Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 27 April 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation
Protection of Young Persons (Employment) (Exclusion of Workers in the Fishing and Shipping Sectors) Regulations 2021
I thank the members and the witnesses for participating in today's committee meeting in line with exceptional circumstances and measures we have to take, all for Covid-19. I remind them that apart from me and members of the committee secretariat, all members and witnesses are required to participate remotely and all members are required to participate from within the Leinster House complex only.
Today we will give consideration to the draft Protection of Young Persons (Employment) (Exclusion of Workers in the Fishing and Shipping Sectors) Regulations 2021. These draft regulations are required to complement the full transposition of EU Directive 2017/159 on the implementation of the social partners agreement on the Work in Fishing Convention. The directive is primarily a matter for the Department of Transport. However, certain requirements of the directive require sectoral amendments to the Protection of Young Persons (Employment) Act 1996 to ensure full implementation of said directive. The draft regulations have been referred to the committee for consideration, after which the committee is required to report back to the Dáil and to the Seanad. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy English, to assist the committee in consideration in this matter today.
Before we start, I wish to explain some limitations to parliamentary privilege and to the practice of the Houses as regards reference the Minister of State may make to other persons in his evidence. The evidence of witnesses physically present or who give evidence from within the parliamentary precincts is protected by absolute privilege, pursuant to both the Constitution and statute. Today's witness, however, is giving his evidence remotely from a place outside of the parliamentary precincts and, as such, may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness who is physically present.
Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of a person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory regarding an identifiable person, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction.
The opening statement has already been circulated to all the members. We will commence our consideration of this matter now. I invite the Minister of State, Deputy English, to make his opening remarks.
I thank the Chairman and members for giving me the opportunity to address them on the draft Regulations on the Protection of Young Persons (Employment) (Exclusion of Workers in the Fishing and Shipping Sectors) 2021. The draft regulations are before the committee by virtue of the procedural requirements of section 28 of the Protection of Young Persons (Employment) Act 1996. This provides that a draft of every regulation proposed to be made under the Act shall be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas and that the proposed regulation shall not be made until a resolution approving the draft has been passed by each House.
The draft regulations amend the Protection of Young Persons in Employment Act 1996, providing for additional protections for young people engaged in the fishing sector. The Act must be amended by these regulations to complement the full transposition of EU Directive 2017/159 on the implementation of the social partners' agreement on the Work in Fishing Convention. This directive is primarily a matter for the Department of Transport but certain requirements of the directive require sectoral amendments to the Protection of Young Persons in Employment Act 1996, which falls under my Department. These will ensure that the directive is fully implemented in Irish law. It is important to emphasise that the protections offered by the directive are already applicable to all young persons in employment under EU law but that Ireland is required to fully transpose the directive to ensure its protections are carried over into our national law.
These short draft regulations are solely concerned with enhancing protections for young persons who are employed in the fishing sector, including by restricting night-time work, working hours and holiday work. They are not connected to general working conditions on fishing vessels and do not have an impact beyond young persons aged between 16 and 17.
The draft regulations will need to be read in conjunction with SI 179 of 2020, entitled European Union (International Labour Organisation Work in Fishing Convention) (Minimum Age) Regulations 2020. This statutory instruction, which was introduced by the Minister for Transport, sets out the enhanced protections introduced by the EU directive that apply to young persons aged between 16 and 17 who are employed in the fishing industry. These are now included in the draft regulations for consideration by the committee today.
These regulations provide that a young person may be in engaged in night-time work in the fishing industry only if it is required for essential training purposes and provides for appropriate rest periods. The regulations also mean that a person aged 15 may only do light work on board a fishing vessel during school holidays provided that the hours of work do not exceed seven in any day or 35 in any week.
I doubt if I will need 14 minutes. I just have two very quick questions. I have high hopes that it is very unusual for people of 16 and 17 years to be requested to work overnight or engage in heavy-duty work. It is probably unfortunate that we are in the space where that requires regulation. If my understanding is correct, this is about the transposition of a directive so there is no, or very little, wriggle room for the Minister of State. Has there been consultation with the National Inshore Fisherman's Association? If not, can there be? The association would have a particular view. How many young people are we talking about? I am deeply uncomfortable about regulating a work environment for people aged 16. To be honest, I worked at 16 but it was not what would be considered hard work. The work we are talking about could be very hard. It shocks me a little. How many people are we talking about? Although they probably should not be doing any work at all, how will the light work they are only supposed to be doing be regulated and policed? How will potential breaches be dealt with? I suspect some of the workers may not have English as their first language but I do not know. Is there a system in place to provide information for them in appropriate languages?
I thank Deputy Louise O'Reilly for her questions. I agree with her in that we hope it is not overly common that young people are working in this sector. I do not have the number but I will try to get the Deputy some figures. We believe there are very few involved but it is important that the legislation be in place and very clear. We can communicate that. The directive is from the EU, so I guess we have to transpose it into international law as it stands. We consulted all the various players, including those mentioned by the Deputy, as part of the process. I believe it started in January 2020 under a previous Minister in my position. We went through the procedure to invite submissions and engage in consultation. There is a procedure set down to introduce these regulations, and we will follow that completely.
As with all our legislation in this space, this measure is communicated in the various languages to make sure it reaches the sectors it needs to reach. Three Departments are involved, namely, the Department of Justice, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and my Department, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, along with the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, the main agency for us in this space.
We will monitor what the Deputy has described but I do not believe it is very common. It is important, however, that we be very clear on it. I believe the Deputy would agree with that.
It is important but we are talking about an area in which employment law is not always observed. We have heard of horrific cases. It would be worrying if some of the cases we hear about involved young persons in the way described so every effort needs to be made to ensure the information on the regulation is accessible and that there is a very clear definition of what constitutes light work. If the young people in question are to be engaged in any work at all, it needs to be tightly defined and heavily regulated. I honestly do not know how that can be done. I do not know a great deal about fishing but, since I live in a coastal community, I know some fishers. I do not know how regulation can be achieved when a ship is out at sea. I do not know whether there are mechanisms. The Minister of State referred to the WRC. Do those engaged in policing have the right to board a ship? How would it work in ensuring the regulations are adhered to?
They have that right and they carry out a high number of inspections in this area, some being targeted and some not necessarily based on information. We reckon that more than 98% of the ships and boats involved in the sector are checked regularly through our various agencies.
The definition of light work is in the regulation but we will make every effort to make sure it is communicated clearly in the various languages concerned. We always try to do that anyway. The lead Minister in this area is the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, but my Department has representatives on the group to which I referred. Several agencies follow up and investigate and their officials absolutely can board ships and deal with the matter, as in any other working environment.
I welcome the Minister of State. Deputy Louise O'Reilly asked about the number of people employed in the age category in question and the Minister of State said he will revert to us on that. It might be an interesting figure.
With regard to the young people employed, the regulations are about the protection of young people. Are we correct in saying the majority of them are Irish nationals? Could the Minister of State indicate whether there are any contracts of employment for those in the age category? The work is more or less part-time, involving short hours and summer work when school is not in session.
I take it that it does not involve people who are involved in the atypical scheme, which is another area. There were some reports in 2015 of abuses of the scheme and I know quite a lot of fishermen who were very annoyed because they were all painted with the same brush. Many fishermen I know are very careful and look after their employees very well. They are very anxious to ensure everything is done correctly. Will the Minister of State give us a profile of these young people? He does not know how many are involved at this stage but he might tell us later.
I thank the Deputy. I agree the majority that we are aware of are Irish. Again, I do not have the numbers in the sector but I can discuss it with the lead Minister. It generally reflects family situations and people working for families but it is still important that we have a very clear directive. People might want to bring forward cases to us and this will strengthen the national law to deal with them. I will raise it with the Minister to see whether there is data on the numbers. We do not think they are large. It is generally family situations.
Deputy Stanton mentioned the atypical scheme and a number of Departments are involved in it. As the Deputy did, I picked up the frustration among some in the sector who run a very tight ship and follow the letter of the law and look after everybody. In any sector there will always be some who try to abuse the law or regulations. As I said in reply to Deputy O'Reilly earlier, this is a very strong area for investigation and follow up, and every boat in the situation is investigated and checked quite regularly. We reckon the figure gets close to 100% quite regularly and, naturally, any information we receive is dealt with as well. The scheme has been put in place because we understand and to make sure the Departments of Justice, Agriculture, Food and the Marine and ourselves try to police this. In the majority of cases, employers are responsible and work within the law with regard to their staff. We have to keep monitoring this, of course, because there will always be cases, and this is why the protections through the various agencies are there.
Going back to what we said earlier with respect to education and school, will the Minister of State give us an indication as to what qualifications or training might accrue from young people at that age spending time working on ships? Can they build up recognised accreditation or training skills? Will he give us an idea of what is involved in this area?
It is not my area of expertise but one of our officials states people can build up credentials in the sector linked to the Departments of Transport and Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Work at night-time has been on very rare occasions. Some part of the training might involve night-time activity but we believe it should be extremely limited. Again, this is dealt with in the regulations.
The area of skill development falls among numerous Departments. We are looking at how we can enhance and accredit skills in various sectors and recognise service over the years, not so much for someone aged 16 or 17 but in general in a sector to see whether we can build on it. We have had a discussion on this in all Departments with regard to various sectors. I am informed that in this sector credentials can be built up at a young age.
Earlier, the Minister of State said these young people are often from families who live in coastal communities for whom fishing is the family business. In my area there are places such as Ballycotton, where there is a tradition of family members going to sea on the boats so I can understand what happens. With respect to training and safety, which are paramount, is there a requirement that young people who go out take part in safety training?
I believe there is but its regulation does not fall to my Department. I suspect anybody involved in working on a boat has to go through such training. I can get the Deputy a note to clarify it. I assume it is the case because there is a lot of legislation and guidance to protect everybody operating a boat, no matter what age they are and certainly those in employment. It does not fall to the Department so I do not have the information to hand but I am happy to forward it to the Deputy.
I welcome the regulation insofar as it sets out to try to protect young workers in the fishing sector. With regard to the exemption proposed with regard to engagement in night-time work for essential training purposes, is it possible to define and set out in detail an appropriate rest period? This is important in the context of night-time work. Perhaps this question is a reflection of my lack of knowledge of the work that goes into regulations. I know that rest periods are set out in the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 but it would be very useful in this specific instance to be able to set out an appropriate rest period for these young workers.
It is suggested that the exemption from the prohibition on night-time work will be permitted for essential training purposes. Is it possible to put in place notification procedures so that when an employer proposes to have a young worker on board at night-time for essential training purposes there is a log and a record is kept? This would be specific to young persons. I have significant concerns about enforcement in this area. Obviously there has been a long history of difficulties with regard to enforcement in the sector. While record-keeping is only as good as people's honesty, it is important that it is set down, and perhaps sent to the Department or another relevant authority to seek an exemption for training purposes.
I thank the Senator. There is a definition in the Act and the directive and I can send her a full copy. It is important to read the regulations in the context of the overall Act, where definitions of rest periods and night-time work are dealt with. It is notifiable and there must be notification before a young person engages in night-time work. It is also enforced through investigation. The Senator's questions and concerns are right and they are dealt with in the legislation.
It is governed by the Marine Survey Office. It does not fall to the Workplace Relations Commission or the Department but it is there and it is enforced and investigated. I will send on the references to the Senator with regard to the Marine Survey Office.
I want to ask about conditions in the fishing sector generally, in particular for migrant workers, in light in particular of the Ellie Adhamh, to which I am sure the Minister of State paid attention, and what emerged in terms of the primarily Egyptian crew being employed illegally outside the terms of the atypical working scheme not being paid a wage and being on a notional share scheme.
We know those people were working outside of the terms of the scheme. How widespread is that? How many fishers working in boats here should be under the atypical working scheme but are not?
There are 227 people on the scheme. Officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Justice administer the atypical scheme. Officials in my Department sit on the relevant group. The case referenced by the Deputy is being investigated and has kicked off a number of other investigations.
On the sector generally, this is not an area in which I am an expert, but I understand from my engagement with my officials and the Workplace Relations Commission that it is heavily investigated and regulated, with the majority having been investigated regularly over the past couple of years. Up to 98% of those involved have been reached. Some of the Deputy's questions are for the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan. What we are doing here today is trying to strengthen the legislation to give more protections to this cohort of young workers.
The Deputy has raised many cases over the years. There is legislation in place. Some people will try to abuse it or find a way around it. Our job is to address that when it happens. There are a number of agencies in this sector and they carry out a high number of investigations. I cannot comment as to how prevalent the abuse is because I am not involved in the sector. As mentioned by Deputy Stanton, it is assumed that in most sectors the majority of employers are good. We have laws in place to deal with those who are not. It is vital we get that information. The agencies would react to information brought forward. When cases of the type identified by the Deputy are brought to their attention they are investigated immediately. Once a notification is received, staff are deployed within hours to investigate it.
I thank the Minister of State. In light of his comments, it might make sense for the committee to invite in the Minister for Transport to come before to discuss this issue. It seems that there is a mathematical problem which points to widespread abuse of the scheme. The Minister of State indicated that there are 227 individuals on the scheme currently. I understand that there are 210 boats that are eligible for the scheme. Each boat employs substantially more than one person, which begs the question as to who is crewing these boats. The most obvious answer would be that people are being employed outside the terms of the atypical working scheme, without the relevant protections and in an illegal way.
The Deputy has correctly identified that further detail on this issue is a matter for the Minister for Transport. My understanding is that there are approximately 170 boats in the scheme. The Deputy may have more up-to-date information, but that is the information in my possession. My understanding is that those boats generally are not operated by non-EEA officials. There are regulations in place and they are enforced. If members have concerns, they can bring them forward and I will have them checked out. I have no issue with doing that. In terms of a greater in-depth knowledge around this, it is probably best to discuss it with either the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine or the Department of Transport. Whenever we have a role in this area, the Workplace Relations Commission and our officials usually react to deal with it. On occasion, they have, as would be the case with any sector, reacted within an hour or hour and a half of a situation having been brought to their attention.
As already stated, this is not a sector with which I am overly familiar. I know many people in the business and I know they are honourable. It is fair to say that there will always be individuals in every sector who will not be honourable, but that does not mean that we should paint everyone with the same brush. Hopefully, we are not doing that. The legislation and all of the transposed directives are there to protect employees and employers and to encourage everybody to follow best practice and the regulations to ensure the protection of employees. As referenced by the Deputy, there are sectors that are particularly vulnerable and we are seeking to ensure that this does not happen.
I thank the Minister of State. I have one final question. As mentioned by him, a number of investigations have kicked off as a result of the whistleblowing by the workers on the Ellie Adhamh, two of whom almost drowned and the other who was not out on the vessel that day. The situation may have changed, but as I understand those workers are in limbo in that they have no access to social protection or the right to work as they do not have a stamp 4. As the investigations are ongoing, they have done a very brave thing in speaking out. I accept that the Minister of State will not be able to commit to this today, but I ask that the Government seek to ensure that these people get access to a stamp 4 so that they can survive while they are here and the investigations are ongoing.
I cannot speak directly to any particular case, but what the Deputy suggests is, in general, what would happen. When there is a an investigation ongoing, a stamp 4 is issued while the issues are being dealt with. In regard to the other protections, it is the job of various Departments to protect and look after people in this situation. I am not speaking about any particular case because it would be wrong to do so, particularly in the absence of all of the facts and details of the case. In general, that is what would happen.
I welcome the Minister of State and his officials. I also welcome the legislation. Anything that provides additional worker protection and regulation is to be welcomed.
As we are discussing the fishing sector, I would like to point out to the Minister of State that Dunmore East is not included as a harbour where catches can be landed under the Brexit regulations. This means that fishermen have to land their catches at Howth or Castletownbere. This is an issue on which I and a number of Deputies are pressing the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We would appreciate the support of the Minister of State in seeking to have Dunmore East included as an approved harbour for the landing of catches by Northern Ireland and UK boats.
In terms of this provision, has the Department considered what affects it might have on casual work take-up in the sector by people in the designated age group? The Minister of State pointed out that the protection is in place largely to give support to family members. It is important, however, that we do not criminalise fisherfolk because they are bringing their children out on trawlers, particularly those who may have to be out at sea overnight, as many do. We need a balance there.
How is this scheme regulated? The Minister of State and other Deputies mentioned the Workplace Relations Commission a number of times. In essence, is it that a complaint has to be filed by an adolescent to the effect that he or she has been mistreated in the context of the scheme? I ask the Minister of State to respond to that question. As already stated, we do not want to be criminalising fishing operations, particularly the smaller ones. It may be that some of the worker rights issues that have been spoken about occur on much larger vessels that are fishing very far offshore and are away from port for a number of days, but I do not think that is the case in the context of small fishing vessels. I would not like to see any tainting of our indigenous fishing sector.
The Deputy raised a couple of issues. He asked if this regulation will have any affect on or be a deterrent to casual labour take-up. It already exists within EU law. In terms of what we are doing today, we are transposing it into Irish law to strengthen the position of workers and to provide clarity. The protections we are bringing in today are already in place and, I hope, are being honoured and respected by most people. I do not think it will have an impact on casual labour or family work practices. Rather, it should enhance it and protect all involved.
The main body in respect of raising cases is the Marine Survey Office. The Deputy is correct that an investigation can be brought about by way of complaint or issue raised by a member or somebody representing him or her, such as a union or other body, but investigations are also commenced as a result of targeted inspections. There have been a number of high-profile inspections involving all of the State agencies on a number of occasions in the past.
On access to ports and Brexit, again, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is the lead and decision-making body in that regard. My understanding is that a number of ports were picked at the start to deal with Brexit, with a view to the figure being increased over time. The Deputy will need to engage in a conversation on that issue with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
The timeline is not a matter for my Department.
I will certainly raise the issue with colleagues. I will also the Deputy's concerns back to our Brexit working committee.
I thank Deputy Shanahan and the Minister of State. As no other members have indicated, that concludes our consideration of the matter. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy English, and his officials for assisting the committee in its consideration of this matter.