Thursday, 12 January 2012
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this Topical Issue today and for selecting yesterday the related Topical Issue matters of the disgraceful treatment of workers at La Senza and Vita Cortex. In the cases of La Senza in Dublin, Vita Cortex in Cork and Lagan Brick in Kingscourt, Count Cavan, laid off workers have been treated in a reprehensible manner by employers. A pattern is clearly emerging and must be stopped.
Last week, I met the protesting workers at Lagan Brick. They have won widespread support for their protest at their disgraceful treatment by the owners of Lagan Brick. At an hour’s notice ten days before Christmas, they were told that their jobs were gone and the plant would close. There was no negotiation, proper redundancy procedure or redundancy payment beyond statutory redundancy. One of the workers has given service of 43 years to the company and every worker I met had given more than 20 years of service. They have maintained a 24-hour vigil at the plant since being laid off on 15 December.
Lagan Brick claims that the Kingscourt plant was closed, but workers believe that the company’s position is not as has been claimed and is still viable. They fear that, following their lay-off, the company may well seek to employ agency workers at lower rates of pay and poorer conditions. They believe that contracts for work at the plant are available. The workers agreed to talks with the Labour Relations Commission, LRC. The employers eventually agreed. The process was addressed on Tuesday and has been deferred until next Monday.
Whatever the outcome of the LRC talks, the Government has a responsibility to address the pattern emerging from each of the cases I have cited. It cannot be left solely to the State’s industrial relations machinery.
It is important that the House be made aware of the reply that the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation gave to my parliamentary question yesterday, in which he stated that Lagan Brick was in breach of the Protection of Employment Act 1977, as amended. It is clear from his reply that it is a collective redundancy situation. As we address the matter, the statutory period of consultation has not yet lapsed. The company is in clear breach of its obligations, responsibilities and role under the legislation. I urge the Minister to make the required intervention to make it clear to these and other offending employers that workers in this country will not be treated in such a fashion. I urge the Minister to indicate to the House today his intent to follow through on the logic of his response.
Deputy Brendan Smith: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing my colleague, Deputy Ó Caoláin, and me to raise this issue. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, to the Chamber to respond to the debate. I also welcome John Regan of SIPTU and several members of the Lagan Brick workforce who are in the Gallery for this discussion.
The town of Kingscourt has a catchment area comprising parts of three counties, namely, Cavan, Meath and Monaghan. As such, this issue has exercised Deputy Ó Caoláin, Senator Thomas Byrne and me. Setting aside the decision itself, the way in which the company conveyed the news to the workforce was entirely unacceptable. On the evening of 14 December, two shop stewards were told the plant was closing forthwith, with the other 25 employees being informed several days later. This clearly constitutes a contravention of the 30 day notice period provided for in the Protection of Employment Acts. SIPTU has written directly to the Minister, Deputy Bruton, seeking his comments on this issue. The employees want to retain their jobs and to see the maximum number of jobs secured at the Kingscourt facility. The issue is under consideration at a conciliation conference of the Labour Relations Commission, and we all hope progress will be made.
There is a 100 year tradition of brick manufacturing in Kingscourt, where there were originally two brick yards. The one we are referring to was established in the 1930s and has earned a reputation for producing brick of the highest quality. I visited the factory two years ago in the context of the then employment subsidy scheme, where I met the local management and the workforce. The workers indicated that day their determination to bring about the efficiencies and improved productivity necessary to ensure the plant would remain viable. When the downturn in the construction sector came, the company fought hard to win new export markets, particularly in Britain. The workers are determined to do their utmost to bring about even greater efficiencies. They have already done so in the past 18 months to two years, with all workers taking a wage cut and 25 employees until recently doing the work done previously by 35. That is a measure of the additional productivity achieved. I appeal to the Minister to use every available opportunity to ensure the plant resumes production and the existing jobs are maintained and protected.
Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation (Deputy Richard Bruton): I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue. Workers at Lagan Brick in Kingscourt, County Cavan, have been involved in a protest outside the company’s premises following its announcement before Christmas that it expects to make 29 of its 39 employees redundant and to close the Kingscourt plant. The employees want to retain maximum employment at the plant and to secure satisfactory redundancy terms for any employees who lose their jobs. Representatives of the company and the trade union, SIPTU, attended talks at the Labour Relations Commission last Tuesday, 10 January, and I understand the conciliation conference was adjourned to allow both parties to reflect on their positions. That engagement will reconvene at the LRC next Monday, 16 January. I am aware there was an earlier collective redundancy at another Lagan Brick factory in 2011. The ensuing dispute in that instance was successfully resolved by utilising the conciliation service of the Labour Relations Commission.
Under the Protection of Employment Acts 1977 to 2007 there are several provisions regarding the information and consultation process which must be entered into with employee representatives prior to the implementation of collective redundancies, and regarding the provision of information to the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. Certain sections of the Acts make it mandatory for an employer proposing collective redundancy to engage in a 30 day information and consultation process with employee representatives and to provide certain information relating to the proposed redundancies. An employer is prohibited from issuing any notice of redundancy during the mandatory employee information and consultation process.
I understand the workers have taken issue with the manner in which the job losses were announced and are claiming the company has contravened the 30 day notice period provided for in the Acts. This matter may be resolved at conciliation. Alternatively, Regulation No. 6 of the European Communities (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2000 provides a remedy for employees whose employer has not complied with sections 9 and 10 of the Protection of Employment Act whereby they may refer complaints to a rights commissioner. In the case of Lagan Brick, I am not directly a party to the information and consultation process and am not in a position to determine whether there have or have not been breaches of that Act.
Deputy Smith is correct that SIPTU has written directly to me with a request to investigate this case. However, the matter is now at the LRC. We have a voluntary system of industrial disputes resolution in this State under which even the most difficult disputes have been successfully resolved by conciliation and negotiation by both sides. I am hopeful, as in the previous instance, that this process will lead to a successful conclusion in this case. If it fails, workers’ resort would be to the rights commissioners in the first instance. If employees in this case feel their employer has not complied with its obligations, they may consider lodging claims with the Rights Commissioners Service and, if appropriate, seeking professional advice on the matter. The employees may also contact the information unit of the National Employment Rights Authority, NERA, for further information on their individual entitlements. Similarly, the employer may contact NERA for information on its obligations under employment rights legislation.
Section 12 of the Protection of Employment Acts requires an employer to notify the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation in writing of proposed redundancies at least 30 days before the dismissal takes effect. I received the statutory notice of the redundancies at Lagan Brick on 15 December 2011. Responsibility for statutory redundancy issues and the operation of the social insurance fund falls within the remit of the Minister for Social Protection.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: The Minister confirmed in his closing remarks the point we have made in regard to the 30 day notice requirement. If he only received notice on the same day on which the workers were locked out, the company is clearly in breach of the required section of the Protection of Employment Act 1977. There is no doubt in that regard. The alternative to which the Minister refers in regard to the procedure being adopted through the Labour Relations Commission is one that the workers and their representatives will have noted. Whether they decide to go the rights commissioner route will be influenced by the outcome of next Monday’s adjourned engagement at the LRC.
It is not good enough for the Minister to sit back and be an observer of this. It is important that he take note that what is at issue is not only an individual breach but that a pattern is now emerging in regard to several companies, as highlighted in this House in the past 24 hours. We must have stricter compliance with proper industrial relations practice. Workers’ rights must be something the Minister pursues and the Government will impose. Has the Minister given consideration to any other sanctions he might consider, including a withdrawal of access to State contracts — that is, public moneys — if companies are not prepared to treat their workers with respect?
Deputy Brendan Smith: I thank the Minister for his reply. He indicated that he is hopeful there will be a successful conclusion to the negotiations at the Labour Relations Commission. The successful conclusion of those negotiations would see a resumption of employment for the workforce at Lagan Brick in Kingscourt. These people want to return to gainful employment in a business in which they have worked to build a reputation for high quality product. When I visited the plant and met the workforce shortly after Christmas, I was struck by the determination and absolute anxiety of the workers to get back to their work. As I said earlier, they took a wage cut some years ago and have worked hard to increase productivity.
It is incumbent on the Minister, his Department and the various State agencies that report to the Department to make every effort to ensure production is resumed at Lagan Brick. It has a long tradition of production, in excess of 100 years. We want that plant to resume employment. The people in the Visitors’ Gallery today and their colleagues at home in Cavan, Monaghan and Meath want positive reassurance from the Minister that every effort will be made to ensure that production resumes at Lagan Brick in Kingscourt.
Deputy Richard Bruton: While I understand the Deputies’ and the workers’ frustration, the consultation period has not concluded. Representatives of the workers and the company are engaged at the LRC. The track record has shown that despite real difficulties — no doubt there are difficulties in this case — the LRC has successfully resolved those issues in the past. Those in the LRC are the professionals in the field and it is not good IR practice to seek to get political involvement where seasoned professionals can handle this, which is the appropriate approach.
At this point the status of the workers is not clear. I accept that the notice only went in on 15 December. However, until the period is exhausted, my Department will not be able to establish whether there has been a breach. We do not have the evidence to determine if a breach has occurred. I hope and expect that both sides will take this opportunity to find a resolution that retains as many employees as possible and treats those workers who cannot be retained in a proper and decent fashion.
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