IRELAND was late to the privatisation agenda that had commenced with almost religious zeal under Margaret Thatcher in Britain in the 1980s.
When the Irish state did decide to embrace this brave new world, with the much-hyped sale of Eircom, it was to prove an unmitigated disaster.
The company was cannibalised by successive owners, conditions of employment collapsed and it utterly failed in its principal mission, namely, to provide a modern telecommunications infrastructure for the country.
We are still paying the price for this folly as we continue to trail behind our European colleagues in respect of broadband provision.
Since the Eircom debacle the privatisation of services, previously provided by the state and local authorities, is a policy that has been pursued under governments of every hue; the fanfare surrounding the Eircom sale has been replaced with a quiet determination.
The nomenclature is much more nuanced mind you; services are never privatised.
The State uses “public-private partnerships”, “out-sourcing”, “an efficient public procurement policy” to ensure our citizens have access to “fit for purpose” services, but the results are the same.
A relentless, incremental transfer of services to private firms whose only way to make a profit is to do so by forcing down the price of labour.
Nor is the privatisation agenda in Ireland ever pursued on ‘ideological’ grounds. It is always described in “neutral, pragmatic” terms: “the need to achieve efficiencies”, “budgetary constraints”, “increasing service quality”, the list goes on.
Of course, it is a deeply neo-liberal ideological position but the ultimate success of any ideology is when it is presumed to be the done-thing, the norm, as it were.
This policy has been pursued most rigorously within the local authority sector. Such has been the encroachment of private service providers into what was up until recently considered to be the public sphere that the very future of local government in this country is under threat.
Local government has always had an uneasy relationship with the central administration in Ireland. Since the introduction of the local Government act of 1898 two trends have developed: the continuing reduction in power of local authorities and the removal of tax raising capabilities.
Thus, local authorities who were responsible for the provision of housing, waste disposal and water, for example, have had the provision of these services largely removed from them either through out-sourcing or through the creation of centralised authorities such as the National Roads Authority or Irish Water.
The disempowerment of local authorities came in 1977 when Fianna Fáil abolished local rates. With the cessation of an independent source of income the economic argument for the privatisation of services was laid.
The recent RTE Prime Time exposé on the waste industry revealed widespread illegal practices within the sector but it failed to examine the structural reasons which have given rise to these illegal activities.
The reality is that the waste industry has become a cut-throat business with some of the poorest terms and conditions for workers within the economy. Operators, driven by the need for economic survival, regularly circumvent the law.
The largely unregulated market-place in which they operate puts ever increasing downward pressure on pay and conditions.
It is clear that Ireland is failing to meet the challenge to dispose of waste in a coherent and environmentally sustainable manner.
The State’s role has been reduced to that of ‘light-touch’ regulator. It is left to pay the tab, however, for the very expensive clean-up operations costing millions of euro when unscrupulous waste companies engage in widescale illegal dumping.
It is time for a comprehensive review of the industry. This will require a forum for all interested parties to come together.
It must be, by its nature, a process led by Government.
SIPTU members believe that the most efficient way to have an environmentally sustainable and cost-efficient waste service is to ultimately bring it back under the control of local authorities.
The establishment of a Sectoral Employment Order (SEO) for workers within the industry is a necessary interim measure which could provide a much-needed floor of conditions for employees labouring in one of the toughest work environments in the country.