diliberately fantastical in a bid to boost interest / sales … The causality proposed in the remarks is questionable at best.

  9. Truth in the News

    An agenda of minimum hours and meagre pay has become the practice to be
    inflicted on the most vulnerable sector, those trying to eke out a living in a depressed economy, it has shades William Martin Murphy about it, the elements
    of the right -FG and the pretenders to left -LAB who have allowed this to fester
    and become the norm, they need to be ran out of office, this country has being in
    the grip of economic elite, “who wont pay, but can pay” and who have got away
    with it for years, at lot of this doctrine has evolved out of IBEC and certain elements of the defunct PD’s and now remerging as Rea Nua, did Lucinda join the pickets….as to the so called Jobsridge are there any Politicans, Judges
    or the Flunkeys in Irish Water on the Slave Bridge Scheme…?

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