Friday, 7 October 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
Is onóir dom é an Bille seo a thabhairt os comhair an Oireachtais don dara léamh inniu. Ba mhaith liom ar dtús cúlra a thabhairt i dtaobh an ábhair iontach seo. Thug na JLCs cosaint do 200,000 daoine sa tír seo agus dá mhuintir. Daoine iad seo atá ag brath ar thuarastal an-íseal. Roimh chinneadh na hÁrd Cúirte, rinne an tAire Post, Fiontar agus Nuálaíocha, an Teachta Richard Bruton, agus Fine Gael iarracht na JLCs a scrios agus tuarastal na ndaoine sin a ísliú. Tar éis cinneadh na hÁrd Cúirte, tháinig eagla uafásach ar mhuintir na JLCs go n-ísleodh an chinneadh sin a dtuarastal níos mó fós. Ní fhaigheann an gnáth oibrí ach thart ar €18,000 sa bhliain, ach cuirfeadh an t-athrú seo ar a dtuarastal na mílte daoine i dtreo an bhochtanais.
Chomh maith leis sin, de réir tuairisc Duffy-Walsh, ní chruthódh an cinneadh aon jab sa mbreis ar chor ar bith. Roimh bhriseadh an tsamhraidh, d’iarr Sinn Féin ar Fhine Gael agus ar Pháirtí an Lucht Oibre reachtaíocht a thabhairt os comhair na Dála gan mhoill chun go mbeadh cinnteacht ag daoine nach rachadh rudaí in olcas. Shéan siad an rud sin a dhéanamh. Mar sin, bhí ar Shinn Féin tacaíocht a thabhairt do mhuintir na JLCs agus láinseáil muid an Bille seo chun go mbeadh cosaint láidir ann dóibh.
Deputy Peadar Tóibín: Bhí mé ag caint le cúpla duine a bhí thart anseo inné agus dúirt siad liom a bheith aireach. Dúirt siad go mb’fhéidir go dtabharfadh an Rialtas tacaíocht don mBille inniu, ach go gcuirfeadh sé stop leis an mBille ar Chéim an Choiste. Impím oraibh go léir gan ligean don mBille seo titim ar lár.
I thank representatives of SIPTU, UNITE, Mandate and the Coalition for the Low Paid who have helped my party get this far in its campaign to safeguard workers’ pay and conditions, and I welcome them here today.
In my time as an elected representative in the Oireachtas, the number of times the Government has accepted a private Members’ Bill without tabling negative amendments has been as rare as hen’s teeth. I dearly hope the Government will see beyond partisanship on this issue today.
To contextualise the position, the joint labour committees were established to provide statutory minimum remuneration levels and terms of conditions for workers in sectors of low pay and where no collective bargaining existed. They were set up to prevent the exploitation of workers and to prevent hundreds of thousands of people being pushed into poverty. In the past ten years it has become apparent that the legislation framing the system is inadequate. The previous Fianna Fáil Government had years of opportunity to resolve this issue by introducing legislation but it lacked the political will to do so.
Last spring and early summer, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, disregarded the empirical evidence provided by the Walsh Duffy report on the benefits of the JLCs and articulated his determination to dismantle the JLCs and reduce the wages of those whose pay and conditions are protected by the JLCs. The Minister stated that reducing wages in these sectors would create jobs. The Walsh Duffy report stated the opposite. It stated clearly:
In other words, individuals working in this sector were not enjoying a premium that they would not enjoy in the open market as such. Labour’s reaction to the emerging Government policy was shocking. Their instincts towards a political expedience not to rock the Government boat quenched any fight there to defend workers’ pay.
It amazes me that when Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and now Labour seek to reform wages, they first approach those with the most vulnerable living standards. Why do the hundreds of thousands of those working in the public sector or in the private professional sectors remain invisible to the Government when it comes to cuts? On this occasion, Labour supporters to whom I spoke were dismayed at how quickly their party was morphing into Fine Gael.
This left up to 200,000 workers defenceless in the face of unscrupulous employers and it meant that decent employers who were looking to pay a decent wage were finding themselves uncompetitive due to the race to the bottom on wages.
When the pay and conditions and the protection of more than 200,000 people on average who earn approximately €18,000 per annum collapses, it is mandatory for any left-wing party to seek to immediately rebuild that protection. We in Sinn Féin demanded that Fine Gael and Labour appeal the High Court decision; they refused. We demanded that they introduce legislation immediately to resolve the issue; they refused. We did so because hundreds of thousands of workers and their immediate pay rates were under threat. Workers feared being let go and re-hired on low-wage contracts, or merely being let go and replaced by others on lower wage contracts.
Over the summer, what has emerged is a two-tier wage system where those on the original contracts are being paid one wage and those on the new contracts are being paid a lower wage, but that is not new. We have seen the Government introduce it to the public sector. As a result, we in Sinn Féin took the initiative. We consulted with all of the unions. We got the support of all of the unions on this issue.
Since then, many in Fine Gael and Labour have attempted to hide behind what they would call legal arguments such as that this Bill is not robust enough, is not water-tight and perhaps they should wait a little longer. If the Bill is not watertight enough for certain Members, that is no reason for political inertia. Rather, it should act as a spur to action on this issue. The Sinn Féin Bill can be strengthened to ensure JLCs are put on a legal footing that is beyond further legal challenge. I invite all Members to assist in that effort in the coming weeks.
Deputy Peadar Tóibín: There is a view circulating in the House that, because this is an issue in which there is significant public interest, the Government will support the Bill or at least not block it at this stage. On the other hand, there is also a view that the Government parties intend either to neuter the Bill on Committee Stage or to amend it to such an extent that it is no longer viable. Even worse, they may intend simply to let it gather dust. If Members opposite take that approach, my colleagues and I will persist in reminding them of the need for action. Likewise, the unions, representatives of which are in the Chamber today, will not stop reminding the Government about it.
It is interesting that people on massive wages often find it easy to tolerate pay reductions for those on low wages. It is like many issues in this country — the people who develop public health services usually have private health care; most of those who develop the public education system send their children to private schools; and the people who design cycling and public transport infrastructure are unlikely to use either. Similarly, Members on the Government benches who earn five times the wages of JLC workers and Ministers who earn ten times the average JLC wage are eager to reduce the remuneration of these low-paid workers.
Deputy Peadar Tóibín: There are 100,000 working poor in this State. Many cannot afford to feed their families and are cutting back on medication to pay fuel bills. They must choose between meeting mortgage payments and meeting the cost of their children’s education. This Bill will help to protect them. If Labour Party Members fail to step up to the mark, they will become the caricature of gombeen politicians, full of meaningless rhetoric and standing for absolutely nothing.
Deputy Peadar Tóibín: The poll findings in The Irish Times today suggest that if the Labour Party fails to step up to the mark on this core issue, as well as the issue of privatisation, it will quickly find itself sliding down the same path as the Green Party.
Deputy Willie O’Dea: I did not claim that the Bill I introduced was a panacea which would cure every problem, no more than the Bill before us today can do so. I introduced it because I wanted to save more than 200,000 workers on the bottom of the pay scale from months of uncertainty. The Government decided that these workers should be left to suffer until such time as its own legislation was ready. The Chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education, Deputy Damien English, stated before the summer recess that the Government legislation would be introduced in the first week of this session. The Government’s attitude was that the Bill I introduced was inadequate, left too many gaps and that a comprehensive review of the system was required. I accept all of that. However, the workers in this situation needed reassurance and would have received it if the Government, having accepted my Bill on Second Stage, had allowed it to proceed to committee. I expect it will perform a similar trick today by supporting Deputy Tóibín’s Bill on Second Stage before preventing it from proceeding any further.
The JLC system was introduced by Seán Lemass via the Industrial Relations Act 1946 to protect people who did not have access to the normal method of collective bargaining, that is, trade union representation. We are talking today about migrant workers and part-time workers, including women working for menial wages as waitresses, hotel cleaners and so on who are forced to work in these jobs because their husbands have lost their jobs. I mean no disrespect in saying they are often people whose educational attainments are low. If anybody doubts the veracity of that, I point to the recent CSO figures on income levels which show that while the average income is €670 per week — with the average in the private sector being €602 per week — in the areas which incorporate 90% of JLC workers the average is the princely sum of €288 per week. These are the people whose protection was removed by the recent High Court case and in respect of whom the Government has delayed thus far in replacing that protection.
The Government, particularly Fine Gael, has argued consistently that there is legislation in place on the minimum wage, working hours, conditions of pay and so on which offers adequate protection. It was my party in government which introduced most of that legislation. However, it does not fill the gap caused by the dismantling of the JLC system. There is an enormous amount covered by JLCs which is not dealt with in the legislation. More importantly, under the protection granted by Government legislation, these vulnerable people — immigrant workers, part-time workers and so on — are expected to vindicate their own rights, to take a case themselves if their rights are infringed. They do not have the same protection from the State as they have through the National Employment Rights Authority under the JLC system.
I warned in July that there would be a race to the bottom if the Government did not send a clear signal, by letting the Fianna Fáil Bill proceed to Committee Stage, that the JLC system would not be dismantled or substantially eroded. The vast majority of employers have adopted a wait-and-see attitude, but there is substantial anecdotal evidence that some employers have approached workers who enjoy the protection of the JLC system, both in terms of pay and conditions, and told them bluntly that this protection and those conditions are no longer affordable. These workers have been told they can either accept that or take their chances among the 500,000 unemployed. The vast majority of employers have behaved in a responsible manner and taken no action as yet, but some unscrupulous employers are already using the lacuna in the law to lessen the protection afforded to workers at the very bottom of the pile in terms of wage. That is the reality.
The undertaking from the Minister and from various backbenchers last July was that legislation would be ready immediately upon the resumption of the Dáil. Yet there is no sign of it almost one month after the start of the session. I asked the Taoiseach about it last week on the Order of Business but he could not tell me when the Bill will be introduced. The continuing delay is adding to the anxiety of workers and is emboldening unscrupulous employers who seek to operate as though it is a certainty the JLC system will be completely dismantled.
The Duffy Walsh report pointed out that measures to protect wage rates for the lower paid do not impede employment creation and that removing them will not lead to a jobs bonanza. The report refers to various economic studies to justify that conclusion. Reducing pay and removing protection from people whose average pay rate is €288 per week will not return us to the days of the Celtic tiger.
Deputy Willie O’Dea: These people are being left at the mercy of contract law and private law, with no option but to seek to vindicate their rights through the agency of barristers at the Circuit Court.
The response of Government backbenchers during the debate on the Bill I introduced last July is interesting when one compares and contrasts what was said on each side. Deputy Olivia Mitchell, who represents a fair strand of opinion within Fine Gael, said:
Deputy Willie O’Dea: Deputy English referred to the structures, rules, regulations and rates which were a deterrent and were costing business. Apparently €288 per week is a deterrent and is costing jobs.
Deputy Willie O’Dea: I have written it down from the report. He said: “Any new system developed over the course of the summer”— it has taken longer than the summer to develop it —“must ensure unreservedly that workers in JLC sectors end up earning no less than their current wages”. No less.
Deputy Willie O’Dea: He went on: “A new system should allow for equal if not greater levels of pay for workers who are the real backbone of this economy. When this issue is discussed in September”— it is October now——
Deputy Willie O’Dea: He said: “When this issue is discussed in September, I do not want to hear the term ‘pay flexibility’ thrown around as corporate and political language in an attempt to attack the working poor.” There are some hostages to fortune there. We shall see what they say when the Government legislation is introduced.
Deputy Willie O’Dea: ——talked about the need to vindicate the rights of the lower paid and protect them robustly and vigorously — very different from the tone of Deputy Olivia Mitchell, who wants the JLC system completely swept away.
Deputy Willie O’Dea: If those in the Labour Party want a yardstick of whether their view prevails and Deputy Keaveney’s fine words translate into reality, I will suggest a few things for them to look out for when the Government legislation is produced.
Deputy Willie O’Dea: First, will anybody in the JLC system be on lower pay? Will anybody have their pay reduced as a result of the Government’s legislation? Second, will EROs no longer cover pay rates other than the minimum adult basic rate? Will the range of sub-minimum rates for adult workers included in the EROs be removed, leaving those to be covered by the sub-minimum rates in the national minimum wage legislation only? What will happen to the Sunday premium? Will it be part of the ERO or will it simply be enforceable under legislation, with people having to look after themselves? Will each ERO be subject to a once-off health check under which each JLC will submit a revised ERO made in accordance with new criteria that emphasise competitiveness and employment, as outlined in a Private Members’ Bill by Deputy Varadkar when he was in Opposition?
Will derogation on grounds of inability to pay be on the same grounds as set out in section 41 of the National Minimum Wage Act 2000, or will the criteria mirror the inability-to-pay provisions in national wage agreements, which are far less restrictive and which were used widely by companies during the 1987 to 2009 social partnership era? The latter model will totally undermine the very basis of EROs, which is to prevent firms from competing with each other on labour costs. Another thing to look out for is this: will the criteria to be taken into account in making new EROs include an international competitive dimension by specifying average levels of pay set in comparable sectors in Ireland’s main trading partners? If the answer to some or most of those questions is “Yes”, it will be the Fine Gael version of JLCs that we will see.
Deputy Willie O’Dea: ——who in many cases are forced to work, including migrant workers, part-time workers and young people. Reducing their pay and conditions will not restore the Irish economy. In view of the continuing uncertainty, I ask the Minister, as a gesture to those people — if Deputy Keaveney’s version of JLCs will be the result of the Government’s legislation — to let this Bill proceed to Committee Stage. Even if it is ultimately overtaken by the Government’s own legislation, he will be sending a message to workers that they will not be abandoned——
Deputy Willie O’Dea: ——and that the protections they enjoyed, which were taken away by the High Court decision, will be restored or substantially restored, albeit in modern form, as they do need to be modernised. He would also be sending a message to the small minority of unscrupulous employers that they cannot proceed to do what they like.
Deputy Willie O’Dea: The message at the moment, which everyone in the sector seems to be taking up, is that the JLC system is going to be substantially dismantled, that the Fine Gael view will prevail and that the Government’s Bill will be a fig-leaf to keep the Labour Party on board — not a very difficult task, by all accounts — by giving the illusion that there is still some measure of protection in addition to the legislation we introduced, which is not enough, because if it were enough, we would have dismantled the JLCs a long time ago. Workers in those categories need the protection of EROs and REAs in addition to, not substituted by, the legislation that is already there. We will be abandoning the most vulnerable people in this country working in the private sector unless we send out a signal by accepting this Bill and allowing it to proceed to Committee Stage.
I welcome this Bill in so far as it restores the status quo that existed before the High Court ruled that the JLCs were unconstitutional, which is to be welcomed. It is necessary because, as other speakers said, although the Government has promised to introduce legislation to deal with this issue, we are still waiting. It might be okay for the Deputies to sit waiting, but it is not okay for the hundreds of thousands of workers who were previously covered by these agreements — the most vulnerable sectors of our workforce. What the Government is proposing, as has been made clear, is a yellow pack JLC arrangement which would specifically exclude areas such as Sunday pay, and this is not good enough.
I agree that we need to move on this Bill to get it to Committee Stage, although what is before us today is not perfect. Its biggest weakness is that it includes an inability-to-pay clause, which is really a charter for employers, particularly the smaller, non-unionised operators, to let themselves off the hook. Surely these are the very companies that employ the most vulnerable workers? These are the areas of employment in which workers need the most protection. By leaving that in, we are facilitating a race to the bottom — not, I must say, that many employers need encouragement in that regard. We need only look at the situation on the ground.
Members should consider the position that prevailed prior to the High Court ruling because the Bill proposes to revert to that status. The last NERA report was published one week before the High Court ruling and tells a sorry tale. A total of 810 places of employment were inspected, of which the sector that did best was construction, with a compliance level with joint labour committees, JLCs, agreements of 61%. Although that might sound okay, it is not when one considers this means there was a non-compliance level of 40% in the sector that was the best by a long shot. The list reveals a sorry state of affairs. For example, a compliance rate of 26% was recorded in the catering sector, that is, one in four workers. The retail and grocery and hotel sectors recorded compliance rates of 28% and26%, respectively. I note these sectors predominantly are ones in which women, young people and immigrants are employed. I reiterate this was at a time when the High Court was in place and consequently, the system that was in operation previously was in and of itself simply not enough. This offers a valuable lesson to many unions and others that they cannot put their stock simply into having legislation passed and then believing it in itself will protect workers. They must get back to doing what they were set up to do, which was to organise workers to defend themselves because, ultimately, that is the protection workers have.
The other side of this issue pertains to those who have been lobbying to unravel and decimate the JLC system. This has nothing to do with job creation and everything to do with the race to the bottom in the employment market. One need only look at the carry-on of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, one of the biggest advocates for the unravelling of the JLC system. It recently came out with the most ridiculous report claiming the High Court ruling had led to the creation of additional jobs, an absolute and utter myth. It claimed that 490 additional jobs had been created in July and August this year, supposedly as a result of the High Court ruling, and that 164 of these were related to the JLC aspect. One then finds out, of course, that no professional poll was carried out, but that the association had randomly contacted 148 of its 700-plus members to have a little chat with them over the telephone. Arising from this, 64% of those contacted stated the High Court ruling was a factor. In a sector with a workforce of 64,000, an additional 490 jobs were created during the summer tourism season and this is supposed to back up the spurious claim that the High Court ruling protects jobs and delivers employment. The association’s own information proves this is absolute and utter nonsense.
The Bill proposes an amendment to the Industrial Relations Act 1946 and I welcome it as a short-term measure. However, as much more is required of it, it must proceed to Committee Stage to be beefed up a little and certainly to get rid of the inability-to-pay clause. I also would like amendments to be made to the Industrial Relations Act in respect of a number of other aspects that serve as an impediment to workers taking action to defend their jobs and conditions.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: I also welcome the Bill. Whatever about its imperfections, which its proposer accepts, the key point to it is that it deals with hundreds of thousands of the lowest paid and most vulnerable workers in the State. As has been stated, most of these workers are women or immigrants or from other vulnerable sectors of society and were extremely low-paid workers even before the JLCs were struck down by the courts. When the Government considers the issue of whether to allow the Bill to proceed to the next Stage, its members should simply consider what it might be like to live on €288 per week because that is poverty. Moreover, those who work in these sectors are the same people who have been hit with the universal social charge and rising gas and electricity bills. In general, they come from families, other members of which have been hit by the brutal social welfare cuts imposed in the last few years. These are sectors of society that simply cannot take any more and all that is being asked is that some basic level of protection be re-established for them.
As Deputy Clare Daly has noted, the pre-existing protections were far from adequate. It is simply unacceptable that Members of the House should propose to weaken already completely inadequate protections for these sectors of society. I find it nauseating that those who earn seven, eight or ten times more than the people concerned could even consider weakening the inadequate protections for the aforementioned workers. It is utterly nauseating that people bang on about Sunday premium payments and the need to do something about them when talking about workers on this level of wages who perform some of the most menial and difficult jobs and live in poverty or on the borderline thereof.
The Government has been asked repeatedly to give reassurance, in so far as it intends to deal with this issue, that nothing it will do in this regard will lead to any diminution in the wages and conditions of the workers covered by JLC agreements. However, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, has refused to give this commitment and all the signals suggest he will bow down to voracious employers who wish to hit at the lowest-paid workers, that is, the working poor. This is appalling and there is no justification whatsoever for it. As the Duffy-Walsh report made clear, it will not create jobs. Furthermore, apart from the injustice and poverty it will mean for the workers themselves, it is not necessary to read the aforementioned report to understand that hitting at the wages and conditions of the lowest paid workers who spend every penny of their money in the economy because they are obliged to so do to survive will do nothing but further depress demand. There is absolutely no justification and it is immoral in the extreme to even consider dismantling these protections.
However, there is no surprise that despite the Government’s protestations that it would do something about the court ruling, it is moving very slowly to do anything about it. I believe it actually wants to allow employers to create a race to the bottom because of its addiction to the failed economic dogma about competition at all costs, letting the market rip and all the rest of it. The union representatives who briefed Members on this issue today told them that since the High Court had struck down the JLCs, wages, conditions and terms for low-paid workers were imploding as the most unscrupulous employers went on the attack. I appeal to the Labour Party, in particular, if it has any consideration at all for workers, most of whom probably voted for it, to support the Bill and for the Government to give a commitment to Members that it will do nothing to dismantle the inadequate protections available for the lowest-paid workers.
Deputy Finian McGrath: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to speak in this important debate on defending the rights of low-paid workers and the issue of joint labour committees. I strongly believe all Dáil colleagues who are sincere about protecting the lowest paid workers should stand together on this serious matter and that party politics should be put to one side. If Members consider the opinion poll published today, they will see that support for the left nationally is running at approximately 47%. The message I take from the poll is that those Members who claim to support the weaker sections of society such as low paid workers should stand together on these issues.
I strongly commend Deputy Tóibín for his great work in bringing this issue before the House; it is very important for us to highlight and debate these issues. Let us consider the real world for low-paid workers in hotels, restaurants, shops, on farms and in many other areas. They are making a great contribution to the country. They are in the services trade and on the front line in the tourism industry, and, by God, they should be supported. They are also paying their taxes and making a significant contribution. There is no way we should stand in this House and hammer them. We should, therefore, think about what we are discussing.
The wage rates for workers subject to JLC agreements are low. For example, the top rate of pay for a worker covered by the retail JLC agreement is €9.66 per hour. Such a worker, working a 35-hour week, would earn just under €17,500 per year. These are the people we are discussing and we should be supporting them today. They are paid at time and a quarter, with unsocial rates applying to hours worked from midnight to 7 a.m. The overwhelming majority of workers who are on double time are getting this rate because they have already worked 39 hours, not as a result of a JLC agreement. Even before the recent court decision and despite the legally binding nature of JLC and registered employment agreements, some employers did not comply with them. I accept there are quality employers, some of whom I have met, who do not agree with the rant coming from some sections of the strong business lobby. They want to pay their staff well and look after them because they understand that by looking after their staff they will have a very productive business. I am talking particularly about the front-line catering service industry.
I strongly support the coalition to protect the lowest paid which comprises workers, trade unions and community groups, including SIPTU, Mandate, the Communications Workers Union, UNITE, the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, the Poor Can’t Pay Campaign, Community Platform, European Anti-Poverty Network Ireland and the National Women’s Council. It has been campaigning to defend the pay and conditions of thousands of workers, the vast majority of whom are women, in the lowest-paid sectors of society. I express my strong support for these groups.
I welcome the Industrial Relations (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill as it is an attempt to save low-paid workers. I urge all Deputies to support the legislation as cutting pay will contribute nothing to economic recovery. Politicians who are running scared of the big business lobby should stand up and be counted. This is a time for all fair-minded Deputies in the House to stand with low paid workers.
Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation (Deputy Richard Bruton): I thank Deputy Tóibín for introducing the legislation which the Government will not oppose. I accept the good intentions that lie behind it. However, in the months since Deputy O’Dea introduced a very similar Bill none of the imperfections in that Fianna Fáil Bill has been addressed. This Bill has not moved on the debate or set about dealing with the problems the Government needs to solve in order to provide legislation that will be robust in protecting low-paid workers. I have listened to people say there is a need for the Government to provide reassurance. However, there would be no reassurance in it passing a Bill that contains so many holes that it would simply collapse in the face of its first legal challenge. That would not offer protection.
While good intentions are important, we are legislators and cannot simply sit back and say we would like the court decision to have been otherwise. The court decision has made more profound findings on the legislation than has been sought to be addressed in the Bill. The courts went considerably beyond finding that there was an excessive delegation of powers — in other words, those negotiating JLC and other agreements had been delegated too much power. The courts found that no principles had been set out to guide the decisions being made by JLCs and that such principles needed to be included in legislation. They found that the deliberations of JLCs had to clearly take into account such principles. They also found that where criminal sanctions were imposed on an employer — or anyone — for failing to do something, it had to be within policies clearly laid out by the Oireachtas. The courts have gone well beyond what was sought in 2008 at the time of the first challenge to the legislation which informed the Fianna Fáil Bill introduced in August 2009.
I accept Deputy Tóibín’s admonition not to play politics. However, having appealed to the House not to play politics, his first words were that the Government was seeking to dismantle the JLC system, which is simply untrue. He continued to claim that the Government was seeking to cut basic JLC rates and said we were ignoring the views expressed in the Duffy-Walsh report. There is no proposal by the Government to cut basic JLC rates. He pretended that the report did not make things clear. It stated: “We believe that there are potentially substantial competitive gains that could be realised in some of the affected sectors by reforming the structure of decision making in JLCs so that the system is more flexible and responsive to the needs of particular sectors”. This is not a Government or ministerial go-it-alone strategy; this is based on serious analysis by serious people. The Government is clear: we have sought to restore the minimum wage, which was the first change we made. We have set about reforming the structure and now need legislation that will be robust in the face of the legal decisions made. There is no backtracking or anything like it.
Deputy Tóibín again questioned whether we should have appealed the judgment or sought to introduce emergency legislation. As I said at the time, I considered these options very seriously. I sat down with the Attorney General and considered whether they were feasible and whether they would give protection to workers. The view of the Attorney General was absolutely clear-cut: neither of these options was robust and so could not be pursued. If we are serious about legislation, we cannot keep saying things should have been done differently and pretend that legal arguments are something we hide behind. We are legislators and legal arguments are what we deal in — we must address these arguments. I ask the Deputy to accept that we, in very good faith, investigated whether it would be credible to appeal and whether we could introduce emergency legislation, but that clearly did not prove possible.
We are setting about introducing serious legislation to protect workers in vulnerable sectors and that will be immune from challenge in the courts. That is set out clearly and at the core of the programme for Government.
I am sorry Deputy O’Dea is no longer in the Chamber. I need to take a deep intake of breath before responding to what he said, as he is living in a fantasy world. The policies his party pursued in government destroyed 350,000 jobs in the economy——
Deputy Richard Bruton: ——and brought down wages across every sector. It is not appropriate for him to come in and lecture us on the previous Government’s approach. It cut the minimum wage and also knew in 2008 about the frailty of the legislation. In 2009 it introduced legislation which languished right up to the time of the general election with nothing being done to reinforce or strengthen the position of vulnerable workers in these sectors. It is very hard, therefore, to listen to the Deputy lecture the Government on the importance of protecting vulnerable workers. When he came to deal with the detail of the legislation, he opposed the Duffy Walsh report. He does not want to see any of the changes flagged in the report as being necessary. He does not want to see a “health check”, as he described it, of the existing JLCs when he knows that the courts have stated we have to restart the process and have the JLCs reconstituted in a way that will be robust in terms of constitutional scrutiny. He knows this as a lawyer, yet he comes in here and tries to goad others into saying, “Watch out for this or that.” The reality is that to make the legislation robust, we will have to address many of the issues raised. We will also have to respond to the very important issues set out in the Duffy-Walsh report. That is what we are about.
I have received sanction from the Government on an approach which will establish a robust JLC system. It will significantly simplify it, as there will be a reduction in the number of JLCs from 13 to 6. Principles will be set out. The committees will have to look at what is affecting sectors, whether it is a lack of competitiveness, employment conditions or other factors.
In order to create criminal sanctions, we have to take proper principles into account when JLCs set rates and conditions. That is what the courts have told us. However, Deputy O’Dea pretends that we can ignore the court findings and continue to pursue legislation in the way he thinks we ought to do so, but he is only seeking to fool the House.
I look forward to introducing the legislation. Not only will we be reducing the number of JLCs, but we will also be simplifying the number of rates being policed. There are around 300 rates open to scrutiny. We will be dealing with issues in a different way. We will not have an unlevel playing pitch between shops in the grocery sector when it comes to the way they deal with the issue of Sunday premium payments and so on.
We will address the issue of derogations because as the Duffy-Walsh report states, we need such a system. I do not think it was included in the old Fianna Fáil Bill and it is not in this Bill, but the Fianna Fáil-led Government flagged that we needed a derogation system, which has been a feature of social partnership agreements for many years. Having a derogation system is consistent with having a statutory structure that is robust and fair. We will have to address the constitutional robustness of the system. Therefore, there will have to be in place clear principles and policies underpinning it. The procedures in place will have to be fair.
The Duffy-Walsh report is clear that registered employment agreements have not proved sufficiently able to respond to differing conditions. We all know what has happened in the construction sector. It has moved from the construction of 90,000 houses per annum to the likely number to be completed this year — 10,000. Almost 90% of the housing element has been wiped out and the position is not that different in other parts of the sector. To pretend that agreements can respond to these issues is not right because it has been proved the system has been unable to respond. The Duffy-Walsh report proposal, to be embodied in the legislation, concerns a procedure through which such issues can reopened. The representative nature of the agreements must be clear in order that those who negotiate are sufficiently representative. That is only fair. Equally, if there is a need to change, there must be an ability to change. The Duffy-Walsh report sets out that it should be possible for the Labour Court to consider the justification for changes, even if it is in a series of iterations. If agreement cannot be found, the report states the Labour Court should make a decision on registered employment agreements. These are issues experts on all sides of the argument have examined and found weaknesses.
This is clearly a time when we must have a system of statutory wage setting that is robust in protecting workers but which is also sufficiently flexible and responsive to changing economic conditions. We cannot pretend that the impact of 350,000 job losses, many of them in sectors such as construction and retail, is of no consequence to the way we set wages in these sectors. It is of consequence. Those who are setting wages and taking responsibility for creating criminal sanctions on employers must take this into account. That is only fair and right and what the courts have told us. If we are dishing out criminal sanctions for failure, we have to respond to the realities and have principles to guide the way we deal with these realities. That is what we need to do and I believe we will have a system that is robust in protecting workers but which is also sufficiently flexible to ensure we will not turn our backs on employment opportunities in the continually changing environment of various sectors.
When this system was established in 1946, there was a different attitude to issues such as working on a Sunday. There was none of the body of legislation now in place to protect workers. Sunday working was not recognised in a legislative structure like it is today. We must realise that conditions in the economy are changing and these systems, like all others, have to be sufficiently flexible to respond to these, but they have to be sufficiently robust to protect workers at the same time. That is the balance the Government will strike in the legislation it will soon bring before the House.
An Ceann Comhairle: The next slot of 15 minutes is to be filled by Fine Gael, followed by Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party, Sinn Féin and the Technical Group. Members can divide time as they wish. I call Deputy Griffin whom I believe is sharing time.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to this Bill. When I spoke about this very important matter in July, I said that although we needed legislation in this area, we could not rush it and that we needed to ensure it was correct and steady. I still stand by that opinion. I spoke about the need to protect lower-paid workers and those who were vulnerable, and also the need to restore competitiveness to the economy. I spoke about the reform agenda of the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and the great work he had done since taking up his position. I am confident that he will continue to do a good job.
I am glad to inform the House that at least my computer is working. This morning I checked what I had said on that day in July and what Deputy O’Dea said this morning was completely inaccurate. He quoted me as having said something I absolutely did not say. If we allow Members to misquote others from previous debates, we are reducing this House to a gossip shop. Deputy O’Dea had very strong feelings on this matter 20 minutes ago, but he has left the House. I ask him to come back in to correct the record. I stated in July that I stood by lower-paid workers. My father was a lower-paid worker in the hotel industry for 40 years and he worked on Sundays and Christmas Day. I would like Deputy O’Dea to correct what he said this morning because if he does not do so, it will set a very dangerous precedent. If we are to have honest, quality debate in this House, we cannot have Deputies misquoting other Members from the record. A very serious line has been crossed and the Deputy ought to come back in to correct it.
I commend Deputy Tóibín on taking the initiative to bring the Bill before the House. It is important that any legislation enacted by this House be correct and proper, particularly as the area under discussion is very important to the entire economy. We must ensure that what we do here is done right. I stand by the Minister because he is making an effort and doing his best in respect of this matter. The House, as a collective, should also stand by him.
Deputy Damien English: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Bill and also to offer some general comments on the subject to which it relates. It is good that we are engaging in this debate and I thank Sinn Féin and Deputy Tóibín, my constituency colleague, on bringing forward the Bill. We might not necessarily agree with everything that the Bill contains but we certainly agree that there is a need to deal with the matter to which it refers. I have no doubt that the Minister, Deputy Bruton, understands that this issue must be dealt with as a matter of urgency.
I accept that I informed Deputy O’Dea that we hope to tackle this issue in our first term and I have no doubt that the Minister intends to do so. I hope we will achieve our goal in this regard. It is important to bring clarity to this matter and to restore the safety net for the category of people in respect of which the Bill makes provision. There is a need for reform in this area because the system that obtains is long outdated. It is obvious Deputy O’Dea scarpered out of the Chamber as quickly as possible after his contribution because he is aware that the Government of which he was a member failed to deal with this matter. It is no wonder the Deputy, having made a few snide remarks and spending his entire contribution telling lies and misquoting people, ran away. That said, he is gone and we can now engage in a proper discussion on this matter.
There is no doubt that there is a need for reform in this area. However, whatever we do must be done properly. Too often, legislation has either been rushed through the House or has appeared suddenly, at the whim of a particular Minister, and has not been properly teased out. Such legislation has then failed at a later stage. I want this matter dealt with as a matter of urgency but we must ensure that we proceed in the correct way. I accept that Deputy Tóibín and Sinn Féin want the same thing. The Bill is a short-term measure and is designed to fill the gap while the long-term position is resolved. I am of the opinion, however, that if we can resolve the entire matter in the next couple of weeks or months, then we should do so.
Most employers have given commitments to the effect that they will not abuse the system on this occasion. I have not received any reports from employees which indicate that they have been mistreated since the changes in this area came into effect two months or so ago. If I am wrong in this regard, I will hold up my hand. However, no one has approached me to state that they are having problems in this area. I trust that the majority of employers are dealing with this matter in the way they should. I met union representatives and they did not provide me with examples of the system being abused. I did not make this morning’s meeting so I am not aware of any facts to the contrary which might have been provided. I am certainly not aware of any instances where the system is being abused. Everyone seems to agree that we must get this matter right.
Deputy O’Dea quoted me as saying that the old agreements were costing people their jobs. I stand by my assertion in that regard. Outside of the restaurant sector, in respect of which people stated that the figures were being manipulated, many college and second level students work in local shops at weekends. By so doing, they obtain employment experience and are trained in the management of money, in taking responsibility, etc. It is essential that those to whom I refer can avail of such jobs. Most Members probably had similar jobs when they were starting out. The type of jobs to which I refer were under severe threat as a result of the old agreements. Prior to the recent changes, if one went into one’s local shop on a Sunday one would probably have found the owner behind the counter. This was because owners were not prepared and could not afford to pay the Sunday pay rates which then applied. It would not be worthwhile for the owners of small rural shops which, unlike their counterparts on busy streets in Dublin which enjoy a high level of footfall, operate on the basis of narrow margins and low turnover to pay €15, €16 or €17 per hour.
Those who are prepared to work on Sundays should be well paid. Sometimes, however, we can go too far in this regard. It is wrong that people should miss out on job opportunities because business people cannot afford to pay high rates of pay for Sunday work. In that context, there was a duty on us to address the position. It is not the case that we wanted to force people to work for less money. What we set about doing was fixing the problems that existed in areas where job losses were occurring. We also wanted to protect those working in other sectors whose needs were not being properly catered for or whose wages were being cut. It is not always possible to pay the highest rates of remuneration.
Prior to recent months, it was obvious that many pubs and restaurants which used to serve food on Sundays had stopped doing so. This meant that there was less employment available for people. Less work being done equals fewer hours of employment. I stand over my previous comments in this regard, and will continue to do so, because they are factual. Anyone who wished to do so could see where the problems had arisen. Regardless of the legal position, etc., the reason we had to address the position with regard to the sector to which the Bill relates was because of the job losses being incurred. It is important that when the relevant Government legislation is brought forward, we do not hurt those who are on low pay. Rather, we must ensure they are protected.
The Minister clarified the position with regard to how he intends to proceed. I am satisfied that we are on the right track. Most Members have similar concerns in respect of this matter and want to see the correct outcome arrived at. Some want it to be dealt with immediately or within the next month but there is no doubt we all want action that will clarify the position. We also want the red tape removed. Every Member of the House has at one time or other commented on the amount of red tape with which businesses must deal, the level of costs they incur and so on. The situation where in excess of 300 different wage rates applied was one of pure red tape, gave rise to confusion and caused hardship. We must, therefore, do the right thing as quickly as possible.
I welcome the remarks made by the Minister. He is correct in saying that there must be robust protection for lower paid workers while there must also be support for employers in the context of the creation of jobs. We must strike a balance in this regard. That said, we cannot ignore the findings of the courts or engage in an à la carte interpretation of the Duffy-Walsh report. It is incumbent on us, as legislators and politicians, to protect and preserve employment. We must protect low-paid workers while also catering for the needs of those who create employment.
The majority of the people I meet who are unemployed want to work. They want to have jobs and they want the Government to create them. They want to live in a country where they will be paid to work and they want this to be the case for their children when they grow up. The Minister was absolutely correct when he stated that the nature of work and of the working week have changed since 1946. That is why it is important to consider this issue holistically and in a manner which is devoid of party politics, does not set employers against employees and does not create hysteria. The Minister is right to take his time. The court did not make its ruling on a whim. The judgment handed down was based on analysis and interpretation.
I am in complete agreement with the Minister in respect of the issue of constitutionality. We cannot ignore the concerns that exist in this regard. I was greatly heartened by the remarks the Minister made earlier. It is important that we should take time and not become hysterical. We have an obligation to work for the people in our communities who voted for us. We must also ensure we place a value on work. We must banish the mantra one often hears to the effect that it is better to be unemployed than employed. If that mantra continues to hold sway, then the country will become an absolute banana republic. I would much prefer if the Minister took his time to ensure that existing employment can be protected and new jobs created.
The Government demonstrated its commitment to the lower paid by restoring the minimum wage to its previous level. Deputy O’Dea castigated those of us on this side of the House but he was a member of the Administration which was in office for 14 years which reduced the minimum wage and presided over an economic collapse. When that Government was in power, there was no regulation or checks and balances, and a certain cosy cartel ran the country. Consider the position in which we find ourselves now as a result. The people who worked very hard in recent years are the ones who are suffering. Following years in which nothing was done, we must take our time with regard to what we intend to do. We should endeavour — away from the glare of the media — to create employment and cater for those who require the assistance of the State by putting in place a proper minimum wage and a proper work strategy.
The Minister, Deputy Bruton, indicated that he is willing to reform the entire system in the interests of protecting and creating employment. The needs of employers and entrepreneurs must also be taken into account. Deputy English is correct. People are shutting their shops, pubs and restaurants and that is not right. Let us have a proper debate on this matter and do what is right for the people who elected us.
Deputy Peter Mathews: I thank Deputy Tóibín for bringing forward this Bill, which underscores the need to carry out a comprehensive recalibration in respect of the remuneration and terms and conditions of employment of more than 60,000 people on whom there is a great strain at present. The Minister’s response is fair and he accepts that the input given by the bringing forward of this Bill has meant the range over which consideration will be given in making new legislation will achieve a balance in protecting the earnings and terms of conditions of vulnerable people across many sectors and which have changed over the passage of even the past 15 years. The way of producing goods and services has changed in Ireland and we should have a framework reflecting that change.
The next issue operates in parallel to this topic. At the top levels of society in Ireland and the establishment there must be a review, and the Government has led by example in the remuneration of the Executive and the Government, as salaries have been revised downwards. It is important that we are not misled into being too accommodating of increases or requests to increase remuneration and salaries in the banking sector. In the conditions applying in the economy currently and for the foreseeable future, to seek any increase above the €500,000 limit set for the chief executives of banks is absurd. It could be reduced again. That is a professional and personal suggestion to take on board in parallel with this debate.
I thank Deputy Tóibín for bringing the Bill forward and I also thank my colleagues, Deputies Brendan Griffin, Richard Boyd Barrett and Finian McGrath, who made very useful contributions that should be noted in framing the legislation. I encourage the Minister to ask his Department to do everything to bring forward, without any delay, a well-balanced and structured new Bill.
Deputy Sandra McLellan: Since the beginning of the current economic and financial crisis, successive Governments have followed failed or failing policies. Incomes have come under severe pressure as a result of unemployment and under-employment, social welfare cuts and increased levies and charges. The resulting collapse in consumer demand has resulted in job losses and shrinking tax receipts, further compounding the pressure on incomes. Statutory wage floors and wage-setting mechanisms have also come under pressure, and among these is the joint labour committee, JLC, structure. This structure protected hundreds of thousands of low-paid workers, mostly female, on part-time hours who were less well educated, non-unionised and working in the hospitality and retail sectors. It must be protected.
Taking the tourism and hospitality sector as a case in point, in Ireland more than 220,000 people are directly employed on a full and part-time basis in the industry. This amounts to over 8% of the total work force and generates more than €8 billion annually for the economy. Many of these workers were covered by wage agreements and such a position must be resumed.
The importance of the people who create and deliver our tourism product cannot be underestimated, and it must be nurtured and developed. There must be investment to enhance the tourist experience of our wonderful sights, locations, scenery, culture and people. These are the main reasons people come or return to Ireland. The dedicated staff working in this country’s pubs, bars, restaurants, hotels, guesthouses, cafés, eateries and tourist sites are the face of Ireland for many hundreds of thousands of tourists from home and abroad. The friendliness and hospitality of the Irish people differentiates Ireland from competitor destinations. Some 45% of holidaymakers identify this as the dominant distinguishing advantage, whereas one in two tourists who mention that the holiday exceeded expectations attributed this to the friendliness and hospitality found here. Front-of-house staff are key in this regard.
Despite the widespread acknowledgement of the importance of education and training for the ongoing development of the tourism sector, there has been relatively little direct involvement or investment by the industry in this area. Many of the key successes and challenges facing the industry here were identified in the 2006 report by the tourism action plan implementation group which was charged with monitoring implementation of the recommendations of the 2003 strategy, New Horizons for Irish Tourism: An Agenda for Action. The final report of the group concluded that much progress had been made in implementing many of the actions outlined in the 2003 strategy. At the same time a number of action areas were outlined in which progress was slow, including, among others, human resources. It stated that investment in human resource development to train and upgrade the skill levels of people working in the industry and address staff retention problems was essential.
Similarly, Fáilte Ireland’s human resources development strategy for Irish tourism, entitled Competing through People, outlines clearly the role of quality staff in service delivery. It also identified a number of deficiencies in career and professional development structures. For as long as the tourism industry mainly comprises small and medium enterprises, it will need support for professional and enterprise development as well as skills training.
Support must also shift from traditional hospitality areas like food and room preparation and vocational supports to supplying e-business skills, new leisure activity training and coaching. In an ever-competitive market the role of staff is becoming more important. Fluency in languages, history and business are vital. The industry must appreciate the contribution made by staff in order to be more attractive and increase productivity levels. Staff should be trained in the skills required to match the area in which they work and thus be able to work more efficiently. For example, many day visitor attractions now depend on trainees to run operations, and this type of staffing fluctuates and is uncertain. Support is required to employ trained staff in these positions and increase productivity.
Deputy Sandra McLellan: A culture of continuous training of staff in the industry has not traditionally existed and there remains a lack of structured, systematic training in enterprises. Similarly, continuing training for managers and owner-managers of tourism enterprises, particularly with regard to small and medium enterprises, is not currently at a level conducive to maximising resources. The 2009 tourism and employment survey found that only a fraction of employees received formal training, with the highest levels in the restaurant sector and the lowest in guesthouses.
The final objective of training and human resource development in tourism must be to improve the quality of the tourism product offered to customers, build productivity and capability in enterprises and enhance career prospects for employees. Given the challenges facing the sector there is an urgent need to improve productivity, which can be assisted by training at both operative and management levels. A key issue is the relatively low priority given by the industry to formal education qualifications.
The tourism sector has traditionally employed a relatively large number of untrained staff, except in areas requiring specific skills in management and supervisory positions. Levels of professionalism in the sector could be enhanced. The status and esteem associated with working in the industry must be raised and the employment of unskilled staff should be addressed. Particularly relevant to today’s topic are areas where pay and conditions remain low and which must be made more attractive.
The role of vocational education committees, the institutes of technology and other third level institutes are also important in this regard. Unless there is action across the industry as a whole, the status and credibility of education and training programmes will be called into question and students will believe their qualifications are not valued. They will also question their personal investment in preparation for a career in the industry, which will have implications on course uptake.
The high turnover of staff in the tourism sector, which is not unique to Ireland, is a related challenge. It is a particular problem for seasonal attractions, particularly in rural areas, in the restaurant and fast food sectors and in kitchen and food service departments. This has important implications for training and the maintenance and enhancement of the traditional Irish welcome. Again, the terms and conditions provided for under the JLC structure, coupled with a real and meaningful commitment to career development pathways, could make the tourism and hospitality sector a major indigenous employer. The retention of the JLC system is, in part, a recognition of the contribution the workers under its protection make to the sector. It is a recognition that Sunday is not Wednesday and that 4 a.m. is not 4 p.m.
The staff who work diligently to improve the customer experience are the lifeblood of the industry. They should be acknowledged and appreciated as such. As part of the new strategy for Irish tourism, a coherent and strategic overview of the education and training requirements of the industry needs to be developed, as well as a series of actions to meet those needs. In this context, Fáilte Ireland, working with the industry, educational institutions and other interested stakeholders, including unions, should develop a human resource strategy for the tourism sector. This should see the industry becoming a first choice employer for all who seek employment, be it a career, a full-time job, a part-time job or temporary job, in an industry where people are facilitated to do their jobs with pride and satisfaction and where there are opportunities for progression.
The Bill before the House facilitates a first step in a strategic investment in staff in sectors previously covered by these agreements. In the tourism and hospitality sector it should be part of a broader strategy to tap into the renowned céad míle fáilte.
Deputy Brian Stanley: Over the years workers have gained certain hard-won employment rights but, unfortunately, conservative governments have consistently chipped away at these rights. We must uphold our commitment to the core republican objectives set out in the 1919 Democratic Programme, which asserts the right of every person in Ireland to an adequate share of the produce of the nation’s labour.
Within employment relationships, in the absence of regulation, the balance of power will always favour the employer. Employers exploit workers quite simply because they can. Employers can replace well-paid workers with lower-paid workers because the State allows them to operate within a framework that permits them to do so. While certain benevolent employers will provide progressive conditions of employment, experience demonstrates that the majority will not unless compelled to do so. We call upon the Government to replace the current model of weak labour regulation and to enforce stringent conditions.
The JLCs are merely one aspect of the over-arching reforms that are needed. These independent bodies, through which employers and employees can negotiate and agree wages and conditions in a number of sectors of the labour market are essential for workers who now live in a society in which IBEC pulled the Government strings for years. People are saddled with distressed mortgages and loans that they will never be able to repay in full. Massive levels of debt and high mortgages mean that people, unfortunately usually the lowest paid workers, cannot afford to withdraw their labour.
The purpose of the employment regulation orders, EROs, and the JLCs is to provide legal protection for groups of workers who are traditionally non-unionised, low paid and often part-time, many of them women or migrants or the most vulnerable workers. Currently, there are 18 EROs in force, covering a range of service and hospitality sectors. There are 68 registered employment agreements, REAs, currently in operation, involving a range of agricultural, services and skilled trades occupations and enterprises. Both EROs and REAs are legally binding once made by or registered with the Labour Court and cover basic wage levels and conditions such as overtime, unsocial time and sick pay entitlements for up to 550,000 people. It is no wonder employers want to get rid of them.
Despite the legally binding nature of the JLC-REA agreements, rates of compliance are very low. The 2009 annual report of the National Employment Rights Authority, NERA, reported that in three of the largest areas covered by the agreements, 70% of employers were in breach of their statutory obligations. IBEC, of course, called for them to be abolished, saying they were negatively impacting on competitiveness and holding back job growth, despite that huge numbers of employers were not paying them anyway. No evidence has been produced by IBEC or others to prove a link between the JLC-REA agreements and job losses or job growth. Where companies have legitimate difficulties meeting existing JLC-REA agreements, the existing framework can be used to resolve the problems to maintain employment levels through use of an inability-to-pay clause.
The Government cannot make up its mind on the issue. Fine Gael wants to drive wages down across the board and the Labour Party wants to focus on premium rates. The European Commission and IMF want to get rid of the JLCs and REAs and to lower wage costs in general. It is a mystery how they think people can sustain further cuts. Meanwhile, workers can be exploited as a result of a High Court decision which found that the JLCs were unconstitutional.
Sinn Féin supports the retention of the JLC system and will vehemently oppose any attempt to abolish it. We do not believe that the wage rates or conditions of the lowest paid workers in this State should be reduced. It is a scandal that it would even be contemplated. It is clear that any reduction of the basic or premium wage rates will increase levels of poverty as well as further dampen consumer spending and put private sector jobs at risk. All of these things have knock-on effects. We do not support the introduction of an inability to pay clause. There must be a progressive reform of the system.
Workers’ contribution to society must be acknowledged through fair working conditions and a return on their labour. Like James Connolly, we demand for workers more than their mere survival. Workers have the equal right to flourish and to control their destinies. None must ever again be ground down and treated as a mere cog for the profit of the few. Beneath the false exterior of the wealth of the Celtic tiger economy in the past 13 or 14 years and generally rising incomes, a new underclass of exploited workers emerged in Ireland, made up of low-paid workers. It is these same workers who are being penalised by employers and a Government that does not wish to protect the JLC system.
Deputy Gerald Nash: I am sharing time with Deputy Colm Keaveney and Deputy Robert Dowds. I welcome the publication of this Bill and I appreciate the sincerity of purpose with which it was brought forward. Philosophically, I believe the Bill is sound in its ambition. It is guided by a genuinely held objective to defend the interests of those who most require their rights to be defended and vindicated by this Legislature. I made similar remarks, however, in response to the Bill put forward by Deputy O’Dea on behalf of Fianna Fáil last summer. It was a reheated version of the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Bill 2009. At the time I stated that Fianna Fáil’s crocodile tears about the plight of the low paid were an insult to crocodiles everywhere, and I stand over that remark. None the less, its new found support for the less well-off is welcome. The House should be reminded that it was Deputy O’Dea’s party who offered the abolition of the JLC-ERO system to the troika, and that is reflected in the IMF report published last winter.
There are some similarities between this Bill and the Fianna Fáil reheated Bill. In fact, to all intents and purposes it is the same Bill. The words “imitation” and “flattery” spring to mind. We are in the current situation as a result of Mr. Justice Feeney’s judgment a few weeks ago which found that the JLC and ERO system that has served us well for decades was unconstitutional. This judgment has had no little impact and has effectively dismantled the JLC and ERO system which has provided protection for the rights and conditions of people working in the hospitality, security, retail and other sectors for decades.
I will not oppose this Bill but I will also not go so far as to claim that it addresses the Feeney judgment to the point where I could say with confidence that if the Bill were passed today, we would not find it challenged in the courts by 9 a.m. on Monday. The Fianna Fáil Bill was bereft of solutions to the real problems we face and this Bill is also deficient in many respects. In fact, Deputy Tóibín admitted in his introduction that this legislation can be strengthened. He was admitting that the Bill is frail and weak. Therein lies the problem.
If we are honest with ourselves and the people who are so reliant on the reconstitution of a JLC-ERO system, we know a magic wand has not been produced today in the guise of this Bill. It has its merits and large elements of it and its general objective attract my support and that of my party. It is, however, insufficiently robust to do the job we are told it will do. There are inherent flaws that would leave it open to challenge. It will do little to recast or resurrect the type of vigorous system we desire, particularly those of us with a genuine interest in, and who have spent our lives defending, the interests of working people.
There are vested interests waiting in the wings who are only too happy to challenge any legislation brought forward today. For that reason, there is an onus on us to ensure we pass constitutional legislation that can withstand any challenges.
If this Bill was to proceed through all Stages, it would be challenged in the courts before we could say John Grace Fried Chicken. That is why there is an onus on all of us to get it right. As many leading trade unionists have acknowledged in recent weeks, there is a world of difference between the original draft proposals and those published in the wake of the Feeney judgment just a few weeks ago and informed by the actions of Labour Party Deputies and Ministers and notably by the work of the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton. I am confident that the Government’s legislation will be robust enough to address the fundamental question of property rights, for example, referred to by Feeney. That is the elephant in the room.
The new legislation, which is due very shortly, will protect the interests of the lower paid and it will deal fundamentally with the Sunday pay issue, giving due recognition to the sacrifices people make working on that day. It will deal robustly with the issue of adult rates and it will give teeth and legal effect to new codes of practice. Not one job will be created by the wholesale slashing of structures which have been operating successfully for generations.
I welcome the introduction of this Bill. Its thrust is very laudable but so too was the Fianna Fáil effort a few months ago. If this House is genuinely interested in protecting working people, the Members present today and other Members will support the Government’s measures to be introduced shortly.
Deputy Colm Keaveney: I agree with the sentiments in the proposal before the House but for many people, there are two ways to look at the recent High Court ruling on JLCs and EROs. We can look at it as a complete disaster or as an opportunity. In my view, we must look at it as an opportunity in the interests of those people in the economy who seek the protection of the JLC system.
I welcome the debate today in that there is broad agreement in the House and, most important, what is emerging from this is that we need to have a speedy resolution to the problem before us. Unfortunately, there is no straightforward, quick-fix solution. Given the complexities of the issues set out in the High Court ruling on the joint labour committee agreements, we cannot underestimate the job of work that rests with the Minister in this regard.  It is no exaggeration that over the course of the summer, we have had a mountain to climb. I assure those people who are concerned that we are climbing that mountain for them.
I note with great humour Deputy Willie O’Dea’s comments and selective cutting and pasting of a previous speech I made. I would like to clarify and apologise for remarks I made to the House that day in that I described Deputy O’Dea as a great political operator and a great political mind. I failed to foresee the consequences of putting that on the record.
It was Deputy O’Dea’s party which sacrificed low paid workers to the IMF. He sacrificed JLCs and ensured that in the memorandum of understanding, the principles set out in the JLC system would be sacrificed to the European partners. However, there is no point getting stuck into Deputy O’Dea as he is a man of little relevance to me today and I was not elected to speak about him but to try to represent those people who cannot protect themselves.
The High Court ruling provides us with a much needed opportunity to reform, and reform must take place. It must be our goal to limit any unfair treatment by any opportunistic employer who will use the time between the High Court decision and the juncture which we are at today. I challenge Deputy O’Dea to put before the House the anecdotal evidence, to which he referred, in regard to abuses which people have been raising in his constituency office day in, day out.
We have an opportunity to comprehensively overhaul an archaic and a constitutionally broken system. With a correct approach, we can set down a new modernised wage setting mechanism in a more constitutional manner. In the previous debate I stated that this will be an opportunity to restore full decency and fairness to the system for workers and employers alike and to introduce mechanisms which realistically reflect the challenges of a modern contemporary economy. We have had much dialogue on this issue and a good debate. There is broad agreement on the need for reform.
Despite the difficulties we face and the legal complexities surrounding the issues, the road ahead is not insurmountable and I welcome the fact that we will have comprehensive legislation in this term to address the issues set out in the Feeney judgment.
I do not accept that this Government has been dragging its feet in regard to our endeavours to protect low paid workers in the economy. However, workers must not be left exposed to the whims of opportunistic employers because the human cost for any unnecessary delay is simply too high and this is not the time to play games with the lives of people who cannot protect themselves as a consequence of the economic situation.
In the previous debate, I stated that any new system developed over the course of the summer must ensure unreservedly that workers in JLC sectors end up earning no less than their current wages and that a new system should allow for equal if not greater levels of pay for workers who are the real backbone of this economy. I advise Deputy O’Dea and some of the contributors from Sinn Féin that it is not the Minister’s job to set the rates of pay in the JLC system. It will be the job of the social partners, those people who can sit down, thrash out and negotiate the rate of pay. As a practitioner in the industry, I know that is who sets the rate of pay, not the Minister——
Deputy Colm Keaveney: ——or anybody in this House. It has been stated that this Government is cutting pay as a consequence of the unconstitutional nature of this identified in the Feeney judgment. It was unconstitutional. We have a road to travel, a road we will travel. When we get to the end of that road, we must ensure that people who cannot protect themselves are given a very comprehensive method to ensure a fair day’s pay can be secured. Workers in this sector have been the hardest hit by the downturn in the economy. We are talking about the lowest paid workers in the economy who least deserve to suffer continuously the consequences of the inept failure of the previous administration. I notice Deputy O’Dea is not in the House to take note of my comments.
If we were to construct a fair and more equal society out of the ashes of the Celtic tiger, the protection of the lowest paid workers is not only a legal issue but it is a matter of absolute decency in order to bring about a fairer society to which I hope all parties in this House aspire. The people who have been protected by JLCs are vulnerable even though they do essential work and we should admire and respect them for doing it. Too often we do not give sufficient respect to people who do apparently menial jobs but jobs which are vital for our country. Imagine the effect on our society if bins were not collected. With the Feeney judgment, the protection has been weakened significantly for these workers and we need to strengthen it once more.
I would like the Minister to take particular note of what I wish to say about Sunday working. It is very important that we recognise that Sunday is a special day. It is a family day and a day on which people can go out and enjoy a football or hurling match, for example. Many people must work on a Sunday and, therefore, that inconvenience to them should be especially recognised in better pay rates and-or time off in lieu because it is important that people, in particular families, have an opportunity to do things together. It is an essential glue for a good society.
On the wider issue of the need to protect low paid workers from exploitation, I draw the House’s attention to something I mentioned before, namely, a book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett The Spirit Level which looks at societies across the world. The book deals with the effects income inequality have on society generally, including wealthier people, and points to the benefits of more equitable distribution of income. The research done by Wilkinson and Pickett demonstrates beyond doubt that higher levels of income inequality are directly related to increased crime rates, lower life expectancy, higher levels of mental illness, lower levels of educational achievement, higher rates of teenage pregnancy, higher levels of violence in society and several other indicators of human development. Beyond a certain standard of living, many of these indicators are closely related to equality of income distribution rather than the average income of a society.
The research indicates that if we want to lower crime rates, teenage pregnancy and violence and improve levels of health, education and life expectancy we must address income distribution in our society. If this Parliament wants to create a better society, we must put in place strong protections for the lowest paid. I hope the Minister bears this in mind when he brings forward his own comprehensive legislation on this matter. I intend to send him a copy of The Spirit Level and I encourage every Member of the Dáil and Seanad to read it because it may open their eyes to the positive benefits which accrue to societies with a more equitable distribution of income.
Deputy Seán Crowe: I am sharing time with Deputy Ó Caoláin. Cuirim fáilte leis an Bille. Sinn Féin is determined to secure the reinstatement of the joint labour committees. The safeguards contained in JLC legislation were designed to prevent low paid workers from being exploited by unscrupulous employers but, despite the Government’s assurances that legislation to re-establish JLCs would be accorded the highest priority, low paid workers have been left in limbo. They cannot afford to wait any longer.
I welcome the Minister’s statement, particularly in respect of his proposals to introduce a robust JLC system, simplify rates and tackle anomalies in the Sunday premium. It is reasonable to ask when we are going to see the promised legislation, however. Personally, I do not give a damn who introduces the legislation as long as safeguards are put in place for those on minimum wages. There is no magic wand but the legislation before us will bring us closer to that solution. The principle behind the Bill is safeguarding workers in this sector, who are sick to their teeth waiting for this to happen. I cannot understand the Government’s reluctance to act. Its inertia means people who are already struggling to cope on meagre wages face the prospect of further reductions to their incomes. I can only surmise that the delay is more to with difficulties within the Government than with problems of drafting.
When the High Court ruling that deemed the operation of the JLC system unconstitutional was laid down in July, the cost of living was spiralling and the gap between the haves and have-nots was widening. Earlier this year I was part of a Sinn Féin delegation that met trade union officials and workers in the sector who were campaigning vigorously to retain the protections afforded by JLCs. I made clear to the meeting my support for them and Sinn Féin’s determination to resist any attempt by the Government to erode further workers’ rights.
The failure to reinstate the JLC system has far reaching implications for thousands of families on low incomes. Last March, Dr. Michelle O’Sullivan, an industrial relations expert from the University of Limerick, testified in the High Court Commercial Court that the conditions which 60 years ago led to the establishment of a system for setting minimum pay and conditions for 190,000 vulnerable and low paid workers still exist. With an estimated 442,000 unemployed, matters can only get worse as demand for jobs outstrips availability.
Six out of 100 workers in the catering sector are members of trade unions. The JLC system offers a negotiating forum for workers who would otherwise be denied a voice. It is an important mechanism for protecting wages and conditions for the low paid, the majority of whom earn less than €10 per hour. If they are abolished, there will be a disproportionate impact on women, many of whom are employed in service industries. Without the proper checks and balances, there will be a dramatic increase in the working poor, more families being subjected to the cycle of poverty and more workers forced onto the dole or into the bearpit to fight each other over subsistence wages.
My fear that the Government is prepared to bring to an end wage protection for those on low incomes appears to be well founded. The net result of this policy will be even lower wages, which in turn will greatly reduce people’s spending power, force low paid workers onto social welfare and dependence on the State and decrease the country’s tax base.
It is a myth that abolishing JLCs will improve competitiveness. It will result in a race to the bottom with unscrupulous employers gaining the freedom to pay derisory wages and ethical employers having to follow suit in order to compete. The JLC system not only benefits vulnerable workers but also guards employers against unethical business rivals who might otherwise undercut wages and erode standards in areas such as catering and security. Sinn Féin is not opposed to reforming and improving JLCs and ERAs but we will not accept vulnerable sections of society being made to pay for the greed of bankers and developers nor will we support changes in employment legislation that further increase the gap between those who are well paid and those who never enjoyed a decent wage. I welcome the Minister’s legislative proposals but he needs to implement them sooner rather than later.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: This is a significant Bill which potentially affects the pay and working conditions of hundreds of thousands of workers, as well as the living standards of their families. Today is also a significant occasion in the Dáil because this is the first Bill to be debated under the new procedure for Friday sittings to address legislation put forward by parties in opposition. I welcome this development. I commend my colleague and Sinn Féin spokesperson on jobs, enterprise and innovation, Deputy Peadar Tóibín, on bringing forward this timely Bill.
Last July’s High Court ruling on joint labour committees caused huge concern among low paid workers and left them even more vulnerable to exploitation. It has created uncertainty and confusion at a very worrying time for individuals and families who are struggling to make ends meet in the ongoing recession that still grips this economy. International benchmarks set by the OECD indicate that low pay is prevalent in this State. The OECD statistics show that over 21% of full-time employees are low paid compared to a eurozone average of 14.7%. The European Commission has also revealed that labour costs in low wage sectors in this State are below EU averages. In the wholesale and retail sectors, hourly labour costs are 5.5% below the EU average and in the food and accommodation sectors they are 6% below average. These are 2008 figures and it is acknowledged widely that the gap has widened as Irish labour costs fell or remained flat during the recession compared to increases in labour costs in other EU countries. So much for the widely peddled myth that workers in Ireland are pricing themselves out of the market. That is nonsense.
It has been estimated by the ICTU that potentially up to 550,000 workers are covered by JLCs or REAs. Under the retail sector JLC, the largest of the JLCs, more than 150,000 workers are covered. Forfás gives a lower estimate of between 170,000 and 300,000 workers overall covered by JLCs or REAs. In any case, we are talking about a very significant section of our working population. This very large cohort of low paid workers in Ireland includes a disproportionate number of women, a high percentage of whom work part time. They generally have a lower educational attainment level which is compounded by the fact that in these employments there are far fewer opportunities for in-house training and development. These employments tend to be less unionised, making workers far more vulnerable to exploitation.
When JLCs and REAs were first introduced, these conditions were far worse, which is why JLCs and REAs were introduced. They were a step forward for workers at the time. The demand now from some employers and right-wing economists for their abolition, leading inevitably to a free-for-all in the exploitation of workers, is beneath contempt and must be resisted. It is important to point out that these structures also benefit good employers. The Coalition to Protect the Lowest Paid has put this very well. It has pointed out:
That is a lesson everyone in the House should take on board. This is not just an employment issue. It affects the living standards and the lives of hundreds of thousands of Irish people. It has profound implications for population health and, especially, the well-being of children. As my party’s spokesperson on health and children, this is of particular concern to me. Simply put, keeping workers on low pay, or lowering their pay further, pushes them and their families into poverty. That is the reality that gives the lie to the catch-cry of “competitiveness” which demands lower wages and claims that low wages would boost the economy. The opposite is the case. They depress the domestic economy by depriving it of the disposable income of hundreds of thousands of families. The effect on local economies, especially local retailers, services and other small businesses is deplorable. I can attest to this in my constituency. Unemployment, low pay and dependence on social welfare have resulted in a situation where the lights are going out in businesses right across the constituency in the counties of Cavan and Monaghan.
In 2006, at the height of the Celtic tiger, the Combat Poverty Agency published a study of child poverty. It found that about one in five children in the State were in households with below 60% of median income, the widely used measure of relative income poverty. Children also had a higher rate of living in consistent poverty. The State was also among a group of states in the European Union with a rather high relative income poverty rate for children. In its recommendations and conclusions in the 2006 report, the Combat Poverty Agency urged the Government to: “Consider the interplay between the broader forces that influence the living standards and well-being of children, including family supports, employment and public services”. What we are seeing today, under the Fine Gael-Labour Party coalition, is a continuation of the policies of its predecessor — let us make no mistake — a reduction in social welfare support for families, the slashing of public services, especially health and education, and mass unemployment. On top of this, we have the situation that the Bill seeks to address — the need for minimum protection for low paid workers.
The implications for the spread of child poverty are huge. As I pointed out, the Combat Poverty Agency report was compiled at the height of the Celtic tiger. The position now is far worse with nearly 500,000 people on this island unemployed and with the lowering of wages and the worsening of conditions. Unfortunately, we do not now have a Combat Poverty Agency to properly measure poverty levels and guide and assist Government in addressing poverty. The agency was abolished by the previous Government. I take the opportunity to call on the new Fine Gael-Labour Party coalition to reinstate it. It was never more needed than it is now.
A key category of workers covered by JLCs are those who clean our hospitals. I do not have to tell anyone in the Chamber about the importance of the cleaners, predominantly women, who work in our grossly overcrowded and over-worked public hospitals which are so vulnerable to hospital-based infection. It is totally unacceptable that it could even be contemplated that the pay of these vital workers in the health care system might be reduced.
I urge all Deputies to support the Bill. The Government has no excuse for opposing it. It is not perfect and does not address all aspects of the problem, but it is a basis on which to move forward and it can be debated and amended on Committee and Report Stages. There is no valid reason to delay the matter. What is the purpose in having the Labour Party in government——
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: ——if not to ensure these minimum protections are speedily and effectively restored? Let us contrast the slowness of the response to the plight of workers made vulnerable by the High Court judgment on JLCs with the speed with which top executives in corrupt and failed banks have been looked after, both those who have retired and those currently in place. As Sinn Féin pointed out in the Dáil yesterday — Deputy Mary Lou McDonald put it directly to the leader of the Labour Party — 19 bosses in Anglo Irish Bank receive salaries in excess of €175,000 per year and one individual is due to receive a €51,000 bonus. That bonus alone is multiples of the annual pay of many of the low paid workers about whom we speak who are seeking the reinstatement of JLC protection. I urge all Members not only to support the passage of the Bill today but to ensure it goes through all Stages and is delivered in the service of those it has been designed to assist.
Deputy Tom Fleming: I welcome the proposed Bill. I commend the consultation process that has taken place with the SIPTU, UNITE and MANDATE unions. That has given an opportunity to go through the technical details and the wording in fine detail. It has also provided an opportunity to provide written submissions for the relevant Dáil committees to have it further examined. My concern is that in making any amendments to the 1956 Industrial Relations Act to conform to the High Court judgment the amendment framed should not only be within the parameters of the judgment but in the unambiguous wording must also be compatible with the spirit and intent of the 1946 Act. In other words, the most vulnerable 200,000 workers in society must be protected from a small minority of employers who can and will exploit them. The amendment must be framed to ensure the 200,000 workers covered by employment regulation orders cannot have their entitlements detrimentally affected. It is imperative that we have further professional input from the union representative groups in order to ensure workers do not lose out on any benefits they currently receive.
Deputy Joan Collins: I support the Bill and its continuation to Committee Stage. How could anyone in the Chamber not support it? During the election campaign the Labour Party defended the JLCs and REAs. It stated it would strongly oppose any efforts to dismantle them or render them useless from the point of view of employment protection. What has happened since the High Court judgment is that workers are not being protected. On that basis, I presume the Labour Party would support any positive effort discussed in the Dáil to change the position for workers who are at the coalface of potential exploitation by bosses who use the situation to drag down their wages and conditions. I cannot see how the Labour Party would not support the Bill, given that it recognises that JLCs are now unconstitutional in the implementation of wages and conditions and decisions made by them. The High Court said only the Oireachtas or a Minister could change the situation and implement decisions made by JLCs. This Bill is dealing with that and states that we are responsible for implementing the decisions made. It would be a welcome move for workers in retail, fast food and hotels who need protection. This Bill will give legal authority to enforce that and should be supported.
I am concerned about aspects of the Bill such as the “inability to pay” clause. It is a cop-out for bosses who do not want to pay a proper rate of pay to their workers. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, also wants to opt out of the EU directive which would give agency workers the same basic rights of pay as full-time workers. It affects 35,000 to 40,000 agency workers. This morning the Minister copper fastened his opinion on dismantling JLCs in his contribution.
In effect, the Minister said JLCs will not play a role in premium pay at weekends and copper fastened the “inability to pay” aspect. It is outrageous. Labour Party Deputies should be very concerned about the decision. The campaign for low paid workers to be paid decent wages recognised it as a very dangerous aspect of the Minister’s proposals.
Deputy Thomas Pringle: I support the Bill and call on the Government to accept it and allow it to proceed to Committee Stage in order that amendments can be dealt with. Everybody acknowledges the Bill needs to be significantly amended to make it fit for purpose. We need to make the Bill into one that will protect the lowest paid workers in our economy.
I find it interesting that we are debating this Bill a week after the Taoiseach refused to comment when asked a direct question on why he breached his pay guidelines on appointing Government advisers when he appointed two advisers on a salary of more than €168,000 per year. He said in the House that no Government advisers would be appointed on salaries above €92,000 a year. A week later the Government is considering introducing legislation to allow employers to reduce the salaries of people who are earning, on average, €9.66 an hour. It shows the commitment of the Government and, sadly, the Labour Party to low paid workers when they participate in the system and allow the regime to continue.
It has been reported in newspapers that in a survey carried out by IBEC 90% of workers go beyond the terms of their contracts in showing their commitment to the companies with which they are involved. However, we still hear employers calling for the wages of the lowest paid workers to be reduced. Despite more than 90% of workers going further to ensure their employers can benefit, their jobs are safe and they can provide a service, employers are still calling for their wages to be cut.
The Sunday premium has to be retained. In his contribution the Minister described how things have changed, including working on Sundays. However, Sundays are still the only time families have to spend time together as children are in school from Monday to Friday. Sunday time is family time and any workers who have to give it up should be adequately compensated and receive a premium for it. Most of us in the House have the luxury of being able to choose not to work on Sundays. Most low-paid workers do not have that luxury. They have families that will lose out in terms of time spent with a parent or a loved one while they are at work. The premium should be retained in all forms and strengthened in any legislation passed by the Government.
I am concerned about the commitment of the Government to low-paid workers which is why I call for the Bill to be allowed to proceed to Committee Stage and passed. When the judgment was issued in July the Government said it would examine it and introduce legislation as a matter of urgency. The Minister said today, “It is the Minister’s intention to have a Bill ready to introduce to the Oireachtas at the earliest possible opportunity in the next term ... The necessary legislation will be introduced in the current session.”
Based on that statement we do not know when the legislation will be introduced. It could be Easter next year. That is not reacting in the quickest possible terms to the judgment in July. It is not putting the rights and entitlements of workers at the highest level. The Bill should proceed to Committee Stage. We should amend it to make sure it is fit for purpose.
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: I listened to speakers on the Government benches conceding the urgency of this matter, which is welcome because it is a matter of the utmost urgency. I am minded of the phrase, “God make me virtuous but just not now.”
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: The reality is that we would not be debating this matter but for the fact that Deputy Peadar Tóibín tabled the Bill. With all due respect to the Minister and his colleagues——
The position of the JLCs has been discussed and debated for several years. There were a number of legal challenges. People who read the political and industrial relations tea leaves, as no doubt Deputy Keaveney did, were very well aware that the minimal protection was under assault from various employers and their organisations and bodies. It should have come as no surprise when matters came to a head in the courts.
The Minister told us the Attorney General advised the Government that it could not appeal the decision or introduce emergency legislation. He essentially told the House that the Attorney General wrote him a prescription to sit on his hands. It would be curious to see the advice from the Attorney General but I assume that, as ever, when we ask to see the advice it will not be forthcoming.
I will amplify a point made by others. It is nonsense to suggest that workers who take home, on average, €9.66 an hour or €288 per week are a threat to Ireland’s competitiveness. If this was not such a serious matter and workers were not under serious and immediate pressure it would almost be laughable. It is equally nonsense to suggest that culpability for the haemorrhage of jobs from the State lies at the feet of low paid workers. All of us have the sufficient analysis at this stage to understand what happened in the construction sector, the property bubble and the toxic banks that led us on a pathway of near ruin.
The Minister states the Bill is imperfect. It certainly would not be the first time that a Bill came through this House and moved on to Committee Stage in a state of imperfection. The Minister has, by his own words and in his contribution this morning, identified core areas he believes must be addressed in the new legislation. I dare say that his thinking is fairly developed on those matters and, of course, if this Bill goes to Committee Stage, the opportunity affords itself for amendment to be made.
The Minister also set out in clear terms some of the principal measures that he sees in respect of a reformed system: a reduction of the JLCs and no more Sunday premium rates. He cannot argue for protecting somebody’s wage level and, quite correctly, set that out as his bottom line, and then even countenance the abolition of Sunday premium rates because by abolishing Sunday pay he will damage workers’ income. In fact, in my constituency, which is no different to any other, I have been approached by many, particularly women working in the retail sector, who have said to me categorically that if the Sunday rate goes it will no longer be viable for them to go to work. In other words, there would be a potential Government policy or so-called reform driving ever more people, particularly women, into the welfare system. The Government has set out quite an aggressive stall in respect of welfare recipients and has laid the charge at many that they are perhaps making a lifestyle choice by falling into the arms of the welfare state. If the Minister’s objective is genuinely to keep people out of welfare and at work, then he needs to be clear that he cannot do away with Sunday premium rates.
I commend the work of the trade unions. I also want to state here my party’s ongoing solidarity with low-paid workers who have been through a traumatic period in their working and family lives. Expressions of genuine concern here in the Dáil are welcome but will ring hollow in the ears of low-paid workers if they do not get today a concrete indication that this matter will be dealt with in the near future. It is probably on that basis above all other concerns that I ask Deputies to support this Bill. Let us send a signal to low-paid workers that we understand the High Court ruling has had a potentially devastating implication for their livelihood and that as legislators we must respond to that in a timely fashion.
Of course, as legislators, we must reply to it in a robust fashion and we must produce legislation that will endure scrutiny in the courts, and the Government indicates that it will support Deputy Peadar Tóibín’s Bill. If, today, the Bill goes to Committee, let us not allow it lapse and simply rest there indefinitely. I urge the Minister to seize the opportunity to bring forward the amendments he believes are constitutionally necessary. I ask him to drop any plans he has for an attack on premium and Sunday pay. Above all, I appeal to all Deputies to ensure that people out there who are struggling as it is do not have reconfirmed for them a view that we, as legislators and politicians, live in a cushioned bubble far away from any understanding of the reality of trying to get by on €288 a week.
Deputy Martin Ferris: As I pointed out at the time the Duffy-Walsh report on the JLCs was published, there was a myth that the system in place is somehow protecting vastly overpaid members of the workforce. In fact, as a statistic cited in the report proves, the vast majority of those covered are working in sectors where the set rate is extremely low and in some cases, such as the clothing and catering sectors, is barely above the national minimum wage. While such workers are under attack because they are in some way protected, the rates were also used by employers during the good times as an excuse for not granting pay rises and as the wage rate in such sector proves, such workers did not benefit greatly, if at all, from the Celtic tiger. Social partnership was all well and good from the point of view of employers when it was helping them.
Another interesting statistic from the report is the growth in part-time and low-paid employment over recent years. That indicates that far from employers and jobs being under threat from increasing wage rates and overall costs, employers have been using the economic downturn as a means to force down wages and undermine hard won working conditions. Some will argue that is a function of the market economy during recession. Perhaps it is, but it is surely not the task of a party with historic and current, links to the trade union movement, and which claims a legacy from Connolly and Larkin, to facilitate the race to the bottom. Besides, if we were to go along with the so-called law of the free market, ten year old boys would still be working 16 hours a day making bricks and little girls would be working in sewing factories. Is that the sort of society we want to recreate?
I said the same about Fianna Fáil when that party was in power and when it introduced a cut to the minimum wage. I contrasted that to it having, in the 1930s, introduced legislative measures to protect workers. They were attacked for that then by the same sort who are clamouring to drive down wages now. Unfortunately, Fianna Fáil forgot where it had come from and listened to them, and the consequences for the Fianna Fáil Party and its membership is there for everybody to see. It would be sad, therefore, if the Labour Party was to follow the same route as Fianna Fáil and back the demands to erode the rights of the lowest paid workers.
The message from the trade union movement, many of whom supported the Labour Party in the general election, is clear and it is made clear again today. They did not support the Labour Party to implement the IMF-EU austerity programme on behalf of the banks and they did not support the Labour Party so it could make the working people of the State pay for all of that.
I welcome the Minister’s decision not to oppose this Bill and I hope the subsequent debate and Committee process will bring about legislation that will preserve and strengthen the existing protections.
I want to make clear the Government will put in place a robust system that will protect workers but also have the flexibility to allow the maximum creation and protection of employment. That is clearly what was sought by the Duffy-Walsh report. It flagged the need to reform radically this system. That is a pillar of the programme for Government.
It is important to recognise what the court has done to this structure that was in place. While I recognise and accept the good intentions of Sinn Féin in bringing forward this Bill, this is, in effect, a three year old Fianna Fáil Bill, which that party allowed languish, which has been found by the courts not to fill the gap that has been opened. While it is important to give a signal in this House that our job is about protecting workers and making sure the vulnerable are not exploited, there is no point in pretending that legislation which has been found to be inadequate could be passed in this House as a final response. I have indicated my intention to bring forward legislation to address this matter. My officials, some of whom are in the Chamber, are working with the Attorney General with absolute priority to produce the Bill. We expect it to be ready within a matter of weeks whereupon we will have a proper debate on all the issues that have been raised.
Several Members referred to the importance of protecting the special status of Sunday. That is fully recognised in general legislation. By making a provision that Sunday working will be governed by general legislation and not by specific JLC orders is not to turn our back on the importance of Sunday but to recognise that the options which have been made available in other sectors are important. They mean that an employer can, for example, in lieu of a Sunday premium paid only to those employees working on Sunday, offer a general higher rate of pay for all workers. Many people, both employers and workers, consider that fair. Moreover, there are many people for whom Sunday working is not an inconvenience. Similarly, it can be argued that people who work during the week but not on Sundays should be entitled to a reasonable recognition for the effort they put in five days per week. Employers and workers should have the right to decide for themselves which option is better, and that is provided for in general legislation. We are offering a flexibility which will protect Sunday working while affording choice as to how it should be recognised. If, for instance, a worker has an obligation to be available for work on Sunday but is not necessarily called to do so, he or she might still be eligible for a premium on the basis of that availability. We should not pretend there is only one route in terms of protecting Sunday working. Offering the choices that are available in general legislation is a sensible approach which allows for a choice as to the approach best suited to a particular workplace.
The Duffy Walsh report clearly recognises that the 1946 legislation cannot adequately address all the issues that arise in 2011. In the heat of debate people may seek to defend every element of the current system, even those aspects which the passage of time has rendered as obstacles to progress rather than protection. The purpose of the Bill we are introducing is to ensure we have legislation that protects workers in a modern context and will stand up robustly to any legal challenge. We must have a flexible system so that when representatives of workers and employers sit down in a JLC to discuss the form of the order that should apply, and when the Labour Court plays a role in that process, that they are looking at modern working conditions rather than being guided by legislation that was designed in another era.
That is what we are seeking to do and I hope there will be a degree of consensus across the House as to how to achieve it, although that may not be possible. Members can be assured that I am determined to reinstate a system that is modern, protects people robustly, is not vulnerable to employers rushing to the courts to overturn agreed provisions and does not apply criminal sanctions to people without a robust underpinning which is rooted in laws enacted by this House. With the passage of time there may have been a tendency to overlook this fundamental principle — that criminal sanctions were imposed which were not based on an adequate legal footing, as pointed out by the High Court. When one sees it pointed out, it is difficult to argue with it. One cannot impose criminal sanctions on the basis of something that is discussed behind closed doors without robust underpinning principles. It was evidently the case that the former system was not adequate.
I assure Deputies that we are not back-pedalling, freewheeling or anything else. This issue went to Government on 21 July and we are well advanced in the legislative process. The Attorney General and my officials have given a great deal of time to this and it is a priority for my Department. We hope shortly to bring to the House a Bill on which we can have a proper debate.
Deputy Peadar Tóibín: I welcome the commitment from the Government parties not to prevent the passage of this Bill. Some 100,000 people in the State can be categorised as working poor. The 200,000 people who were formally protected by the JLC system are depending on us to resolve this issue. Thus far Fine Gael and the Labour Party have been in major disagreement on this. While the Minister has the excellent skill of couching his views in reasonable tones, there is no doubt that his party has a design to liberalise the employment market. That will have the effect of reducing wages.
In regard to premium rates, Sunday rates and so on, the bottom line is that the changes we have seen amount to reductions in wages and will affect thousands of low-paid workers. Heretofore we have had bucket loads of sympathy and promises of legislation but no positive action that has made a screed of difference to the lives of hundreds of thousands of families. The political inertia from the Government will neither clothe nor feed a single child.
On the issue of job losses, Deputies Damien English and Jerry Buttimer inferred that JLCs have caused or at least contributed to the current recession. People earning €288 per week did not cause the recession. The JLC system has remained constant in recent years. What has changed is the austerity drive initiated by the previous Government and extended by the current Administration which is reducing demand in the economy and consequently pushing thousands of people into the dole queues. It is closing hundreds of shops and hotels on an annual basis and reducing the ability of individual employers to retain their staff. A person earning €288 per week is not a threat to the economy of the State but the austerity measures implemented by the Government certainly are.
There is no doubt that reducing the earnings of JLC workers will further reduce activity in the economy. People on JLC wages generally spend all of their wages because they do not have the resources to save. Individuals on the upper end of the earnings scale, by contrast, do not spend all of their earnings but instead put some of them into saving and investment schemes or take them out of the economy completely. Lower wage rates may allow some employers to take on more staff, but those lower wages mean there will be less money in the economy and therefore a lowering in demand. There is no doubt that small business owners will welcome any means of reducing costs.
Businesses on the verge of closing will grab onto that as though it were a life raft, because they will try anything to stay afloat. If one listens to business people, one will hear that the costs they are trying to deal with in the State include upward-only rent reviews, the taxation system and a non-progressive rates system. They include energy costs, which will be one of the biggest deciding factors in whether businesses can stay afloat over the next 12 months to three years. Yet we are focusing our energies on reducing the wages of those individuals who can least afford it. If we lowered the wage to €3 per hour, there is no doubt that businesses would be able to employ more people, but in a civilised society we need a floor below which wages will not fall, to afford people the opportunity to live a decent life and provide for their families. An honest day’s work should get an honest wage.
Some of the views coming from the Government benches over the last number of months are ideologically rather than empirically based. When asking the Minister previously about his intention to lower the wages of some JLC workers, I asked him what evidence he had to prove that this would actually increase the number of jobs, and how many new jobs would be created, and he replied — I paraphrase him — that he had no hard evidence that extra jobs would be created, but he believed they would be. I also asked the Minister how many workers the new Fine Gael and Labour Party policy would push into poverty. I told him that according to Social Justice Ireland there are more than 100,000 working poor in the State and, in view of the fact that the JLCs focus mostly on those people, who are earning an average of €18,000 — that is, half the average industrial wage — the policy was likely to push more people into poverty. When I asked the Minister how many people were likely to be pushed into poverty, he said he did not know. There is no evidence-based, empirically researched policy, but an ideology which is pushing individuals into poverty.
The purpose of this Bill is to wake the Government out of its inaction and to create a political momentum that will solve the problems of hundreds of thousands of families. The Minister said it was an imperfect Bill, and we agree. We are making no bones about it. It is not water-tight at the moment. We need to deal with excessive delegation of powers and set out principles in legislation to guide JLCs. We need to consider the issue of criminal sanction and the inability-to-pay clause, which has also been mentioned today. However, there is nothing in what the Minister said that cannot be solved by amendments on Committee Stage. If the political will is there, we can resolve this problem.
It is next to impossible for Ministers and Deputies opposite truly to understand the lives of lower paid workers. I remember, when I was younger, a Progressive Democrats Deputy, Geraldine Kennedy, took a week out surviving on social welfare to try to understand the experience. A week is nothing. These people on the average industrial wage and the average JLC rate are earning unbelievably low wages and are barely surviving. It is impossible — I am not just saying this for political reasons — for those earning €90,000 per year or €180,000 per year truly to understand how difficult it is for these people to survive.
I welcome the Government’s decision not to block this Bill. We need to develop a water-tight solution, but how do we do that? It is political will. As has been mentioned, Fianna Fáil produced a Bill similar to this, but it did not have the political will to implement it. Now, months after the High Court decision, it is Sinn Féin that has created the political will and momentum to ensure this issue is discussed and resolved. I appeal to the Fine Gael and Labour Party Deputies not to oppose, neuter or bury this Bill on Committee Stage. I ask them to join with us in making the necessary changes to solve this problem for hundreds of thousands of Irish families.
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