Dáil debates

Thursday, 7 February 2008

4:00 pm

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Question 11: To ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the steps that were taken to promote employment rights, obligations and entitlements to employers and employees and to workers from overseas in 2007. [4082/08]

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)
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The National Employment Rights Authority, NERA, was established in 2007 on an interim basis on foot of a commitment in the most recent social partnership agreement, Towards 2016. NERA will be established on a statutory basis following enactment of the employment law compliance Bill, which will be published shortly.

NERA's mission is to achieve a national culture of employment rights compliance. One of the ways in which NERA aims to achieve this mission is by providing information on employment rights and obligations to employees and employers in a factual and impartial manner.

In 2007, NERA's information services provided this information to employees and employers through a number of channels, including by telephone, in writing, by e-mail, via its website and through ongoing public awareness programmes, including making presentations at seminars and events and hosting stands at relevant exhibitions. In 2007, NERA's information services dealt with almost 100,000 contacts and made more than 40 presentations to a number of stakeholder organisations. The unit also provided a comprehensive range of explanatory leaflets and guides on different obligations and entitlements under employment rights legislation. These were available in English and a range of languages on the Department's website. Throughout 2007, the direct contact information service at 1890 808090 was available between 9.30 a.m. and 5 p.m. from Monday to Friday. Unbroken service was maintained throughout, including during NERA's decentralisation to Carlow in July.

NERA is committed to ensuring that workers from overseas have access to employment rights information. In 2007, NERA made its information brochure available in 12 languages including Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Chinese and French. During 2007, NERA also liaised closely with a number of organisations such as the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland, Emigrant Advice and the citizens information centres nationwide network, which deal directly and closely with migrant workers.

NERA participated in 11 exhibitions in 2007, including the New Communities Expo held in the RDS in October at which the largest attendance was from the Polish community. NERA also took part in a FÁS-EURES event in Torun, Poland in November. The aim of the event was to inform and advise the public in Poland on issues related to living and working in Ireland, as well as to assist Irish employers to recruit skilled employees from Poland. It is estimated that approximately 800 people attended the NERA stand at that event.

NERA is committed to providing impartial information to employers on their employment rights obligations. In 2007, NERA staff participated in a roadshow organised by the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association, ISME, for its members. The roadshow and NERA staff visited 12 venues over a two-week period. Members of NERA's inspection services accompanied information officers during the roadshow.

NERA inspection services play an important role in promoting employment rights during the course of their inspection activity. As part of the inspection process, inspectors, where appropriate, inform employers of their obligations and employees of their rights. The need for inspectors with specific language skills to ensure that an effective customer service is provided to migrant workers was identified in 2007. As a result ten inspectors with specific language skills were recruited through the Public Appointments Service. Three of these inspectors have taken up their positions with NERA to date and are undergoing training at present. The remaining inspectors are expected to take up their positions in the coming weeks. One of NERA's most important information and awareness tools is its website, www.employmentrights.ie. I encourage all Deputies to look at it because it is exceptionally good and user friendly. It has been designed to provide user-friendly, accessible information on employment rights generally and on the role of NERA specifically.

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Longford-Westmeath, Labour)
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Is the Minister of State satisfied that another Gama case will not arise in this country? Will he ensure employees are paid an appropriate wage commensurate with their work? Recent reports suggest certain seafarers are only receiving 50% of what they should be receiving. Is the Government concerned about this and about the fact that some employers seem to have ways to circumvent the law? On the last occasion on which staff were denied their due rights and wages, the State had to come to their assistance.

When will the employment law compliance Bill be introduced? What were the obstacles referred to by the Minister, Deputy Cullen, this morning during Question Time? What problems have led to an unanticipated delay in the introduction of a very important Bill? Does the Minister of State agree that the failure to introduce it could have a significant impact on the forthcoming partnership talks on wage agreements? I am not sensationalising this matter as it is exercising the minds of those in the trade union movement. They will not sit idly by as the Government fails to address the issue. Will the Minister of State state the exact date on which the legislation will be introduced?

What will the Government do about agency workers, who have certainly been a cause for concern and on whom the trade union movement is now focusing? The movement states it will take into account the Government's progress in ensuring the equitable treatment of agency workers at the negotiating table during the forthcoming talks.

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)
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On employment rights and the protection of workers, we have a very strong corpus of legislation, covering every issue from redundancy to paternity and maternity leave. The employment law compliance Bill will be published quite soon. We are as exercised as anybody else with ensuring it will be published, fully debated and enacted with a view to establishing NERA fully on a statutory basis. NERA is already established on an interim basis and can enforce the law in respect of breaches of employment rights. The Government has increased the number of inspectors and we hope to have 90 in the very near future. This is a fundamental commitment under Towards 2016 and we are honouring the commitments as best we can.

I asked NERA to investigate the matter of the seafarers, to which Deputy Penrose referred. It informed me quite recently that the boat in question is flagged in Honduras and run by a company registered in Cyprus. With all due respect, NERA can only be responsible for companies registered in Ireland.

There were two commitments regarding agency workers. We almost had a Bill ready in this regard but it must be remembered that some issues that are now being raised on agency workers are outside the scope of Towards 2016. However, we are committed to publishing the employment agencies regulation Bill and the memorandum thereto will be presented to the Cabinet in the very near future.

We are trying to live up to our commitments under Towards 2016. However, some legitimate concerns were raised by some of the social partners and we are trying to deal with them. I hope the employers, trade unions, Government and social partners will all acknowledge the challenges that exist when they commence talks. The Government is very much aware of them and in this regard it must protect competitiveness and foreign direct investment in particular. Some companies have expressed concerns in this regard. The Government will not stand over any circumstances in which agency workers are exploited and given insufficient salaries.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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To be fair to the Minister of State, it is important to acknowledge that NERA represents real progress. We do not yet have 90 inspectors but, given that there are approximately 79, we are at least approaching the target. When does the Minister of State believe we will reach it?

One may argue about whether the minimum wage is too high but the fact remains that it is set down in law, which law must be enforced. The main penalty for not paying the minimum wage is the payment of arrears. Should employers who do not pay the minimum wage not be fined and made pay through the nose? Such fines would be paid to the agency. If an employer skimps on €2 or €3 per hour, he should really be made pay when caught. The fine should be used to help fund the agency and pay for the inspectors.

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)
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I agree with the Deputy that we need strong deterrents but the fundamental issue concerns the ability to pay and the need to ensure that those who do not receive full payment will be compensated immediately. If one were to seize the assets of a company expressing an inability to pay, it would make matters very difficult. The priority is to ensure that those who do not receive fair pay or holidays are compensated immediately. The labour inspectors are ensuring that arrears are paid. By and large, the major concern of the worker is that he or she would be reimbursed and receive his or her full entitlements. This in itself obviously serves as a deterrent to the employer.

Over the coming years and on foot of the strong compliance legislation, which will be published shortly, employers will be very well aware of their rights and their obligation to ensure all workers are paid.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Having only to pay arrears is not much of a deterrent.

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)
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It is a very strong deterrent. Most employers are complying with the legislation and the few that are not will be identified and dealt with by NERA by way of prosecution.