Irish Ferries: Motion.

Tuesday, 11 October 2005

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 607 No. 59

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Mr. Gregory: Information on Tony Gregory  Zoom on Tony Gregory  I move:

—the action of Irish Ferries in proposing to sack 543 workers who are on trade union rates of pay and established working conditions to be replaced by vulnerable migrant workers on appalling wages and conditions;

—the strategy of registering ships under so-called flags of convenience to facilitate a regime of exploitation on board;

—the greed driving this strategy as evidenced by the huge salaries paid to Irish Ferries senior executives while the east European workers proposed to be employed would be on about [430]€3.50 an hour, less than half the current legal minimum wage in the State;

—the support which the employers body, IBEC, publicly gave to this strategy of Irish Ferries, thus making a mockery of its claim to be in partnership with workers and their trade unions;

—the hypocrisy of the Government pretending to be critical of the Irish Ferries proposal yet having paid a grant of millions of euro to that company to make 150 workers redundant on the MV Normandy to be replaced by exploited labour; and

—the growing tendency in areas such as construction, the meat industry, hotels and catering to exploit migrant labour at the expense of permanent jobs on trade union rates of pay and decent working conditions;

—that Irish Ferries immediately abandons this proposal;

—that the Government introduces legislation to outlaw ship owners and operators using flags of convenience to trample on workers’ rights; and

—that the Government immediately initiates EU-wide legislative measures to the same end;

—the right of trade unions to take industrial action to prevent the Irish Ferries proposal being implemented;

—international trade union campaigns to outlaw flags of convenience;

[431]—the right of, and strongly encourages, all migrant workers to join trade unions and unite with Irish-born workers in achieving decent pay, safe and proper working conditions and freedom from victimisation and urges the trade union movement to launch an intensive campaign to facilitate this; and

—calls for an appropriate increase in the number of labour inspectors who should be well resourced to assist workers suffering exploitation and to prosecute their exploiters.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Harkin, Connolly, Catherine Murphy, Cowley, Eamon Ryan and Crowe.

First, I absolutely reject the Government amendment where it states that there is no question of employment rights being in free-fall in this State. It should tell that to the Gama workers for whom the so-called robust State institutions failed dismally to expose that scandal. It must be remembered that it was the same Labour Court that recommended the MV Normandy deal and set a precedent for this new Irish Ferries scandal.

Second, the Government makes reference to the social partnership continuing to contribute but contribute to what? The social partnership will be dead if the employer group, IBEC, continues to support the Irish Ferries executives’ strategy of replacing trade union rates of pay with half the minimum wage.

The Irish Ferries workers were given no real option. They either had to give up their jobs or face exploitation. If Irish Ferries is allowed to get away with this assault on the very concept of a job with decent wages and conditions simply to maximise profits, while its executives cream off obscene levels of income, it will give the green light to every greed-driven employer to replace reasonably paid workers with vulnerable and exploited labour.

Most people believed this form of exploitation was in the past. If the Irish Ferries strategy is allowed to happen any Government that stands over it will be seen as acting in the interests of the exploiter rather than as a defender of the rights of the citizen.

  7 o’clock

Ms Harkin: Information on Marian Harkin  Zoom on Marian Harkin  I welcome the opportunity to speak on this extremely important and timely motion tabled by the Independent Deputies. While the essence of this motion concerns Irish Ferries and the appalling vista facing its workers, it also concerns the kind of Ireland in which we wish to live, and the rights of Irish and migrant workers to earn a decent wage.

Some people seem content to shrug their shoulders saying “it is too bad for the workers on Irish [432]Ferries but at least it will not happen to me”. How many of these people are aware of possible upcoming legislation, namely the services directive, emanating from the European Parliament? While there are positive aspects to this legislation, one of the key issues is the country of origin principle. If a service provider from country A provides services in another country, for example, Ireland, that service provider will be subject only to consumer and employment legislation in its own country yet will provide services in Ireland.

I and many members of the Parliament absolutely oppose this section of the directive. The Commission, however, and our Commissioner, Mr. McCreevy, propose that we operate in this way. Problems arose in the past with the textile industry in Donegal, today in Irish Ferries, and tomorrow or the next day might affect service jobs. While the conditions and context of these instances are not identical, the outcomes are similar.

The EU is not entirely to blame. It has been responsible for much progressive social legislation and hopefully this will be true also of the services directive. In 1999 the European Parliament approved a ferries directive which protected workers on ferries operating between member states, such that they would be subject to the same terms and conditions as those applicable to the residents of one of the member states between whose ports the service is provided. This was good legislation. No agreement could be reached, however, within the Council of Ministers or the Commission and in 2004 the Commission withdrew the directive.

This directive is to be reactivated but will it be too late for the Irish Ferries workers? Perhaps this explains the moves by Irish Ferries to do the deed before EU legislation might prevent it from doing so.

The Government amendment to this motion is a joke. It recalls Pontius Pilate washing his hands. It “calls on Irish Ferries to reconsider its proposal to outsource employment on its Irish Sea routes and to examine alternative viability options for these routes”. The Government and the Minister of State know, as we all do, that Irish Ferries is going through the motions. It has no intention of negotiating. It has been recruiting people for the past two months and its share price has risen in recent weeks. The market has spoken but the Government is silent, paralysed by inaction and washing its hands like Pontius Pilate.

The Scottish Parliament did not abandon its workers. It brought in a range of requirements for the take-over of Northlink Ferries ensuring new owners would comply with current rates, terms and work conditions. Irish Ferries is leading the headlong race of greed to the bottom. It will be urged on by commentators whose vision of Ireland is to maximise profit for the few, dis[433]regarding the right of Irish and EU citizens to a sustainable economic and socially balanced future. It is time for Bertie the socialist to stand up and be counted.

Mr. Connolly: Information on Paudge Connolly  Zoom on Paudge Connolly  The dispute at Irish Ferries has the potential to blow the 18 year old social partnership process sky high. This is the partnership that brought us the Celtic tiger. Irish Ferries management seems determined to embark on a course of naked and gross exploitation of vulnerable, mainly eastern European employees. The company’s plan to make 540 of its workers redundant and replace them with cheap east European labour is an insult to Irish taxpayers who must foot the bill for the redundancy payments.

The company has also threatened to withdraw its so-called offer if staff do not accept its terms. This has the whiff of industrial blackmail and bullying which hitherto has been foreign — no pun intended — to all previous norms of industrial relations policy. The Taoiseach described the move as unacceptable, deplorable and against the spirit of social partnership. He also declared several times recently that he does not wish to see a race to the bottom in employment standards. I do not know who coined that phrase but it is apt.

It is little wonder the Taoiseach has referred the issue of the Government subsidising the redundancy package to the Attorney General for his advice. The proposal has also been variously described as an affront to Irish taxpayers, corporate greed and naked pursuit of profit maximisation by an unscrupulous company. Its implications for the future of social partnership are stark. Social partnership has, on balance, been good for the country with the greatest fruits accruing to business. Is this why IBEC cries wolf about Irish Ferries’ cost base that it claims is excessive relative to its competitors? At least those competitors normally hire crews in the countries from which they sail and manage to maintain relatively low cost bases.

The slave rate of €3.60 per hour proposed for east European workers is not only well below the average industrial wage but it is little more than half the Irish minimum wage. If Irish Ferries can flout accepted industrial relations practices with impunity, and victimise our counterparts in eastern Europe the future for social partnership looks grim. There is no guarantee that talks on a new national wage agreement to succeed Sustaining Progress will even get off the ground. Its future is in the balance.

Irish Ferries already has egg on its corporate face following its unconscionable treatment of a Filipino worker, whom it paid €1 per hour. That was the bottom level of wage payments. This worker achieved a payout of €35,000 after a very difficult fight. Irish Ferries was exposed as utterly lacking in any personal value system in its blind pursuit of corporate profits.

[434]If the ferry company gets away with this unscrupulous behaviour there is little doubt that other employers will follow suit. Such behaviour, condoned by IBEC, is already widespread in construction, security, catering, contract cleaning and in areas of manufacturing. Not all employers in these sectors descend to the bottom but the culture appears to be gaining ground.

There is no link between a ship’s owners and its country of registration under a flag of convenience. Companies register their ships under these flags to maximise profit and minimise cost, to avoid economic regulations and standards applying in their own countries. The crew’s papers are frequently confiscated as soon as they embark, effectively reducing them to slave status. Fewer than 40 countries have ratified the Conference on Trade and Development.

Ms C. Murphy: Information on Catherine Murphy  Zoom on Catherine Murphy  Early this year the MV Normandy with a shamrock and the name Irish Ferries on its side, sat outside a French port where it was not allowed to dock because it was using the equivalent of slave labour. This made the headlines in several EU countries. What kind of message is that to send out about this so-called great economy, built on partnership between workers and employers? This company, when publicly owned, was a standard-bearer, a genuine flagship, and that was in the bad old days. The spectacle of French dockers refusing to allow the Irish ship MV Normandy to dock sends a warning signal and unless we do something about it, we will have to get used to our passengers being stranded and goods produced here not reaching their destinations. We must deal with the fundamental issue of flags of convenience and their consequences.

The 543 workers, most of whom expressed an interest in accepting redundancy — a word that should be in inverted commas — would have been mad to do anything else. They were faced with the prospect of working at half the minimum wage under almost slave-like conditions. The ship is unlikely to be monitored and long-established practices such as international maritime conventions are to be set aside. Any right-thinking person would have to ask himself whether he would work for that kind of money, with poorer conditions, when he is putting his life at risk. Of course they opted for redundancy, but let us call a spade a spade; it is not redundancy but social dumping. I have always understood the term “redundancy” to mean that the job was made redundant and not the worker.

I honestly do not understand why that is not the main issue being addressed by the Government. It is not redundancy. We are told that it is being done because of low air fares, but the bulk of Irish Ferries’ income is from freight.

As an island nation, we cannot exist with the practice of flags of convenience. Having con[435]sidered their background, I am very concerned at some aspects that are not really being highlighted. Standards in countries such as the Bahamas, where this set of vessels is registered, are not those that we require, an example being the requirement for ships to have a double hull. Spain paid the price in 2002 when its beaches were destroyed. Some 58% of all vessels lost at sea in 2001 flew flags of convenience, yet only 23% of the total were registered as such. That indicates that there is a safety issue as well as an economic one to consider in this context.

Dr. Cowley: Information on Jerry Cowley  Zoom on Jerry Cowley  I am glad to speak on this very important motion, which reflects a total and utter scandal regarding our position as a nation. We no longer value the ordinary people on whose behalf we are contracted to act.

This is but the tip of the iceberg. What is happening now with Irish Ferries, like the rotten apple in the barrel, will spread and ensure that workers will be deprived of what they regard as their rights. They have fought long and hard through their trade unions to get a minimum wage, and while this manipulation is within the law, it is seen by every decent and reasonable person as the exploitation of workers. It must be stopped. There is an onus on the Government and everyone else to ensure that this rot is not allowed to spread. To do otherwise would be a retrograde step.

We are all used to the idea of putting profits before people. For instance, in the Corrib gas project, Shell, the arrogant multinational, has been allowed to do so. What is happening now with Irish Ferries is similar. Today, Shell has been in contempt of a ministerial order to break up a 3 km pipeline that it had absolutely no right to build for 71 days. That is a sign of its arrogance. What is happening with Irish Ferries today, with all those workers fobbed off and forced to take redundancy, is happening so that the company can turn another penny profit. It shows its agenda, which is simply to make profits. There must be a response from the Government and everyone else to ensure that people’s rights are protected.

We must ask to what extent our Government is colluding in all this. How much are the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of our conservative politics contributing to what is happening at Irish Ferries, and how much will they contribute in future? Regarding the Rossport saga, five brave men were jailed for 94 days for trying to defend their right to be safe at home. What did Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, do for those men? How much did they do to ensure that people’s basic property rights were upheld? I would say that they did very little. Their complimenting each other on their statesmanship told the whole story.

[436]Those who constitute the Technical Group, the Independents, have shown the people the way forward regarding how they can address its agenda. The parties of the Technical Group, the Green Party, Sinn Féin and the Socialist Party, have shown a different point of view regarding how people can stand up for what is essentially right. When decent people are put upon, the people of this country will recognise that and stand up and be counted. They marched in their thousands in support of the Rossport Five and people’s right to be safe at home. When the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Fahey, came along and decided to abolish the necessity of planning permission for a previously unknown process to bring gas ashore, they recognised that as something very wrong and protested accordingly.

The people of Ireland will certainly not take this any more. I predict that if Irish Ferries succeeds in going through with this, people will take to the streets in their thousands. They will never again tolerate decent people being put upon by those whose only agenda is profit and who have no wish to treat people decently.

We must look forward and decide what is important. Each of us in the Dáil has a contract to treat our people properly and carry out our mandate to represent our constituents. The parties and Independents of the Technical Group have proudly done so. With Irish Ferries and the Rossport Five, we have learnt the lesson that the conservative parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, cannot be depended on to stand up for the people, and that is where the Technical Group has shown an alternative way forward.

Mr. Eamon Ryan: Information on Eamon Ryan  Zoom on Eamon Ryan  I commend my colleagues in the Technical Group, and the Independents in the Dáil, for tabling this important and timely motion, which we in the Green Party wholeheartedly support.

It is interesting to listen to Deputy Cowley talking about the conservative nature of Irish politics; I agree with him. One of the definitions of conservatism is the sense that things cannot change and that, if the market decides something, we must unfortunately accept it. While the Taoiseach and various Ministers of State have talked up their concerns on this issue, from this side of the House we hear them say that unfortunately there is nothing they can do and nothing can change.

The first thing that must change is the current culture of this country which allows this sort of development. In many ways, we are powerless against the forces of globalisation and the way in which the international market changes matters. However, we have a collective choice as a people, regarding how exactly that develops and what culture becomes established here. I fear that, in [437]the Irish Ferries dispute, we are looking at a real loss in culture.

It was interesting, as a member of the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, to visit the new maritime college in Cork last year and witness the great pride in it. We recognised its great importance to an island nation. To point to our status as an island nation may be a cliché but it is an important reality. In the future, as our energy scenario unfolds, it will be even more relevant as we become increasingly dependent on sea routes for our future economic and social well-being. In these circumstances, we must recognise that to lack the skill base of a maritime workforce whose members build up experience and knowledge over many years will be a significant loss.

The Government has presided over a cultural change in the last eight years which is epitomised by certain executives earning remarkable wages while workers at the bottom of the corporate structure earn a tiny fraction of them. This is an unacceptable culture and the situation at Irish Ferries is a continuation of that. It is the worst possible development in the culture of the divided, unequal society this Government has allowed to grow.

The management of Irish Ferries must answer for the wage levels it is willing to promote. Moreover, it must also answer for its actions. There must be a change in culture and management in Irish business. It seems clear that investment decisions by management rather than the actions of the workforce led the company into the current difficulties with which it claims to struggle. For a company to react to such poor management decisions and investment practice by immediately opting to procure cheaper labour to relieve the problems created by the management is a disgraceful development in the culture of Irish management.

Mr. J. Higgins: Information on Joe Higgins  Zoom on Joe Higgins  That is the nature of capitalism.

Mr. Eamon Ryan: Information on Eamon Ryan  Zoom on Eamon Ryan  Yes. However, it is possible for business and enterprise to adhere to a different culture. Such a change is required and the Government must take responsibility in this regard.

Many Members observed that we could have been a champion in the EU for the ferries directive, which would have precisely dealt with this particular issue. I look forward to the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher’s, explanation of the role played by the Government and his Department in the Council of Ministers to promote that directive. The Minister of State might also explain what he intends to do further in terms of the EU stage. This is one of the areas where we can do something to address the problem we face in this regard.

[438]It is regrettable that we have seen something of a physical representation of the Government handling of this issue in the team tag that took place when the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, stepped out as the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, stepped in. In trying to raise this issue, Opposition Members have had to go to and fro between the various Departments. A co-ordinated approach is needed. It is regrettable that Deputy Killeen did not remain for the rest of the debate. The two Ministers of State must work together on this issue rather than one stepping out and the other stepping in.

Mr. J. Higgins: Information on Joe Higgins  Zoom on Joe Higgins  The senior Minister should be here.

Mr. Eamon Ryan: Information on Eamon Ryan  Zoom on Eamon Ryan  The importance of this issue demands that the senior and junior Ministers from the relevant Departments should be here. Such a response by the Government would be indicative of the change of culture that we seek. It would show that this House takes the matter seriously, that the State is not dominated by corporate interests and that we will occasionally flex our muscles as a democratic republic and take a stand in terms of how we want our country to develop. Such a stance, in both its language and intent, would have an effect in terms of the approach companies decide to take in the long run.

I regret that the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment is not here for this debate. It is ironic, interesting and perhaps apt that at the same time we are discussing this debate, we are preparing for a debate on legislation dealing with the employment of migrant workers. This is an area in which we can seek amendments that would provide real strength in our right and just attempt not to allow a race to the bottom to develop. I see nothing in the Employment Permits Bill 2005 which addresses the type of issue we face on this occasion although it presents the perfect opportunity to do so.

I am thrilled to see people from so many different countries coming to Ireland. Such developments are of benefit to us all. There is no reason these immigrant workers should not have the same rights as Irish workers in terms of access to the Labour Court, pay and conditions and so on. If such guarantees of parity were in place there would be no race to the bottom. We could simply open up our economy without the dumbing down we have seen. I regret very much that the Government has not taken the opportunity presented by the Employment Permits Bill 2005 to establish a framework and policy background in which corporations can exist. It is also a matter of regret that the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources has not lived up to the standards this House expects in regard to maritime inspections.

[439]A wide ranging debate must take place on the role of the EU in this area. I do not recall the Government doing much to maintain standards in terms of the ferries directive. Our only contribution to EU developments in recent years has been to send Charlie McCreevy to Brussels. His world view is clear in that he is opposed to any regulation in business and directives in general. He would prefer simply to allow global capital to flourish unhindered. This suits us for now and our economy has no doubt prospered on the back of being a centre of localisation for global capital.

However, it is interesting that even IBEC has raised concerns in terms of the loss of manufacturing jobs and the decline of certain industries. People sense a long-term direction change in their increasing realisation that we who have benefited so much from the policy of globalisation may in the long run be particularly vulnerable. Having become dependent on such forces, if the jobs migrate to Poland, Hungary or other cheaper locations, we will be left without the wealth generating sector and nothing but a low-wage economy. In such a scenario, to have allowed a rush to the bottom means we will no longer enjoy the quality of life or the income we expect.

We must take practical measures to address this matter. If we cannot achieve our objectives immediately or quickly enough on an EU level, we should consider the possibility of bilateral negotiations in agreement with the British and French Governments to set certain key standards. This would prevent a race to the bottom and ensure there is a basic standard of operation in ferry services so that companies cannot choose as their first option the replacement of existing workers with cheaper labour. This is one practical, achievable measure the Government should pursue in the short time we have available rather than sitting back in its conservative way bemoaning that nothing can be done about the market.

I commend this motion. Tomorrow, my colleague Deputy Boyle will further explain the views of the Green Party on this matter.

Mr. Crowe: Information on Sean Crowe  Zoom on Sean Crowe  It is undeniable that Irish Ferries is conducting a human resources strategy which is geared towards replacing its Irish crews with eastern European labour. These workers will be paid well below the minimum wage — the figure mentioned is a miserly €3.60 per hour. Irish Ferries has outlined to its staff that failure to take the so-called voluntary redundancy package will lead to a drastic reduction in their working conditions with longer hours, wage cuts and shorter holidays. This makes a mockery of the term “voluntary redundancy”.

This is a repeat of the travesty we witnessed recently in Aer Lingus, where workers are being forced out of their jobs. It is incumbent on the Minister to take action to ensure Irish workers [440]are not bullied out of their jobs. Events at Aer Lingus and Irish Ferries threaten to unravel the national social partnership process. Executives paid more than €14,000 per week cannot be allowed to bully workers out of their jobs and ride roughshod over workers’ basic rights in their pursuit of greater profits. The danger now is that these extremely well paid executives will see this type of sharp practice as an acceptable way to grab even more profits for them and their companies.

Is the Minister of State not concerned that the social partnership process threatens to unravel? Amazingly, it appears that management has misinterpreted the unions’ involvement in partnership as a weakness. The contribution of the unions to the Celtic tiger counts for nothing against the avarice and arrogance of these people. Does the Minister of State consider the unions to be weak and will he allow their rights to be undermined? He knows this is not the case.

If the precedent being set is not reversed it will mean an end to the national social partnership and have severe implications for the rights of Irish workers and industrial relations in general. The gung-ho dismissal by management of SIPTU’s independent financial report on the company shows the contempt it holds for the workers in that company.

It is not good enough for the Government to run away from this issue. Even if the redundancy issue is resolved is it good enough that Irish workers will work seven days per week doing 12 hour shifts on a rate that is well below the minimum wage? The Taoiseach and the Minister deplored this situation but like Pontius Pilate they washed their hands and claimed there is nothing they can do about it.

In regard to the Irish Ferries issue I suggest two solutions. The Government can demand at European Council level an EU ferries directive to deal with the flags of convenience issue. Will we get a commitment from the Minister of State today that this will be done? I have already raised this issue with the Minister and I have been informed negotiations are taking place. The workers in Irish Ferries want answers. If the Minister of State is unable to give a commitment on this issue he could consider introducing a licensing regime for ferries operating on Irish waters. This could be done to ensure that ferries operating in Irish waters adhere to Irish labour law. This has already been done by the Scottish Executive. I ask the Minister to address the issues I have raised and give an undertaking to the House that no company that engages in what the Taoiseach has described as deplorable, unacceptable and sharp practice will be given the Government contract. Given the Government’s track record with Gama it is important that this precedent be laid down before companies get the [441]idea that these practices are acceptable to this or any other Government.

It is worth reflecting on the consequences of privatisation. Irish Ferries was once a State company serving the strategic interests of this island and is now a private company epitomising corporate greed by exploiting migrant labour and threatening to shut down the Dublin-Holyhead and Rosslare-Pembroke routes if workers do not accept the redundancy proposals. Does the Minister accept the workers in Bus Éireann have more reason than ever to fear privatisation? This will lead to a rapid erosion of the value of labour with the loss of more jobs at the minimum wage rate. We see here a concerted attack on the value of labour and I ask the Minister of State to say who is at fault. Should the unions be forced to take action to defend the workers and their rights in Irish Ferries?

Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. Gallagher): Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher  Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher  I move amendment No. 1:

“—notes that Ireland has in place a full body of employment rights legislation which covers the workplace relationships between employers and employees;

—notes there is no question of employment rights being in free-fall as they have a sound legislative foundation, active compliance systems and robust institutions for adjudication on rights and resolving disputes together with broad social support;

—notes with concern the initial reluctance of Irish Ferries to engage with the industrial relations machinery of the State and reminds the parties that our dispute settlement system is based on engagement with, and respect for, our adjudication and dispute settlement bodies — to do otherwise only exacerbates the situation;

—notes that the institutions of social partnership will continue to contribute to the attainment of agreed goals and that they played a role in ensuring engagement with the Labour Court and the Labour Relations Commission — a process which the Government would urge all parties to participate in fully;

—endorses the actions taken by Government to date in supporting the Irish maritime sector;

—calls on Irish Ferries to reconsider its proposal to outsource employment on [442]its Irish Sea routes and to examine alternative viability options for these routes;

—notes the applicability of national and international maritime law in the area of ship registration and the Government’s current consultation on ship registration legislation;

—recognises the importance of shipping in the handling of Ireland’s imports and exports and the high cost to the economy of any interference with our strategic shipping services; and

—notes the Government’s intention to request the Irish Maritime Development Office to carry out a thorough evaluation of the results of existing strategies to promote the Irish maritime sector, including the successes achieved to date and the issues to be addressed going forward, particularly in the light of recent developments, and to make recommendations accordingly for consideration by the Government.

Molaim an leasú thar ceann an Aire Fiontair, Trádála agus Fostaíochta, an Teachta Micheál Martin. I wish to share time with my colleague the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Killeen.

I wish to reiterate my serious concern at the current action being taken by Irish Ferries. The company’s proposal to make 543 of its seafarers redundant, or have them operate under reduced pay and conditions, is undoubtedly very distressing for all the workers concerned and their families.

I am delighted that SIPTU, the Seamen’s Union of Ireland and the company, are in talks under the auspices of the Labour Court. I would not want anything said in the House this evening to in any way prejudice these discussions.

It should not be forgotten that there are two sides to this dispute. From briefings provided to me by the sector’s statutory development body, the Irish Maritime Development Office, I am aware of the commercial pressures on all shipping companies to reduce their costs and streamline their operations. It is not for me to seek to determine an independent shipping company’s business strategy. My goal is to get Irish ship operators the best possible operating environment to support the company and its employees.

Maintaining and increasing Irish seafarer employment has been a focus of the Government. We established the Irish Maritime Development Office to provide our shipping and shipping services sector with a dedicated, statutory development office. The IMDO operates like a [443]mini IDA and helps my Department to make a case to Government on the sector’s behalf.

The Government has also set up a new €51 million national maritime college to train our merchant marine and Irish Naval Service cadets. Students pursuing careers at sea can now obtain qualifications or degrees in Europe’s most modern nautical college. Together with the National College of Ireland’s International Maritime Studies Institute, which opened in 2004, and which is based in the Irish Financial Services Centre in Dublin, the new maritime college will help Ireland to develop as a choice location for shore-based maritime activity. In that regard, the European Commission is taking an increased interest in boosting employment in the Community’s maritime sector. The Commission recognises that professional mariners often progress from active sea service to shore-based jobs that require maritime experience.

In recent years, the Government has introduced a competitive tonnage tax and relief in the income tax and social insurance areas to make it easier for ship operators to employ Irish seafarers, and to increase the take home pay of seafarers working at sea for more than 161 days a year.

Some Deputies are aware that one of our relief schemes, the employers’ of seafarers PRSI refund scheme, ended on 31 December 2003. The scheme refunded employers of such seafarers their PRSI contribution for each of its seagoing employees. The reintroduction of the scheme required the agreement of the Ministers for Social and Family Affairs and Finance and the co-operation of the Department’s mercantile marine office.

In December 2004 agreement was reached that the scheme should be reintroduced with effect from 1 January 2004, for a period of seven years. Commission approval for the reintroduction of the scheme, under the 2004 Community guidelines on State aid to maritime transport, is expected to be received in the next few days. I am confident we will receive that approval given that the European Commission is anxious to ensure a European seafaring sector and advocates such schemes. Accordingly, there will be no break in the scheme’s application from the end of December 2003 for a further seven years.

I have asked the Minister for Finance to consider the introduction of additional State aids for the sector. I recognise the limitations of such aids in making ferry operations more competitive. State aids in the income tax and social insurance areas do not address on board work practices or manning requirements. They do not remove competition from low-fare airlines or prevent a reduction in passenger and car traffic. In recent times the ferry sector has been particularly hard hit by the loss of duty free sales; these sales [444]cushioned the sector against operating cost increases and reduced business.

We all recognise how essential it is that Ireland has modern quality ferries to service our key trading routes, particularly the Irish Sea routes and the routes to the Continent. Given that more than 95% of our trade is carried in ships, we are particularly vulnerable if those shipping services are curtailed. It would be regrettable if any form of industrial action were to jeopardise the economy by hindering our imports and exports.

Where ships are registered is less important than in the past. Ireland’s marine survey office regularly inspects ships calling at our ports to ensure their compliance with applicable international safety standards. That addresses the point raised by Deputy Ryan. The marine survey office supports State control and inspects ships without fear or favour irrespective of which flag they are flying.

The living and working conditions of seafarers on those ships are regularly inspected by our port State control officers. These officers check, inter alia, that the ships they inspect are in compliance with the current main international labour organisation conventions, covering such matters as the provision of food supplies; cleanliness of galley and storage spaces; arrangements for holding, making and storing water; catering arrangements; accommodation spaces; ventilation, heating and lighting; sanitary facilities; that hospital accommodation is adequate, if required; medical certification; shipboard working arrangements; and seafarers’ hours of work.

There is no question of sub-standard shipping being allowed to operate into and out of Irish ports. The Irish Maritime Development Office has estimated that the shipping services sector in Ireland has more than 8,000 employees, and contributed about €1.45 billion to the economy in 2004.

The sector covers not just the activities of our ship operators, but supports onshore activities in such areas as freight forwarding, ship broking, insurance, financial and legal services.

In recent days the possibility of an EU initiative being used to address the current seafarer pay and employment issue was mentioned. There is no EU directive on the manning of regular passenger and ferry services operating in and between member states currently in force or being considered at present by member states. If the Commission was to initiate such a proposal, I would have no difficulty with that and would give it careful consideration.

In 1998, there was an EU Commission proposal, COM/98/0251, concerning a Commission communication on a common policy on manning regular passenger and ferry services operating in and between member states. A key provision of the Commission’s draft directive was its Article 2.2 which states that if the vessel used is not regis[445]tered in a member state, the terms and conditions referred to shall be those applicable to the residents of one of the member states between whose ports the service is provided and with which the service has the closest connection and that the closest connection shall be determined on the basis of the place from which the service is effectively managed.

The European Parliament approved the proposal in March 1999. The Commission issued a revised proposal in 2000, COM/2000/0437. However, no final agreement was reached in the Council of Ministers on the matter and the Commission formally withdrew the proposal in August 2004.

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  What was the Irish position?

Mr. Gallagher: Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher  Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher  At the time the proposal was being considered, Ireland was concerned about the economics of providing ferry services for peripheral Community regions, such as Ireland, particularly at off-peak seasons. We were also concerned that the Commission’s proposals excluded non-ferry vessels in direct competition with ferries, since freight traffic is now becoming of more importance to jumbo ferry operators than the transport of passengers and their cars.

To facilitate consideration of the matter, we were in favour of a study being undertaken to determine the implications of the proposals for peripheral Community regions such as our own. That would still be the case were the Commission to consider revisiting the matter in future.

Ireland is a far more peripheral location than either the UK or France. We are reliant on maritime transport to address more than 95% of our trade needs. Recent statistics show that the Irish shipping sector handled an estimated €120 billion worth of goods in 2004. That statistic alone underscores the importance of the sector in connecting the Irish economy with the global market place.

We have no rail link to take our trade to the continent, like the UK. For France, maritime transport is of relatively limited significance, in so far as trade with its Community partners is concerned. Any initiative to control seafarers’ pay on ferries operating between us and either of those countries, would therefore have to be carefully considered. We would have to consider the impact of any proposals on our competitiveness, trade and maritime sector as a whole.

Mr. J. Higgins: Information on Joe Higgins  Zoom on Joe Higgins  That is exactly Mr. Rothwell’s argument. It is a bloody disgrace.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  The Deputy will have an opportunity to contribute later.

Mr. J. Higgins: Information on Joe Higgins  Zoom on Joe Higgins  That is Irish Ferries’ argument. It is incredible.

[446]Mr. Gallagher: Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher  Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher  The competitiveness of our maritime sector has implications for employment in all sectors of the economy. Ireland has benefited, for instance, from the introduction of cutting-edge ferry technology on our principal Irish Sea route to the UK. The HSS fast ferry operated by Stena Line and the MV Ulysses operated by Irish Ferries, give Irish businesses access to the latest maritime technology. I am aware that some Deputies have advocated that a licensing arrangement should be put in place to control wages on ferries operating out of Ireland, similar to an arrangement in place in Scotland. An investigation of that matter indicates that the Scottish ferries concerned are used in the provision of island ferry services, operating under public service obligation contracts.

There is no possibility of having such arrangements in place on the Irish Sea central corridor, where there is no shortage of private ferry operators willing to provide regular passenger and freight services without the need for a public service obligation.

Last week in London, I took the opportunity to meet briefly with Dr. Stephen Ladyman, the British Minister responsible for transport. We had a discussion on how such matters could work between our two member states. That discussion was as far as I got on that occasion but I am anxious to pursue the issue of traffic between Ireland and the UK because it is important to us.

The Government intends to request the Irish Maritime Development Office to carry out a thorough evaluation of the results of existing strategies to promote the Irish maritime sector, particularly in light of recent developments. That evaluation will include an examination of the successes achieved to date in promoting the sector and the issues to be addressed in going forward.

I referred to the financial implications involved. In recent years the Government made a case to Europe to secure its approval for various incentives. The Government will continue to do that if necessary. Following an evaluation by my Department, the recommendations of the Irish Maritime Development Office will form the basis of a submission to Government.

I urge all the parties to this dispute to sit down once more and try to hammer out an agreement on pay and work practices, which will meet the company’s operating needs while being fair to its long-serving employees.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  I call the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen.

Mr. J. Higgins: Information on Joe Higgins  Zoom on Joe Higgins  As you know, a Cheann Comhairle, under Standing Orders I am allowed to ask the Minister if he will give way for two seconds.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  Only if the Minister agrees, Deputy.

[447]Mr. J. Higgins: Information on Joe Higgins  Zoom on Joe Higgins  Will he tell us how much money the Irish——

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  Does the Minister wish to take a question from Deputy Joe Higgins?

Mr. J. Higgins: Information on Joe Higgins  Zoom on Joe Higgins  It is a brief question. How much money did the Government give to Irish Ferries to sack 150 workers on the MV Normandy to replace them with cheap labour?

Mr. Gallagher: Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher  Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher  There were 150. I was there at the time but I had no control over that. It was not a matter for me to decide whether the jobs were redundant rather than the people being made redundant. I do not support such a thing.

Mr. J. Higgins: Information on Joe Higgins  Zoom on Joe Higgins  They were not made redundant but the Government paid millions for it. How much?

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  I call the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen.

Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Mr. Killeen): Information on Tony Killeen  Zoom on Tony Killeen  Like Members on both sides of the House, I regret that it is once again necessary to return to this subject in the Chamber. It is the third time I have either answered questions or spoken on the Irish Ferries issue. While some little progress was made, I regret that it is necessary to continue to return to the subject. However, I welcome the opportunity to put on record with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, the Government’s position on the situation.

I propose to address a number of key issues. We have a comprehensive body of employment rights legislation, which has as its objective the protection of employees against arbitrary behaviour by employers, provision for the safety and health of workers and fostering labour market harmony by promoting policies that minimise conflict and maximise fairness.

While recognising the exceptional situation that has arisen in the maritime sector, it is important to remember that the full range of Irish employment law still applies to persons employed in Ireland, regardless of nationality. This body of law is being and will continue to be enforced.

Governments cannot prevent job losses as such, which are a feature of a globalised world and an adaptive labour market. Accordingly, enterprises and sectors prosper and some decline, unless they remain competitive and meet the needs of customers. However, this is different from a situation where workers in viable enterprises are deliberately replaced by cheaper labour from other countries.

As the Taoiseach has already told the Dáil, free access to the Irish labour market by nationals of [448]the new EU member states was not intended to give employers a green light to replace Irish workers with cheaper labour.

The consensus on economic and social policy issues that we have had in Ireland through successive national partnership programmes could not have been achieved without the existence of agreed social standards. This consensus approach involving employers, employees and Government has been a major contributor to Ireland’s recent economic success and has been backed up by a well-balanced body of employment rights legislation and measures designed to stimulate employment that provide an appropriate framework for the purpose of achieving an efficient and competitive business environment. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, will be here tomorrow morning for the Second Stage of the Employment Permits Bill and I will be in the Seanad with the Employees (Provision of Information and Consultation) Bill. We are continuing to work to expand the range of employment law.

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  Both Bills are wholly inadequate.

Mr. Killeen: Information on Tony Killeen  Zoom on Tony Killeen  Employment rights legislation has an important role to play in promoting labour market stability. The economic benefits of employment security and agreed employment relationships in terms of co-operative work place relations, greater internal flexibility, acceptance of technological change, cumulative skills acquisition and greater incentive for investment in human resources are widely recognised and accepted.

I note that the Dáil is invited to condemn the replacement of existing workers who benefit from trade union pay rates with what are called “vulnerable” migrant workers. While not supporting the stance of the company in this matter, not all incoming workers can be described as “vulnerable” simply because they are working outside their country of origin. This is far too broad an assumption. While the term “migrant worker” is used in Ireland to describe virtually all workers from overseas, when questioned, people tend not to think of German, Italian, American or British nationals working in Ireland as migrant workers. Very many thousands of workers from overseas are in well-paid employment in the Irish economy. We cannot assume that everybody from overseas is vulnerable simply because they propose to work outside their own country. The Irish experience alone should provide ample evidence of that. We need to encourage workers to come from other countries and will continue to do so as it is important for the growth of employment here.

From the information made available to us of what the company proposes, any replacement workers in Irish Ferries are likely to be EU [449]nationals, probably from the new member states. If such persons want to work outside their own country, they are free to seek work in Ireland, Sweden and the UK without restriction. Many thousands have availed of this opportunity. Many others have the possibility of seeking entry to specific occupations in other member states where the governments of those member states have opted to continue to regulate entry to their domestic labour market.

However, I should point out that the legal advice received regarding foreign-registered ships indicates that as a general rule the flag state, the state where the ship is registered, has the exclusive right to exercise legislative and enforcement jurisdiction over its ships on the high sea. That advice was made known to the Dáil in the middle of last year and everybody was aware of it. From the Government’s perspective, there would be no question of granting work permits to an employer in a case like this to facilitate the bringing in of workers from outside the broader European Economic Area.

Mr. J. Higgins: Information on Joe Higgins  Zoom on Joe Higgins  They have tens of thousands from eastern Europe.

Mr. Killeen: Information on Tony Killeen  Zoom on Tony Killeen  I was about to acknowledge the positive role played by the Deputy in one area. If this House and the public are to be convinced that this company is subject to the type of competitive pressures claimed, then much more information will be necessary together with a greater willingness to engage in dialogue with its workforce.

Preliminary advice has been received from the Attorney General’s office regarding whether or not a statutory redundancy situation will exist in Irish Ferries. As no formal communication has been received in the Department from the company regarding the exact nature of the proposed redundancies, this advice is based on media reports of what Irish Ferries intends to do. On the basis of the information available, the “redundancy” may not fall within the definition in the Redundancy Payments Acts. Clarity can only be brought to the issue if, and when, the company makes a formal application to the Department for a redundancy rebate. In that event and in the event of disagreement it would be possible to refer the matter to the Employment Appeals Tribunal.

I am not in a position to say that the company is not experiencing tougher competition in a rapidly changing environment. Neither am I in a position to say that changes in work practices at the company are not necessary to cope with new challenges. However, this matter should be addressed on the specifics of this case and not confused with wider issues relating to overseas workers in Ireland. Owing to the particular circumstances governing employment and regu[450]lation in the maritime sector, the emerging situation in Irish Ferries cannot simply be replicated in the wider economy, where the broad framework of Irish employment law and social protection will still apply.

The Deputies proposing the motion request the House to condemn what is termed “the growing tendency in areas such as construction, the meat industry, hotels and catering to exploit migrant labour at the expense of permanent jobs on trade union rates of pay and decent working conditions.” It is important to bear in mind the distinction between what is illegal and what can be held to constitute exploitation. The former is set out in law while the latter tends to be much more subjective. The State is obliged to enforce employment law and conditions where these are regulated. It is also obliged to ensure to the greatest extent possible that persons are not brought into the State by employers likely to exploit such persons. In this regard, the House should note that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment has in recent years refused to grant new work permits to employers found to be abusing the facility. This can be and was done for clearly stated reasons of public policy and without any requirement to go to court. Certain cases were also referred to the Garda national immigration bureau for further investigation and where evidence warranted it, some employers have been prosecuted.

One of the greatest factors putting workers in danger of exploitation is when an employee is working illegally within the State. This can come about through illegal entry, through overstaying a visitor’s visa or through being otherwise in breach of the terms on which a person is admitted to the State. Employers who employ such persons are committing a criminal offence under the Employment Permits Act 2003 and, furthermore, they also stand to gain a competitive advantage over employers who meet their obligations under Irish employment law and who value and look after their workforce. Illegal working undercuts all those who are working legally. I urge all Deputies and all members of the public who may come across such illegal employment with its associated capacity for exploitation to report details to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to enable appropriate action to be taken.

I am frequently disappointed to hear people, including occasionally Members in the House, make broad statements without giving specifics. Once details are made available to the Department, such issues will be pursued. I urge everybody to make such information available to the inspectors.

In the rapidly expanding economy of recent years, it has become clear that an increase in the numbers employed in the labour inspectorate was necessary to assist in ensuring compliance with [451]the legal obligations of the many new enterprises. As Members will be aware, we are in the process of increasing the number of inspectors from 17 to 31. However, the Department, like other State agencies must also rely, to a large degree, on the assistance and information provided by other groups in civil society. While labour inspectors cannot be everywhere at once, they can certainly be deployed where a clear prima facie case has been made. In this regard, I would suggest to the House, in general, and to the Deputies who have raised this matter in particular, that they should bring the details of any specific breaches of employment law or conditions by specific employers in their constituencies to the attention of the Department. Deputy Joe Higgins made a very valuable contribution in this regard recently, based on evidence. This can assist greatly in ensuring a rapid and effective response. We will respond with a single-minded determination to gather evidence sufficient to prosecute transgressors. This applies to the sectors mentioned in the motion tabled by the Deputies opposite and to any other sectors where such problems arise.

We in Ireland are very fortunate in the industrial relations systems we have developed together. The fundamental approach of successive Governments to industrial relations has been one of voluntarism. There is consensus among the social partners that the terms and conditions of employment of workers are best determined through the process of voluntary bargaining between employers and workers and between employers’ associations and one or more trade unions or staff associations. This approach to industrial relations has served us well over the years.

In general, our laws do not try to impose a solution on parties to a trade dispute, but rather are designed to help support the parties in resolving their differences. The State has, by and large, confined its role to underpinning voluntarism through the provision of a framework and institutions through which good industrial relations can prosper. Institutions have been established that can assist in the resolution of disputes between employers and workers such as the Labour Relations Commission, including its rights commissioner service, the Labour Court and the Employment Appeals Tribunal.

Our model for partnership is unique and adapted to Irish needs enabling us to manage rapid change successfully built on support for the changes necessary to meet our economic and societal goals of growth and employment. In addition, institutions of social partnership play a significant role in ensuring delivery of the industrial stability and peace provisions of the national agreements. In this context, the national implementation body serves as a forum where the Government, employers and trade unions can [452]work together to help ensure a positive industrial relations climate for economic and social progress. The national implementation body has played an important role in the Irish Ferries issue by calling on the parties to respond positively to an invitation from the Labour Court to both parties to meet for informal and exploratory discussions.

To remain a competitive, growing economy, with the capacity to improve our social provision we must continue to build on what it has achieved for us. Over the past 18 years, if we have learned anything, it is that a shared analysis of the issues coupled with a problem-solving approach has worked.

Social partnership, however, is not a recipe for perfection. Not everything works as planned. Not everyone complies with what is expected of them in the agreements. Imperfect as it is, however, it has delivered far more for each of the participants — all of us — than could possibly be achieved in the bad old days of confrontation and conflict. As rapid economic and social change continues, Irish society needs the stability provided by the partnership approach. Everyone has benefited. As the Taoiseach said this morning, everyone — employers, trade unions and the Government — has an obligation to contribute to its continuation. Those who are free riders on partnership and ignore its requirements on their behaviour should not be supported.

  8 o’clock

However, honest engagement in a problem-solving way within the partnership process is an obligation on us all. There is no problem of employment relations which cannot be sensibly addressed through partnership, and none which can be addressed more effectively by abandoning partnership. If people have an alternative model to offer they should do so, but in the interim the benefits of partnership are clear to all.

While serious issues require to be addressed urgently in Irish Ferries, these can and should be progressed with the support and assistance of the State’s industrial relations machinery. Accordingly, the initial reluctance of Irish Ferries to accede to the invitation from the Labour Court to discuss the proposed redundancy package was profoundly regrettable. However, Irish Ferries and the unions did attend the Labour Court on Monday, 3 October. Arising from the meeting, the company agreed to enter talks aimed at finding agreement by the end of October at the latest on its proposed redundancy package.

In the light of those developments, normal industrial relations procedures are now being followed at Irish Ferries, which I welcome. This was not the case when I answered questions in the House last week. The services of the State’s dispute-settling machinery of the Labour Relations Commission and the Labour Court will continue to be at the disposal of the parties involved.

[453]Mr. Hogan: Information on Philip Hogan  Zoom on Philip Hogan  I wish to share time with Deputy Perry.

Fine Gael believes that the developments at Irish Ferries are very worrying. That a former State company would resort to such tactics in order to cut costs without the slightest concern for the workers whose livelihoods it is destroying is scandalous. Whatever captain of industry decided on this course of action and thought it was a good idea to shed workers in this cavalier fashion should be ashamed.

The developments in Irish Ferries are significant not just because of those whom they directly affect. Every employee in the country is looking at Irish Ferries and saying “soon, that could be me”. We have a duty in this House to ensure that it does not become the norm, and the Government has a duty to ensure that other workers do not face the same situation.

I do not believe that issues of resentment of migrant workers as a result of the displacement of existing Irish workers should be fuelled by the irresponsible manner in which Irish Ferries has handled this issue. There is a more responsible way of acting and we would like to see more of that through the existing industrial relations machinery.

In late 1999, Irish Ferries announced that it was to spend €17 million to purchase the ship MV Normandy. It is extraordinary that only six years after such an enormous capital outlay, it is taking this “remedial” action. Further, in May 2005 it became known that Irish Ferries was one of the main beneficiaries of the so-called tonnage tax scheme to which the Minister of State referred. The company saved an estimated €3 million in tax payments in 2003, the first year of the scheme’s operation. It was made clear at that time that without the tax break, “jobs at Irish Ferries would be lost”. So much for tax schemes, for solid investment, for planning for the future, and a strategic development plan for a company. It does not augur well for the future of a company with such managerial experience.

The House will be well aware that Irish Ferries became an industrial relations pariah when it decided it was perfectly acceptable to pay one of its employees €1 per hour to work on one of its ships — and all of this from a company that apparently buys into social partnership, a project that has served us well and served the company well over the years.

Irish Ferries accordingly stands accused, but so too does the Government. This country is a small island nation and needs two things in particular among many others: a dynamic, competition-led shipping sector and a Government determined to ensure the competitiveness of the Irish economy. Ireland currently has neither. The Taoiseach might attempt to look tough by vaguely threatening Irish Ferries over its actions but he has done little to provide the company with a dynamic, [454]low-cost economy. We are living in a global competitive world economy and must contain costs. The Government stands negligent on this front. It has introduced stealth tax after stealth tax and charge after charge, which has ensured that indigenous Irish jobs in the manufacturing and maritime sectors are now at risk, as particularly exemplified by Irish Ferries.

People have heard me regularly in this House listing all the stealth taxes and charges so I will not bore the House with them. Nevertheless, VAT, vehicle registration tax and motor tax have all increased. All the various energy sectors which feed into a modern competitive economy are now out of control as a result of the regulators, endorsed by Government policy, who are ensuring that we have a 25% increase in energy costs alone from 1 October of this year. That is not an acceptable way of ensuring that we have a modern, progressive, competitive and globally orientated economy. Ireland has gone from fourth in 2000 to 26th this year in the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness report, mainly as a result of the failure to control our prices. The Government’s own body, the National Competitiveness Council, says Irish prices rose 22% more than those in other EU countries in the years 1999-2003.

The Government fails to see that every policy influences another, and if Irish Ferries did not face high costs elsewhere it would be harder for it to engage in its “poor mouth” antics and claim it was necessary to take the approach it seems intent on taking.

I ask the Government once again to get to grips with the cost base we are facing. We have seen that the manufacturing sector is in difficulty, with 20,000 jobs lost since 1999, notwithstanding our low overall level of unemployment. We risk endangering the value added economy we have done so much to build if we do not start to take remedial steps now to make it cheaper and easier to do business in this country.

These are the issues which organisations like IBEC in particular should be highlighting with Government, rather than sleepwalking through the existing social partnership process. Recent comments by IBEC regarding the dispute at Irish Ferries were astounding. IBEC said:

That type of threatening attitude does nothing for social partnership and is not the constructive approach required to resolve this dispute. We now know that as far as IBEC is concerned, employers have the right to do whatever they want because it is better to be treated disgracefully by one’s boss than to be on the dole.

[455]I share IBEC’s concern about the cost base of Irish Ferries but I do not share its attitude to resolving the dispute. I abhor the abuse of a system designed to protect workers for Irish Ferries’ own ends. The Government is the guardian of the rights of citizens. If it turns out that those rights are being circumvented then it has a case to answer. I call on unions to take the moral high ground on this issue and use the existing mechanisms of social partnership and the Labour Court to resolve the crisis, as they have been asking to do, particularly SIPTU.

I do not advocate the action proposed by some, that the ports of the nation be ground to a halt, which will do nothing to resolve the dispute but harm the economy, damage our competitiveness and destroy jobs. That is not a responsible and constructive way to proceed. We cannot allow a situation to occur where goods are prevented from leaving or coming to this jurisdiction because of the disgraceful actions of one wayward ferry company.

Social partnership works, as does the Labour Court. Let us use them to resolve this dispute. We must have a competitive economy, but people who are working hard in Irish companies deserve respect.

Mr. Perry: Information on John Perry  Zoom on John Perry  The decision by Irish Ferries to take this action represents a huge strategic loss to the country. The move does not bode well for the sector and we must be prepared for massive changes in Irish seafaring. The Government must take the blame for this strategic loss. The bottom line is that the Government has failed the Irish Ferries workers, the seafaring industry and all Irish people by failing to take action earlier. This lack of foresight on the Government’s part has cost Irish Ferries’ staff their jobs.

The writing has been on the wall for Irish Ferries for several years but the Government has failed to act time and again. The issue of additional tax breaks was first raised three years ago with this Government. A year ago Irish Ferries started planning to outsource workers on the Normandy route, which serves Cherbourg and Roscoff. It is a damning indictment that the Government failed to take action before now. The action of Irish Ferries is hugely regrettable. It will have a far reaching impact not alone on the families directly involved but on the seafaring industry.

The National Maritime College recently opened in Ringaskiddy at a cost to the taxpayer of €51 million. The purpose of this college is to train seafarers. It is unfortunate that there was no partnership approach with employers on the future opportunities that could be developed with this facility. Now, one of the major employers is taking the cheaper option when employing staff. Creation of educational institutions is always wel[456]come but must have a clear focus on employment for the student involved and future job potential. It is pointless to encourage a student to spend a number of years studying a discipline in which he or she may never find a job or in which he or she will have to compete with people who will work for half the cost. The awful reality is that the Government’s lack of forward thinking has meant that opportunities for graduates coming from this college are now considerably reduced. As Irish Ferries is the largest employer of Irish seafarers, the company’s decision will have enormous repercussions for those attending the college.

The Irish Maritime Development Office is charged with the development of the shipping sector. This agency recently reviewed the shipping sector’s existing State aids. The agency also considered the case for new or modified aids. A report was compiled, which recommended the implementation of several State aids. Such State aids were originally recommended to this Government three years ago. If action had been taken when it could have made a difference, the Irish seafaring industry could now have a completely different outlook. This report is now with the Department of Finance. What action is being taken?

Irish people have had enough lip service from this Government. They need action. However, the Government appears to be far too keen to spend vast amounts of money hiring consultants to compile reports that sit on Ministers’ desks. The agency report is available but no action was taken even though it would have a direct impact on the employment and retention of staff.

Mr. Gallagher: Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher  Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher  It was sent to the Department of Finance within days.

Mr. Perry: Information on John Perry  Zoom on John Perry  What happened? It is still with the Government. The Government has also failed to re-introduce the PRSI rebate scheme. This scheme would allow for PRSI paid by employers of Irish based seafarers to be refunded. Naturally such a scheme makes an enormous difference to employers’ balance sheets. It costs an employer €100 to pay an employee €500. Consider how much it costs to pay 500 employees. That scheme was operational until 2003.

Mr. Gallagher: Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher  Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher  We reintroduced it and we are waiting for feedback from Europe.

Mr. Perry: Information on John Perry  Zoom on John Perry  It also provides a major incentive for employers to hold on to Irish Seafarers. The scheme ended in 2003.

Mr. Gallagher: Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher  Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher  The Deputy should read my contribution.

Mr. Perry: Information on John Perry  Zoom on John Perry  The decision to reintroduce it is now with the European Commission.

[457]Mr. Gallagher: Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher  Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher  Yes.

Mr. Perry: Information on John Perry  Zoom on John Perry  It might be too late. The stable door is closed.

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  The boat has sunk.

Mr. Perry: Information on John Perry  Zoom on John Perry  Why has the Government not acted before now to reintroduce this scheme? What has happened since 2004? This involves a 20% cost factor on the creation of a seafaring job. If that reduction had been in place, Irish Ferries could not——

Mr. Gallagher: Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher  Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher  The company knew it was being reintroduced.

Mr. Perry: Information on John Perry  Zoom on John Perry  It is two years since that scheme finished. The Government was aware of how beneficial the scheme was to the industry so why was this decision not referred to the European Commission two years ago?

Mr. Gallagher: Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher  Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher  It has been there for months.

Mr. Perry: Information on John Perry  Zoom on John Perry  That is not good enough. If the scheme was still in place, Irish Ferries would not have justification for the action it is now taking. That is the simple truth. This Government has acted recklessly with the jobs of 543 Irish Ferries workers. Responsibility must be taken for this. The PRSI rebate that should have been renewed would have made a difference. PRSI is a huge cost and this involved a discount of 20% in employer costs. I do not condone the action taken by Irish Ferries but a large degree of blame for these job losses rests with this Government and its inaction.

The concerns of Irish seafarers were simply ignored in recent years. Irish Ferries’ announcement of this outrageous decision of all but compulsory redundancy shows the level of priority this Government gives to maritime issues. I respect the Minister of State’s work as Minister of State with responsibility for the marine but there is no Cabinet Minister with direct responsibility for maritime affairs for our island nation. That has had an impact not only on this issue but on several others. Our island status cannot be ignored. However, the Government stance of appointing a Minister of State to deal with this important portfolio shows the lack of concern it has for many of the most basic needs of this country. It cannot be sufficiently emphasised that respect must be given to maritime affairs.

One of Irish Ferries’ chief competitors is Brittany Ferries, which is highly subsidised by the French Government. Irish Ferries is not a State owned company and has not been since 1992. However, we must examine what measures could be introduced to stop a major employer implementing a severance package. As an island nation [458]this is a national question and we need to deal with it as such. There is a report sitting on the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen’s, desk which must be examined with great urgency. I am astonished it has not been dealt with before now. There have been many debates about this. It is simply a matter of seeking a derogation in Europe with regard to PRSI but that was not done. What is the status of this report? It is imperative that the Department of Finance acts fast and considers it.

The announcement that a public consultation process on the re-flagging of ships is being set up is also a welcome development. Again, however, the Government seems to have staggered blindly for a considerable period and is only now realising that action must be taken. The decision to re-flag the MV Normandy was taken by Irish Ferries at the start of this year. The decision was known to have been on the cards for a considerable time. The Department officially sought public opinion on the issue on 17 August last. Where is the forward thinking and logic in this?

The aim of the consultation process is to open discussion on improvements to the current ship registration system. It also intends to develop a new and integrated policy on the registration of vessels for the future. This is a good step but it is more than a year too late. A problem on the Normandy route was first identified in 2004 but the current consultation period continues to the end of December this year. Why is the Government so devastatingly unable to take decisions when they are needed?

The demands in this motion must be examined. The Government must urgently introduce legislation to outlaw ship owners and operators who use flags of convenience to ignore workers’ rights. We have not brought this country so far in terms of employment legislation only to allow companies to exploit foreign workers within our waters. Workers on ferries flying under flags of convenience are paid less than half our minimum wage. That is not good enough. The vast majority of Irish employers treat their staff fairly and this is only proper and should be the least one should expect. However, allowing foreign workers to work on our waters for low wages is the shame of this Government. This has now been happening for nine months. The MV Normandy re-flagged itself to operate under the flag of the Bahamas eight months before this consultation process was announced. What action did the Government take in the interim? It was highly hypocritical of the Government to denounce in the House the decision of Irish Ferries and then pay a grant worth millions of euro to the same company when 150 workers on the MV Normandy were made redundant.

There is a great deal of talk from the Government but it must understand that Irish people are sick and tired of hearing all this talk but seeing [459]no action. The growing tendency to exploit workers in a variety of employment areas must be stopped. Irish people were often exploited when they went abroad to find work when the economy was not performing as well as now and it is horrendous to see the same exploitation being repeated. Foreign workers in Ireland should be openly encouraged to join trade unions. There are reports of employers who discourage and do not allow union membership and such people should feel the full force of the law.

The Government has failed the seafarers of this country. Its inaction in the past year and a half has allowed Irish Ferries to make this outrageous announcement. It is difficult to understand the reasons for the failure of the Government’s incentives to encourage job retention.

Mr. Glennon: Information on Jim Glennon  Zoom on Jim Glennon  I wish to respond to points which have arisen in the debate. The Green Party spokesperson on transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, criticised different Government Deputies. He was critical of the Minister, Deputy Martin, for his absence from the House. He is obviously unaware that the Minister is out of the country at an EU Council meeting. Deputy Ryan only stayed in the Chamber for approximately 15 minutes yet he was highly critical of both Ministers of State, Deputies Gallagher and Killeen, each of whom has been present for a considerably longer period. They contributed to the debate and listened attentively to the contributions of those in the House. I respectfully suggest Deputy Ryan should take a leaf out of their respective books.

Deputy Perry has accused the Government of failing Irish seafarers. I refute this charge which is opportunistic, to put it mildly. We are dealing with an unfortunate idiosyncrasy of modern employment law and the equivalent of latter-day pirates. International law relating to flags of convenience and general shipping laws relating to the use of flags can be exploited utterly by anybody with a mind to do so.

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  They may be corrected by any Government with a mind to do so.

Mr. Glennon: Information on Jim Glennon  Zoom on Jim Glennon  There is no question of exploitation of those laws by this Government and anything like that is quite unfair and opportunistic.

Mr. J. Higgins: Information on Joe Higgins  Zoom on Joe Higgins  Neither capitalism nor socialism but idiosyncrasy.

Mr. Glennon: Information on Jim Glennon  Zoom on Jim Glennon  It is piracy on the part of a company with a recent semi-State history which has availed of an opportunity and decided to exploit it to the full. It is a weakness in international law which is difficult to circumvent. The laws applying in such circumstances are not the laws of this country.

[460]The partnership forum is the appropriate forum for the development of goodwill between both sides. With the best will in the world, no Government nor any aspirational Government could possibly deal with the situation in a manner other than has been adopted by this Government. I cannot call the action taken by Irish Ferries illegal because it is not illegal in the strict sense but it is wrong, immoral and utterly unacceptable——

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  The Government should make it illegal.

Mr. Glennon: Information on Jim Glennon  Zoom on Jim Glennon  ——and outside the spirit of the framework of any law. It is the responsibility of the Government to look after the employees as best it can. I am confident the Ministers of State, Deputies Gallagher and Killeen, are discharging their duties to the full and will be seen in due course to have done so.

I refer to a number of points addressed by the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, in his contribution. He stated that employment rights legislation in this country has as its objective the protection of employees against arbitrary behaviour by employers, provision for the safety and health of workers and the fostering of labour market harmony by promoting policies that minimise conflict and maximise fairness. This situation is exceptional. Irish employment law only applies to persons employed in this country, regardless of their nationality and it does not apply to persons who are employed outside this State. For the purposes of this dispute, the Irish flag and jurisdiction does not apply to the company even though it is an Irish-based company. Employment law is enforced and will continue to be enforced but it is unfortunate that in this instance, Irish law has no jurisdiction.

Mr. J. Higgins: Information on Joe Higgins  Zoom on Joe Higgins  The Government should change the law.

Mr. Glennon: Information on Jim Glennon  Zoom on Jim Glennon  If the law could be changed as glibly and with such facility as a comment across the floor of the House, it would be a great thing to do. It would be wonderful if it were all that simple. The Deputy knows that Irish law cannot be extended to an area over which the State has no jurisdiction. Irish law cannot be applied automatically to a ship sailing in and out of Ireland or indeed to an aircraft. Ireland once had a fine merchant shipping fleet and it is a pity it is no longer there. Irish ships sailing into international ports would not wish to be subjected to the laws of certain countries nor should they be expected to be.

Debate adjourned.

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