Tuesday, 6 December 2005
National Minimum Wage.
Question 67: To ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the number of inspections carried out by the labour inspectorate of his Department to ensure payment of the national minimum wage in 2004 and to date in 2005; if his attention has been drawn to the concerns expressed by labour inspectors that they do not have adequate resources to police the national minimum wage; if his attention has further been drawn to calls by trade unions for additional resources to enable the labour inspectorate to deal with exploitation of non-national workers, particularly in the construction industry; the steps he is taking to address this issue; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37973/05]
In 2004, labour inspectors undertook 462 inspections under the National Minimum Wage Act 2000. So far this year the inspectorate has undertaken 407 inspections under the legislation. Rights commissioners of the Labour Relations Commission, a body independent of my Department, also hear complaints concerning breaches of the National Minimum Wage Act 2000.
A total of 19 employment regulation orders, drawn up through the joint labour committee system, regulate statutory minimum rates of pay and conditions of employment for workers employed in the various sectors where these apply. Ensuring compliance with the minimum pay amounts, terms and conditions forms a major element of the work of the inspectorate. The Government is aware of the concern expressed by public representatives, trade unions representing employees and others close to the issues, with regard to the abuse of vulnerable workers by a small minority of unscrupulous employers.
The labour inspectorate is responsible for monitoring certain employment conditions for all categories of workers in Ireland, including immigrant workers. The inspectorate operates without differentiation according to worker nationality, as statutory employment rights and protections apply to immigrant workers in the same manner as they do to native workers. Inspectors pursue allegations of worker mistreatment and when evidence of non-compliance with the relevant employment rights legislation is found, the inspectorate seeks redress for the individuals concerned and, if appropriate, a prosecution is initiated.
Following the Minister's announcement earlier this year, 31 inspector posts have been sanctioned for the inspectorate. This represents almost a doubling of personnel in the past 12 months and it is indicative of a determination to ensure compliance with employment rights legislation. Following a recent selection process, the labour inspectorate has its full complement of 31 inspectors. When the full complement of officers is fully operational, it will concentrate on employment sectors that have traditionally required considerable attention from the inspectorate. These include the services sectors covered by employment regulation orders such as hospitality, cleaning and agricultural and construction work. Many migrant workers are employed in these sectors. I urge anyone who has specific evidence of the mistreatment of workers to furnish all the relevant details and related materials to the inspectorate with a view to pursuing the matter.
Does the Minister of State accept the total number of inspections carried out this year will amount to little more than half the number carried out in 2002? Will he confirm that 31 labour inspectors are in place? I refer to the enforcement of sectoral agreements, to which the Minister of State referred, which is a serious issue animating many workers. More and more complaints are being made to Members about people being paid the minimum wage in workplaces covered by sectoral agreements. How many cases have been brought to the Minister of State's attention? If he does not have the figure, perhaps he will revert to me on it. Is he concerned that the perception that the minimum wage is an acceptable wage has an impact on the wages paid in a range of employments, particularly in the construction and meat industries? What are his proposals to ensure sectoral agreements, which are legally binding, are enforced? Where such agreements do not exist, workers should be protected by law. Has he plans to introduce legislation in this regard?
A significant number of labour inspections were carried out following the introduction of the national minimum wage to ensure employers were aware of its existence and of the necessity for compliance. There has been less of an emphasis in this regard in recent times because people are aware of the provisions of that Act.
Difficulties were experienced in filling the 31 labour inspection posts. Two separate competitions had to be run because a sufficient number of people did not apply. The posts have been filled and training, which is important, is being undertaken.
All 31 posts were filled in mid-October or early-November and a further training element was to be completed after that date. I can revert to the Deputy with the detail, but the inspection programme is under way.
With regard to sectoral agreement, as with the minimum wage one of the requirements for the inspectorate is that the specific matter be brought to its attention. Equally important, direct evidence must be made available to it. One of the difficulties is that the evidence must stand up in court if prosecutions are initiated. In general, emphasis has been placed in the first instance on seeking redress for workers, sometimes very successfully.
Deputies should be aware that while the Gama investigation amounted to just one investigation, it took up a significant amount of labour inspectorate time. People may compare the number of inspections from year to year, but it is important to bear in mind the significant difference between the quality and amount of work required in the case of some inspections. I will revert to the Deputy with regard to the specific cases raised by him as I do not have the information with me.
Deputy Howlin asked about the impact of the minimum wage from the perspective of employees. I was quite surprised, having introduced the last round of the minimum wage, at the significant level of negative comment from certain groups. It was unwarranted and I was surprised at the extent of it. I assure the Deputy we intend to ensure that sectoral agreements and the minimum wage are in force, but this is dependent on getting evidence.
With regard to legislation that might protect sectoral agreements, does the Minister of State accept there is a growing view that the minimum wage is an acceptable wage for certain classes of industry? Is this a concern where a higher wage has been negotiated and should be acceptable?
A group of workers from Comerama, County Kilkenny, are currently outside this House. Will the Minister meet that group of workers? Is he aware of the commitment given by the Tánaiste, the former Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, to that group of workers with regard to their rights? Will that firm agreement be delivered or welshed on?
With regard to sectoral agreements, the Deputy and the House are aware that a review of the joint labour committee is under way. It is clear there is less need for some of the sectoral agreements than previously. There are some sectors in which I would like to see new JLCs introduced, specifically for domestic workers and workers in some areas of the health sector. This is under consideration but has not been completed. I do not accept that the national minimum wage is or could be perceived as an alternative to the JLC and sectoral rates. That would not be acceptable.
The Comerama issue has been raised on the Adjournment previously. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle, Deputies Hogan and McGuinness and others-——
People are well aware that the issue arises from the date on which the increase in redundancy payments came into effect. On all occasions they come into effect at a particular time. No matter the date, some sectors win and some lose out.