Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

1:00 pm

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Longford-Westmeath, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Question 77: To ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the steps he is taking to introduce and implement legislation regulating employment agencies in order to ensure equality of treatment for agency workers; if his attention has been drawn to the fact that Ireland is one of only three EU countries which has failed to provide legislation for equal treatment of such workers in terms of pay, conditions and employment status; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25679/07]

Photo of Billy KelleherBilly Kelleher (Minister of State with special responsibility for Labour Affairs, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

As part of the Government's commitment under the partnership agreement, Towards 2016, I am currently considering the final elements of proposals for the draft scheme of a Bill to regulate the employment agency sector. I intend to submit a memorandum to Government very shortly seeking approval to have the Bill drafted by the Parliamentary Counsel to the Government.

The Bill as drafted will reflect the commitment in Towards 2016 to a licensing system where, to be licensed, employment agencies will be required to comply with the terms of a statutory code of practice which will set out the practices and standards which employment agencies would be expected to follow. A monitoring and advisory committee will advise me on the code of practice and on other matters related to this sector of our economy. Other elements in the Bill are aimed at further strengthening and enhancing the effective enforcement of the employment rights of agency workers.

I am aware of suggestions that Ireland is one of only three EU member states which has failed to legislate for equal treatment for agency workers in terms of pay and conditions of employment. However, practice in respect of agency workers in other EU member states is not always what it might appear at first glance. The situation is far more complex than that portrayed and the various parties concerned have recently been advised of this position. A report by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions seems to be the source of these assertions but detailed examination supplemented with contacts with officials from member states reveals a far more complex and varied pattern in individual member states.

Thus, in member states where legislation is complemented by collective agreements, deviation from the equal wage clause in legislation may be permitted. The current collective agreement concluded by the Netherlands is a case in point where pay parity need not necessarily be reached until the agency worker has been employed for 26 weeks. There is also wide variation in the nature and extent of employment rights attained by agency workers under the individual systems and in respect of the collective agreements that apply across individual member states, such as in the case of statutory sick pay and pension rights. In some member states, various restrictions and prohibitions are in place in which agency working is excluded from whole sectors of economic activity.

In the course of consultations on the proposed Bill, some parties have raised matters not included in the current partnership agreement, including pay parity from the commencement of employment. This demand is outside the scope of measures agreed in Towards 2016 and, in any case, does not have due regard to the complex arrangements in other member states.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

Finally, I should point out that Ireland's comprehensive body of employment rights legislation provides that employee protection applies to migrant workers in Ireland and also to agency and posted workers who have entered into a contract of employment that provides for their being employed in the State or who work in the State under a contract of employment. This means that irrespective of nationality or place of residence, such persons have the same rights under employment rights legislation as Irish employees. Indeed, this is acknowledged by SIPTU which has included a full listing of such entitlements in an information leaflet on agency workers of June 2007.

With regard to enforcement, labour 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 individual or individuals concerned and, if appropriate, a prosecution is initiated. It should be noted also that in many cases employment rights legislation has provisions whereby workers who believe that they have been denied their entitlements or otherwise unfairly treated can take the matter before dispute-settling agencies such as the rights commissioner service, the Labour Court and the Employment Appeals Tribunal. I urge anyone who has evidence of the mistreatment of agency workers to furnish all the relevant details and any related materials to the inspectorate with a view to pursuing the matter.

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Longford-Westmeath, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

It is clear that Irish and migrant workers are being offered agency employment rather than full-time employment. Is it also not clear that the situation regarding agency workers represents a blight upon, or a lacuna in, our employment legislation framework? We have nothing to protect such workers who have little or no job security and little or no access to sick pay, pension entitlements or other non-pay benefits. The rate of pay is generally lower than that of the regular workforce and collective representation or negotiations are virtually ruled out.

The Minister of State will recall the Irish Ferries dispute, which is of recent origin and fresh in our memories, and the GAMA construction scandal. Thankfully, with public support, satisfactory settlements were achieved for the workers in both companies. As a result, is it not clear from the public outrage expressed, that there is a glaring need to establish, as SIPTU has advocated, a threshold of decency in employment standards for all workers employed in Ireland?

I acknowledge that Towards 2016 contains a number of commitments to improve employment standards but these are all procedural. The point is that there is very little of substance. They will achieve nothing in the areas causing grave disquiet to workers. Does the Minister of State agree that unless the expectations of agency workers are tackled, this continuing exploitation will pose a threat to the rest of the workforce, which may also find its pay and conditions of employment undermined? It will have a knock-on effect. They are called atypical workers.

What is the position on this and why do Ireland, the UK and Hungary find themselves out of step? Does the Minister of State oppose the introduction of a draft European directive on the matter or should we not be prepared to take the bull by the horns and legislate for this important area?

Photo of Billy KelleherBilly Kelleher (Minister of State with special responsibility for Labour Affairs, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The previous Government responded quite quickly in respect of the Protection of Employment (Exceptional Collective Redundancies and Related Matters) Act and the Irish Ferries workers. Obviously, Ireland will play a very constructive role in any discussions that take place at European level and this has been well acknowledged in Europe.

In respect of agency workers, let us be under no illusions. People who have contracts in this country are protected by employment rights legislation. That is a fact. If a person comes into this country, is working and has a contract, he or she is entitled to the same protection in respect of employment rights as anybody else.

We must acknowledge that we have taken major steps in recent years to ensure we have strong compliance. We have increased the size of the labour inspectorate and are setting up the National Employment Rights Authority on a statutory basis. We have introduced many statutory legislative provisions over recent years. The increase in the number of labour inspectors is something of which we can be proud.

In the context of the overall issue, Towards 2016 is a fundamental document and we will live up to our commitments in it. In my reply to the question, I referred to the fact that there are quite complex arrangements in other European countries so it is not as simple as saying that Ireland, Great Britain and Hungary are out of step with the rest of the EU. Many other countries have collective systems in place and agency workers do not have access to full entitlements in some countries. In other member states, such workers are barred from taking up jobs in the civil service and the public sector.

Deputy Penrose is not comparing like with like and should analyse further the impact this could have on the Irish economy and our competitiveness. Some companies have seasonal work arrangements. We should acknowledge another very important factor, namely, our duty to represent agency workers. Not everybody has asked agency workers whether they are content with some of the arrangements in place in general.