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NUJ calls for global protections for freelance workers

Séamus Dooley addresses the International Trade Union Congress  -  © private

5 December 2018

The Irish Secretary of the National Union of Journalists has warned that global social justice cannot be achieved without stronger legal protections for freelance and precarious workers across all sectors. 

Speaking at a plenary session of the International Trade Union Congress in Copenhagen, Séamus Dooley said amendments to the Competition Act secured by the trade union movement in Ireland represented a glimmer of hope and set an example which could usefully be followed in other jurisdictions.  He said the achievement of a “just transition” in the global economy could not be achieved unless freelance rights are adequately addressed.

He explained that other jurisdictions had sought to follow the example of the former Irish Competition Authority in outlawing negotiations and collective agreements for freelance workers.  He predicted that trade unions would similarly look to the solution secured by the NUJ, SIPTU, The Musicians' Union of Ireland and Equity with the support of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

Séamus Dooley's speech:

Ever Tried.
Ever Failed.
No Matter. Try Again.
Fail Again.
Fail Better.

Those words from Samuel Beckett sustained me during the 20-year campaign to have the rights of Irish freelance workers in journalism and the creative arts restored. Ultimately, we learned from our best failures.

The ILO Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention enunciates the principles of equality for all workers.
The seminal Declaration of Philadelphia adopted in 1944 declared the right of “All human beings” …”to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity.”  

For the labour movement the challenge comes from the primacy granted to competition law and the belief that the market is supreme; that all public policy must first give regard to the values of the market place – at all costs, including human dignity and the rights of equality and freedom of association. At a time when atypical working has become the norm in many industries there cannot be a just transition without vigorously asserting the universal right of all workers to be collectively represented regardless of their employment relationship.

In Ireland our Competition Authority determined that the publication of fees guides or the setting of minimum rates of pay for freelance workers was a breach of competition law, a form of price fixing which would distort the market. They refused to recognise freelance writers, photographers, musicians and actors as workers, insisting they were business undertakings regulated by competition law. Long standing minimum rates were abandoned, vulnerable workers in low pay sectors were left to the vagaries of the market. A SIPTU colleague faced criminal proceedings in the Irish courts.

Last year we succeeded in securing a change in competition law which recognises the rights of categories of freelance workers to be collectively represented: it also provides a statutory framework for other freelance workers to seek trade union recognition. A grass roots parliamentary campaign supported by a legal strategy guided by John Hendy QC and a formal complaint to the ILO ultimately led to a unanimous decision in our favour last year.  Developing links across the political spectrum was key to securing political support.

Working with the ICTU, the NUJ and SIPTU never gave up, even after the collapse of the social partnership talks and in the face of opposition from the European Commission, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In the end we succeeded through the power of solidarity, persistence, effective lobbying, skilful legal arguments and utilising every avenue open to us:  from parliamentary motions and petitions to publicity and through direct complaints at European and ILO level.  This was a local battle but with global implications. It is no coincidence that at the ILO earlier this year the employers group resisted reference in the report of the Irish government to the new legislation.

We await the adjudication of our report to the European Committee on Social Rights which I predict will have profound implications.

A just transition must include a readjustment of the balance between competition law and employment rights and can only be achieved by embracing all workers within our global labour movement.

Tags: , freelance, journalists' rights, ireland, Competition Act, SIPTU, equity, Musicians' Union of Ireland, Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, ILO, atypical workers