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Has the tech industry smuggled in a post-union Ireland?


Horror show: Elon Musk has been under fire for how he handled layoffs at Twitter

Horror show: Elon Musk has been under fire for how he handled layoffs at Twitter

Horror show: Elon Musk has been under fire for how he handled layoffs at Twitter

Ever wonder why you never hear of unions in the tech sector?

Think about this for a moment. We’re in month five of what has been dubbed the ‘tech wreck’. We’ve just seen a major tech bank go to the wall. And the Irish economy is increasingly dependent on the salaries of company workers at risk from the ongoing waves of layoffs.

If this was any other industry, there would be nightly news updates about negotiations between the tech equivalent of Siptu and the Government on what happens next. But because it’s software and cloud and social media networks, it’s all seen as something completely different.

Is it? Has tech smuggled us into a post-union Ireland? Have we psychologically and culturally shifted to the US libertarian idea of negotiating everything individually oneself and letting the market decide where one lands?

It’s hard to deny that we do. Because tech firms pay well and have high participation rates from well-heeled programmers and engineers, we seem to have concluded that there’s no need for collective bargaining in the same way as for, say, public service workers.

So with a few exceptions, the unions leave the whole thing alone in Ireland. In practice, this means that those let go during the recent job cuts — well over 2,000 so far, according to the Central Bank — can only rely on fairly minimalist national legislation and whatever the company itself is promising as a marketing exercise.

In some cases (Twitter comes to mind), it’s been an absolute horror show with staff treated abysmally and the owner, Elon Musk, trying everything he could to weasel out of any decency in how employees were treated and compensated.

Other situations, while not as bad, seem to have created new HR standards in Ireland. Tech companies are trying to normalise the American practice, for example, to lock people out of their email immediately without being told. Even if this is legally sketchy here, US companies seem to be trying it anyway. In some cases, there are also giant air quotes around the Irish legal requirement for a “30-day consultation” with “potentially affected” staff.

While some multinationals do take this seriously, with Irish managers starting a genuine analysis of teams and divisions after the cuts are announced from the US headquarters, many don’t. The initial departmental lists — and names therein — don’t budge much. Those to be let go are let go.

None of this has been enough to kick off a union drive. It’s worth asking: are unions just irrelevant to the bulk of Ireland’s biggest growing industries?

From hiring practices and ‘pop-up’ offices to always-on availability and the use of contractors, we are all starting to act a bit more like Meta or Google in our work surroundings. While this has often been characterised as higher wages, free food and stock options, it’s also a preference for short-term contracts, easier-to-fire conditions and union-free zones.

Contractor work, in particular, is increasingly being characterised to young workers as something positive and modern. It brings “mobility”, “opportunity” or even “independence”. Most under the age of 35 seem to believe it. Many of Ireland’s younger workers no longer see any cultural relevance to the Lockout in their professional lives. But they can see the free fruit bars and dry cleaning that US tech companies give them.

Will the lack of unions come back to haunt them if things get worse? Maybe. But by then, they may have already ceded rights for workplace risottos.

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