Northern Ireland news

`No going back' for workers' rights after pandemic, Northern Ireland political leaders promise

Representatives of of all five parties in the NI Executive, for the first time, shared a single stage at a trade union conference. Picture by Kevin Cooper Photoline

Flexible working, affordable childcare and job security will be protected as Northern Ireland emerges from the pandemic, political leaders have promised.

The north's five largest parties praised key workers as they shared a stage and addressed Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) Biennial Delegate Conference yesterday at the Waterfront Hall.

There was criticism of the recent trend for companies to `fire and re-hire' and a stress for the need for workers to have a "work/life balance".

Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O'Neill said "there can be no going back there can only be going forward" for worker's rights, which her party is "fully committed to strengthening".

"Workers must be valued and must get a decent wage that they can live with and support their families," she said, saying they want to introduce five days paid carers leave when dependants become ill.

DUP deputy leader Paula Bradley received applause as she declared herself "a long-term member of the Unison union".

She pledged the party to deliver "ambitious" new proposals to transform the childcare sector in Northern Ireland, with parents facing bills "larger than their mortgage payments", including a bill she had seen as high as £2,200 for one month.

Ms Bradley said she has spoken to "women who are holding down a full-time job and paying childcare five days a week. At the end of every month, they have practically nothing left".

She pledged to help the childcare sector which "kept going throughout the lockdowns".

"They turned up to work every day. They juggled pods and isolations in a manner few fully appreciated at the time."

UUP leader Doug Beattie said the party "support flexible working" and continued remote working "where appropriate" and is examining "in depth" a policy on universal basic income.

He said when the party agrees its manifesto all commitments to workers rights "become promises".

Replacing party leader Colum Eastwood who was in Westminster, SDLP health spokesman Colin McGrath paid tribute to the public sector.

"We are in a better place now that we were in March 2020 because of the immense efforts of people and communities across this island but particularly because of the selfless dedication of public sector workers who have, once again, put the needs of the many ahead of their own interests."

He condemned the "pervasive and insidious practice of fire and rehire" as tipping "the scales irreversibly in favour of bad employers".

Mr McGrath said there need to be recognition of "the change to working conditions as a result of the pandemic", with "the right to remote working and flexible working as a default".

"Old monolithic arguments about fixed place working and rigid hours have been dismantled over the last 18 months. The flexibility that the economy demanded and workers accommodated must be a two-way street," he said.

Alliance Health spokeswoman Paula Bradshaw paid tribute to frontline workers and reaffirmed the party's support for the workers' rights in the New Decade, New Approach deal.

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

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