Tuesday, 10 July 2012
Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed)
I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 and 4 together.
As I have stated on many occasions, while this Government does not support a return to the social partnership model, we recognise the value of constructive dialogue with representatives of all sectors of society as we continue to work through the many difficulties facing the country.
Since the Easter recess, I have met with representatives of the IFA on 25 April and 4 May. I spoke at the IMPACT annual conference on 18 May in Killarney. I addressed the IBEC business breakfast on two occasions, and met with representatives of IBEC on 21 June. I also intend to meet with the Croke Park agreement implementation body, which includes representatives of the public service trade unions, later this week. In line with the Government's approach to social dialogue, relevant Ministers continue to have bilateral contact with social partners on issues of concern to them.
In addition, the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, which comes within the remit of my Department, continues to provide a forum for multilateral dialogue on the economic, social and environmental challenges facing the country. The council continues to meet on a regular basis.
Some employers do not want to waste a good recession and many workers have been denied rights. The Taoiseach spoke eloquently about the Vita Cortex employees in Cork and said that what they wanted was respect. We saw similar situations in La Senza, Lagan Brick, Game, Vodafone, Irish Cement and Diageo. I understand that 25 workers currently occupy a call centre company, Éist agus Cuidiú Teo., in Gaoth Dobhair, County Donegal, which has received substantial State funding. Has the Taoiseach raised any of these issues with the social partners or discussed steps that could be taken to avoid issues such as these?
Last week, a large delegation of workers from Lagan Brick was brought to Leinster House by Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin. The workers had been on strike for 206 days and they received unequivocal support from Deputies and Senators in all parties. A big company, Lagan Brick, refuses to give workers the dignity and respect they deserve. They are not asking for anything extraordinary. They are asking for their entitlements. The company needs to engage with the workers' union representatives and to agree to pay them their redundancy entitlements.
Has the Government discussed these issues with the social partners? People are being denied redundancy payments to which they are entitled and deserve. Has the Taoiseach discussed these matters with the social partners?
No one likes to see people out on strike. The machinery of the State has been well tried over many years in difficult circumstances, not least of which was the Vita Cortex incident to which Deputy Adams referred.
When a dispute arises the facilities of the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation are available to assist in the resolution of the dispute.
Deputy Adams will be aware that last July the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, announced his intention to reform the State's industrial relations machinery and to replace the five existing employment rights bodies with two bodies. One body will be responsible for dealing with first instance complaints and the other will deal with appeals. He has undertaken two public consultation processes on the matter and this month he intends to seek Government approval on drafting the workplace relations Bill. It is the intention to have the Bill enacted in the autumn and the new system up and running by the beginning of next year.
It is most unfortunate to hear about the case which the Deputy mentioned and the period of time that the workers have been on strike. I do not know the details of the case but the machinery of industrial relations and the co-operation of the Department in so far as the Minister is concerned are available at all times for attempting to resolve these difficulties, whatever the nature of the actual problem.
I will meet the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the public service unions tomorrow regarding the report on the Croke Park agreement. This issue will obviously be referred to in the context of those discussions.
My question was about the social partners and the Taoiseach's engagement with them. Have the Government's plans to amalgamate the five employment rights bodies been discussed with the social partners? Will the change improve the entitlements of workers? I think we will see more of this. I sat with Members of the Taoiseach's party as we heard from the Lagan Brick folks, who have been on strike for 208 or 209 days. A spouse of one of the workers described the difficulties she faces in making ends meet. This is a very profitable company which has public contracts with local government and, for all I know, with Departments.
The processes favour the employers and especially the big employers. A fine of €1,000 is a pittance for an employer but it is a huge amount to take from the pocket of a worker and his or her partner. It is no accident that workers are taking over their workplaces. In my opinion they are doing so because they have nothing else to lose. The Taoiseach acknowledged that the workers in Vita Cortex wanted respect. They should not be required to endure strikes for almost six months to get that respect. They are not asking for anything extravagant, like big bonuses or breaking the ceiling on pay. They are asking for appropriate redundancy payments. Where should they go given that the State's mechanisms are not functioning in support of them or their rights?
Deputy Adams will be aware that, in the case of reform of the joint labour committees, JLCs, and registered employment agreements, REAs, the process of making employment regulation orders, EROs, was found by the High Court to be unconstitutional, together with an identified lack of adequate Oireachtas scrutiny of the process. That supports the case for the main features of the recommendations for reform put forward in the Duffy Walsh report. Following the High Court ruling of July 2011, the Government's priority has been to prepare and deliver a comprehensive reform package because the implications of the judgment are not confined to the joint labour committee system. A programme of reform of the JLC and REA systems is required to address all the recommendations for reform put forward in the report, as well as the broad implications of the High Court ruling in the John Grace Fried Chicken case.
There was a constructive Second Stage debate in this House and following further consultations with the social partners and other interests a number of amendments were introduced on Committee Stage to strengthen or clarify certain provisions of the Bill. These include provisions dealing with the principles and policies applying to the framing of REAs and EROs, the timeframe for those provisions and the granting of temporary exemptions from the obligation to pay the terms prescribed under EROs and REAs.
I would like to think that the work the Minister, Deputy Bruton, is doing on structural reform will be in the interest of everybody because it will provide a resolution process where a complaint is lodged. To a great extent the Croke Park agreement has delivered industrial peace. A number of cases have been ongoing for some time but the agreement has to be implemented in full and expedited to meet our own targets. We want a process that is clear, straightforward and works so that where legitimate complaints arise they can be resolved satisfactorily and people and businesses are allowed to conduct their affairs in the interest of the economy, the country and both workers and management. That is why the machinery of the State has been tried and tested in severe circumstances over the years and it is always available to deal with concerns or disputes such as those mentioned by Deputy Adams.
The existing resolution mechanisms are not working in the current climate and they did not work for the Vita Cortex or Lagan Brick workers. These disputes require a strongly proactive approach on the part of the Government of the day. There was no need for the Vita Cortex dispute to persist as long as it did. It could have been resolved much earlier if a more proactive approach had been taken. The existing mechanisms simply do not work in situations like that. We need a process that cuts to the chase.
Engaging with the social partners on these issues can lead to new mechanisms, which are needed because in the current economic collapse these situations are arising with greater frequency and workers are being left behind. In many instances they are the last to be considered in such circumstances.
In the context of social partnership talks, has the Taoiseach discussed with farming organisations the need for immediate support in the context of the appallingly wet weather and the damaging impact it is having on agricultural incomes and farming and harvesting generally? Across all sectors of farming it has become a serious issue. This is a vital industry and I ask whether the consultations entered into by the Taoiseach have focused on the need to help the farming community in its hour of need.
When I meet the social partners and the public service unions I intend to ask their views on where the machinery of the State falls down. It works in the vast majority of cases and, as Deputy Martin will be aware, at the end of the day in disputes like the one in Cork it is a case of the resolution of the people and an understanding on the other side that the matter has to be ended. State machinery or no State machinery, there will be resolution of these disputes if there is a willingness to engage and deal with the problems that arise.
The Deputy mentioned the difficulties that the atrocious weather has caused for the farming community. The losses have already been substantial. I have seen tractors bogged down in fields after they attempted to cut silage. The fact that more rain fell in June than during the preceding six months speaks for itself. It has been an extraordinary year for bad weather and rainfall. I have discussed the issue with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, who is in constant contact with the farming organisations and is investigating how he might be able to help. The farming organisations have requested early payment of part of the single farm payment.