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THE Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) is holding its biennial delegate conference this week in Belfast on October 26-27 — the overall theme of the conference is “no going back.”
Restrictions mean that half the delegates will be on Zoom, but 300 delegates will be in attendance at the Waterfront Hall, making this one of the biggest gathering of trade unionists in Ireland since 2019.
The conference motions and executive report will undoubtedly concentrate upon the many problems of living and working conditions that workers face, but the effect of the pandemic is bound to dominate discussion.
The consequence of Covid-19 on workers’ lives has been massive. From 2020 a new but unwanted world has descended upon us bringing changes and personal tragedy to many families.
The strain on the workers in the health services and on health resources has been immense.
The education sector has been an area of big concern, while working from home, health and safety at work — all these issues are still with us, even the constraints that are in place for the conference are evidence of this.
Nevertheless, the conference is an important centre of discussion for workers in Ireland and gives the opportunity to engage in debate, share matters of concern and to combat anti-worker policies — because exploitation knows no borders. International solidarity will also be on the agenda.
Specific problems are bound to surface, for instance the Feminist Recovery Plan, produced by the Women’s Policy Group, highlights the fact that the Covid-19 crisis has put sharp focus on to the value and importance of care work, paid and unpaid and highlighted the essential nature of often precarious and almost always low-paid, retail work.
The plan shows how women have and will continue to suffer the brunt of the Covid-19 crisis in Northern Ireland: “For example, 79 per cent of health and social care staff in NI are women; 85 per cent of part-time workers are women; 70 per cent of workers ineligible for statutory sick pay are women; 91 per cent of single parents and the vast majority of foodbank users are women and the vast majority of carers (both paid and unpaid), teachers, retail, hospitality and front-line staff are women.”
While the border poll and a united Ireland remain major issues of debate, it is questionable whether they will be discussed at the conference.
Working people are also facing a massive hike in the cost of living with energy prices now rising, especially gas.
It has been reported that in the North the average consumer is now paying £1,000 more for energy than last year — the worst price shock since 1970. Home oil, used by two-thirds of the households, is at a three-year high.
Working people in Ireland are facing problems on a number of fronts and this means that this gathering of the ICTU is of crucial importance.
Not unrelated to this is the protection of the environment, which is one of the most vital issues for every person on this planet — and the fact is that war remains the biggest threat to the world’s ecosystem.
Cop26, the 26th United Nations climate change conference, will be held in the city of Glasgow between October 31 and November 12 2021, under the co-presidency of Britain and Italy.
The US anti-war women’s organisation Code Pink points out that the world’s militaries are major carbon emitters, yet are not required to report their emissions, let alone reduce them.
Anti-war organisations across Britain, the US and worldwide will demand action on all forms of conflict and militarism, including a complete end to nuclear weapons.
Without this, there will be no possibility of ending environmental destruction, nor any hope of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the level we need to stave off the worst effects of the climate crisis.
Hopefully this will be part of the discussion on climate change at the biennial conference.
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