Wednesday, 2 May 2012
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy Joan Collins: This is straightforward legislation. While it will not resolve all the problems arising in the area of protection of employees, its enactment would immediately strengthen and extend legislation aimed at protecting workers who have been made redundant. The Bill is supported by a number of the largest trade unions, including Unite, SIPTU and Mandate. Speaking at a briefing on the Bill earlier this week, John Douglas of Mandate stated his union was faced with a serious and growing problem of employers ceasing to trade and walking away from their responsibilities to their employees. When a company ceases to trade and is placed in the hands of a receiver or liquidator as opposed to being wound up, workers are left in limbo as regards pay arrears, holiday pay and pay in lieu of notification. They do not have recourse to the insolvency fund which is only available when companies become insolvent. In cases of insolvency, employees’ claims have to be given preference by the receiver or liquidator and if the company does not have assets or capital, payment is made from the insolvency fund. The current position would be changed by the Bill, which proposes to give the Minister the power to declare companies insolvent for the purpose of meeting employees’ claims.
I welcome the provision to extend the notification period for collective redundancies and measures aimed at reducing the 76 to 80 week delay in securing a hearing at the Employment Appeals Tribunal. It is outrageous that a backlog of 29,000 statutory redundancy claims has built up, particularly given the pace with which the Government facilitated employers’ demands on issues such as joint labour committees and the introduction in the budget of more special tax breaks for high earners at the suggestion of powerful, big business interests and in the face of reservations expressed by the Revenue Commissioners.
The Labour Party has argued that a review body has been established and legislation will be forthcoming on foot of its findings. Legislation on the protection of employees is urgently required. It must be made loud and clear to employers that they cannot treat workers in the manner in which many of them have behaved in recent cases. When a Bill was proposed recently to address the implications of the X case, the Government argued that a review body was addressing the issue. We will closely monitor the position to ensure that, unlike in the case of joint labour committees where the Government reduced rather than enhanced workers’ rights, any legislation introduced on foot of the review body’s findings will enhance workers’ rights.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: In the year since the Government came to office we have had a litany of cases in which workers were treated in a disgraceful fashion by rogue and unscrupulous employers. Workers at Jane Norman have still not secured justice, while workers in Vita Cortex, La Senza, Lagan Brick and Game were forced to occupy their places of employment to bring their cases to the attention of members of the public and the Government and secure some justice. More recently, as I noted earlier, we had the disgraceful treatment of Irish Cement workers by one of the largest and most profitable companies in the country. Perhaps the lack of concern shown on that issue is related to the close relations Irish Cement has always enjoyed with the political establishment, going back to the days when Cement Roadstone organised handouts for Charles Haughey and his family.
I find it amazing that this Government, which has shown so much enthusiasm, energy and vigour in protecting the interests of bankers, bondholders and the super-wealthy in this country and in Europe, shows no enthusiasm for and a complete disinterest in the plight of workers who have been treated in a despicable fashion. Since the La Senza and Vita Cortex disputes began, Deputies on this side have been calling on it to introduce legislation to protect workers from this type of despicable treatment. While we saw crocodile tears and heard words of concern, we did not see any concrete action that would prevent a recurrence of such cases. It should be clear to the Government at this stage that certain employers, particularly large multinational companies, are taking advantage of the climate of recession to do things to workers they would not have got away with in other circumstances. What will the Government do about this?
Sinn Féin accepts that its Bill addresses only some aspects of employee protection. Nevertheless, the legislation should be supported in so far as it extends the minimum notice requirements when employers make workers redundant and requires the Employment Appeals Tribunal and Labour Court to respond more quickly to workers who are made redundant. We also need a shift in gear from the Government. It must show a political will to address the grievances of workers who are being treated in a despicable fashion. I hope it will respond.
Deputy Clare Daly: The protection of employees has been brought centre stage as a result of the recent cases highlighted by Deputies Joan Collins and Richard Boyd Barrett. While this badly needed legislation does not claim to be a panacea, it is a step in the right direction. If nothing else, it has focused attention on employee protection and forced the House to discuss the issue.
The Government has been shamefully slow to address a growing scandal that is emerging from the economic difficulties we are enduring. However, legislation alone will not sort out abuses by unscrupulous employers. We have in place a body of legislation that is either being actively evaded or ignored by many employers. In addition, the industrial relations machinery is so slow and toothless that unscrupulous employers are able to get away with their actions and are not called to account. In that context and given that it was May Day yesterday, the trade union movement has a responsibility to organise and champion workers. Rather than hanging on the coat-tails of politicians and expecting them to deliver, they should do the job trade unions were set up to do.
That said, legislation has a role to play in this regard. The Bill should proceed to Committee Stage at which point a number of additional measures should be considered. The first of these relates to occupations, the only weapon available to workers who seek to meet the threat of closure and defend their interests. I applaud the stance workers have taken in this regard. While the forces of the State were not called to intervene in the cases of La Senza, Game and several other companies, the workers who occupied Thomas Cook premises to save their jobs were forcibly dragged out of the building by agents of the State. The Government must provide legal immunity for workers who occupy places of employment in such circumstances, particularly where they have given a life of work to the company in question. Such protection should be built into the legislation.
A legal requirement should be also introduced to force companies to open their books. This would allow claims of poverty to be examined and verified or otherwise. We know such claims do not stand up in many instances.
We have also had the appalling spectacle of organisations such as KPMG, which advised La Senza on how to breach the legislation and avoid its statutory responsibilities, securing contracts with Departments. This type of doublespeak must stop and companies that engage in such practices should be excluded from all dealings with the State.
Access to the Labour Court machinery must be also accelerated. In terms of enforcement, what is the point in having a Labour Court adjudication if its rulings can be ignored, not only in the private sector but also by State companies and Departments? There are three instances of the National Museum of Ireland ignoring Labour Court recommendations, as well as other State bodies. If it is not led from the front, why would any private sector employer behave any differently?
Deputy Mick Wallace: I would like to use my speaking time to highlight an issue brought to my attention by Mr. Tom Dwyer, one of 20 workers who lost their jobs recently at H.W. Wilson when it was taken over by a larger American company called EBSCO. That company was named in the 2011 Forbes list as one of the top 200 private companies in America, with revenue in that year of over €2 billion. There was a dispute about the redundancy to be paid, and it went to the Labour Court. The workers, in good faith, were happy with that. The Labour Court found in favour of the workers and was quite critical of some of the claims made in the defence of EBSCO, and pointed out the obvious fact that the company would receive a 60% rebate from the State on the minimum statutory payment it was going to make. The court recommended that all H.W. Wilson employees in Dublin should be paid an ex gratia payment of four weeks per year of service, inclusive of the statutory redundancy payment already received, as it was deemed to be in line with common practice in this industry.
Sadly, EBSCO has ignored the court’s ruling. When the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation was challenged here on the issue, he said that neither himself nor the Labour Court could compel companies to abide by the court recommendations as they were voluntary. This was a big disappointment to the workers, who expected a bit more from him. These companies come over here, we treat them well and we are glad that they provide work, but we expect our workers to be treated fairly in response. It is not like EBSCO is a company in trouble or short of money. It turned over revenue of more than €2 billion in 2011 and it has no moral right to refuse the workers a fair deal. If the Government is not in a position even to pressure these companies on the Labour Court, why should we bother having a Labour Court in the first place?
Deputy Áine Collins: The issue of redundancy is, by its nature, very sensitive as an individual is losing his or her job. When redundancies are announced, its effects on the individual are life changing. This can result in many knock-on effects such as inability to pay a mortgage, insufficient funds for educating children and a total change in lifestyle, not to mention the psychological effects. Redundancies can be particularly painful when they occur in the midst of a recession, where unemployment figures make it difficult for a person to get alternative work.
For these reasons it is very important that we look very carefully at any suggestions that might improve the lot of workers who are being made redundant. Indeed that is why there is already a raft of legislation which has evolved over the years to protect the rights of workers. Unions, governments and employment organisations are constantly reviewing the regulations that govern redundancy to try to ensure the best possible outcome for those unfortunate enough to be placed in that position.
Extending the notice period in cases where redundancies have to be made could have a negative impact on a business which is trying its best to survive and recover. The impact would be felt by both the employees who are made redundant as well as those staying on. It creates underlying negative moral issues in the workplace and this can have a long-lasting effect on the business. There is also extensive European legislation which offers a further layer of protection to redundant workers. Having acknowledged the importance of the objective of protecting redundant workers, it is important that this is achieved in a balanced way. Looking at one of the original EU directives in 1998, the Commission notes the need for balanced economic and social development
Sinn Féin’s rhetoric in every big issue of the day seems to be designed to promote Sinn Féin as a party rather than promote what is good for Ireland or its citizens. This is true of its stance on the upcoming treaty, where its leaders are asking people to vote “No” on emotional issues without providing any solution as to how we fund the State after 2014 in the event of such a vote. With this Bill, Sinn Féin is promoting soundbites which are not practical and which cannot be implemented in a balanced way. As Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, stated: “Ultimately it could serve only to expose the taxpayer and employees to an additional burden, while also ironically acting as a chill factor to the creation of vitally necessary new employment in the State.”
The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation is committed to introducing legislation and structures that will not only help to resolve difficulties being experienced by employees, but will also benefit the overall relationship between unions, employers, and government, with more structured and effective ways of resolving issues that arise. The Minister last month announced the detail of his plans to establish a two tier employment rights and industrial relations structure. Work has begun on drafting of the workplace relations Bill, which will be enacted in the third quarter of this year. This will include measures to promote compliance and deter employers from risking non-compliance. As well as providing improved services, these reforms will bring about significant savings for the Exchequer.
I agree with the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, that the focus should be on providing improved mechanisms through which vindication of existing rights can be facilitated. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, has already shown his clear commitment to this objective. For these reasons I will be voting against this Bill.
Deputy Ann Phelan: I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this important issue. Furthermore, I thank Sinn Féin for raising it in Private Members’ time, though I fear it is unworkable.
While the proposed legislation seeks to enhance the period of notice to workers that are being made redundant, current legislation provides cover for such problems, and the Government is making great progress already in this area. I would like to acknowledge the work that has already been done by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation in the area of reforming employment rights, and also industrial relations mechanisms. The Minister recently published a document which sets out the proposed shape of the new workplace relations structures that will be in place by the end of this year. However, there is more to be done and the Government will lead the charge.
The area of industrial relations has always been encased in red tape and bureaucracy, with arduous methods of seeking redress. There have been long delays under the current system, in some cases of up to two years, in scheduling hearings and also delays in issuing decisions. The Government is intent on replacing some of these outdated systems and implementing a new, quicker and more efficient way of seeking redress and providing enforcement. Already improvements have been made and progress has been achieved. For example, all first instance complaints are now being acknowledged, with the employer made aware within five days of the complaint being made. Previously this process could take up to seven or eight months. The aim is to target a period of just three months from the original complaint to the hearing and written decisions. This has already been achieved in the case of the Rights Commissioner hearings. It used to take an average of 142 days to schedule a hearing, but they are scheduled by the LRC in a matter of weeks.
The establishment of the workplace relations commission will mean that two bodies will replace the current five. Amalgamation shows a commitment to cut down on red tape and make this entire system fairer and quicker. These are just a few things that have already been achieved by the Government and by the end of the year we will have much more. We have a new workplace relations customer service, which provides for a point of contact for all employment rights and industrial relations information, among other things. The early resolution service, which although only embryonic, will act as an alternative to adjudication, in the hope that parties can resolve the issue themselves with the help of a case resolution officer.
In its first year of office, this Government has restored the minimum wage, invested over €500 million in our jobs initiative, reduced VAT in the tourism sector and set up the strategic investment fund to channel investment into the domestic economy. This is what the Labour and Fine Gael Government has done; it is a matter of public record.
Some trouble has arisen as a result of winding up orders from courts outside this jurisdiction that affect companies and workers operating within it. Perhaps the answer to this is to frame some European legislation and perhaps the Government could follow up on this. Those companies which are not based here but which operate in the Irish market, and therefore derive large profits from it, should not be given any contracts from any government or State bodies if they decide to break from normal employment practices in the Irish market. The Sinn Féin Bill proposes amendments that offer no real improvements for workers. Furthermore, the current structure provides support for those whose employer has become insolvent.
The Opposition, and Sinn Féin, do not have a monopoly on concern for workers’ rights. Members of my family have been made redundant and been unemployed. Let no one tell me I do not know what this is about.
Deputy Damien English: I welcome the chance to say a few words on the Bill. It is strange we are debating a Bill to improve services for people who have been made redundant and relations between employees and employers while the proposers of the Bill are campaigning against a treaty that will bring stability to the country. Stability is the best way to protect jobs and prevent redundancies. The timing of this debate is amusing.
I understand the sentiment of the Bill. Every Deputy agrees that the more one can do to help employees and employee-employer relations the better, but there must also be a balance. I have said on previous occasions that we must have a balance between the employer and employees. As well as protecting jobs and putting services in place when people lose their jobs, we must also win and create new jobs. We must create an environment that will help that. A foreign employer considering investing in Ireland will ask a number of questions. The first question will be how we voted in the fiscal treaty, because that is about stability and securing our position in Europe. I will not dwell on that, but an outside employer will ask that question.
Deputy Damien English: I am simply saying we should ask ourselves this question. Would an employer, such as Sky or PayPal, who wanted to invest in this country do so if Ireland had voted “No” to the treaty? I think they would think twice about it. We must bear that in mind. People will oppose the treaty for various reasons but I suggest they bear that question in mind.
A potential investor will also look at our taxation and employment legislation and at that range of issues. All of these issues will be considered. We must ensure that balance. I am afraid the Bill will tip the balance in the wrong direction.
I regret I missed the speeches from the upper corner of the Chamber this evening. I wanted to hear them. However, I read Deputy Tóibín’s speech of last night. He referred to our neighbouring country and the regulations in the United Kingdom, but he misrepresented the facts. In the United Kingdom, 60 days notice of redundancy is required, but that country is already considering reducing that to 30 days. If we are to mention what other countries do, we should get our facts right. The United Kingdom is on the way back to where we are because they recognise we have got things right.
Other parts of the Bill propose speeding up the service to people who are made redundant and ensuring they receive their entitlements more promptly. I agree we need to improve on that. Changes have been made to that service but more needs to be done. People are still having to wait months, which is far too long.
I repeat what I said when in opposition: we need to provide for companies in a way which foresees the possibility of going out of business or laying off staff and to flag that possibility at an earlier stage, perhaps behind closed doors, to the various agencies such as IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland or Departments. I encourage such companies to seek help at an earlier stage. We might consider legislation to allow for that, but increasing the number of days to debate redundancy will not achieve anything. If it did, I would support it but I am not convinced of its benefits and I do not understand what it would achieve. I am in favour of earlier notification to those who might be able to step in and help, if we can do that.
I understand there is a grey area where a company is technically insolvent but the workers are not being made redundant and where the company can be forced to become insolvent so the workers will be entitled to receive redundancy benefits. If we move too fast to wind up a company, we eliminate the chance to bring it back from the brink. Deputy Tóibín, who made this proposal, has worked with many companies in the past. Like other Members who have worked with various companies, Deputy Tóibín must know that a company can be saved at the last minute and come back from the brink. If we move too early, we eliminate the chance of that happening and of saving the company. We then have to re-start the company and move the jobs over so that things become very complicated.
I understand the logic of what the Bill is trying to achieve. Members on all sides agree that no harm is meant by the Bill, but we must get the balance right. There are elements of the Bill that can be worked on. Sinn Féin speakers have asked the Minister to look at the issues raised in the Bill and to work on them. Improvements are called for in this area. We can work on those.
Deputy Paschal Donohoe: I acknowledge Sinn Féin’s bringing the Bill to the House. I did not hear the contribution of Deputy Tóibín, but I read it and looked at the points he made. Deputy Ann Phelan made an important point, which is that no public representative has a monopoly of wisdom or understanding of the rights of workers and how they need to be protected. We all have family members who have been affected by unemployment and we deal with it, and the difficulties and stress that go with it, in our work as public representatives as people come into our constituency offices and clinics. I welcome any Bill, or any piece of thinking, that seeks to make redundancy fairer to employees, while recognising the difficulties and rights of employers.
This is a discussion we need to have. Like Deputy English, when I was reading Deputy Tóibín’s speech, it appeared to me he was acknowledging some difficulties in the Bill but that he wanted the debate to begin and certain issues to be raised. The Government is working on a number of areas of reform, to which my colleagues have referred, and we hope they will deal with some of the points raised.
In my experience, two issues are frequently raised by constituents. The first is the lack of information in the period when it looks as if a company will be wound down and employees made redundant. Employees are often not clear on their rights and entitlements or about the roles of the various bodies, how they will be brought into the workplace and how they will engage. At a time when stress levels are already high, this uncertainty makes things more difficult for employees and makes planning for the future all the more difficult. The second issue relates to one touched on by Deputy Clare Daly. Employees are often not clear about the role of administrators in this period, how they are meant to engage with employees and how employees should deal with administrators and respond to points they make.
Another issue causes difficulty for people who are about to be made unemployed, although it is outside the scope of the Bill. People who have been working in certain types of companies or for themselves often find, when they lose their jobs, that they are entitled to no benefit at all. This may be because they were self-employed or because their work was short-term, consisting of several different contracts going back over a long period. The shock of this discovery for people who have been working all their lives in a particular part of the economy is something that must be dealt with. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, has touched on this. My colleagues have highlighted the reasons the Government will not accept the Bill, relating to amendments to sections 1 and 6.
I will conclude with some thoughts on how we can move this issue forward and what the future will be. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, has outlined a process of moving to a two-tier structure where we will amalgamate a lot of the bodies that are there at the moment and bring them together in the hope of making the system clearer. He has already introduced some changes. I heard Deputy Ann Phelan speak about a single application form and a single contact portal. However, the most important thing on which we must focus is the administration of the work to ensure that it happens in line with people’s expectations; that when they contact this new structure that they receive a response within a reasonable period and that at all times they are clear about where they stand within the process.  We can create new structure after new structure but a quantity of work remains to be done to support the system and ensure it operates in a timely and transparent fashion. That would make a huge difference.
Deputy Eamonn Maloney: The introduction of the amended Bill last night by Deputy Tóibín was interesting. There was a touch of history in that he made reference to the fact that the amendments to the legislation were being moved on May Day, or as some of us call it International Labour Day. The touch of history to which I referred relates to the fact that we do not traditionally connect Sinn Féin with May Day. We do connect Sinn Féin with Easter Sunday for obvious reasons because we are dealing with two different traditions. The reference to May Day brought back a memory to me and reminded me also that we are one year away from the celebration of the centenary of the Dublin Lock-Out. My grandfather used to say to us that he could never vote for Sinn Féin because Sinn Féin and Arthur Griffith refused to publicly support the Dublin Lock-Out. He never forgave them for that, as was the case with many others. In his very good biography, Seán O’Casey makes reference to how Mr. Larkin and Mr. Connolly felt about it. I do not say it is a bad thing; in fact it is a positive thing that people move towards recognising the working class and its struggle.
I will quickly move on as I am sharing my time with this good Cork man — Deputy Ciarán Lynch. I have grave reservations about the proposed amendment to section 9 of the 1977 Act. Other points have been made about the other amendments. Employers are well able to look after themselves. However, a mistake has been made in section 9; I do not suggest by any means that it was deliberate. I am someone who was made redundant in recent years. This is my first job since being made redundant. I am beginning to wish that I had not been made redundant but nevertheless, let us move on. When one gets over the initial effect of being made redundant, especially if one has a family and a mortgage, the first thing on which one zones in is on getting an alternative job. That is where the mistake is made in section 9 of the amended Bill, which could have catastrophic effects.
I recall strike committees in the 1980s when a company was being closed. If one extends the period to 90 days it could put the situation in complete disarray if one has workers in a factory who are involved in a trade union looking for jobs. In fairness to Deputy English, he stole my thunder. The TUC in Britain is moving towards our model based on the 1977 legislation. I accept there are differences among the unions in this country on the issue. We should reserve ourselves in regard to section 9. There is no point in me talking about the other sections because they were adequately covered by other speakers.
Deputy Ciarán Lynch: I thank my colleague, Deputy Maloney, for granting me this time. As we speak, word is travelling outside this House that the Vita Cortex dispute which has lasted for 139 days is now coming to an end and that an agreement has been reached between the employer and the workers in that factory. A total of 32 workers have given 847 years service between them. An agreement has been reached which will be welcomed by this House and throughout the land. The Vita Cortex workers, through their campaign over 139 days captured the public imagination in this country and in doing so acted as an inspiration to a host of others. I congratulate them and commend them on what I hope will be a successful conclusion to a struggle that has gone on for months over the winter, including over the Christmas period. When many of us were eating our Christmas dinner those people were still sitting in a cold, icy factory. It is great to see that their perseverance has won out and that the fairness, respect and justice they sought now looks as if it will be handed to them.
Ann Egar, the SIPTU representative of the workers, said it had been an honour to represent them in the struggle. On behalf of this House I congratulate her, the workers and everyone else associated with the campaign. In the aftermath of this case questions must be asked by this House about how employers plead inability to pay and how the dispute unfolded and became such a fractious issue.
Deputy Tom Barry: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. As an employer of 18 years I consider this to be an important topic. At a time of high unemployment, security of employment is all the more important. An economic crisis should not deter us from striving to ensure that employees are treated fairly and equitably. It is in how we handle issues such as employee rights at these times that we will be judged. However, the principle must always be approached in a measured and balanced way. I will not be supporting the Bill because while I agree with and admire the spirit of the Bill, the way it is presented will not resolve the difficulties with which it proposes to deal.
First, the Bill proposes extending the information and consultation period prior to redundancy from 30 days to 90 days. The reality is that the proposal would have little impact in the case of a number of high profile company wind-ups that have brought the Bill before us today. The 30 day period is sufficient and has always been sufficient. There has never been an application by either an employee’s group or an employer’s group to revise it upwards. In these high profile business failures it was not the case that there was a failure to meet the 30 day deadline. There was no consultation or information period whatsoever. We have a better chance of co-operation and adherence where the mandatory period of time is practicable and manageable. Irrespective of the length of the period set out, sadly, there will be situations where companies will not comply and there are procedures in law to deal with those circumstances. This is not the right answer to the problem.
Other speakers have referred to the 2012 sample of redundancy notifications that have shown that 65% of notifications gave six weeks notice and 50% allowed two months or more where companies are compliant. The mandatory period is perfectly sufficient and extending it would do nothing to address the cases of non-compliance. What it might do however, is act as a chill factor, repelling prospective inward investment which is the last thing we need to do at present.
On the resolution of disputes and the handling of complaints, the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, has made impressive progress already and continues to cut through the red tape in regard to employment rights and industrial relations. All first incident complaints are now acknowledged and the employer is notified within five days — a process that in some cases is taking up to eight months. A single complaint form has now replaced 30 existing complaint forms that currently accommodate more than 100 complaint types across five institutions. Where it was taking an average of 142 days to schedule rights commissioner hearings in 2010, these are now arranged within a matter of weeks. A single contact portal and accompanying website, workplacerelations.ie, has successfully brought all the relevant information together in one place, which is of benefit to both employers and employees.
The delivery of an early resolution process has also commenced, assisting parties involved in a dispute to resolve the issue themselves with the assistance of a case resolution officer. Crucially, if the process fails, those involved will not lose their so-called place in the queue.  The Minister, Deputy Bruton, has constantly stated his commitment to delivering a world class workplace relations service. Impressive progress has been made in that regard to date. He is also establishing a two-tier workplace resolution structure which means that two statutorily independent bodies will replace the existing five by the end of this year. We need to realise that job creation is the most important aspect of what we do. The Action Plan for Jobs is a seminal document. We need to start looking positively at the issue of job creation.
Sinn Féin should look at its position on the treaty. I run a business and if the treaty does not go through, I fear it will cause me, not to mention my employees, many problems. The uncertainty it will create will be frightening. I am not sure why Sinn Féin is insisting that it will have no impact on the jobs position.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill. This is timely legislation and as many of my party colleagues have mentioned, the purpose of the Bill is to enhance the period of notice given to workers being made redundant collectively and expedite the hearing and processing of claims to entitlements. It also seeks to allow workers who have been made redundant by a company which is, in effect, insolvent but which has not had a liquidator appointed to claim their entitlements from the insolvency fund. The real effect of the Bill, though, is to provide for some additional supports and relief for people at what is almost always a trying and vulnerable time. We should not forget that behind every announcement of the latest employment statistics and job losses, of which we have heard far too many in the last few years, there are the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people. Theirs is the real story and we have become all too familiar with employers taking callous advantage of them and, by extension, their families and communities.
Far too often we have seen an approach to redundancy by employers which has been nothing short of incredible. This does not apply to all employers; far from it. We all acknowledge that in the normal course of events companies come into and go out of existence. Some succeed and some fail and when they fail, workers are made redundant. This is accepted. It is also accepted that employers take risks and make considerable investments in getting businesses off the ground and sustaining them. However, what is equally clear to at least some of us in the House is that employees, ordinary workers at every level, make a business. Their efforts, hours worked and dedication are fundamental in ensuring viability. In the cases of Waterford Crystal, TalkTalk, La Senza, Lagan Brick, Vita Cortex and the Game stores, for example, this recognition was obviously absent. I have had cause in my constituency of Cork East to deal personally with ex-workers, their wives and families at a number of these sites. It is their plight that the Bill seeks to address in part. These are some of the notable examples. There are, undoubtedly, many others that never make the six o’clock news, many other workers who receive notification of redundancy and are refused their agreed and reasonable entitlements. If we keep going as we are, there is no doubt that we will see increasing numbers of such cases as unscrupulous employers seek to feather current and future ventures in what is an enabling environment.
We have seen employers who will do everything in their power to avoid doing the right thing and to avoid their responsibilities. The bottom line is money, personal profit and personal greed above all else. Consideration for the effects of their actions is secondary — how they affect staff and, to a lesser extent, customers and suppliers. It is no co-incidence that the commitment of a number of these employers to Ireland and its people can be questioned. Anything goes in business and the bottom line mentioned is God. These companies have shown themselves to be quite willing to abandon loyal and dedicated staff for the prospect of employing cheaper labour and making higher profits elsewhere — mar a dearfhá, is glas iad na cnoic i fhad uainn. At a time when people are exposed and vulnerable, with the cuts and charges introduced by Fine Gael and the Labour Party making day-to-day living even more difficult, there is a sub-culture of exploitation. These and other unscrupulous employers are, in a premeditated and planned way, taking steps to minimise their own personal losses at the expense of the very people who have worked hard to give them that status.
The current economic climate should provide us with the opportunity to take stock of what is important to us. I call on all Deputies to support the Bill. Workers would benefit. It would give them some extra security and protection at what is always a trying time. Responsible employers would have nothing to fear and a number of unions have already indicated their support. The House needs to show where its loyalty lies. Is it with the needy or is it still, even with the Labour Party in government, very firmly with the greedy?
Deputy Michael Colreavy: Yesterday was May Day, a day on which workers throughout the world march, organise and remember their long tradition and the difficulties faced by them, not only in Ireland but throughout Europe and many other parts of the world. There were thousands of people in cities throughout the world demanding better rights and opportunities for themselves and fellow workers. It is apt that we are speaking about workers’ rights and how we can play our part in improving the lives of ordinary people in this country. When the financial crisis hit this country, it was low and middle income earners who were forced to bear the brunt of the mistakes made by bankers and developers.
In the past year we have seen a number of examples of workers’ struggle, including Vita Cortex, La Senza and Lagan Brick. These were dedicated workers who are being cheated out of fair redundancy packages. The Bill would not address all of the issues relating to workers’ rights and redundancy entitlement, but it is a step in the right direction. It aims to ensure workers would receive their redundancy entitlements in a reasonable timeframe. After years of work, it is the least to which workers should be entitled. The most recent figures indicate that there is a backlog of approximately 29,000 statutory redundancy claims in the pipeline, which is a disgrace.
The Bill attempts to lengthen the notification period in collective redundancies from 30 days to 60 where companies have 20 to 99 employees and from 30 days to 90 where companies have 100 plus employees. It seeks to ensure workers in companies which are insolvent in all but name would be entitled to apply for payment from the insolvency fund after their company had ceased trading for over 60 days. It would put in place a maximum period of 60 days after a determination of the Labour Court or the Employment Appeals Tribunal in which to have their entitlements paid to them from the insolvency fund. Where a decision is not made within 60 days, the Minister would be required to issue a statement on the matter within 30 days and publish further updates at intervals of every 30 days until the matter was determined.
The Bill is only a small part of what is needed to improve the conditions of workers. Parties should set aside partisan politics and work together to introduce this legislation and more like it to ensure workers would have better conditions. Further ideas could be explored in the way we make redundancy payments. In many European countries such as Germany workers receive on a weekly basis a payment approximating to their wages for a fixed period, complemented by training provided by the State. This approach would provide an incentive for workers made redundant to up-skill and retrain and ultimately make the task of getting back into the workforce easier.
Today I met workers from Irish Cement-CRH who are being deprived of their legal rights by their employers. At the meeting there were Fine Gael, Labour Party, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Independent Deputies present — there was also a Minister present — all of whom undertook to support the workers in every way possible. This is their opportunity. They should vote for the Bill. If it is not perfect, they should seek to amend it as it passes through the Houses, but they should deliver on the promise they made to the workers. They should do something to improve their rights. Supporting the Bill is the right thing to do.
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. When asked yesterday if his Government would support this Bill, the Taoiseach said “No”, which hardly comes as a surprise. After all, protecting the most fundamental rights and expectations of workers has never been high on the agenda of the Fine Gael Party. It was left to the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, to defend the position of the Government last night. Once again, it seems Fine Gael is setting the agenda while its Labour Party partners in government are relegated to the role of stepping in to back up the larger party. For reasons best known to himself, the Minister of State’s point of reference in evaluating the merits of the Bill was the British Conservative Party. Sinn Féin’s proposal seeks to extend the current notification period in respect of collective redundancies to bring it into line with provisions in the North. The Minister of State said last night that Britain is actively evaluating the relevance of the continued application of the 90 day provision. It can be no surprise to any of us that a Tory-led Government would seek to dismantle hard-won workers’ rights.
I can only rationalise that it was in an effort to copperfasten his party’s jump to the right that the Minister of State went on the say that the 30 day provision has served the State well and that neither employers nor employees have ever sought amendments to current legislation. I can only suggest that he take himself out of the confines of his cosy office in Leinster House once in a while and rub shoulders with the former workers of Waterford Crystal, TalkTalk, La Senza, Lagan Brick, Vita Cortex, Game and Wilson Publishing. If he cannot rise to that, he should at least have a word with his party colleagues in the Seanad. Only last September Labour Party Members in the Upper House brought forward a Private Members’ Bill calling on the Government to act on the period of notification. Senator Ivana Bacik called for greater protections to be put in place to assist employees who face collective redundancy situations. She went on to propose that existing legislation be reviewed to provide for a longer notice period than 30 days. Her party colleague, Senator Marie Moloney, a former SIPTU official, observed that she had met many people who had encountered difficulties in claiming their redundancy payments and entitlements. She was of the view that a notice period of at least 60 days would allow people time to come to terms with the devastating news of the loss of their job and to investigate their entitlements. Like Senator Bacik, she called on the Government to consider introducing legislation to that end.
Several trade unions, including Mandate, have indicated their support for my party’s Bill. Many employees, including those in TalkTalk, have called for an extension of the notification period, as provided for in the Bill. While the Labour Party Senators’ Bill was limited to issues regarding redundancy rights and access to payments, at least they, unlike others of their Government colleagues, stepped up in response to the TalkTalk dispute. This Administration has done nothing to address the scandalous position in which too many workers have been left following collective redundancies. Instead of action, we have the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, sauntering into the Chamber, referring to the British Tories and telling us everything is A-okay. I challenge any Labour Party Minister to relay that message to workers who have experienced collective redundancy and, months and years later, are still awaiting their entitlements. I commend my colleague, Deputy Peadar Tóibín, on introducing this legislation and call on Members across the floor to support it. In particular, I appeal to Labour Party Deputies to do the right thing.
Deputy Jonathan O’Brien: I will begin by commenting on the breaking news in respect of the dispute at Vita Cortex, a dispute which should never have been allowed to happen in the first place. This Government and previous Governments, through their failure to legislate for the protection of workers, forced a situation where workers had no choice but to occupy a factory for 139 days to secure the ex gratia payment they were promised. This situation clearly shows the current legislation is inadequate, leaving workers, including those with decades of experience and loyalty to the same company, to fend for themselves and the political establishment unable to intervene to resolve the situation. Even those politicians who wished to assist could not do anything other than offer words of encouragement and moral support. This victory is a victory for the workers and nobody else, nor should anybody else seek to claim it. There is an onus on the Government to ensure it never happens again. The bottom line is that unless adequate legislation is introduced, that cannot be guaranteed.
I listened with interest to the debate last night and in particular to the contributions of the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, and his Labour Party colleagues. What struck me was the inconsistency in that party’s approach to this issue and its response to the Sinn Féin Bill. The Minister of State put forward the view that the 60 and 90 day periods proposed in the Bill would be “unrealistic” and “inconsistent with the flexibility needed by companies to make decisions on restructuring and change”. Only last September, however, as Deputy Mary Lou McDonald observed, a Labour Party Private Members’ Bill, which followed the announcement of job losses at TalkTalk, sought to address this very issue. Several Labour Party Members made contributions in the course of that debate which were in direct contradiction with the statements made in this House last night by the Minister of State and other members of his party. For example, the leader of the party in the Seanad, Senator Ivana Bacik, stated:
Senator Marie Moloney, a former SIPTU official, observed that many people have encountered difficulties when they tried to claim redundancy payments and entitlements and went on to indicate her support for a 60 day notice period.
For too long the Labour Party has thrown the accusation at Sinn Féin that there are inconsistencies in our position on certain issues in this jurisdiction in comparison with our position on the same issues in the North. That is to ignore the fiscal realities of partition. Moreover, it is ironic that the Labour Party should see fit to preach to my party when it is unable to agree a position between its members who sit in two Chambers a few hundred feet apart from each other. We are not suggesting that what we propose is perfect and will resolve everything, but it is a beginning. If the Government is not willing to accept it, the challenge is for it to bring forward legislation that will adequately protect workers. It is not good enough simply to vote down our proposal and then sit on one’s hands, issuing platitudes to workers who are involved in sit-ins and are fighting for their entitlements. It takes more than that to protect workers’ rights. It takes legislation and if the Government is not happy with this Bill, it should bring forward its own Bill and we can debate that. Regardless of who brings in the legislation, the priority is to ensure workers are protected.
Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn: Sometimes this House is a farce. I sit here as a humble TD, listening to the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and Ministers asking for constructive proposals from the Opposition. We have had a string of companies leaving workers high and dry, pursuing cases and often having to occupy the premises where they worked to secure justice. Here we have constructive proposals; we do not claim they are perfect or all encompassing but they are a contribution. I have looked through them and for the life of me I cannot see why there is any difficulty here. A 60 day period in which the Employment Appeals Tribunal or Labour Court must decide or be accountable to the Minister; a review period every 30 days; a 60 day period after determination is made during which payment should be forthcoming to workers and, finally, lengthening the period of redundancy notification to reflect the size of the company. Those are sensible and reasonable suggestions but they will be voted down. Is it any wonder the public regard this place as a farce? Every time the Opposition tries to provide some solutions, it gets swatted down.
The most topical issue recently was the Private Members’ motion that Sinn Féin tabled that asked the Government not to introduce the legislation for the European Stability Mechanism before the House until after the referendum. That motion was voted down but now the Government has done exactly as we asked. At times I scratch my head.
I wish to talk about why my colleague, Deputy Tóibín, has brought this Bill before the House. I am a Buncrana man from Donegal and in my small community there are two clear examples of why this is necessary.
Clubman Omega was an Irish-owned textile manufacturer, a shirt factory that employed dedicated workers, in some cases for decades. They agreed to work fewer hours and take pay cuts. They did everything they could to sustain that company; they could not have been more loyal. Eventually they were let go with statutory redundancy. Those women picketed Clubman Omega in a county that at the time was renowned not for radical politics or pickets but for its conservatism. Those women ended up setting a record for a strike in Donegal. In pouring rain, hail and snow they were outside the factory to protest. It was inspirational but sadly in the end they did not get what they were entitled to.
Recently, we saw the same story in Seatem-owned ticket company Keith Prowse, which was based on the outskirts of Buncrana and which closed, leaving more than 100 workers who had given loyal service without a job. There were numerous companies — Seatem (UK), Seatem (Donegal) and Seatem (Ireland) — and they closed down operations in Buncrana, leaving people high and dry, most of them women. They have now had to wait a year and a half just to get their statutory entitlements sorted out. They were not even issued with P45s. The company started to refuse to take phone calls after a couple of weeks. I was Mayor of Buncrana when this happened and I contacted the Minister about this. We pulled all of the agencies together and in fairness some of those agencies performed well but the Government and the system failed those workers badly. Some of them have still not received their entitlements.
That is the human reality in a small town like Buncrana and it is replicated throughout the State. I appeal to the Government to restore some faith among the public. When it gets constructive, solution-oriented proposals, it could respond positively, do the right thing and back this Bill.
We had a Labour Party TD bizarrely talking about the 1913 Lock Out and how Arthur Griffith of Sinn Féin did not stand by the workers. That is why his grandfather said he should never vote for Sinn Féin. God almighty, they talk about Civil War politics.
Deputy Pearse Doherty: Every week in Donegal, and here in my office in Leinster House, I receive representations from people who have lost their jobs. The calls do not only come from my constituency but from all over the State. While each call is different, and each person’s circumstances unique, there is a common thread binding them all. Not only must people cope with the loss of their livelihood and income, not only must they face an uncertain future looking for work and trying to make ends meet, amidst all of that uncertainty, they must also fight to receive their basic redundancy entitlements.
I have dealt with workers who after ten years employment arrived to work on a Monday morning to be told they no longer had a job. Deputy Mac Lochlainn and others have talked about the individual stories. I can remember getting the call from a factory beside my home town and walking up to the factory to see the workers lying on the ground crying, grown men and women, because of how the company treated them, telling them they had to leave the premises immediately. The fight for their basic redundancy entitlements went on for weeks afterwards.
In other cases people are being refused adequate redundancy payments by companies that continue to trade and generate a profit. We all remember the young women workers in La Senza who were treated in the most appalling way by their employer. The same happened to the workers in GAME. In both cases workers were not given adequate notice of their redundancy, were not provided with appropriate redundancy packages and were then faced with the prospect of applying for statutory redundancy with all the stress and waiting that that involves.
As my colleagues have outlined last night and tonight, even when employers stick to the rules there are clear problems with the system. Minimum time limits are not sufficient, recognition of orders representatives are hit and miss and workers do not have access to apply to the insolvency fund. These are just some of the limitations of the current system. Every week we hear of companies closing or workers being laid off without adequate recognition of their statutory rights. Every week we are contacted by newly unemployed people telling us that the current statutory regime is letting them down.
The Protection of Employees (Amendment) Bill provides a number of sensible and practical improvements to the existing regime. It will not stop people from losing their jobs but the measures contained in the Bill will make a real, practical difference to people struggling to cope with the reality of unemployment.
It was fitting that this Bill was introduced yesterday on 1 May, International Workers’ Day. It is a day when we remember the century long struggle for the protection of workers’ rights and entitlements. We remember the many struggles for decent pay and conditions; for trade union recognition and for an economy that respects workers for the contribution they make to society. It would be fitting for all TDs who believe in the protection of workers’ rights to send a very clear signal from this Chamber tonight. Let us leave aside our party political differences and our ideological disagreements and unanimously support this Bill. In doing so we would be sending out a powerful signal that this Oireachtas unanimously supports workers’ rights. These rights are being actively undermined and workers — whether it is those at Vita Cortex, Lagan Brick, Vodafone, La Senza or GAME- are standing up in defence of them. Let us show the workers to whom I refer and others who may find themselves in the same situation in the future that we are not just about rhetorical support. Let it not be the case that the Department merely issues a statement to the effect that it will do everything in its power and that the services of FÁS will be available to workers who have been laid off. We must show these people, through our actions as legislators, that we are ensuring they will have the maximum protection possible under law.
It is disappointing that the Government has decided to vote against the legislation. That is an appalling message to send to the workers who are currently in the position to which I refer or those who may find themselves in such a position in the future. God knows there are enough of these people about the place at present. I appeal to the Government to do the right thing and support the Bill.
Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation (Deputy John Perry): At the outset, I welcome the very good news that the Vita Cortex workers have voted to accept a proposal in respect of outstanding redundancy payments.
I listened with interest to the debate on the Bill. In the current economic environment, the plight of employees is a matter of major significance for the Government. We remain committed to ensuring that protections for workers are both relevant and capable of being vindicated. This is the focus of the Government’s approach. As the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, indicated, Sinn Féin’s Bill, while well intended, would offer no practical improvements to the plight of workers. Instead, it would impose an unreasonable and unnecessary constraint on employers and employees and would serve only to shackle our efforts to respond to the increasingly sophisticated demands of industry and labour market requirements.
The provisions contained in the Bill would be of no relevance in the context of the most of the recent high-profile cases to which Sinn Féin and other Members. As the Taoiseach has stated, at the heart of the many of these disputes is the absence of dignity toward workers. Regrettably, it is not possible to legislate for a requirement that employers should behave decently and fairly in respect of the way they treat their employees.
I wish to address some of the issues that have arisen in the course of the debate. The workplace relations reform project, which has been referred to on several occasions, is one of the most significant initiatives undertaken by my Department in recent years. It represents a major transformation of the means through which employment rights are communicated, enforced and, ultimately, vindicated. As well as providing for the amalgamation of the five existing employment rights bodies into an integrated and simplified two-tier structure, the reform project will amend existing redress procedures to ensure the more timely hearing of cases and the clear communication of decisions. This project will result in a better service for employers and employees at a significantly lower cost to the Exchequer. The bodies involved in the process are the Labour Relations Commission, LRC, the National Employment Rights Authority, NERA, the Employment Appeals Tribunal, EAT, the Labour Court and the Equality Tribunal. It is reasonable that a project of such significance will take some time to complete. Notwithstanding this consideration, however, I am pleased to note that the project has already achieved some significant administrative improvements that provide real benefits to users.
I am pleased to report that the significant legislative programme required to deliver the structures and processes relating to the implementation of workplace relations reform is at an advanced stage of development. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, who unfortunately cannot be present because he is on a trade mission to America, hopes to seek a Government decision for the priority drafting of the workplace relations Bill for enactment this autumn.
The number of cases that have arisen in recent times in respect of companies which are becoming insolvent and which are not engaging in timely and adequate dialogue with their employees is regrettable. I appreciate that businesses are under considerable pressure but this should not be used as an excuse for treating employees in a shabby manner. The Government has an expectation that all employers should act in good faith and should treat their employees with the dignity and respect they deserve.
In the context of the European Commission’s audit of directives relating to collective redundancies, the transfer of undertakings, the protection of employees and information and consultation — to which reference was made earlier in the debate — the position is that work in this regard is at an early stage. The first meeting of national experts from member states will take place during the summer and my Department is ready to actively engage in the process as required.
The issue of backlogs was also raised. The current position with regard to the workplace relations bodies is as follows: NERA has no inspection backlog; the Rights Commissioner Service has no backlog in respect of hearings; the Labour Court is working on the basis of a reduced backlog of three months; and the average waiting time for claims to the EAT to be heard is 76 weeks in Dublin and 80 weeks elsewhere. The EAT has been proactive in dealing with the volume of cases presented. It increased the number of cases finalised in 2011 by 11% above the number for 2010. The latter was itself an increase of 29% on the figure for 2009. The number of claims disposed of to end March 2012 continued to show an increase. While various short-term steps have been taken to address these issues, a more comprehensive solution will be addressed in the context of the workplace relations reform project.
Deputy John Perry: I accept that this figure is still high and we are working to reduce it. A new computerised system has been introduced and this is allowing for the speedier processing of claims. A number of Deputies referred to the issue of ex gratia payments made in redundancy situations. The purpose of the redundancy payments scheme is to compensate workers for the loss of their jobs by reason of redundancy. It is the responsibility of employers to pay statutory redundancy to all eligible employees. An employer who pays statutory redundancy payments to his or her employees is entitled to a rebate from the State of a percentage of the relevant amount. While an employer is, of course, free to make payments to employees in excess of the statutory entitlement, the Department’s role relates exclusively to the payment of the statutory entitlement.
The workplace relations reform project is a tangible example of the Government’s commitment not just to the legislative scope employment rights but, just as importantly, to the means through which these rights can be upheld and vindicated. Sinn Féin’s Bill proposes amendments which, as well as representing an additional burden, offer no real improvements for employees relative to the existing suite of employment law protections. Legislative provisions are only as good as the capacity that exists to enforce them. As recent experience has shown, the focus should be on providing improved mechanisms through which vindication of existing rights can be facilitated. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, has already shown his clear commitment to this objective.
I am of the view that the current legislative measures which the Bill proposes to change provide an adequate level of support for employees who find themselves in a situation where their employers have become insolvent. As a result, I cannot support the Bill.
Deputy Gerry Adams: The Minister of State’s statement to the effect that the current legislation provides adequate protection for workers is an outstandingly shameful, disgraceful and inaccurate statement.
Deputy Gerry Adams: The rights of workers are under attack like never before. There are employers who will not waste a recession and who are using the current situation to drive down wages and to mistreat their workers. Vita Cortex, Lagan Brick and Wilson Publishing abandoned agreed redundancy arrangements. How is that adequate protection? I applaud the workers at Vita Cortex. It took them only 139 days of occupation to obtain whatever settlement it is they have achieved. I commend them on their efforts. Where was the adequate protection for those to whom I refer? The Vita Cortex workers should not have been obliged to occupy the company’s premises. There has been a complete failure on the part of the Government in respect of this matter. The workers at Lagan Brick have been on strike since 15 December. These people were given one hour’s notice of the closure of their place of employment. Where was the adequate protection for them? Wilson Publishing completely ignored the Labour Court’s recommendations in respect of redundancy payments. Where was the adequate protection in this regard? I have met with most of these workers who have given 30 to 40 years of service to companies and have now been forced into industrial action. This Bill was brought forward in a constructive and positive way. We wanted to work with the Government to close loopholes which allow unscrupulous employers to ride roughshod over the rights of workers.
I asked the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to intervene in my constituency on behalf of workers in Diageo and other companies but he refused to intervene. Irish Cement workers there are having their rights trampled upon. Vodafone last year outsourced 130 jobs to India and Egypt. When I asked the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, the Minister, Deputy Bruton, and the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, to intervene, they failed to do so. In recent weeks, Vodafone announced plans to move over 300 jobs from Vodafone call centres in Dublin and Dundalk to Newry. No allowances are available for employees who simply cannot move with their job to Newry. Accordingly, they will not be entitled to any redundancy payments despite years of service with the company. Where is the adequate protection about which the Minister of State spoke? Vodafone is the leading supplier of mobile telephone and data services to Departments, receiving its own adequate protection of over €7.25 million in charges over the past five years, almost €1.5 million per year. These contracts should include clauses for conditions on jobs retention. Vodafone also used to be Eircell, a highly profitable State company.
This morning, I, along with other Oireachtas Members, met with workers from Irish Cement. The company has completely ignored a Labour Court recommendation that it must pay between €5,500 and €9,500 in sums owed to workers. Irish Cement is part of the CRH group, one of the world’s largest building materials companies. Its chief executive, Myles Lee, received a cash bonus last year of over €500,000 which made his remuneration total €2.6 million in 2011.
I want to give way to my esteemed colleague, Deputy Ó Caoláin, who gets tetchy when I run into his time. However, I must say it is disgraceful that the Minister of State claimed there is adequate protection for workers. There is not. All the main parties, including Fine Gael and the Labour Party, were represented at today’s meeting and all Members present expressed support for the Irish Cement workers. If they were serious, then they would be supporting this Bill tonight. Incidentally, I asked the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to intervene in that dispute as well but he failed to do so.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil le gach Teachta a ghlac páirt sa díospóireacht seo. Is fiú ligint don Bhille seo dul ar aghaidh agus iarraim ar gach Teachta, Teachtaí an Rialtais san aireamh, tacú leis. Má tá gá le leasuithe, lig don Bille dul ar aghaidh chuig Céim an Choiste.
In summing up on behalf of Sinn Féin, I want to thank all Deputies who contributed to the debate last evening and tonight. This Bill seeks to address a pressing need arising from the recession and the jobs famine that we have experienced since 2008. When there was almost full employment, this problem of redundancy conditions was present but far less obvious than it is now. A succession of cases in recent times has seen workers placed in bad situations and, as legislators, it is our duty to address this pressing problem.
It is most regrettable the Government has decided to oppose the passage of this Bill to Committee Stage. The Bill is not a complete answer, nor do we claim it to be, to a complex problem but it does provide part of the answer.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: The Minister has advanced no good reason that this Bill should not be allowed to proceed to Committee Stage where the Government itself can bring forward whatever amendments it deems appropriate. Let us see the colour of what the Government has to say.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: The Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, opened his contribution in reply to our Bill by recalling the words spoken exactly a year ago by the then president of the Labour Party, Michael D. Higgins, when he invoked the history of the Labour Party and the 1913 Dublin lock-out. What a pity, then, that the Minister of State went on in the very next passage of his speech to say:
Where have we heard the phrases “a burden to taxpayers and employers” and “a chill factor to new employment” before? All of this was said on the minimum wage and before that to a host of measures introduced over decades to protect the rights, the pay and the conditions of workers.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: The Government amendment, in the name of the then Minister of State, Conor Lenihan, included the phrase, “the State must act to remove any legislative and policy obstacles to job creation”. Labour saw through that ballyhoo at the time. It is a pity the Labour Minister is now repeating the same guff.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: If the Minister would have the courtesy to allow me continue. He was not interrupted during his own diatribe. I would have expected the opportunity to be allowed to close this debate on behalf of Sinn Féin without interruption.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Throughout this debate, speakers have cited the many recent experiences of workers that point to the need for this Bill and other legislation to provide greater protection. In my constituency, we saw the plight of the GAME workers who, in common with their fellow workers in stores across the country, staged a sit-in at the Monaghan town shop. These young workers were simply dumped without notice by their employer while the State was left to pick up the tab in statutory redundancy payments.
Since 15 December, the workers at Lagan Brick in Kingscourt, County Cavan, have been maintaining a 24-hour vigil at the plant after they were laid off at an hour’s notice. Once again, workers were dumped by their employer and nothing worthwhile was on offer, despite many years of service by the staff, 43 years in the case of one worker.
We are talking here about ordinary working people and their families. These and many thousands of workers like them are dependent on employers for work and on the Government to ensure fairness at work, as well as fairness in the event of redundancy. They have been let down badly on both counts. They do not have gilt-edged private pensions, senior Civil Service pensions or offshore bank accounts on which to fall back. This Bill’s primary purpose is to enhance the period of notice to workers being made redundant and to speed up the hearing and processing of claims to entitlements.
The Government itself is giving bad example in this regard. Yesterday, I received a reply from the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, concerning redundancy payments to special needs assistants who were laid off by the Government last autumn. Redundancy applications received by the Department in October 2011 are only now being processed. That is not good enough, especially when it affects low-paid workers. The Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, stated the British Government is actively evaluating the relevance of the continued application of the 90 day provision in its jurisdiction. He said the existing 30 day notification and consultation period have served this State well for more than 30 years and neither employer nor employee have ever sought their amendment. He claimed that the 60 and 90 day periods would be unrealistic and inconsistent with the flexibility needed by companies in making decisions in restructuring. He also stated it could create a period of prolonged uncertainty for workers. I find this incredible. Are the intentions of a British Tory Government being advanced by a Labour Minister as an argument against this Bill?
In essence, that is what has been happening. It is simply untrue on the part of the Government to state that employees have not sought a change in the 30 day notification and consultation period. The record shows the contrary is true.
Unite has also given full support to this legislation and its national co-ordinator, Mr. Walter Cullen, has pointed out that his union is currently involved in more than 200 individual cases that have been awaiting adjudication for more than two years. It represents former staff at the Connaught Telegraph newspaper, who have been deprived of wages and holiday pay totalling €20,000 for the past six months. He stated:
Despite what some Deputies have inferred, there is no question of this legislation putting companies out of business. Some may have misunderstood the provisions. The Bill would deem companies insolvent for the purposes of the Protection of Employees (Employers Insolvency) Act only. This relates exclusively to allowing workers access to the insolvency fund and does not affect the company otherwise in terms of its legal status. The protections which exist clearly are not adequate. Employees have been left in a legal limbo and unable to access their entitlements, which is a scandalous loophole. We are endeavouring to deal with that in this Bill.
It is a pity the Government did not take more notice of the Labour Party Senators, to whom my colleague, Deputy O’Brien referred. More than six months ago, in the context of the TalkTalk dispute, they called on the Government to act. Senator Marie Maloney, a former SIPTU official, has already been cited, and she stated:
Senator Ivana Bacik stated “We propose that existing legislation be reviewed in order to provide for a longer notice period than 30 days, especially in cases where a large company is proposing to make collective redundancies.” The Government should listen to the voices in their respective teams.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I ask Labour Party Deputies to prove the cynics wrong. Let the Labour Party Deputies vote for this Bill as the Minister of State is speaking for Fine Gael. He is of one mind.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: ——in any of the instances we cited or across the board. The challenge is for the Labour Party Deputies to stand up and back the voices in the Seanad from only a short number of months ago.
|Adams, Gerry.||Boyd Barrett, Richard.|
|Broughan, Thomas P.||Browne, John.|
|Calleary, Dara.||Collins, Joan.|
|Collins, Niall.||Colreavy, Michael.|
|Crowe, Seán.||Daly, Clare.|
|Doherty, Pearse.||Donnelly, Stephen S.|
|Dooley, Timmy.||Ellis, Dessie.|
|Ferris, Martin.||Flanagan, Luke ‘Ming’.|
|Fleming, Tom.||Grealish, Noel.|
|Healy, Seamus.||Healy-Rae, Michael.|
|Kelleher, Billy.||Kirk, Seamus.|
|Lowry, Michael.||Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.|
|McConalogue, Charlie.||McDonald, Mary Lou.|
|McGrath, Finian.||McGrath, Mattie.|
|McGrath, Michael.||McGuinness, John.|
|McLellan, Sandra.||Moynihan, Michael.|
|Murphy, Catherine.||Nulty, Patrick.|
|Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.||Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.|
|Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.||O’Brien, Jonathan.|
|O’Dea, Willie.||O’Sullivan, Maureen.|
|Ross, Shane.||Smith, Brendan.|
|Stanley, Brian.||Tóibín, Peadar.|
|Troy, Robert.||Wallace, Mick.|
|Bannon, James.||Barry, Tom.|
|Breen, Pat.||Butler, Ray.|
|Buttimer, Jerry.||Byrne, Eric.|
|Cannon, Ciarán.||Carey, Joe.|
|Coffey, Paudie.||Collins, Áine.|
|Conaghan, Michael.||Conlan, Seán.|
|Connaughton, Paul J.||Conway, Ciara.|
|Corcoran Kennedy, Marcella.||Costello, Joe.|
|Creed, Michael.||Creighton, Lucinda.|
|Daly, Jim.||Deasy, John.|
|Deenihan, Jimmy.||Deering, Pat.|
|Doherty, Regina.||Donohoe, Paschal.|
|Dowds, Robert.||Doyle, Andrew.|
|Durkan, Bernard J.||English, Damien.|
|Feighan, Frank.||Ferris, Anne.|
|Fitzgerald, Frances.||Fitzpatrick, Peter.|
|Flanagan, Charles.||Flanagan, Terence.|
|Gilmore, Eamon.||Griffin, Brendan.|
|Hannigan, Dominic.||Harrington, Noel.|
|Harris, Simon.||Heydon, Martin.|
|Hogan, Phil.||Howlin, Brendan.|
|Humphreys, Heather.||Humphreys, Kevin.|
|Keating, Derek.||Keaveney, Colm.|
|Kehoe, Paul.||Kelly, Alan.|
|Kenny, Seán.||Kyne, Seán.|
|Lawlor, Anthony.||Lynch, Ciarán.|
|Lynch, Kathleen.||Lyons, John.|
|McCarthy, Michael.||McEntee, Shane.|
|McFadden, Nicky.||McHugh, Joe.|
|McLoughlin, Tony.||McNamara, Michael.|
|Maloney, Eamonn.||Mathews, Peter.|
|Mitchell O’Connor, Mary.||Mitchell, Olivia.|
|Mulherin, Michelle.||Murphy, Dara.|
|Murphy, Eoghan.||Nash, Gerald.|
|Neville, Dan.||Nolan, Derek.|
|O’Donnell, Kieran.||O’Donovan, Patrick.|
|O’Dowd, Fergus.||O’Mahony, John.|
|O’Reilly, Joe.||O’Sullivan, Jan.|
|Perry, John.||Phelan, Ann.|
|Phelan, John Paul.||Rabbitte, Pat.|
|Ring, Michael.||Ryan, Brendan.|
|Sherlock, Sean.||Shortall, Róisín.|
|Spring, Arthur.||Stagg, Emmet.|
|Stanton, David.||Timmins, Billy.|
|Tuffy, Joanna.||Twomey, Liam.|
|Wall, Jack.||Walsh, Brian.|
|Last Updated: 10/01/2013 11:32:25||Page of 143|