Wednesday, 7 March 1962
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. M.J. O'Higgins: The question I want to raise with the Minister for  Posts and Telegraphs is a Question I asked last week regarding the dismissal by his Department of three temporary labourers employed in Arklow on 10th March of last year.
My Question asked the Minister if he would state the reasons for the dismissal of these three men, what notice was given to the men, what holiday pay was given to them, what hours were required to be worked by them before noon and in the afternoon, what rest intervals were allowed them, and what information was supplied by his Department to the Department of Social Welfare regarding these dismissals.
The Minister told me the services of the men were dispensed with because they refused to work one and a half hours' overtime each day. He said the men were given three days' notice and that each was given five days' pay in lieu of holidays. Briefly, he said that the hours which the men were required to work were from 8.30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and from 8.30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. on Saturdays, and that when overtime commenced, the hours worked were from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday to Friday, resulting in one and a half hours' overtime.
The position then, arising from the Minister's reply, is that three temporary labourers employed by his Department were normally required to work an 8½ hour day, with a half-hour break, and that when they were required to work overtime, they were required to work a ten hour day, still with only a half-hour break at lunch time. The Minister was asked in supplementary questions if it was the normal practice to require men compulsorily and mandatorily to work overtime, and I think I am right in saying that he faced up to that question quite honestly and said it was the first time to his knowledge that that kind of thing had happened, that men were dismissed because they preferred not to work overtime.
I want to make it quite clear to the Minister that I have no political axe whatever to grind in raising this question. I am not aware of the political views certainly of two out of the  three men concerned. One of them was frank enough to tell me that he did not bother to vote at all at the last general election. I think the same was true of another man, so I am not raising this on a political level or because I have any political axe to grind. I am raising it because I am genuinely shocked by the treatment, which I regard as extremely harsh, meted out by the Minister's Department to these men in dismissing them, not for any offence, not for any laps on their part, not because they were not satisfactory in the jobs they were employed to do, but because they expressed a preference not to work overtime.
All that, at a time when every Deputy in this House knows that there was vast unemployment in the country. It seems to me a startling thing that the State, which should be a model employer, should adopt the attitude, when there is unemployment in the country, when people are crying out for work and when, by raising a finger, additional labour can be got, that these three unfortunate men in Arklow should be dismissed simply because they did not want to work overtime.
I want to tell the Minister the facts of the situation as I am informed of them. The Minister in the course of replies to supplementary questions, referred to the fact that they were temporary men engaged for a short period of work. I believe it is a fact that these men had prior to this been working as temporary labourers in his Department for a period of 11 months. They were employed, first of all, on 5th April, 1960, through the Arklow employment exchange, and they were dismissed on 10th March, 1961, some 11 months later.
I am informed that when these men were first taken on, they were told that their working week would be 44 hours, that they would work, as the Minister indicated in his reply, from 8.30 in the morning until 5 o'clock in the evening, and that they would have a break of half an hour for dinner from 12.30 p.m. until 1 o'clock. They were informed, I am told, that the average output which would be required of them would be the erection of three  poles a day. The Minister and most Deputies must be well aware of what is entailed in that kind of work. It is heavy, arduous, manual labour, labour of perhaps the toughest kind. These men had to dig holes, erect poles and set them, and they were expected to do at least three poles a day.
The Minister will not challenge me when I say that at least one of the men, if not all three, had a greater output than that. They seem to have averaged as much as five poles a day. In other words, so far as their labour content was concerned, they must have given every satisfaction to his Department. They exceeded the average expectations of the Department in their work. Shortly after they were employed, these men found that instead of a 44-hour week which had been indicated to them by reason of the hours which I have quoted, they were in fact expected to work a 10 hour day, from 8 o'clock in the morning until 6 o'clock in the evening.
These men live in Arklow and, in fact, the site of the work which they were required to do was out in the rural area. They were required to work in Marshalstown, Bunclody, Redcross and elsewhere, some considerable distance from their homes. The result was that, in addition to having to work until 6 o'clock in the evening during the summer and autumn months, it took them approximately one hour or one hour and a quarter, after they had finished work, to reach their homes. Therefore, from the time they set out in the morning until they got back to their homes at night, instead of working eight and a half hours, or even ten hours on the job, they were in fact working something like 12 hours.
During that period, they were allowed one half-hour break from this extremely tough and arduous work. That continued. They did their job satisfactorily and, incidentally, it is true to say that the work done by the Minister's Department in the town of Arklow during that period was the ordinary daily half-past eight to five, but these men working out in the country were required to work until  6 o'clock. When the dark evenings came, the hours reverted to what I describe as the normal hours, work finishing at 5 o'clock.
In March of last year, when the evenings were getting longer, it was indicated that overtime would commence once more. With the experience they had had of the hardship involved in the hours, and the fact that they were working away from home, these three men not unreasonably requested that, if they were to be asked to work from eight o'clock in the morning until six at night, in addition to the half-hour break allowed for dinner, they should be given a break of ten or 15 minutes in the afternoon. As I understand it, that request was made in a perfectly respectful manner and in a reasonable way to those in authority. It was considered and, having been considered, it was refused.
I am told that the person in charge then delivered what amounted to an ultimatum. He asked if these men were prepared to work overtime. They told him they were so prepared, provided they were allowed a break of ten or 15 minutes in the afternoon. They were informed then by the person in direct authority over them—I do not want to mention him by name—that his instructions were to dismiss them on the following Friday. That was 10th March, 1961. As the Minister indicated in his reply to my Question, that was done. These men were dismissed.
At this stage, I want to ask the Minister and the House, in the circumstances I have outlined and which I honestly believe to be correct, circumstances which are borne out by the Minister's reply to my Question, is it reasonable that these men should have been dismissed? Do they think it reasonable that a model employer should adopt that attitude to three temporary labourers in conditions of employment where, unless they are prepared to work at this hard labour for a stretch of ten hours at a time, with another hour or an hour and a quarter added on before they get home, having finished work, they are to be dismissed? Is it reasonable that they  should be dismissed, unless they are prepared to do overtime in these conditions, without a rest of even ten minutes in a stretch of four hours' work in the afternoon? I do not think it is reasonable and that is why I raise this matter here this evening. I do not think it is reasonable, either, that the men should have been given only three days' notice. I do not think it reasonable that they should have been given only five days' holiday pay for 11 months' work.
There is another aspect of the matter which is, in my opinion, equally important and equally shocking. As a result of these men being dismissed in the manner in which they were dismissed by the Minister's Department, they were refused unemployment benefit. I asked the Minister what information his Department had given to the Department of Social Welfare, and he told me that the manager of the local employment exchange was advised that the services of these three men had been dispensed with because they refused to work overtime. Now, according to the summary on social services published by the Department of Social Welfare, unemployment benefit may be disallowed for four reasons.
Mr. M.J. O'Higgins: If the Minister permits me to continue, he will find that this is relevant. There are four reasons for which unemployment benefit may be disallowed: first, if a man has lost his employment because of a stoppage of work by reason of a trade dispute—that does not apply here; secondly, if he has lost his employment through his own misconduct or has left his employment without just cause—that certainly does not apply in this case; thirdly, if he has  refused an offer of suitable employment—these men did not refuse any offer of suitable employment; and, fourthly, if he has failed or neglected to avail himself of any reasonable opportunity of obtaining suitable employment—that, again, does not apply.
The point I want to make is that these men were refused unemployment benefit. They had to go before an appeals tribunal and there it was found that they were right and their benefit was allowed. That is my information.
Mr. M.J. O'Higgins: It seems to me the decision of the appeals tribunal must satisfy any reasonable person that these men should not have been dismissed. That was the verdict given by the appeals tribunal. Now, as far as I know, these men are not interested in going back to work for the Minister's Department, but they feel that they have been harshly treated by the Department and that that should be brought as forcibly as possible to the Minister's attention so that what happened to them will not be allowed to create a precedent either for them or for anyone else in the future.
Minister for Posts and Telegraphs (Mr. Hilliard): Let me say at the outset that overtime for Post Office workers is generally recognised. In times of extensive repair work, it is essential to the maintenance of the services. As Deputies know, the Post Office works around the clock and I should like to take this opportunity of saying that the morale and spirit of Post Office workers in this regard is very high. Whatever inconvenience is involved for themselves is accepted by them as part of the job. Labour relations between the Post Office and its employees are, on the whole, good and, indeed, the Post Office staffs are anxious to maintain the high reputation they enjoy as public servants in maintaining services and working overtime in doing so.
 The three men concerned were temporary labourers who were recruited with two others in April, 1960, for work on the Arklow services. There were ten workmen in all employed in February and March of 1961 when this incident occurred. In February, 1961, all the staff were asked to work overtime on Saturday afternoons but these three men refused for domestic reasons. The other men worked overtime on two Saturday afternoons and the three men who refused were taken home at mid-day by official transport. It was six miles from the point where they worked. That meant that the Post Office transport had to come back again to take the rest of the workers home, involving an extra journey for the Post Office transport to take home the other workers because the three men refused to work overtime.
Mr. Hilliard: These three temporary men refused to work overtime on Saturdays and, early in March, it was decided to work from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday to Friday and to allow the half-day on Saturday. As I have stated the three men refused to work these hours, unless they were given a break in the afternoon. They were not entitled to this under the Conditions of Employment Acts.
Mr. Hilliard: They were advised that it could not be allowed. They were warned of the consequences if they persisted in their refusal and the district engineer discussed the matter with the supervisor. The other men worked the requested hours. There was no statutory obligation to give them notice under their terms of employment, but they were, in fact, given three days' notice. They were also given the pay in lieu of holidays due to them under the Holidays Act. While no official break other than the meal interval is given, men working  up to 6 p.m. are allowed a short unofficial break.
Mr. Hilliard: They are not entitled to it under the Act but they are allowed it when they work until 6 p.m. The Deputy is a trade unionist and he knows that these men's interests are looked after by a trade union. These matters are looked after by the Post Office and the trade unions concerned. This is not the first time I heard of this case. It was taken up immediately after their disemployment by the trade union and the trade union was informed of the exact position. I told the secretary of the trade union concerned by letter that I thought the dismissals were quite justified. I do not see how an institution such as the Post Office, engaged in work of this kind, can maintain its services if men refuse to work overtime whenever asked to do it.
Mr. Hilliard: No; it was a temporary job and the employment on the job would cease when the job itself ceased. I do not see how an institution such as the Post Office could maintain the services it has to maintain if the staff refused to work overtime.
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