Published in The Huffington Post
A hugely significant victory for people power was achieved in Ireland this month. After 19 nights of sleeping on the floor of the Paris Bakery in Dublin, a group of mostly young migrant workers succeeded in forcing political action that will help them recoup unpaid wages and make history in the process. All but one of the workers had been involved in trade unions or political campaigning before, but all have emerged as beacons for what's possible when people have the courage to act.Their sit-in campaign started when owners of the popular cafe bakery, Yanick Forel and Ruth Savill, closed the doors of their thriving business. Rumors spread of plans for the owners to set-up elsewhere in the city. There were suggestions of business interests in the Caymen islands and revelations of how the owners had been feted with awards and praise from the business community. Earlier this year, thousands of people signed a petition to stop the popular establishment being demolished to make way for a proposed new shopping complex.
What petition signatories, including myself, didn't know at the time was that while the bakery was doing a roaring trade, the owners were paying neither their staff nor their taxes. One worker was owed at least €6,000 and had been hanging on for months on the promise that the money was on the way. Another was made homeless. There were also claims of below the minimum wage working and a regime where holiday pay, tips and other entitlements weren't forthcoming.
When the workers began their impromptu sit-in on May 20th nobody expected what would follow. Within hours of the occupation local traders and campaigners came on board. An impressive coalition of groups including the OPASTI Plaster's union, Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, Mandate, ENAR Ireland, SIPTU, ICTU and Uplift helped them organize actions and communicate what was happening. In the days that followed, local residents and stall holders, election candidates and passers-by started dropping in to offer food, water, songs and solidarity. In an act reminiscent of struggles of old, electricity workers refused to turn off the power, despite being ordered to do so. Just over 100 years since the famous 1913 Dublin lock-out, a new symbolic fight for dignity, rights and survival was being born.
Speaking during the campaign, Venezuelan woman Matilde Naranjo, a former waitress, said, "Wage theft is appalling and workers need more legal protections. We do not want to see this happen to any other worker in Ireland. This is not just our fight or the fight of migrant workers but a fight for all workers."
The campaign grew in momentum and magnitude. Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams paid a visit, so did government Minister Joan Burton, who gave assurances of help. They visited the Dáil (the Irish parliament) where Dessie Ellis TD, questioned Minister Richard Bruton on this issue and who, according to workers, inflamed the situation by stating what was already known. There was deadlock.
The owners refused to engage in discussion, or to wind up the company, allowing them to walk away and prevent access to an Insolvency Fund. Similar situations had happened before due to a legal loophole that means workers often don't get paid when a business ceases trading. It had happened with Vita Cortex, La Senza, GAMA, HMV, Thomas Cook and Connolly Shoes. Political promises of reform were made time and time again.
The Paris Bakery campaigners took their message to the airwaves, online and on the TV. Messages of support came flooding in from as far away as the U.S and Australia. Their cause was raised at a UN conference in Geneva. They protested at government buildings, held vigils on the streets, and arranged colorful and creative pickets outside the home of one of the owners. People with no experience in campaigning were suddenly organizers and leaders, interacting with a mass audience of supporters on Twitter and Facebook.
Almost 5,000 people liked their Facebook page. Over 3,500 people signed a petition. Over 1000 emails were sent to the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and 100s attended protests, pickets and vigils. Perhaps the quotes from 1916 rebellion leaders that adorned the walls of the cafe bakery had inspired something. Maybe there was something about the history of Moore Street, where several of the 1916 leaders had been captured. There would be no surrender on this occasion.In the end, determination paid off. On Tuesday May 10th, the by now exhausted campaigners received a letter from the Revenue Commissioners saying that they were winding up the company. Political pressured had paid off. Workers would be finally able to access the Insolvency Fund that was previously denied to them by greed, arrogance, and unjust legislation.
The former staff won't get all their money but they have been transformed as people in the process. They have realized the power and beauty of collective action, of standing up for what is right, regardless of the discomfort, the risks and the obstacles involved. They have uplifted each other, and in turn inspired others in Ireland and abroad. The workers and their supporters exemplified what is meant by the old Irish saying 'níl neart le cur le chéile' (there is no strength without unity).
The workers are now continuing their campaign so that what happened to them can't happen to others. They have become vocal advocates for the protection offered by trade union membership. New legislation inspired by their fight appears imminent, meaning unscrupulous employers can't simply walk away from their responsibilities. These new leaders have given hope to many, particularly those in the restaurant sector, where exploitation is rife. They have reminded us that change is possible and that whatever the odds, we should never give up.
Published in The Irish Independent
Shocking figures revealed by the 'Just One Day' campaign show that on one day last year, 467 women and 229 children in Ireland sought support due to domestic violence. In India recently, two teenage sisters were raped and left to hang from a tree. In California, a young man went on a killing spree as revenge against women who wouldn't have sex with him. In Leitrim, a young woman reports that she was gang raped by men on a stag weekend. It's clear that the latest debate on gender is badly needed and we all need to get involved.
Ireland has come a long way since women were allowed the right to vote 100 years ago, or just over 40 years ago when women had to give up their jobs if they got married.
Some will argue that the gender debate is over, that women are free and equal now, but the reality rips through this. Progress is happening, but in politics and industry, unions and media, corporations and churches, it is men who still firmly rule the roost.
Just 15pc of our elected representatives in Dail Eireann are women, the lowest level in the developed world. In industry, only 21pc of senior managers are women.
Things take a more sinister twist when you consider the evidence of violence against women. Globally, at least one in three women have been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in their lifetimes.
The Rape Crisis Network of Ireland has reported a 38pc increase in helpline calls over a three-year period while at the same time suffering a 30pc cut in funding.
Women who are courageous enough to report rape cases to the gardai can hardly be encouraged by a justice system with a conviction rate of just 1pc, the lowest in Europe.
Nor can they take comfort from scenes such as those in a Kerry courtroom where a priest led up to 50 men to shake hands with a rapist in front of his 24-year-old victim.
Every day, many of our wives, girlfriends, mothers, sisters, daughters, nieces, aunts and colleagues fear for their safety in ways most men can't imagine. It's a situation that has become so normalised that it is rarely discussed.
We should be asking why women don't have the same freedom to walk the streets at night.
The link between the mass availability of violent and demeaning pornography and the rise in rapes and gang rapes needs exploring.
Amid the growing popularity of porn and prostitution, a new misogynistic lad culture is creeping in. Derogatory comments about women are common. Rape jokes sometimes infiltrate the banter.
This war on women is nothing new. Christy Moore sings about it in the song 'Burning Times', which talks about how many women, once revered as 'healers and teachers', were repressed or killed as they were seen as a threat to the male-dominated religion.
Thankfully things are starting to change. Just as women are standing up, increasingly men are starting to ask questions of ourselves, about our suffering, our roles and what privileges we possess.
Whereas some men abuse power, men are also victims. Men largely suffer at the hands of other men, but sometimes too because of abusive females. Men, or at least some men, may still rule the world, but it is also men who make up 80pc of suicides. Men die younger and suffer in large numbers from heart attacks, addiction and homelessness.
An emerging men's movement is asking questions about what healthy masculinity looks like, about what it means to be a man.
These questions are rarely answered by a society that doesn't provide adequate rites of passages for young men in an increasingly pressurised and sexualised world.
I know this has been the case in my own life as I've often struggled to navigate the rocky road to manhood.
For centuries, men have been taught to be warriors, soldiers in a fight for survival where aggression is king. Vulnerability and sensitivity is seen as weakness.
No wonder then if men aren't more forthcoming with our emotions. It's a dog-eat-dog culture that permeates everything from politics to banking and business.
It explains in part why women don't often rise to the top of the testosterone-fuelled halls of power.
It's not that masculine traits should become redundant. We will always need the way of the warrior, only harnessed in healthy ways. In fact, it can be argued that we need men to become more manly, wilder and free, rather than tamed by corporate culture or pushed into an unrealistic femininity.
Most men are good men but it's time we started to hold others to account. How can we sit by and accept a status quo where so many women feel threatened?
Manning up means facing up to our issues in the same way that women must face theirs.
Surely we all want to build a safer, fairer world for mothers, wives, sisters and daughters? Women gaining more power shouldn't threaten us. It's not about us versus them.
It should be about power with, not power over, co-operation not competition.
We need neither patriarchy nor matriarchy, but fraternity and equality for all.
A selection of Ruairí's articles published in the Irish Times, the Irish Independent, the Sunday Times, the Huffington Post, and other publications.