President Michael D Higgins has described the battle for decent work as one of the defining struggles of our times, and called for the contribution of essential workers during the pandemic to be valued.

Addressing public service union Forsa's online annual conference, the President criticised the erosion of workers' rights, claiming some governments and employers worldwide had used the Covid-19 crisis "in an insidious and opportunistic way" to limit collective bargaining, disrupt the right to strike, exclude workers from participation, and even impeded the registration of unions.

"We continue to witness increases in precarious employment, contract working, and an ongoing casualisation of labour, with new and emerging trends in work practices that are often deemed 'innovations' insofar as they provide new means to maximise profits for employers, but in their practical delivery reveal the ongoing erosion of employees' hard-won labour rights," said President Higgins. 

He said that while the trend towards digitalisation was not wholly negative, online workers were often not covered by the most basic employment law or collective agreements, "all rationalised in the name of efficiency, flexibility, productivity".

The President said the pandemic had forced a return to fundamental questions which society ignored "at its peril" - such as how such little value was placed on the contribution of essential workers, who often remained the least protected.

He noted that after paying fitting tributes to essential workers for putting themselves and their families at risk, it would be a hugely regrettable lost opportunity if, "through some form of evasion or moral cowardice", society settled for reverting to where we were before the crisis.

"The consequences of privileging those remunerated in a financialised global economy over those who worked in the provision of universal basic services, or indeed in what must be accepted as the real economy, have been laid bare in the regressive outcomes since 2008 in particular," he said.

He said the pandemic had proven that the way economies had operated for four decades had forced a shrinking of the State as well as undervaluing frontline and essential workers.

"As we confront these challenges, we will require a more activist, and a more democratic State, one that can plan, co-ordinate, manage and intervene when necessary in an open and transparent manner, placing the needs and welfare of its citizens at its very heart," said President Higgins.

He urged union members to commit to an international campaign for decent work, and to value "heroic" workers who risked their lives and security to support everyone.