Northern Ireland news

Frontline workers thanked for pandemic efforts

Rebecca Black, PA

Frontline workers have been thanked by political leaders at a major trade union conference in Belfast.

Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill was among representatives from the north’s five largest parties addressing the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) Biennial Delegate Conference at the Waterfront Hall.

Ms O’Neill also used the platform to issue a warning that there is “no credible alternative” to the Northern Ireland Protocol, ahead of a meeting with Brexit Minister Lord Frost later.

It is understood that First Minister Paul Givan will also meet Lord Frost virtually.

The ICTU conference, which was originally planned for July, is taking place over two days and brings together delegates from trade unions across Ireland under the theme of No Going Back.

Lessons from the coronavirus pandemic, the impact of Brexit on workers, housing, and climate change will be among the issues on the agenda.

The leaders of the five parties represented on the Stormont Executive were each invited to address the conference to outline their position on workers’ rights.

In her address, Ms O’Neill paid tribute to the pandemic efforts of healthcare and frontline workers, from cleaners to medics, to shop workers, teachers, youth workers, and delivery workers.

She hailed their “courage and professionalism” throughout the “horrendous public health emergency”.

She said her party is committed to workers’ rights but warned that the Conservative Government “does not care about workers’ pay or rights”.

“Sinn Féin is fully committed to strengthening workers’ rights; we want to end precarious work, to tackle low pay and strengthen trade unions recognition and collective bargaining rights,” she said.

DUP deputy leader Paula Bradley received a cheer as she said she is a long-term member of the union Unison, and that she recognises politicians “need to be better at communicating with the trade union movement”.

She pledged that her party will deliver ambitious new proposals to transform the childcare sector in Northern Ireland, saying some parents are facing bills larger than their mortgage payments, and that she had seen one bill as high as £2,200 for one month.

“The DUP is alive to the problems in this sector, and we are actively working to ensure they are addressed because this sector is key to getting more people into work and progressing their careers,” she said.

“The DUP has exciting and ambitious proposals to transform childcare provision in Northern Ireland. The DUP wants the Executive to deliver a fairer and better-resourced system that works for the parent and caregiver.”

Ms Bradley also expressed her party’s opposition to the fair employment law exemption for teachers which allows schools to use religious background or belief in deciding who to recruit to teaching posts.

“The exception for schools is outdated and entrenching the worst strands of the old Northern Ireland. It is a relic from an era which most people have moved on from,” she said.

“Those who cling to it need to move forward and recognise it has no place in 2021.”

Teaching union the NASUWT is calling at the conference for the exemption to be scrapped.

UUP leader Doug Beattie also backed the ending of the exemption, adding that his party has long held this position, and in 2016 brought it before the Assembly where it was blocked by a petition of concern.

“We still think it is the right thing to do, and we will be supporting the NASUWT in their call for getting rid of discrimination based purely on religious grounds,” he said.

Mr Beattie also spoke about wanting to “reignite the link” between Unionism and the trade union movement, which he described as having “fractured slightly”.

He outlined his party’s position on a number of issues, including wanting an increase to the living wage, paid parental bereavement leave, a children’s funeral fund, rebalancing the health service and addressing workforce shortages, flexible working and the cost of living.

SDLP MLA Colin McGrath gave apologies on behalf of party leader Colum Eastwood, who was in London for some Northern Ireland related Bills in Parliament.

He described emerging from a terrible period of loss and the impact of Covid restrictions as having placed an immense strain on people, but hailed the power of collective action and paid tribute to the “selfless dedication of public sector workers”.

Mr McGrath said his party will pursue an ambitious programme of reform and reimagine the future of work to “recognise the imbalance in the lives of working people and actively seek to address it”.

Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw reaffirmed her party’s support for workers’ rights in the New Decade, New Approach deal.

She also backed the call to end the exemption to fair employment legislation for teachers, adding that her colleague, Chris Lyttle, is working on a Private Member’s Bill to change the legislation.

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