Thursday, 29 March 2012
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important issue of the plight of Game stores workers. This is an urgent issue both because of the injustice done to these workers in the past week and because of the strong trend emerging where employers are dumping workers with no notice and no redundancy payments. I understand that sit-ins are taking place in most of the stores. Our first message here this afternoon must be one of solidarity with the protesting workers at all locations. I welcome the representatives of the workers who are with us in the Visitors Gallery.
On Monday, with my colleague councillor Seán Conlon, I visited the workers at the Game store sit-in at Monaghan shopping centre. These are young people totally abandoned by a company which they have served as a dedicated and well-informed workforce. The company washes its hands of its responsibilities and leaves it to the State to take up the burden. We have similar situations in Lagan Brick in Kingscourt, County Cavan, and in Vita Cortex in Cork. Retail workers like those in Game were similarly treated by TalkTalk and La Senza. This requires Government action. Words of regret from Ministers are not enough. Pointing to existing industrial relations machinery and existing legislation is not enough. Clearly, this machinery and legislation are not working. Employers feel free to act in this way without fear of sanction of any kind.
Game continues to trade in hundreds of its stores in Britain. It must be called to account both for the laid-off workers as well as for those customers in Ireland who have built up credit in the company’s stores and now are out of pocket as a result of the closures. We are asking for an outline of action here today.
Deputy Seán Crowe: It is nothing short of scandalous that 173 employees of Game stores across Ireland are not only losing their jobs but are denied their basic right of a redundancy package. It seems only a couple weeks ago we were here debating the similar plight of La Senza, Vita Cortex and TalkTalk workers. At the time, we asked the Minister responding what legislative proposals the Government had to address these matters.
A man in the Visitors Gallery today worked for 17 years for Game but is now told he has no entitlements to redundancy. Is this acceptable in this day and age? This is 2012, not 1913. We need legislative change in the redundancy payment area. If not, we will have more workers filling the Visitors Gallery with similar stories in future. We need to close the loopholes in the existing legislation.
Deputy Kieran O’Donnell: I welcome the staff and managers from Game Ireland to the Visitors Gallery. It is a worrying time for them and their families. We cannot lose sight of the human dimension. Early on Monday morning, they were informed without warning that they would need to close their shops. The shop in Limerick city has been one of the landmarks on Cruises Street for more than 16 years. Of its nine employees, some have worked there for as many as 15 years. It is a worrying time for them. The way that Game UK made this decision and communicated with staff was tardy and unfortunate. We must examine the issue of how companies deal with closures so that there is proper communication with staff.
The rights and interests of staff must be looked after. Their social welfare entitlements must be adhered to so that they are paid their proper redundancies. Their claims must be submitted by the administrators immediately. I welcome the appointment of PricewaterhouseCoopers Ireland in this context. Until today or yesterday, everything was handled from the UK.
Credits have been given to customers, many of whom are young people. Game UK is in administration, but many of its shops are surviving. It should consider the Irish situation and find a way to provide people with their proper entitlements, including redundancy payments. We all know that these are difficult times, but companies must take a reasonable approach towards their staff. I commend the Game staff on the way they have handled their discussions. This morning, they met the administrators, PricewaterhouseCoopers, in Dublin and I understand that further discussions are to take place.
I am a Deputy for Limerick city, where nine people have lost their jobs without warning. It would have been nice had Game UK allowed its Irish staff to put together a collective package or a series of packages for individual shops to allow them to continue trading. This is a question of jobs and working together and I am glad that the Ceann Comhairle allowed it to be debated as a Topical Issue. I await the Minister of State’s response. We are discussing workers’ entitlements. This is a difficult time for the people involved and their families, particularly those Game employees in Limerick.
Deputy Joe Higgins: I am also speaking for Deputy Clare Daly. The Socialist Party and the United Left Alliance condemn the brutal fashion in which the Game workers are being treated. This is the third time in less than six months that a group of workers has been dealt with in such a callous and brutal fashion by a major company. How the Game workers have been treated is as disgusting as the manner in which the La Senza staff were treated by their employers at the beginning of January, portraying utter contempt for those who made fortunes for their employers and shareholders, particularly during a time of economic growth. This is a growing trend. Transnational and Irish companies believe that they can treat workers in the most callous way, pawns to be dismissed at a convenient opportunity.
It is incredible that workers can legally be thrown into this situation and a company can walk away by going into administration or using some other legal advice and pleading an inability to pay. What about the massive profits that this and other companies made in previous years? Clearly, legislation in this regard needs urgent and fundamental change. The trade union movement leadership needs to get off its seat, demand change and give the leadership that is required. Game’s outlets around the country depended on ordinary people’s funds, but austerity’s effect has been to reduce demand across the board. Therefore, it has been a part of the difficulty.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: This cannot go on. Consider Jane Norman, Lagan Brick, La Senza, Vita Cortex and now the 121 Game workers. That employers or administrators can chew workers up and spit them out is not acceptable and has gone on for too long. We need Government action. Where is the legislation to ensure that employers and administrators cannot treat workers in this way? Where is the legislation to prevent a company that operates and makes profits in Ireland from hiding behind the fact that it is based in another jurisdiction and not discharging its responsibilities to its employees? Will the Government state today that it will demand that PricewaterhouseCoopers treat the Game workers properly and provide redundancy payments and entitlements? Allowing this situation to continue would not be acceptable.
I pay tribute to the occupying workers. I encourage them to stay in occupation, as it is their only leverage to demand justice. The Government cannot cry crocodile tears. It must introduce legislation to prevent a similar situation from recurring and it must exert pressure on the administrators.
All of these cases show that austerity is destroying demand and our domestic economy and massacring jobs. They should give the Government pause to consider investing in the economy to end the jobs massacre instead of making us prey to employers and multinationals who treat workers like dirt in this way.
Deputy Fergus O’Dowd: I am present to read the Minister’s script and I would be more than happy to communicate to her the strength and significance of the contributions that have been made by the Deputies, who are from almost all parties in the House, so that she can understand the concerns, frustrations and deep disillusionment of the workers who have found themselves in this situation.
The Minister’s understanding of this case is that administrators have been appointed following a review of the business. Her Department administers the redundancy payments and insolvency payments schemes, which may be availed of in this instance. The primary purpose of the redundancy payments scheme is to compensate workers under the Redundancy Payments Acts 1967 to 2011 for the loss of their jobs by reason of redundancy. Compensation is based on a worker’s length of reckonable service and reckonable weekly remuneration, subject to a ceiling of €600 per week.
It is the responsibility of the employer to pay statutory redundancy to all eligible employees. An employer who pays statutory redundancy payments to employees is entitled to a rebate from the State. Rebates to employers and lump sums paid directly to employees are paid from the Social Insurance Fund. Where the employer has proven that it was unable to pay the statutory redundancy, the Department will seek to recover the amount paid less the amount of the rebate that would have been payable to the employer had the employer paid the statutory redundancy payment to the employees. Where it appears that the refusal or failure of the employer to pay the statutory redundancy was without reasonable excuse, any rebate to which the employer would otherwise have been entitled may be withheld or reduced. In either case, the amount of the Minister’s claim against the employer may be increased accordingly.
The insolvency payments scheme operates under the Protection of Employees (Employers’ Insolvency) Acts 1984 to 2007 and is designed to protect certain outstanding pay-related entitlements due to employees in the event of the insolvency of their employer. Such entitlements include wages, holiday pay, sick pay and payment in lieu of minimum notice due under the Minimum Notice and Terms of Employment Act 1973. Various other statutory awards made by the Employment Appeals Tribunal, Rights Commissioners, etc. are also covered by the scheme.
Payments calculated by reference to an employee’s wages are subject to a limit of €600 per week and arrears of wages, sick pay, holiday pay and minimum notice are limited to eight weeks. Payments under the insolvency payments scheme, like redundancy payments, are made from the Social Insurance Fund. The Minister for Social Protection becomes a preferential creditor against the assets of an employer in respect of most amounts paid under the scheme.
In so far as customers of Game stores are concerned, the Minister for Social Protection is advised that customers may wish to consult the National Consumer Agency’s website, which offers valuable information on consumers’ rights where traders go out of business. As the consumer’s contract is with the retailer, the consumer should seek to bring his or her problem directly to the attention of the retailer or in the case where the retailer has gone into liquidation, examinership or receivership to the attention of the liquidator, receiver or examiner. The agency’s website provides information on different situations which can arise where traders go out of business, including information on the remedies available to consumers who purchased goods by means of credit cards. In so far as issues concerning faulty goods arise, the UK administrators of the Game Group have indicated that they will continue to assist customers in respect of the exchange or refund of faulty goods. Customers of Irish Game stores may wish, therefore, to contact the administrators about any problems they may have in these areas.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: The Minister of State’s reply is no comfort to the workers following the debate from the Visitors Gallery. The question even arises as to whether the Minister for Social Protection is the appropriate person to deal with the issues raised. We are looking for action rather than a reiteration of the problems. It is incumbent on the Government to take immediate action in support of these workers’ just claim to have Game’s owners acknowledge their years of service.
The Government certainly needs to introduce legislation to ensure proper notice of redundancy, just and adequate redundancy payments and proper accountability for employers but this will not come in time to make a difference to the Game workers on whose behalf we are speaking.
Will the Minister of State and the Tánaiste, who is in the Chamber for this debate, use their good offices to arrange a Government intervention and offer immediate assistance to the Game employees? They will have the full support of this House if they bring forward legislation on notice periods and redundancy payments for workers but we need action now.
Deputy Seán Crowe: When I spoke with workers in Tallaght this morning, they were fairly up-beat about the negotiations scheduled for later in the day. However, these negotiations have since broken down. My colleague is correct that there is no comfort in the Minister of State’s reply. We are going through the motions but the issue extends beyond the Department of Social Protection to labour law and workers’ rights. We need to offer these individuals our support. Many of them are not trade union members. It is wrong to simply let somebody go after working in a company for 17 years. We need legislative change in the long term, but we also need to work with our colleagues in Europe because this is an issue that crosses frontiers.
Deputy Kieran O’Donnell: I want to break the issue into two parts, the first of which is the notice that Game UK provided to its employees. We need to put in place procedures that ensure proper notice is given and that every alternative is explored, including the possibility that people could take over some of the stores. I understand that in other countries where Game operated such alternatives have been explored.
On a practical level I ask that every arm of the State be made available to ensure that the 121 employees, nine of whom are in my constituency of Limerick city, receive redundancy payments and social welfare entitlements in a timely manner.
Deputy Joe Higgins: The Topical Issue Debate was supposed to make a revolutionary change to the way the Dáil operated by facilitating a real engagement between Members and the Government on issues arising around the country. Game workers came from Dublin and further afield to engage the Government through their elected representatives but all they got was a script that was dry as dust. It is not good enough for the Government to deal with the issue in this way. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation should be here to give us real answers about how he intends to outlaw this kind of callous exploitation of workers and to introduce emergency measures for the individuals and families who are caught in this bind so that they do not have to endure the hardships others have suffered. They need immediate respite and assistance. The company must be pursued but the law must also be changed to ensure this does not happen again.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: The Government is running out of excuses for not acting on this issue. It could hide behind the law the first time it arose but this is the fourth or fifth incident in the last six months. Game’s workers want to know what the Government intends to do about their immediate plight in terms of putting pressure on the administrators and assuring them that their applications for statutory redundancy will be fast-tracked. I spoke to one individual who has worked for Game for 20 years. During all those years this individual has been producing profits for Game, which can walk away after sucking profits out of its workers. It is possible that, as in the case of Jane Norman, the stores will reopen after being sold off and these workers will be left with nothing. What is the Government going to do about it, in the immediate term and more generally?
Deputy Fergus O’Dowd: As I previously noted, I am taking this matter in the unavoidable absence of the Minister for Social Protection. I was given the script by her Department and I am required to read it. It may well be as dry as dust but that is what I have been asked to read. I have no particular knowledge of this issue but I acknowledge the strong feelings that the Deputies have expressed. I am confident their concerns have arisen from their close contact with the workers and their families.
I will do my duty as a Member of this House and a Minister of State to ensure their views are brought to the attention of the Minister and her Department. Whatever can be done must be done. The Deputies have made a strong case and I appreciate the worries and needs of those families. There is a need for the agencies of the State and the Minister of the particular Department to engage immediately in a very industrious fashion with all of the agencies that can help. I can only assure the Deputies of that. I stand here as they do listening and understanding the issues, and will attempt as much as possible to get them resolved inasmuch as the State has powers to do so.
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