It’s a chilly evening as I make my way along the quays to meet with the Work Must Pay picketers before their protest. At first it seems I may have the wrong place. It’s a relief to find, upon crossing the river over to Connolly Books in Temple Bar, that things are running a bit behind schedule. The demonstration against free labour would go ahead as planned once an unwell picketer had a chance to finish their Lemsip.
I use the time to introduce myself to the other picketers. They were a diverse group, including a secondary school teacher and a mature second-year Trinity student. Two others had to leave early to go back to work. Since the inception of the Work Must Pay campaign after a meeting in November between members of Unite Youth Dublin and the Connolly Youth Movement, co-ordinating the protests on a part-time schedule has been difficult.
Communicating the intent of the protests has also presented a challenge; a comparison is made between a recent protest at Decwells Hardware and the episode of Father Ted in which the priests’ attempts to dissuade patrons from seeing ‘The Passion of St. Tibulus’ have the opposite effect, with many passersby heading into Decwells to investigate their wares. Having a journalist come along to a picketing is something of a novelty.
According to the first hand accounts I receive at Connolly Books, the earlier protest at Decwells got off to a subdued start before the group settled into a rhythm of more striking chants. The opening of today’s picket, this time outside Yamamori Sushi, is also slightly muddled, with one picketer decrying “free exploitation” instead of “free labour.” Another picketer asks passersbys if they would work for €3.75 an hour. “Shouldn’t that really be on the leaflet?”
The protest soon gathered momentum, however, as the picketers continued to get the attention of pedestrians. A troop of school girls stopped briefly to register their vocal support and several passing motorists honked in solidarity. Many others, including a man one of the picketers enthusiastically insisted was an off-duty guard, were visibly engaged, if only momentarily. Others on their way home from the office were less than ecstatic to be asked whether they would “work for free”, although most of them still took leaflets.
The grievance the Work Must Pay Movement have with the businesses they picket is that they are exploiting the JobBridge scheme for “free” labour. It seems the skills requisite to fulfill many JobBridge adverts would not take six to nine months to learn. They may even be skills the applicants already have in which case they should be paid a living wage for them. The Work Must Pay movement intends to target the businesses taking advantage of JobBridge and force them to remove their JobBridge posts. “People say that they are just trying to expand their business. If you’re business plan is based on exploiting one worker than its not a very good one,” says Eoghan O’Neill, the secretary of the Connolly Youth Movement.
The protests hinge on the notion that bad publicity will force businesses to reconsider their use of the JobBridge scheme. The only way to prevent young workers from being exploited is to remove the incentive for doing so. “It is not a purely negative campaign,” Eoghan says. “Business that don’t sign up to JobBridge, we will promote that.”
Most of the movement’s social media presence thus far focuses on its success in persuading businesses to move their JobBridge postings, but this is perhaps understandable as it relies on its successes to maintain momentum. In fact, the movement have been cautious about publicity up until this point, in order to build up support first. “We have several steps and templates so that anyone can start a work must pay, in the hope of creating a wider network,” Eoghan says. Preliminary preparations have been made to establish similar movements in Cork and Galway.
Photo: Conor O’Donovan
After about 40 minutes of protest at Yamamori Sushi, a member of the picketed business’ management emerges. There is something of a confrontation as he enquires about the aim of the protest. The members of Connolly Youth Movement explain their stance on the business’ current use of the JobBridge scheme. The business has posted an advert looking for several JobBridge interns to be employed in a culinary capacity, positions they have probably already undertaken training for. There is a brief exchange concerning the intricacies of the business’ JobBridge post. There seems to be a slight discrepancy in the manager’s alternate use of the terms traineeship and internship, a discrepancy which is picked apart by the picketers on the way back to Connolly Books. The applicants have already undertaken training; letting them work for a living wage is the upshot.
The Work Must Pay Facebook page and WordPress blog are on the first page of its Google results. The #workmustpay hashtag displays a chronology of naming and shaming businesses with screenshots of JobBridge adverts. The Twitter account describes the movement as “a small network campaigning to end JobBridge”, yet it seems it is the simplicity of the movement’s picketing and its detailing of the removals of adverts following pickets that are garnering most attention.
The Connolly Youth Movement, who, along with Unite Youth Dublin, co-ordinate these protests, were recently described in this paper as “would be” revolutionaries who would have little impact on the reformation of the Irish political left. Recent posts on CYM’s Facebook page show solidarity with the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela as well as opposition toward the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. On their website, CYM recognised the outcome of the Greek general elections as a step in the right direction, but “gave full support” to the KKE’s anti-parliamentary stance. Their involvement with the Work Must Pay movement represent a cause more tangible to the Irish left. The movement demonstrates an anti-establishment sentiment in its desire to the end the JobBridge scheme, but seeks to achieve their greater goal with realistic short-term goals.
Importance of education
When I ask Eoghan about the politics of the Connolly Youth Movement, he places an emphasis on education. “I would rather have five critically thinking individuals than a room full of people along for the protest,” he says. This sentiment is reflected on the CYM’s website where visitors can take the ‘Working Man’s Introduction to Communism’ which includes articles on anti-imperialism and the role of women.
Eoghan also appeals to students to politicise themselves. While large turnout at events such as the Right to Education march is positive, the lack of any focused objective at these events precludes sustained engagement, he says. The advertisement of potentially exploitative JobBridge internships extends even into Trinity, the picketers are quick to point out to me, with the Institute of Neuroscience currently seeking a research assistant for a nine-month internship, targeted at individuals who have a master’s degree in the subject.
After a brief interlude, the manager emerges once again. This time, he tries a different tack. He’d just googled Work Must Pay and said nothing had come up. He announced the JobBridge post would be taken down the following day, but that this had nothing to do with the protest. There had been a lack of response as people seemed quite happy to stay on benefits, he says. There was considerable dispute over this last remark, but names were exchanged and the management even invited the picketers back the following afternoon if he didn’t keep his word and take the advert down. It would be peak business time and there would be a lot more people coming in and out of the shop.
On the way back to Connolly Books, the picketers briefly debate whether they can count this as another victory. 24 hours later, the advert was taken down, as promised. Whatever the reasoning of the management at Yamamori was, one less business in Dublin are hiring JobBridge interns, and this may not have been the case had there been no picket. A long term victory is that much easier to imagine after today’s success, but further struggle is still to come.