Worker protection cannot become casualty of change of government

31 May 2016

 Dáil Éireann, Labour Party Motion on Protection of Employees’ Rights

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Ceann Comhairle, I move Motion No. 18, on behalf of the Labour Party. I am sharing time.

 

Ceann Comhairle, this is Labour’s first Private Members’ Time in the new Dáil. And we had no difficulty in choosing the issue we want to prioritise.

 

The last Government was devoted to cleaning up the mess. Now, Ireland is in a strong position to grow again.

 

And my party’s priorities are all about making sure the benefits of strong growth are fairly shared. About working to improve the quality of life for working people.

 

For us, getting the economy back on track was not an end in itself. It was a means to getting people back to work, and getting pay back in people’s pockets.

 

Who else in Government would have ensured that Ireland – uniquely – delivered two rises in the minimum wage against the backdrop of the worst recession in our history?

 

As the economy continues to recover and unemployment continues to fall, we want to see the benefits of recovery translated into better working conditions and improved pay, particularly for low-paid workers.

 

Of course the world of work is changing fast. Workers have adapted to more flexible terms and conditions.

 

But, in all this change, we need still to protect the basic requirements of a decent working life.

 

Work is not just an input into production. It is about human dignity and respect. For some people, the needs of the economy require labour to become commoditised. We reject the forced casualisation of jobs. We reject a future that sees workers become trapped in job and income insecurity, in a succession of short-term, low quality jobs, with no access to adequate social protection.

 

In particular, there are too many women now working in jobs that are poorly paid, or insecure, and outside or at the very edge of our employment protection laws.

 

I and my party have no interest in ‘jobs at any price’, in the spread of casual labour at the lowest wages. This Government and Dáil must not preside over an economic recovery that is fuelled by a ruthless race to the bottom or the sacrifice of employment rights that are the mark of a decent and progressive society.

 

What people want – and are entitled to – are sustainable, secure and reasonably well-paid jobs.

 

So what we have outlined in the motion here is a programme of work to tackle abusive terms and conditions of employment – low pay, insecure hours, enforced and bogus self-employment.

 

We are seeking to continue with the work we started in Government. We re-installed a Labour Party Minister for Labour Affairs, Ged Nash, whose role was to insist this country needs not just more jobs but more quality jobs.

 

In his period in Labour Affairs, he drove the Labour Party agenda of making work pay, enhancing dignity at work and reducing inequality.

 

That is why we set up the Low Pay Commission. It is also why we brought in new industrial relations laws, to re-balance the interests of workers and employers.

 

And it is why we turned public attention to the abusive relationships that surround the casualisation of labour.

 

Let’s be clear about this. We are not a nation of Luddites. We have a small and open economy. We respond to the needs of the global marketplace. We recognise there are sectors in the economy that place a premium on flexibility in the workplace.

 

But, for us in the Labour Party, the basic requirements for a decent working life must be maintained. We want the right balance between enterprise’s need for flexibility and adaptability and a worker’s right to job security – to a basic level of predictability in the terms and conditions of work.

 

There is a growing number of people in precarious employment, non-standard employment that is poorly paid or insecure or completely outside our employment protection laws.

 

And precarious employment is not gender neutral: women are invariably over-represented in this type of work.

 

In Government we highlighted several of these issues. I’ll refer to some of them briefly. First, we commissioned research and recommendations on zero and low hours, which show we have a serious and growing problem.

 

People working under these contracts are being told they are in effect casual day workers. For these workers, hours at work – and payslips – can vary drastically, with no guarantee of any work at all from week to week. These workers know where their next bill is coming from, but they cannot tell you when they will get their next payslip – or what size it will be.

 

Erratic pay like this produces massive insecurity and it is entirely destructive of any attempt to plan your finances, to plan a future for yourself and for your family.

 

These are frankly perverse arrangements are aimed at downgrading the status of employment. Workers are entitled to basic security in their employment, in order to plan their lives.

 

We believe this Dáil must legislate to bring this abuse to an end.

 

But dealing with a phenomenon of this scale – protecting workers against the casualisation of their jobs – will require more than just a quick fix legislative amendment. It needs our detailed collective consideration and agreement.

 

Second, low pay must continue to be high on our agenda. The minimum wage is a starting point. But we want to go further. The minimum wage is our statutory pay floor. The living wage is different. It recognises that there are sectors in the economy in danger of becoming addicted to low pay and that there are many employers who can well afford to pay more than the statutory pay floor.

 

The living wage is an independently assessed and agreed measure of the income necessary to meet basic needs – housing, food, utilities, clothing, transport, health care, childcare and minimal recreation.

 

And, from the Government’s viewpoint, the living wage boosts tax revenues, reduces the welfare spend and allows for investment in essential public services.

 

I accept that progress on this will be incremental and not at the stroke of a Ministerial pen. In Government Minister Nash took the first steps to put this on the public agenda, at a forum for employers, unions and civil society.

 

The Dáil needs to further explore how we can progress this, looking perhaps at the UK experience and at the benefits it provides for society, the economy and for businesses there.

 

I believe we can ensure that the State and all State agencies become Living Wage employers and that we should impose a Living Wage condition on public procurement contracts.

 

I also believe we can, over the lifetime of this Government, increase the National Minimum Wage until it is pegged at 2/3 of median earnings.

 

And I believe it is high time we set about legislating for common and comprehensive definitions of employment and self-employment, that will apply for tax, social welfare and employment protection purposes. We need to crack down on bogus self-employment practices that exploit workers and leave them without legal protections.

 

There was, in truth, only so much that Minister Ged Nash could do during his short period in office. He delivered on the Low Pay Commission and the National Minimum Wage. He produced collective bargaining legislation and laws on Registered Employment Agreements, Sectoral Employment Orders and the re-establishment of the Joint Labour Committees.

 

But, like any busy Minister, he left a lot of work unfinished. Most of the issues of continuing concern are listed in tonight’s motion.

 

We do not want to see the foot being taken off the accelerator by the new administration.

 

That is why we wrote last week to all parties and groups, looking for consensus on these matters. When we drafted the motion, we hoped to attract support from as wide a range of members as possible. We bore in mind the proposals in party manifestoes from across the board.

 

Because we believe that, unless the Dáil puts down a marker, workers’ rights will become chief casualty of this new administration.

 

And, with all the genuine hope as well as hype about a new dynamic in the Dáil, we needed to test whether a package of progressive proposals could be adopted by Opposition as well as Government parties – to test whether our motion could be adopted by consensus and these measures could become a reality.

 

So we reached out to the other parties.

 

But, typically, Sinn Féin immediately and out of hand rejected any effort at cooperation.

 

That is not too surprising. Sinn Féin is a party of professional contrarians, opposed to everyone and everything – including the Opposition in this House.

 

When an agreed road forward is clearly signposted, they go yomping off alone into the wilderness.

 

It turns out the AAA are exactly the same, except they cannot even dissent by consensus with Sinn Féin and have to make their own separate noise.

 

The position of these two parties on our motion betrays not just their churlishness but also their ignorance about the issues. It passes belief that any party that seeks support from Irish workers could know so little about the current industrial relations landscape.

 

Sinn Féin and the AAA say that we in the Labour party did nothing to protect the rights of Dunnes Store workers, that we failed to provide specific or adequate legislation.

 

Does they not know that this very week the Labour Court is hearing the claim against Dunnes Stores brought by Mandate?

 

And that the claim is brought under the Industrial Relations Act that was introduced and enacted under the stewardship of my colleague Ged Nash in 2015?

 

The Dunnes Stores dispute will be one of the first hearings under the new Act. I am entirely in sympathy with Mandate in its struggle against the stubborn refusal of Dunnes Stores management to provide their workers with some certainty on hours and earnings.

 

The refusal of management there to sit down and negotiate with the workers through their union is a national disgrace. The workers have shown real courage and conviction in pursuing their case and I fully support them.

 

But I and my party did not just mouth off about the issue. We did not simply carp and whinge. We changed the law and we gave the workers a remedy.

 

The new Act allows the Labour Court to intervene, even when the employer does not turn up, and it allows the Court to issue binding determinations on pay and conditions that are enforceable in the Circuit Court.

 

The Labour Court can now look to comparators, both unionised and non-unionised, and they can see what collective agreements have established as the norm for the sector.

 

John Douglas and his union welcomed that Act. They have prepared their case and have invoked the legislation.

 

In the same way, Mandate also welcomed our investigation into zero and low hour contracts, and they engaged with that report.

 

That is real political leadership and engagement, real cooperation with the labour movement on the issues that matter. It is the way real progress is made.

 

As I said on the day I became Party Leader, Labour doesn’t offer theatrics. We offer real change.

 

Sinn Féin and the Trotskyists, on the other hand, have a critique without a solution.

 

And, quite frankly, they are out of their depth when it comes to genuine industrial relations.

 

They could as usefully set about organising oompah-loompahs in a chocolate factory as try to offer any worthwhile advice to Dunne Stores workers and their union.

 

Finally, we are almost at the first anniversary of the Clerys liquidation. That liquidation was engineered so as to separate the Clerys building from trading business that employed the staff.

 

These actions amounted, I believe, to a calculated effort to subvert both company and employment protection law.

 

We do need to emphasise that the workers are not out of pocket as regards statutory entitlements. The State became obliged to pay all the sums that were due to the company’s employees. It is the taxpayer that bears this multi-million euro loss.

 

I hope the Minister in her reply to our motion will be able to give us an update and to spell out the current position on the various initiatives taken by Ged Nash under the previous administration.

 

First, he published a report which outlined Companies Act provisions enabling the courts to ensure that all assets that ought to be available to the creditors can be clawed back for their benefit.

 

The as yet untested section 599 of the Companies Act featured in that analysis. The report pointed out that the Minister for Social Protection had standing as a preferred creditor in the winding up, and that this remedy was potentially available to her on behalf of the out of pocket taxpayers.

 

I understand that the Attorney General’s Office have now advised on this issue. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government has decided to take action and to test their case in court?

 

Second, the last administration appointed officers with statutory powers to investigate whether any breaches of the Protection of Employment Act 1977 occurred in the course these events.

 

Contravention of that Act is an offence. There is a 12-month time limit on prosecutions.

 

We know that Ms Deirdre Foley and D2 Private Ltd have now brought a High Court challenge to the activities of these authorised officers.

 

Can the Minister outline to us the current state of play? Can she tell us what efforts are being taken to expedite these proceedings, given the time limit for any prosecution?

 

Finally, last year Ministers Bruton and Nash appointed two experts to examine the legal protections for workers, where operations and assets were moved to separate legal entities.

 

Kevin Duffy, chairman of the Labour Court and Nessa Cahill BL a company law specialist, have published their report with recommendations and it was published by the previous Government.

 

Can the Minister now tell us what the attitude of herself and the Government is to these recommendations? When can we expect to see action, so as to ensure that the interests of employees are most effectively safeguarded?

 

It would be a pity if, in the changeover to a new administration, the impetus to drive forward on these three fronts was lost.

 

The priority must be to ensure that a situation like Clerys cannot happen again. Our joint commitment must be that, if the law is tested and proves to be ineffective, then it must be corrected.

 

Finally, Ceann Comhairle, I cannot that anything useful has been added by the amendments proposed by Sinn Féin or the AAA and I reject them both, as well as the Government amendment.

 

I commend our motion to the Dáil.

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