Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 19 January 2016
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation
Zero-Hour Contracts: Discussion
I remind Members, visitors and those in the Visitors Gallery to please ensure their mobile telephones are switched off for the duration of the meeting as, even in silent mode, they do cause interference with the broadcasting equipment. I welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for business and employment, Deputy Gerald Nash, and his officials. I thank them for coming before the committee to discuss the University of Limerick report on the prevalence among Irish employers of zero-hour contracts and their impact on employees. I also wish to remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or body outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I now call on the Minister of State, Deputy Nash to make his opening statement.
I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to appear today to discuss the University of Limerick report, A Study on the Prevalence of Zero-Hour Contracts Among Irish Employers and their Impact on Employees, which was published in November 2015. I am anxious to hear the views of the committee because, following public consultation with stakeholder bodies, we are currently in the process of formalising proposals. This committee meeting is one of the more important engagements in order to capture the view of members on the future direction of this matter. I welcome the committee's own report, Low Pay, Decent Work and a Living Wage, compiled with the help of the rapporteur, Senator David Cullinane. I am joined today by Mr. Derek Sheridan and Mr. David Lockhart, from the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation's employment rights policy unit.
I will give some background to the issue. The University of Limerick report stems from a commitment made by Government in its statement of priorities which was published in July 2014. The commitment was to conduct a study in the prevalence of zero-hour contracts among Irish employers and their impact on employees and to make policy recommendations to Government. The study was commissioned from the University of Limerick as it was recognised, in the first instance, that there was a knowledge deficit relating to the prevalence of zero-hour contract practices on which we did not have hard data.
There is a lot of talk in Ireland, the UK and elsewhere in Europe about zero-hour work practices but there is no common European definition. In Ireland the definition of a zero-hour contract dates from the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997, which says that a zero-hour contract requires a worker to make himself or herself available for work - to be on call - but with zero or very few guaranteed hours of actual work. The 1997 Act essentially established a floor for workers under these type of contracts. Under the provision in the Act, workers are entitled to be paid at least 25% of the hours they are on call or 15 hours, whichever is less.
While we did not know it in advance of the study, we had a pretty good idea that the 1997 Act was working as intended and that zero-hour contracts would not be the main issue encountered by the researchers. For this reason, when the tender for the study to which I have referred was issued in November 2014, I asked that the key objectives for the study be broadened out to include an examination of the prevalence of both zero-hour contracts and low-hour contracts, which were defined for the purpose of the investigation as eight hours or less per week. Following a competitive tendering process, the University of Limerick was appointed to carry out the study. The terms of reference provided that the study should have a broad scope covering the public and private sectors with a particular focus on the retail, hospitality, education and health sectors. It was required that a broad range of stakeholders should also be canvassed to contribute to the study. They included trade unions, employee and employer representative organisations, trade associations and relevant Government Departments and State bodies.
The University of Limerick found that zero-hour contracts, as defined within the current Irish employment rights legislation, are not extensively used in the State. However, the study did throw up a phenomenon which is completely outside the terms of the 1997 legislation and which is not captured by that legislation. As a result of the study we have introduced a new term to describe this phenomenon. the "if and when" contract. Unlike the worker under a zero-hour contract who is on call for a shift but is not guaranteed any hours of work, the major difference for a worker under an "if and when" arrangement is that he or she does not have to be on call at all. There is simply an understanding between the employer and the worker that work may be offered and the offer may be accepted. There is no underlying obligation on either side and no mutuality of obligation whatsoever.
Given that there is no on-call obligation, the pay floor introduced in the 1997 Act in terms of zero-hour contracts does not appear to apply in arrangements like this.
We need to be clear about one question from the start. We can all agree, I think, that there is at least one issue worth debating about the fairness of an employment contract where both the amount and the timing of the hours of work are entirely variable and unpredictable, and that issue involves balancing the employer's need for flexibility with the employee's need for some level of income security and some certainty around hours worked and his or her life in general. However, what I am raising here is a prior, and perhaps more important, question that is fundamental to this whole argument. If I, as a worker, am notified that an employer may from time to time offer me work but that I am under no obligation to accept it, then it may be that in law this arrangement does not amount to an employment contract at all. That is a fairly fundamental question to answer. In other words, the preliminary question, before we embark on further investigation of this with the committee, is not whether such a term in an employment contract is unfair or exploitative. The preliminary question here is whether there is, in fact, any contract in existence at all. That is a fundamental point. This is because, as I stated, the mutuality of obligations idea is at the heart of contract law. If an employer and worker are not bound together by obligations to keep the promises they have made to each other then they are not parties to a contract of employment and simply saying, "I may offer you work but if you do you are not obliged to accept it", may be interpreted by a court as not giving rise to any contract or relationship whatsoever and, therefore, although this question has not been tested in the courts, it may be the case that employees working under these arrangements have no enduring contract with their employers.
However, it is important as well to point out that there is reasonably significant case law at Labour Court level which essentially looks under the bonnet of working arrangements to establish the actuality of those arrangements in terms of their interpretation of whether or not a contract exists, or the nature of that contract. When these individuals are employees for the duration of their shift only, for example, after each shift one could assume in some cases that they are, in effect, out of a job. That is a fundamental point. This is clearly an important issue and goes to the heart of the issues that we are seeking to examine.
Our employment protection laws have reached some workers in atypical employment. They have been extended in recent years to give protection to fixed-term and part-time workers but they have little or nothing to say about casual labour, perhaps because we, as legislators, had presumed that we had seen the end of that type of phenomenon at any appreciable level. I referred earlier to if-and-when arrangements as a new phenomenon but it might be a little more accurate to class them as a resurrection of an old phenomenon, one we had thought we had seen the back of. If these if-and-when workers have no employment contract lasting any longer than the length of their shift then we are taking a step backwards, I believe, to the era of the Dublin docks in the 1950s, or indeed, the era of the hiring fairs of the 19th century, when an employer could simply pick his daily complement of labour from those lined outside of the workplace whom one might describe as an institutional pool of casual workers who could hope for nothing more than a day's work. That is not something anybody in this day and age could stand over.
That is what is meant by casual labour. It is workers on stand-by, available to work as required, and without any contractual hours or contractual entitlements. In law, casual labour is an employee for only some limited employment rights purposes. While he or she would be entitled to a payslip, he or she would fall outside the protections of other aspects of employment law and employment protection. For example, a casual worker would be outside the protection of unfair dismissals law, redundancy law and much more, simply because the worker would not have clocked up the necessary period of continuous service to qualify.
The University of Limerick report made a range of recommendations. The overall objectives of the recommendation are, as stated by the university, to address the key concerns of employer organisations to retain flexibility and of trade union and NGO bodies to improve the predictability and certainty of hours. The recommendations include a number of specific changes to existing employment rights legislation. The recommendations include that employees should receive a written contract on their first day of their new job. Currently, an employer has two months to issue a contract. That contract should provide a statement of working hours which are a true reflection of those required. There should be a minimum of three continuous working hours where an employee is required to report for work and if there is not, the worker should be paid for the three hours. An employer should give at least 72 hours' notice of any request to undertake work unless there are exceptional unforeseen circumstances. If a worker undertakes extra hours without the minimum notice, he or she should be compensated at 150% of the rate he or she would be paid.
The university also said that legislation should be enacted to provide for employees with no guaranteed hours of work or those on hybrid low hours and if-and-when contracts to take an average of the number of hours worked in the previous six months as the minimum to be stipulated in their contract. Periodic reviews of these hours should be put in place in order that contracts reflect the reality of working hours according to the UL report's recommendations. In addition, employer organisations and trade unions which conclude sectoral collective agreements can opt out of some of the suggested legislative provisions in circumstances where such agreements is entered into.
I emphasise that this was an independent study which was commissioned by the Government and that the conclusions drawn and the recommendations made in the report are those of UL. Therefore, the study does not represent Government policy. We are still considering the submissions made in recent weeks by a range of different stakeholders, with a view to bringing proposals forward over the next period. At its meeting on 3 November, the Government approved the publication of the UL report and my intention is to engage in a public consultation process. The UL report was published on 3 November. In view of the independent nature of the report, public consultation was considered essential by me in order to ensure that all stakeholders and interested parties with views on this matter were afforded a proper opportunity to consider and respond to the report's findings and recommendations. Following publication last November, a consultation process with a closing date of 4 January was launched. We received a total of 47 responses, which are broken down as follows: four submissions came from political interests and public representatives; six from Government Departments and bodies; seven from trade unions and employee representative groups; 23 from employers and employer representative bodies; five from NGOs; and two from the legal profession and related disciplines. In broad terms, the responses received represent what we can clearly say are two diametrically opposed viewpoints. On one hand, the majority of submissions from trade unions and NGOs are essentially in agreement with UL's findings and recommendations. On the other, the submissions from the employer and business bodies are opposed. Given the volume of responses and the closing date of 4 January, I am still considering the submissions with a view to formulating proposals.
In terms of the response to the two issues thrown up by the study, we need a two-stage approach. By all means, we must debate the pros and cons of what is contained in the report. I am very anxious to ascertain the views of members. I am here to listen to what they have to say about the recommendations and to their suggestions as to how we should move forward. For employers, for example, the main advantage of if-and-when contracts are flexibility and reduced costs, although there must be an additional administrative burden in managing a much larger workforce the members of which are all on variable hours. It may well suit some workers - for family, educational or other personal reasons - to do non-standard work for at least part of their working lives. Disadvantages for workers must include the unpredictability of hours and the uncertainty around that, difficulties in managing working life and family life, unstable income and difficulties accessing credit and, as matters currently stand, social welfare benefits under those types of arrangements. These are just a few of the issues that working people will have with these arrangements. We can consider and weigh up the pros and cons and debate the merits of intervening to redress the imbalance in this relationship where many of the risks involved seem to have been transferred to the employee.
I return to the prior question, which is fundamentally important in the context of considering how to move on in this area. We want the relationship to which I refer rebalanced in the details of proposals and we want this to be done in a way that responds to everybody's concerns. Are we willing to see this relationship grounded on contracts that turn out not to be contracts at all? Are we willing to see business reduce costs and increase profits at the expense of what might be termed an underclass of labour that does not even have the benefit of the most basic of entitlements, namely, a written employment contract? That goes to the heart of the matter. Do we, as legislators, want to turn back the clock? Do we want to accept that viewpoint and oversee the growth of a pool of casual workers who, in many cases, will be placed entirely outside of the legislative suite in the context of employment protections? Whatever else we agree - and I think we may all disagree sometimes during the next stage of the debate - we must first agree that we need to bring clarity to the issue of employment status of workers on if-and-when contracts.
We need such clarity for the purposes of our tax laws, social welfare laws and employment protection laws and we need to bring back in these workers from the cold. It very much turns on that issue of the status of an employment contract and what reforms could be introduced to strengthen that from the workers' perspective while at the same time providing flexibility to business to grow and expand in the context of a growing economy. I look forward to hearing the committee's views. I am here to listen to the members today. We will be formulating proposals very shortly to bring to Government but it is crucial that we get the committee's opinions on the next steps in terms of that process.
I thank the Chairman and members of the committee. I welcome the Minister of State to the committee. It is positive that we are shining a spotlight on this issue. It is fair to say many of us have been raising these issues for many years. In fact we had Mandate, Unite, SIPTU and other trade unions appear before the committee on these issues on several occasions in recent years. As the Minister of State pointed out, the committee published a report on low pay, decent work, and a living wage. Some of the issues he raised were addressed in that report even though, primarily, it focused on low pay. The last time the trade unions appeared before the committee - the employers appeared before the committee also - they focused on the difficulties that the if-and-when or low-hour contracts pose for workers. They also had people who were on low-hour contracts themselves. The Minister of State may recall it was on the back of one of the large multiple retailers who was in a dispute with the trade union, Mandate. It mainly involved workers who work for that company and there were presentations in the AV room.
Workers across different sectors in retail and hospitality gave examples of how it affects them. Not knowing what their income would be affects them in terms of not having security of pay and not being able to plan to pay bills. Many would know what their income would be because they could have been on low-hour contracts for ten, 15 or 20 years and still have a ten-hour or 15 hour contract per week, even though for long periods they were getting 20, 30 hours or, perhaps, longer. However, there is a difficulty for others in terms of not knowing what work they have. Obviously, there are difficulties in not knowing the social welfare benefits, such as family income support, they might get. While I am in favour of flexibility in the workforce, and flexible contracts suit some workers, some employers exploit that flexibility and the nature of flexible work. That exploitation, where it happen, is what we need to deal with, not the flexible nature of work which we all support. That is our role as legislators.
I remind the Minister of State of the ICTU fair hours proposals. It has called on us, as legislators, to introduce fair hours legislation. Given that Deputy Peadar Tóibín has published a Bill dealing with many of these issues, a good deal of work has been done. With respect, what has been missing for many years has been the political will to deal with it. I give credit to the Minister of State that we are focusing on the issue now but this has been an issue for some time.
The Minister of State asked for solutions. I can give a number of examples of where we want to see a focus. As part of the consultation process, we made a submission so much of this has been addressed. The trade unions have called for banded hours where certainty is given to workers. For example, one might start off on a ten-hour or 15 hour contract. If, over a period of six or 12 months one is getting regular hours over and above that contract, after a period one moves up the bands and that certainty is then given to workers. This is something that is done in other European Union countries and it seems to be a practical solution. In fact, some of the retailers provide banded hours. It is a system that is in operation, and some do it voluntarily, but we need to make it mandatory.
We want to see collective bargaining strengthened and to have mandatory trade union recognition. This issue has been discussed many times in the Dáil and Seanad with the Minister of State. We want robust and devictimisation legislation put in place to protect workers.
I have talked to people who are on low-hour contracts. One of the problems they raise is how they are being exploited. The Mandate trade union carried out a survey of workers to find out the experiences and what impact these contracts had on them. It concluded that workers were at the mercy of the employer. If a worker raised questions about the terms and conditions of employment, it could have an impact on the amount of hours the person got. That cannot continue to be the situation for workers. Workers must be able to express concerns and have their rights vindicated. They should not have to worry that if they raise these issues then perhaps they might not get the hours that other workers get, but this has been an issue.
We are calling for employers to provide employees with a written statement of normal working hours on the first day of employment. We want to see the introduction of fair employment legislation, making banded-hour contracts mandatory and increasing the notice period for rosters to at least one week. We want to increase the period of compensated time in order that employees are compensated for half of unworked time and not a quarter or 15 hours, whichever is the lesser, as is currently the case. We also want to provide the right for employees to an overtime premium for hours worked in excess of the normal hours in the employment contract. Moreover, we want a right to request full-time work and a corresponding obligation on employers to consider this request.
The committee members will remember the European directive that was brought in. We all supported it because we needed more part-time workers. These were people who wanted to go back into the workforce during the Celtic tiger years. We needed more people in work at the time and it was attractive to entice more people to work part-time. The directive was aimed at this end and facilitated people who wished to reduce their hours and work part-time. The opposite is now the case. Many people who are working part-time and on low-hour contracts want to work more hours but they are not always given the opportunity to do so. Often companies employ people on short-hour contracts rather than giving them the opportunity to work full-time.
There are many more points but I know other people want to come in. Deputy Tóibín will pick up on some of the issues I have not raised. My point is that practical realistic deliverable solutions are available. Whatever happens in the course of the coming weeks, I imagine some of these issues will form part of the campaign we are all going to be involved in. The committee members published the report to try to figure out a blueprint to deal with these issues, irrespective of who is in government. Exploitation of workers is wrong. The abuse of flexible contracts is wrong. We can bring in legislation to address this. I hope that will be a priority for the next Government. We have made a submission. Our views have been articulated to the Minister of State in this committee as well as in the submission. I thank the Minister of State for giving us the opportunity to have this discussion today.
I realise Senator Cullinane has been raising these issues for some time. I raised them myself as a backbencher. I am pleased that I have had the opportunity to try to advance this agenda during the past year and a half. Senator Cullinane has always spoken eloquently and passionately about his interest in this area. We have many things in common in terms of how we would like to see these issues addressed. We differ on some points but that is the nature of debate and discourse.
We are serious about trying to address these issues. This is the first time any government has commissioned a report of this nature to try to address the knowledge gap. The information deficit is going to be important. We continually seek to collect data and information in a structured way. This is something Deputy Tóibín has spoken about in the past as well.
I welcome the publication of the committee report. It is a helpful set of proposals in advancing this agenda. I agree with Senator Cullinane's point. We should all accept that there is a requirement to have a degree of flexibility in the labour market. It is important to give people the opportunity to access work but we must also be conscious of the needs of employers, the vast majority of whom are decent good employers. They see their staff as instrumental to their business and their success. I am keen to put that on the record. However, the difficulty is where these type of arrangements become the norm and when they become exploitative and abusive. That is when we need to say "Stop" and address any deficits there may be in our legislative or regulatory arrangements.
There is the political will to address this issue, which we have managed to get onto the political agenda in a way that was not the case previously.
I am interested in the Senator's views on banded-hour contracts, which he correctly stated were the norm in many analogous EU states. We all know about the issue with elements of the retail trade but there are also good examples in that trade of the use of banded-hour contracts.
We cannot discuss recent improvements in employment legislation or our general approach to ensuring fairness and decency at work without considering the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2015, which improved the industrial relations landscape significantly. As a result, there are strong, robust and constitutional collective bargaining laws that form a framework for trade unions and employers to engage and arrive at collective agreements through the Labour Court. The legislation is also clear on the problem of victimisation. Under one of its provisions, no worker can be victimised for holding the ambition to promote collective bargaining in the workplace. This is a significant move.
I am grateful for Senator Cullinane's contributions today and previously. He wants to move towards an improvement in employment legislation, as do the majority of the committee's members and I.
I thank the Minister of State and welcome him and his comments, in particular those on the if-and-when hours contracts and their precedents in the 1950s and 1960s. There has been a great deal of criticism of the report by business organisations, which is to be expected, but also from many Government organisations. For example, the Department of Education and Skills and, in particular, the HSE have been damning of it in their public comments. How would the Minister of State react to these criticisms?
There is also a concern among some employer groups that the collection of the data which informed the report has aged, with some of the figures dating back to 2010. The groups cite the use of the CSO household survey, which does not pick up any information on the prevalence of various kinds of contract. Will the Minister of State respond to this point?
It is important that we put robust safeguards in place, as a small minority of employers are undoubtedly exploiting employees. We see it every day from the cases that come to our offices. The Minister of State is well used to the issue from his previous life. However, were we to implement the report's recommendations, where would we lie in terms of international competition and how would we compare with our EU neighbours, given their regulations and protections? The Minister of State cannot speak for private employers but I assume the report was discussed by the Government before it was published by the Cabinet. What would be the cost of implementing its recommendations to, for example, the Department of Education and Skills and the HSE?
I do not have those cost figures. As the Deputy knows, they are matters for the Departments of Education and Skills and Health, which have engaged in the open consultation process. Following my request, I met employers before we started the formal consultation process - I also met trade unions and other groups - to assess their early views in response to the report's publication. I recall meeting them in early November soon after publication.
When we set about capturing as much quantitative and qualitative information as we could, we made it clear that this phenomenon was not exclusive to the private sector. For example, there are people - young, by and large - in the education sector who are in these arrangements and others in section 38 organisations that are funded by the HSE to provide home help care packages to vulnerable older people, people with disabilities and so on. We wanted to capture people's views. With respect, it is a matter for the Departments of Education and Skills and Health and the HSE to respond in time. However, the process is not yet complete.
Can I come in on that? A report in The Irish Timeson 18 January from Martin Wall and Carl O'Brien states:
The HSE said the Limerick group had gone beyond its original terms of reference, adding it “does not accept its recommendations and proposed legislative amendments”. The HSE contends that the proposed legislative recommendations lack a clear rationale given the study’s original terms of reference and would impose unnecessary costs and an administrative burden on health service employers.
That is a pretty-----
As I said in my opening statement, the Government statement of priorities focused exclusively on the area of zero-hour contracts, but zero-hour contracts do not exist in the same way in Ireland as they do in the UK because of a provision of the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997. We want to capture the reality and data, quantitative and qualitative, on low-hour contracts, which we defined as under eight hours. In many cases, those who are working in the home help sector, for example, and particularly in the voluntary sector, would be on contracts of under eight hours. A Labour Court agreement was reached a couple of years ago with the HSE and SIPTU regarding contractual arrangements for HSE home help workers who, I seem to recall, have more certainty over their contracts. That has made a very important contribution to the employment circumstances of HSE home help workers. We extended it to low-hour contracts as well, to capture as much information as we could about precarious and non-standard work.
One of the issues is that we do not have a common European definition of low-hours work while employment rights vary across the European Union. Deputy Calleary asked me about the practice in analogous European states. By and large, we found that in very progressive European states sectoral employment agreements, for example, take precedence. The University of Limerick recommendations suggested that if sectoral agreements can be reached, applying right across the sector - I have provided for those opportunities in the Industrial Relations Act 2015 - they could supersede many of the recommendations we may introduce over the next period of time in respect of how we deal with the whole area of "if and when" contracts. A considerable number of European countries are well advanced in terms of these protections, but we should also point out that a relatively low number of employees in the Irish context are on low-hour contracts, according to the Quarterly National Household Survey, QNHS. We are talking about a very small percentage. About 87% of Irish employees are on contracts of 19 hours and over. The bulk of those are on what we would consider to be fairly standard full-time contracts, even in an ever-changing world.
The report recognises the need for ongoing data collection. I said earlier, and Deputy Tóibín has said on a number of occasions on the record of the House, that there is a requirement to capture discrete data, referencing low hours in particular. That is a recommendation the University of Limerick made which we need to take very seriously. If we are to respond in a comprehensive way on a policy basis to the challenge we face as an economy and as a society, we need as strong an evidence base as we can have. It is important to reflect on that as well. On the figures regarding the prevalence of regular low-hours work, the QNHS figures used by the University of Limerick suggested that 2% of employees - that is probably about 29,000 - are on one to eight hours per week and they are largely to be found in the accommodation, food and retail, and education sectors. About 98,000 - 6% - are on nine to 18 hours. They are, again, largely to be found in the accommodation, retail, education and health care sectors.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit as ucht a chur i láthair. I thank the Minister of State for the presentation. The CSO indicated recently that about 106,000 people were what was termed "under-employed".
These are people who work for a few hours a week, but want to work full-time. We know that life can be very difficult for them. Making ends meet is tough because they work so few hours. We also know that, in many cases, these contracts make it very difficult for families to plan and deliver normal family experiences such as child care and holidays. We know that most employers are decent, but there are some unscrupulous employers that have used low-hour and zero-hour contracts not just for the purpose of flexibility but for leverage in terms of how they want workers to behave and so on.
The economy has evolved in this direction over the past number of years. We need to make sure that we give people the right to be flexible when necessary for their own lives, but also that they have decent contracts. Over a year ago I banged the table and asked the Minister of State to seek from the CSO information about the prevalence of low-hour contracts within the economy. It was information I felt could be gathered immediately. A request to collect such information would not necessarily be a policy direction in any way. Rather, it was to be a neutral measurement facility that would allow for greater knowledge in the long run.
The major problem I have is the urgency of this issue. Workers such as those employed by Dunnes Stores have had a very difficult time. My worry is that although the Minister of State has compiled a report, a lot of its recommendations were delivered to him in advance of the report. Much of the information about the economy was also available. I produced the Banded Hours Contract Bill 2015, which allowed for staff members, in conjunction with employers, to migrate between bands of hours that they could work. Now, four or eight weeks away from an election and the end of the Dáil, we have a report. With the best will in the world, workers cannot eat that report. While it is hoped the report will cover the future direction of the next Government, it will not make a significant difference to the lives of current workers.
The Minister of State has a limited amount of time left. Out of all of the recommendations, what can he implement before his Ard-Fheis on 30 January? I refer to the recording of the necessary information by the CSO. Is legislation necessary for every element? Can any statutory powers be used by a Minister? I have always used the phrase "urgent" in regard to this issue. I would like the Minister for State to show some urgency with regard to some of the recommendations.
I will respond briefly to Deputy Tóibín's point. He asked what we could introduce before the Dáil is dissolved. This is the first time any Government has expressed any keen interest in this area. It took time to institute a comprehensive study. We are considering the next steps and I am here today to hear the views of committee members in terms of what the they should be.
I see all of this as part of a package. It is still my intention to bring proposals to my Government colleagues as per their suggestion and the approved decision in November to bring proposals to Government before its term comes to an end in the next few weeks or whenever. I have been very clear that elements of the law and our regulatory environment need to change to support working people in situations like this.
It has been said many times - including by Deputy Tóibín - that flexible working arrangements must be made available to people to reflect their personal circumstances, where they are in their lives and what works for them. However, it must also be accepted that businesses need flexibility to operate and grow. Fundamentally, this is about where that relationship becomes exploitative or is at risk of becoming so. That is where we need to change. A great deal of this turns on the interpretation and legal status of the contract itself. These things are fundamental to our employment legislation. As already stated, I see this as a package. I will not identify one or two particular things that could be outside the package and introduced in a short period because we need to see this as a package. We are proposing a fairly serious intervention in our legislative and regulatory framework in the context of employment rights and the functioning of our economy. We must be careful to balance everyone's needs. Clearly, where there are egregious cases of exploitation - of which many of us are aware - we need to be conscious of the needs of employees.
We cannot simply say that we passed legislation in the form of the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act last year. We spent a considerable period debating that legislation on both Committee and Report Stages. It is transformational legislation in terms of collective bargaining. Many aspects of the concerns people have raised here could be addressed by trade unions and employers through the collective bargaining legislation on the Statute Book since last August. Regarding some high-profile disputes in recent months in particular, there is the capacity in our legislative framework at the moment to improve the situation that pertains to people caught up in those very difficult and emotive disputes. It is not all about the University of Limerick report or what we can do in terms of addressing low-hour contracts. Legislation and mechanisms are in place already that can be used very efficiently and effectively, in particular by trade unions. I know the latter are looking closely at the potential of the legislation to resolve many issues that have stacked up in recent years.
The Minister of State is very welcome. It is good to hear his views on this matter. I am somewhat concerned when he speaks about the need for change to support working people. It seems that one of the major challenges we face is in terms of not quite understanding the marketplace. I have a fear with regard to this lack of understanding. I spoke to a man recently who had just been obliged to make 19 people redundant. He was finding matters very difficult. Part of that was because his costs have just got out of line. Somehow or other, we must give the employer the understanding that he or she must be flexible. There must be a degree of flexibility. Nobody wants to go back to the old days of the Dublin docks where people turned up and were either required or not wanted. Somehow or other, we may put in such regulations that there are fewer jobs because a number of jobs do not exist at a certain rate and under certain conditions. The Minister of State said the regulations were introduced in 1997. They seem to have worked very well. That does not mean we cannot do more. I am giving a word of warning that we may take steps we think will support working people when, in fact, we may damage their jobs. It is much better that somebody has a job, even if it is not the full job he or she would like to have. At least he or she can move into that job. Having come from a business which is very competitive and knowing competitors in the trade have in place something close to zero-hour contracts, I ask how we can ensure that we make the jobs available and that jobs are created without stiffening the conditions to such an extent that employers decide not to employ anybody else on because it has been made impossible for them to operate on that basis. It is a matter of getting the balance right. I am quite sure the Minister of State understands and is aware of that.
Although it is good news that the report said zero hour contracts were not extensively used in Ireland, it is also a reminder that we must ensure we do not get into a bad habit that other countries have got into and which we have had in the past.
I thank the Senator for his comments. He comes to the issue with great experience in the marketplace. He is right; it is a very difficult balancing act. Nobody around this table should have any truck with legislating anybody out of a job. Neither should we accept the idea of jobs at any cost. There should be a threshold of decency. Senator Quinn would accept this and the vast majority of employers would want to promote it.
Most employers in Ireland are decent, as Deputy Tóibín said, and see their staff as central to their businesses. Employers spend much money engaging and training staff and incorporating them into the business. However, where a vast number of employers are operating a particular business or sector on "if and when" arrangements, it is ultimately damaging to their businesses. The best thing we can do is to incorporate people into a business, value them and ensure they are part of the success of the business. Other countries have managed to do it and to be very open about it. I call it social democracy. We can have a successful economy and business culture while also ensuring we have the best employment protections available for working people on decent salaries with good protections and prospects. We can all agree on it, and Senator Quinn would agree with me on it.
The law has not caught up with this phenomenon. The 1997 Act and the particular provision on zero hour contracts have been successful in ensuring the Irish situation does not mirror what has happened in the UK during recent years. We can be proud of this. We said, "No, we do not want that type of model in this country." We managed, from 1997 to approximately 2000 or 2003, to have an economic model that worked. We should reflect on this. A degree of flexibility is always required in business and nobody wants to legislate anybody out of a job or make life any more difficult for good, decent entrepreneurs than it needs to be. The root of a successful society and economy is a good, strong, functioning business community and economy and decent investment in our society. This involves, almost by definition, a good, strong employment protection framework.
I welcome the Minister and his staff. It would be very difficult to overstate the significance of work. It bestows dignity on the individual, quite apart from wages, as a means of trying to satisfy the real needs of ordinary existence. It is, therefore, important that something as central as work in people's lives - their workplace arrangements - is not all in the hands of the employer. The unions have historically played a legendary role in trying to equalise the workplace relationship. The Minister of State's initiative is in this tradition. It is a further step in civilising the workplace and will be welcomed by many people. I commend the Minister of State on his foresight and general initiative in his Department.
I thank the Deputy. I agree. There is a dignity involved in work. It bestows dignity on a person and a family, and it is important we have strong employment protections, which we have always striven to have. The report is important and will feed the process we are engaged in with a view to getting to a better place in which we can balance the needs of business with the requirements of employees in a decent society to have good jobs and decent protections. The dignity of work is not just about the pay packet at the end of the week or month but about making a contribution to society, being respected in one's workplace and being part of the business or enterprise.
What is the timeframe for dealing with the consultations? I know it will not be done within six weeks. Will the Minister of State be leaving a recommendation for the next person to hold that office, or, in the event that he returns to office, has he set himself a timeframe in which to produce the report?
I was asked in November to bring recommendations to the Government in a timely fashion. I would like to see proposals brought to the Cabinet in the next few weeks. We are working on them. Submissions were sought and we are in the process of going through them, but many of the detailed submissions are diametrically opposed. Finding the balance will be critical. This is important work, and I thank the committee members for their initiative in publishing a report a few short weeks ago, which has been very helpful in allowing us to progress to the point at which we can bring grounded proposals to the Government at the earliest opportunity.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. I acknowledge the extensive work that the researchers at the University of Limerick have done, having been awarded the contract for conducting this research. One can see from the depth of detail in the report that they left no stone unturned in engaging in consultation and providing us with the best information possible. I thank the Minister of State for attending today's meeting and briefing the committee on the report.