Ryanair’s work practices have been in the spotlight again, as the bullying claim of a former employee has come before the Employment Appeals Tribunal. The company is no stranger to controversy when it comes to relations with its workers, having drawn the ire of trade unions all across Europe. A coalition of Norwegian trade unions opposed Ryanair’s plans to start offering domestic routes in Norway “as long as wages and working conditions are so bad”. The company’s approach to collective bargaining and trade union membership has been a long-standing source of conflict. Ryanair allows its employees to be members of a trade union, but it generally refuses to recognise or negotiate with unions.
Before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, enshrining every person’s right “to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests”, the International Labour Organisation had recognised “the principle of freedom of association” in 1919. The Irish Constitution, Bunreacht na hEireann, protects the right of citizens to “form associations and unions” (Article 40.6.iii). Surely all of these provisions are meaningless, if companies can refuse to recognise and negotiate with unions.
That effectively was the position that the Irish Supreme Court took when it held that Ryanair, “as is its right”, had not negotiated with a particular union. But as the General Secretary of Impact Shay Cody has pointed out, the European Court of Human Rights has said that freedom of association includes the right to collective bargaining and to strike. In Demir and Baykara v. Turkey, the Court expressly changed its previous position and held that:
the right to bargain collectively with the employer has, in principle, become one of the essential elements of the “right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of [one’s] interests” set forth in Article 11 of the Convention
The Court was influenced by the provisions in both the European Social Charter and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights enshrining the right to negotiate and conclude collective agreements. Ireland still falls short on these standards: the Irish Congress of Trade Unions considers that Fine Gael, the largest party in government, is “working hand-in-glove with business interests to ensure new rights on collective bargaining for workers are never implemented”. The Irish Business and Employers Confederation, unsurprisingly, considers that collective bargaining rights would “cost jobs” and harm investment.
Ryanair’s approach to unions has long been a source of contention and it has a history of disputes with its employees. The trade union Impact once claimed to have 270 cases relating to victimisation between pilots and company managements. The company has alleged bullying and intimidation by its own pilots, but when it took legal action to have the names revealed of those who had posted critical comments on a website, a High Court judge found that the only evidence of bullying was by Ryanair. Michael O’Leary himself mocked former employees of another airline that had been wound up.
There is a facile argument out there that criticism towards the company is because of its success. Ryanair is set to make €600 million profit this year, and that will of course generate hostility in the face of a seemingly relentless effort to pay low wages and refuse collective bargaining. There was a time when consumers could choose between Ryanair and alternative airlines on most routes, but that seems to have past as the company continues to expand. As it continues to dominate, it is clear that sales of scratch cards and smokeless cigarettes are not the only things driving Ryanair’s cheap ticket prices.