Dáil debates

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Fair Pay, Secure Jobs and Trade Union Recognition: Motion (Resumed) [Private Members]


The following motion was moved by Deputy Peadar Tóibín on Wednesday, 15 April 2015That Dáil Éireann: acknowledges the establishment of the Low Pay Commission and the Government’s decision to fund research by the University of Limerick into the prevalence and impact of zero-hour and low-hour contracts across both the private and public sectors; and to assess if vulnerable workers have sufficient protection under the law; notes that: — Ireland has a significant low pay problem with almost 12% of workers being at risk of poverty; — according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Employment Outlook Report for 2014 Ireland has the second highest percentage of low-paying jobs in the OECD, following the United States which has the highest; — the Dunnes Stores dispute brings to the fore the inadequacy of existing legislation to protect vulnerable workers; — currently such workers have no guarantee of hours of work; and that an employee may be scheduled for work but is likely to be sent home; — such employees are extremely vulnerable to having their working hours reduced; — the operation of split shifts whereby the employee’s hours of work are broken up across a day or week (for example working 20 hours a week spread across six days, or working 4 hours a day broken into two 2 hour shifts) makes it extremely difficult to make plans, such as provision of child care or school pick-ups, while also making it difficult to complete household budgets because there is no consistency of weekly income; — the practice of spreading a short number of hours a week across six days makes it impossible for workers to claim social welfare to boost their low income; and — employees often receive very short notice of their working hours schedule; further notes: — existing legal safeguards are inadequate, including section 18 of the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997, which requires that where an employee on a zero-hours contract has received no hours then they should be compensated either for 25% of the possible available hours or for 15 hours, whichever is less; and — the newly established Low Pay Commission is extremely narrow in focus investigating the minimum wage only; calls on the Government to introduce legislation to: — provide a clear legal entitlement to workers to full-time work; — allow workers request banded hours and place a corresponding obligation on the employer to consider the request and permit refusal only in exceptional circumstances which can be objectively justified; — require employers to provide information to employees on the overall availability of working hours available in the employment; — provide an immediate ban on all zero-hour contracts; — task the Central Statistics Office to record the incidence of low-hour contracts as part of the Quarterly National Household Survey; — amend the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997, to ensure workers are entitled to be compensated for 100% where they have been called into work; — improve the compensatory elements of the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 to protect employees from penalisation in the form of being ‘zeroed down’; — provide a statutory entitlement to overtime for hours worked in excess of those stated in the contract or over 38 hours whichever was the lesser; — immediately implement in full the EU Directive on Part-time work; and — broaden the remit of the Low Pay Commission to deal with specific sectors where low pay is particularly prevalent such as amongst women, younger workers and migrants and to deal with other contributing factors to poverty amongst those employed such as regressive taxation and inadequate public services and State supports; and further calls on the Government to set a date for the introduction of Collective Bargaining legislation before the summer recess which statutorily compels employers to engage with trade unions; provides for trade union recognition; and has robust anti-victimisation clauses to protect workers from intimidation. Debate resumed on amendment No. 1: To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:“acknowledges that in steering the country through and out of the economic crisis the Government has focused on protecting the most vulnerable workers, pursued an agenda of maintaining and improving employment rights and reforming and enhancing both the industrial relations institutions of the State and the industrial relations legislative framework utilised by workers and employers, and in this regard:— recognises the legislative changes introduced by the Government to protect workers’ rights, especially the most vulnerable workers in society, and in particular; — to restore the cut in the national minimum wage, thereby reaffirming that a statutory minimum wage is a statement of core values, providing a threshold of decency under which society agrees that workers’ wages should not fall; — through the enactment of the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2012, to reinstate the joint labour committee system to support wage setting in sectors where workers are poorly organised and vulnerable, and wages tend to be low; and — to enact legislation (the Protection of Employees (Temporary Agency Work) Act 2012) to protect temporary agency workers through a legal framework in which agency workers are afforded equal treatment in respect of their basic working and employment conditions; — further recognises the Government’s commitment to pursue an extensive industrial relations and employment rights reform agenda and in this respect notes the progress made, including the following in particular:Low Pay Commission:— the establishment of the Low Pay Commission earlier this year as an independent body that, taking specified economic and social matters into account, will make annual recommendations to the Government on the national minimum wage and related matters; — that establishment of the Low Pay Commission on an interim basis, in advance of legislation to establish the commission on a statutory basis, allows it to proceed urgently with its first review of the national minimum wage; — the legislation to be published shortly, with a view to enactment before the summer, will provide that, alongside examining the national minimum wage, the Low Pay Commission will also be tasked with examining matters related generally to the functions of the commission under the Act - a work programme will be agreed by the Government and presented to the commission each year;Registered Employment Agreements:— following on from the Supreme Court judgment in the McGowan case, the Government has approved the drafting of legislation to provide a revised legislative framework to replace registered employment agreements, REAs; — the legislation will provide for the reintroduction of a mechanism for the registration of employment agreements between an employer or employers and trade unions governing terms and conditions in individual enterprises and also provide for a new statutory framework for establishing minimum rates of remuneration and pensions for a specified type, class or group of employee as a replacement for the former sectoral REA system; — this legislation has completed pre-legislative scrutiny and is due to be published shortly;Collective Bargaining:— the Government has approved the drafting of legislation to reform the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2001 to provide for an improved and modernised industrial relations framework that will provide more clarity for employers and ensure that where an employer chooses not to engage in collective bargaining either with a trade union or an internal ‘excepted body’ the 2001 Act will be remediated to ensure there is an effective means for a union, on behalf of members in that employment, to have disputed remuneration, terms and conditions assessed against relevant comparators and determined by the Labour Court, if necessary; — the legislation will contain strong anti-victimisation provisions to protect workers who may feel that they are being victimised for exercising their rights under the legislation, including the introduction of interim relief against unfair dismissal; — this legislation is due to be published shortly;Study of Zero Hour Contracts and Low-Hours Contracts:— the University of Limerick has been appointed and has commenced its work on a study into the prevalence of zero hour contracts and low hour contracts in the Irish economy and their impact on employees; — the study will have a broad scope covering both the public and private sectors with a particular focus on the retail, hospitality, health and education sectors; — the study will assess current employment rights legislation as it applies to employees on such contracts; — one of the key objectives of the study is to fill the gap in knowledge currently available about the use of such contracts and their impact on employees and to enable the Government to consider any evidence-based policy recommendations deemed necessary on foot of the study;Workplace Relations Reform:— the Workplace Relations Bill 2014 which is expected to complete its passage through the Oireachtas in May will deliver a significantly streamlined workplace relations service which is fit for purpose, simple to use, independent, effective, impartial and cost-effective; it will provide for more workable and efficient means of redress and enforcement within a reasonable period for all users of the service;Organisation of Working Time Act 1997:— the Government has brought forward, in the Workplace Relations Bill 2014, amendment of the organisation of working time legislation to provide for the accrual of annual leave while absent from work on sick leave, which strikes the right balance between protecting the rights of vulnerable workers who are off work due to illness and the impact on business; andnotes:— that since the launch of the first action plan for jobs in 2012, 90,000 net new jobs have been created, of which 86% were full-time jobs rather than casual or temporary jobs; — that unemployment has fallen from 15.1% in January 2012 and will achieve single digit levels in 2015; — that average hourly earnings continue to increase ahead of inflation; and — the achievement of accelerating economic growth to 4.8% of GDP in 2014 provides the basis to continue to enhance the well-being of all in our society, particularly the less well off. - (Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation).

12:50 pm

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I understand the next time slot is being shared by Deputies Boyd Barrett, Paul Murphy, Clare Daly, Catherine Murphy and Maureen O'Sullivan. Is that correct?

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Yes. As the Minister will be aware on 2 April thousands of workers in Dunnes Stores were forced to take to the picket lines, in the face of extreme bullying and intimidation by Dunnes Stores, in their battle for decent conditions of employment. This took place against a background where a huge number of these workers are in a very precarious situation as a result of having low-hour contracts. The hours they are being given are being used as a weapon by management essentially to discipline workers. Workers with families find themselves in an intolerable position where they do not know from week to week and, sometimes, from day to day what hours they will work, how much they will earn and, consequently, whether they will be able to pay their bills. The Dunnes Stores workers deserve great tribute for having the courage to go out and fight in the face of intimidation against this intolerable situation imposed by a hugely profitable company that has more than €2 billion turnover.

1 o’clock

Since the strike we have seen many workers threatened with having their hours reduced in an outrageous way. This is just one employer, but it is happening against a background of a chronic low pay issue in this country where 16% of adults whose income is below the poverty line are actually working. The phenomena of zero hour contracts and the appalling treatment of workers are rampant throughout the economy. The point made by the workers and their union representatives is that much of the abuse could and should be dealt with by law, with the Government passing laws to make zero hour contracts illegal and to give people certain rights and entitlements in terms of security and minimum hours of employment, as well as transposing European directives in this area which it has failed to do. I hope it will respond positively to the call of Dunnes Stores workers and the plight of low paid workers who are suffering abuse.

1:00 pm

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, Socialist Party)
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Two weeks ago during Leaders' Questions, with others, I raised the issue of the Dunnes Stores strike. I described the behaviour of the company as being like that of a 19th century dock owner, in using its ability to give or withhold work as an instrument of control, punishment and reward to create a submissive workforce. There has since been a successful strike by a majority of Dunnes Stores workers and my description of Dunnes Stores and how the company has behaved has been absolutely vindicated by its response to the strike. What has happened is outrageous victimisation and retribution against those workers who stood up against low hour contracts, lack of job security, short-term contracts, low pay and the lack of union recognition. Workers were dismissed within 24 hours of the strike taking place; cuts have been made to the numbers of hours worked that are punitive; workers have been moved from one department to another by way of punishment; and shift pattern changes have been implemented which are designed simply to put people out. This is outrageous behaviour by Dunnes Stores and it should be condemned by everybody in the House. The workers should be supported by the public and their union in taking further action to push Dunnes Stores back and show that its behaviour is not acceptable.

What is happening in Dunnes Stores is symptomatic of the so-called recovery, involving low hour, short-term contracts, low pay and bullying employers. In many senses, the Dunnes Stores workers are in a better position than other workers because they are unionised. They have a union that will stand up with them and can take action with their fellow workers. The problem arises precisely because of the model of recovery pushed by the Government. That model is pushed by its actions with schemes such as JobBridge, Gateway and First Steps which are driving mandatory, forced labour for young people, in particular, and driving down wages for all. The Government has created a recovery for the rich, with the richest 300 people here having increased their wealth by over 60% between 2010 and 2014. If we want a recovery for the majority in the country, we need the kinds of measure outlined in the motion, including a ban on zero hour contracts, full implementation of the EU directive on part-time work, a ban on exclusivity clauses and the right of people to have banded hour contracts based on actual hours worked. We also need trade union organisation, mandatory trade union recognition and the repeal of the Industrial Relations Act to ensure organisation of workers on the ground in order that such measures will be carried through.

Photo of Clare DalyClare Daly (Dublin North, United Left)
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I utterly condemn the bully boy tactics of Margaret Heffernan and management in Dunnes Stores and stand in solidarity with all of the workers who took to the picket lines and sympathy with those who did not have the courage to do so. We must register that the tactics of management at Dunnes Stores are, in some ways, an indication of weakness rather than strength. It is desperate to see off any form of serious organisation of workers and our job has to be to stand alongside the workers. What we are seeing is a consequence of the erosion of working conditions which has taken place throughout the workforce, not just in Ireland but also in the rest of Europe, whereby employers are using the economic crisis to drive down decent wages and conditions which, we must remember, were never granted in the first place but hard fought for by unions. The unions must learn the lesson that defending workers' rights requires sacrifice and struggle. Workers' rights will not be granted by benevolent governments or employers.

As legislators, we have an obligation to all members of society to do more than is being done in this House. The correspondence all Members received from the Ryanair pilot group on the exploitation of zero hour contracts in that industry is a shocking warning bell for the establishment. A full 60% of Ryanair pilots are on zero hour contracts and new pilots have to accept such contracts. These are people who start their working lives with debts of approximately €100,000 and are working under the pressure exerted by zero hour contracts. Is this what we really want for those who are flying aeroplanes? I do not think so. There are serious implications when people are going to work sick because of a fear of being disciplined and so forth.

The Government can legislate for standby pay and honest contracts which deter employers from using zero hour contracts. Nice words from the Taoiseach are all well and good but people want to see a little action.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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I wish to focus on under-employment and the increasing casualisation of the workforce which is happening in both the private and public sectors. Increasingly, we are seeing this in the teaching profession, for example, at primary, post-primary and university level, and it is having a major impact. There are societal consequences which must be factored in. The more we see of casualisation and the less we see of work providing a living wage, the more society has to pick up the tab on the other side in terms of the impact of poverty on families, particularly children, and also in terms of the subsidy paid to some employers in order that they can have so-called flexibility. Flexibility is often portrayed as something positive but, in actual fact, it is a very negative word from the point of view of employees and employment rights. Casualisation also has implications in terms of having a roof over one's head and the ability to provide for oneself, either by way of renting or purchasing. It simply will not be possible for many working people to do this. We are being told that the increase in casualisation will give us a competitive advantage, but it has very negative implications, not just for the individuals in question but also for society in general. This must be considered in a very serious way because we are storing up serious problems for the future.

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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Some weeks ago during Leaders' Questions I raised very serious concerns about the low-paid. I pointed out that 25% of employees, or 345,000 people in the labour force, were earning an hourly rate less than the living wage threshold of €11.45. A very significant number of these low-paid workers - 60% - are women. While the cut in the minimum wage has been reversed, the point I made then was that while everybody wanted to see people coming off the live register and moving into employment, that employment had to allow them to live in dignity. Otherwise, it is distorting the progress made on the live register. We have the irony of employed people struggling to pay bills and left with no disposable income when these bills are paid. This has a knock-on effect on the wider economy.

I come from a docklands community and, with many others, remember grandfathers and other relatives standing along the quay side every morning waiting to be offered a couple of hours work. Many of these men were paid in pubs along the quays. There are elements of that situation to be found in zero hour and low hour contracts. While they may suit some, for example, students and those who want seasonal work or flexible hours, the vast majority of employees need income certainty, particularly those with mortgages and rent to pay and those with families. There is absolutely no certainty with zero hour and low hour contracts. Equally, there is no doubt that they are being abused and taken advantage of by big companies. While some small companies or those starting off in business do need some leeway, the big companies are getting away with far more than they should in this regard.

I also raise the issue of temporary contracts and their continuous use in certain sectors. It is obvious that there are jobs available in these areas, but there is also the continuous use of temporary contracts, with few or no rights for workers. There are unintended consequences, with people on these contracts not wanting to take part in sports etc. because of a fear of accidents.

Ba mhaith liom aitheantas a thabhairt do Shinn Féin toisc go bhfuil deis againn na ceisteanna seo a phlé. I acknowledge the establishment of the Low Pay Commission. Before it reports, however, very vulnerable workers will continue to struggle. I am of the view that the contracts on which they find themselves are nasty remnants of the recession. If, as the Government states, the recession is over, then these contracts should be brought to an end as well.

1:10 pm

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I wish to share time with Deputies Spring, McFadden, Maloney, Connaughton and Conaghan.

I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution to this important debate. The Government takes this matter very seriously. During the economic crisis it has remained committed to maintaining rights, particularly those which protect the most vulnerable workers in society. If anything, where changes have been made or where new legislation has been introduced, the Government has improved those rights. On low pay alone, one of the first actions the Government took was to restore the minimum wage to €8.65 from €7.65, thereby reversing the cut delivered by the previous Government shortly before it left office. It was important that we did this as one of our first actions in government.

Making work pay continues to be a cornerstone of the Government's agenda and the establishment of the Low Pay Commission is one of the key commitments contained in the statement of Government priorities agreed in July of last year. The commission was set up last February on an interim administrative basis. Legislation to provide for its establishment on a statutory basis has undergone pre-legislative scrutiny before the relevant committee. This legislation will be published shortly, with a view to its being enacted very soon thereafter. The principal function of the Low Pay Commission will be - on an annual basis - to examine and make recommendations to the Minister of the day on the national minimum wage, with a view to securing that the latter will, where necessary, be adjusted incrementally over time, having had regard to changes in earnings, productivity, overall competitiveness and the likely impact any adjustment will have on employment and unemployment levels.

Alongside examining the national minimum wage, the commission will also be tasked with examining matters related generally to its functions under the Act. A work programme will be agreed by Government and presented to the commission in February of each year. In addition, in the discharging of its function the commission will be required to make recommendations that are evidence based. It will do so by using a suite of agreed data sets or, where required, it will base such recommendations on bespoke research undertaken at its behest. The approach to which I refer draws on that adopted in the UK where, since 1997, the recommendations of the UK Low Pay Commission have brought about a progressive increase of the minimum wage which has had little detrimental effect on the functioning of the economy or labour market. As with its counterpart in the UK, the success of the Low Pay Commission will be measured by its recommendations being accepted and acted upon by successive Governments.

Work should always pay. However, the Government is conscious of the need to balance a basic statutory minimum pay rate that is fair with one which is sustainable and which will allow employers to continue to create quality jobs. In that context, a particular function of the commission will be to ensure that any advice it offers or recommendations it makes to Government will be evidence based and that agreed data will be utilised in carrying out research and consultations with employers, workers and their representatives. In addition, the commission will take written and oral evidence from a wide range of organisations. This is to ensure that any suggested changes to the national minim wage will have the least adverse impact on employment and competitiveness. Alongside the work it will carry out in respect of this "hard data", the commission will consult employers and worker who are directly affected by the national minimum wage. This real-lived experience will be vital for the commissioners when deciding what should be the minimum wage rate. From an employer and worker perspective, a significant benefit of the Low Pay Commission concept is that national minimum wage rates will be assessed annually and, therefore, where they occur, any adjustments into the future will be incremental and less disruptive for business and will bear no relation to the type of "step changes" witnessed in the past.

The commission has already commenced its work. It has sought submissions and is expected to submit its first report by the middle of July. I look forward to the commission proceeding with its work. It is important that we should take action in this area and I am glad we are doing so. There is general support for the concept of the Low Pay Commission. In my view, the commission will remove politics from the equation. In the context of people's livelihoods, this issue is too important to ignore.

Photo of Arthur SpringArthur Spring (Kerry North-West Limerick, Labour)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this issue, particularly having met many of the Dunnes Stores workers in recent weeks. This matter is going to affect society on many fronts, not just in terms of work but also in the context of how people lead their lives. I agree with much of what was said by Deputies Catherine Murphy, Clare Daly and Maureen O'Sullivan. The Deputies are three women of wisdom.

In the context of the issue under discussion, we must consider how people are paid and the responsibilities of unions and employers. In the event that people are not given the opportunity to go to work in a meaningful, purposeful, fair and equitable manner, they will not be encouraged to take up positions in the first instance. The Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Nash, has a long-standing relationship with the unions in the context of protecting people's rights and ensuring workers' access to fair conditions.

I wish to highlight a couple of issues that are of pertinence to people's lives. The Dunnes Stores workers with whom I spoke are concerned by the fact that they do not know what will be their working hours in any given week. This gives rise to uncertainty in the context of child care and certain of the individuals involved are obliged to ask family members to look after their children. If these people want to put their children into crèches, they must consider whether to book places for five days or whether to proceed on a day-to-day basis. Of course, booking a place for five days works out cheaper.

I consulted my local credit union in Tralee in respect of this matter and discovered that when people apply for loans, their credit risk is ultimately determined by their cash-flow and their ability to show that they have secure incomes. Credit unions offer loans in respect of simple things such as the refurbishment of houses and the purchase of cars. Ultimately, people who save enough with them can potentially obtain mortgages. The ability to obtain any of these is forgone by those on zero-hour contracts. This is despite the fact that many on such contracts may be working for 35 hours each week and obtaining decent incomes.

Security of tenure is of paramount importance. Having been present at some of the stores at which picket lines were in place, I could not believe the treatment meted out by the management of Dunnes Stores to staff. What I witnessed was particularly distasteful and it would appeal to very few citizens. Those who saw what was happening were not happy with the way Dunnes Stores treated its staff. The low pay commission has a major role to play in the context of resolving this issue. I welcome the establishment of the commission and I acknowledge that a great deal of work is being done by the coalition Government in this area.

There is genuine concern among people regarding the model society is currently pursuing in respect of this matter. I have heard the heads of State agencies refer to contracts, not just those for individuals in receipt of low pay but also for people on middle and higher incomes. Such talk is not good for society in general and it does not provide people with either security of tenure, peace of mind or the capacity to progress, particularly in the context of access to housing and loans. The model of multiple jobs and multiple careers through contracts is not one for which anyone should advocate. Those whose primary reason for getting out of bed each morning is a low-paid job must be protected. A previous speaker referred to the fact that students, certain single parents and others require flexibility. However, this must not be facilitated to the detriment of society overall or workers in general.

I wish to highlight a couple of positive aspects to this matter. I agree with the Minister of State, Deputy English, who indicated that when it took office, the Government acted immediately in order to protect people with incomes at the lower end of the scale. The decision to reverse the cut in the national minimum wage and increase it from €7.65 to €8.65 was made by the Government, not the Opposition. Some 410,000 low-paid workers have been removed from the universal social charge net. This was a development we brought about; it was not brought about by the Opposition. Ironically, the Opposition voted against the proposal. Recent increases in employment have come in the form of full-time rather than part-time jobs. I acknowledge that some of these jobs are contract based but 86% of the growth in jobs in the past two years has come about in the area of full-time employment.

What Sinn Féin is trying to achieve by means of the motion is largely correct. However, it should seek to deliver some of the same medicine in the North of Ireland. I found it very difficult to listen to the vehement and nasty comments uttered by those in Sinn Féin about the Labour Party's performance in government. There is a contradiction in their discussing the protection of people when members of the IRA, who are also members of Sinn Féin, did not do a great deal in the past to protect those who were the victims of paedophiles and rapists. As already stated, it can be difficult to listen to some of what those in Sinn Féin have to say.

Photo of Gabrielle McFaddenGabrielle McFadden (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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The Taoiseach and the Government clearly recognise the challenges relating to the issue which is the subject of the motion before the House.

I agree with much of what was said by previous speakers. At the launch of the Low Pay Commission in February, the Taoiseach outlined data which indicate that 9% of families in which the head of household is at work are classified as consistently poor. I agree with him that such a situation is morally unacceptable and economically unwise. Fine Gael believes, however, that gainful employment is the only sustainable route out of poverty. Work should pay more than welfare and no household with a person in full-time work should be poor. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

The low pay commission has been established to advise the Government on an appropriate rate for the national minimum wage on an annual basis. This was a specific commitment outlined by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste when they made the Government's statements of priorities last year. The current national minimum wage of €8.65 was last increased in July 2011 when the Labour Party-Fine Gael coalition reversed the cut of €1 imposed by the previous Government. I welcome that the commission's membership will include people who possess a deep understanding of the interests of low paid workers. Equally, the Government will seek to protect existing jobs by examining measures to mitigate the impact any changes might have on small businesses and employers. This Government is committed to introducing measures to support low paid workers. This is why hundreds of thousands of low paid workers have been taken out of the USC charges imposed by Fianna Fáil.

Other challenges remain, however. We are all aware that Dunnes Stores workers have taken to the streets to fight their corner. I welcome that University of Limerick has been appointed to carry out a study of zero hour and low hour contracts. I hope the results of this study prove beneficial to workers, including my good friends in Dunnes Stores in Athlone who provide a service to their company and customers that is second to none. Their treatment by Dunnes Stores has been disgusting.

The Minister outlined the range of initiatives already introduced by this Government to improve the pay and conditions of workers. The hard work is paying off. We have moved from a position where the country was on the verge of economic collapse to one where the economy has been stabilised and is now growing. Did anyone think the unemployment rate would have fallen to single digits by the end of 2015? From an economic point of view, every person who leaves the live register for employment saves the Exchequer €20,000 per year in reduced social welfare expenditure and increased tax revenue. This is a self-reinforcing cycle of economic benefits. Employment is the Government's top priority. In the two and a half years since the Government launched the action plan for jobs, we have put in place a range of measures to support job creation. Successive budgets have introduced measures aimed at avoiding job killing income tax increases and the most recent budget took the first steps to reducing the income tax burden on ordinary workers, which will help to create further jobs. The pathways to work strategy has also had a major impact on long-term unemployment by ensuring that job vacancies are filled by unemployed people. While too many people remain out of work, I commend the Government for rescuing our economy and building confidence in growing the economy, creating jobs and reducing unemployment. This will ultimately create a better country for all of us.

1:20 pm

Photo of Eamonn MaloneyEamonn Maloney (Dublin South West, Labour)
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I welcome the opportunity to debate this motion. We should spend more time debating these kinds of social issues, which principally affect those on low pay or with no job. I commend Sinn Féin for tabling the motion for that reason. Those of us with lifelong involvement in the labour movement welcome support on these issues irrespective of whether it comes from Sinn Féin, Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. Some of the contributions by Sinn Féin Members were very good, although other contributions were not particularly pretty. I remind those who spoke negatively about the Labour Party and the labour movement of Sinn Féin's opposition to the 1913 Lockout. The party's founder, Arthur Griffith, told Jim Larkin that it was an unfortunate distraction. James Connolly drew attention to the special relationship that existed between William Martin Murphy and Arthur Griffith. However, we are 100 years away from those events and the labour movement welcomes solidarity from every political party.

This is an important issue. All but the most conservative of Members will welcome the establishment of a commission on low pay. I thank the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and the Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Nash, for ensuring that the commission will deliver findings in a timely manner. We will receive a report of its findings before we break for the summer. That is important to us, and even more important to those on low pay, including families who are struggling. These are the issues Members who have an affinity with those on low pay should be trying to progress. People should be able to expect a living wage. The curse of zero hour contracts simply should not be tolerated. I look forward to support from every Member of this House on any proposals to protect low paid workers and abolish zero hour contracts.

We are dealing with a legacy in this regard. People may speak about the good things that happened during the Celtic tiger but many bad things also happened during that period, one of which was cheap labour. Unfortunately, the new Irish ended up working in menial jobs without access to trade unions and they were paid awful wages. It is our responsibility as legislators to deal with that legacy. I look forward to studying the findings of University of Limerick's investigation of zero hour contracts and of the Low Pay Commission.

Photo of Paul ConnaughtonPaul Connaughton (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the establishment of the Low Pay Commission and the focus on zero hour and low hour contracts. I also welcome the initiatives taken by the Government to date to protect workers rights by restoring the cut to the national minimum wage and enacting legislation to protect temporary workers. The establishment of the Low Pay Commission as an independent body which can make recommendations to the Government is an important step in ensuring that we focus on people and families on low pay and examine the repercussions changes to the minimum wage will have on the families concerned and the wider economy. The issue of low and zero hour contracts is currently in the news but it is only through the creation of this independent body that we will ensure it remains a priority in the medium and long-term. This is an issue which determines the economic viability of a great number of families.

The establishment of the Low Pay Commission, as an interim measure, is important, but so, too, is other legislation being pursued by the Government, including legislation dealing with a replacement of registered employment agreements and reform of the Industrial Relations Act. A study of the prevalence of zero hour contracts, to be undertaken by the University of Limerick, is welcome. Not only will it examine the prevalence of these contracts, it will also look at their impact on employees and their families. It will cover a range of public and private sectors and focus on the retail, hospitality, health and education sectors. Until we fully understand the prevalence of these contracts and their implications for employees, we cannot fully determine the proper legislative course to pursue. For that reason, obtaining increased knowledge and proper evidence must be our first goal.

It must be acknowledged that this debate has been prompted by the ongoing dispute in Dunnes Stores. I note that the matter was referred to the Labour Court, but Dunnes Stores management did not attend the court hearing, which is regrettable as the expertise available in the Labour Court has helped to resolve many thorny industrial relations issues in recent years. People on zero hour contracts are not in a good position when it comes to making a stand against an employer and I sincerely hope the might of a retail giant such as Dunnes Stores is not pitted against an individual employee taking part in the current dispute. The dispute raises a much wider issue, namely, our awareness of the conditions under which various employees work and the knock-on effect our everyday choices have on our fellow citizens. The retail sector has at its base the decisions made by ordinary householders every day on how to spend their hard earned money. Supporting commercial giants that employ people on zero hour contracts may not be in the long-term interests of Irish families whose children must grow up and find employment in an ever changing landscape.

The commitment of the Government to low wage workers deserves a greater focus. We have, rightly, placed a focus on job creation, reflected in An Action Plan for Jobs, of which the wider public is aware. However, we also need to communicate our commitment to low wage workers. The restoration of the cut to the minimum wage was an important step in this regard and made a significant difference to the lives of many low paid workers. Legislation enacted in 2012 to protect temporary workers was another significant step. Next month we will consider the Workplace Relations Bill which, when enacted, should create a more streamlined workplace relations service and strengthen the hand of the Workplace Relations Commission in terms of compliance and fixed charge notices.

I welcome the focus placed on zero hour contracts in recent weeks and months. Put simply, it is almost impossible to have a proper family life while working on such a contract. We have heard of families that cannot apply for a car loan because they have no security of income, workers whose hours have been cut dramatically and drastically without explanation, people working part time who do not qualify for jobseeker's allowance on a casual basis because they have to be available for work and are contracted to their employer to work for six days, although that contract may not result in any work or pay. Life is unimaginable in such circumstances. For that reason, we need to obtain evidence on the prevalence and impact of these contracts and take action. I believe the Government does have the will to take such action, but it needs to do so based on proper evidence. I look forward to publication of the work of the University of Limerick on the prevalence and impact of zero hour contracts.

1:30 pm

Photo of Michael ConaghanMichael Conaghan (Dublin South Central, Labour)
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I welcome the opportunity to make some brief comments on this important issue. I will start by reiterating that we are all aware that the Government's principal task in 2011 was the daunting task of rescuing the economy and creating jobs. When we consider the scale of job losses, we readily understand the scale of the challenge presented. Some 330,000 jobs were lost in the economy between 2008 and 2012. Therefore, we were faced with a mighty challenge. We have faced multiple challenges. For example, we faced the challenge of how to restore confidence in the country, how to attract inward investment and how to create the conditions necessary for sustainable employment growth. There were some who hoped the Government would fail in these challenges, so keen was their thirst to make political progress. However, the Government did not fail. Against all of the odds, it made and continues to make progress. Last year alone, some 29,100 net new jobs were created.

I refer to employment as providing a context for employment rights. The increase in employment which I believe will continue brings with it a challenge. This relates to the rights and conditions of workers, on which the Labour Party has strong beliefs. It is a party that focuses not only on work but also on the rights of workers in the workplace. For that reason, I commend the objectives and aims of the Minister of State with responsibility for employment, Deputy Gerald Nash. He is a person of strong beliefs and has great experience in this field. He is a man of conviction and progressive thought. I mention his ideas and plans not just for the creation of work per sebut also for decency in the workplace and the rights and entitlements of workers. These ideas fall into three principal proposed plans of action. He has established the Low Pay Commission, one of the most important public policy innovations in decades. The commission will examine and make recommendations annually on the minimum wage, with a view to ensuring it is adjusted incrementally and regularly over time and that it keeps pace with the cost of living. The Minister of State's second focus will be on zero hour contracts. Precarious work and zero hour contracts are issues the Labour Party is tackling. The Minister of State has commissioned the Kemmy school at the University of Limerick to carry out a study of zero hour contracts, their prevalence and impact on employees. It is appropriate that this work is being carried out in a place named after the famed former Deputy Jim Kemmy, a man who was admired and well known here, who gave his life to fighting for workers' rights. He died prematurely, but the selection of the Kemmy school is an evocative choice by the Minister of State.

The third focus of the Minister of State is on collective bargaining. New legislation is being drafted on this key Labour Party commitment and will be brought before the House shortly. It will allow workers to improve their terms and conditions and ensure unions will have an effective legal system behind them. These provisions are necessary and effective antidotes to a philosophy that has been growing apace for years and has sought to erode the traditional rights of workers and trade unions. I wish the Minister of State well in this regard, particularly in his work in ensuring decency and dignity for workers in the workplace.

Photo of Seán BarrettSeán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin is sharing his time with Deputies Sandra McLellan, Pearse Doherty, Dessie Ellis and Mary Lou McDonald.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Agus oibrithe Dunnes Stores ag seasamh an fhóid, tá deis againn breathnú ar chás gach oibrí in Éirinn. Tá fadhb mhór againn in Éirinn, Thuaidh agus Theas.Is cuid iontach tábhachtach d'Eire cothrom a chur ar fáil pá cothrom a thabhairt don lucht oibre. Níl sin ag tarlú faoi láthair.

This State, the Twenty-six Counties of our island, has the second highest percentage of low -paying jobs in the OECD, coming a close second to the USA and the situation is getting worse. Many will be aware of the situation in the USA where some of their most profitable corporations may also be beneficiaries of the taxpayer- funded programme commonly known as food stamps. Working while remaining in poverty is a perversion and it is something that occurs here also. This alone should give us great pause for thought.

We know that poverty and poor health worldwide are inextricably linked. The causes of poor health for millions across our globe are rooted in political, social and economic injustices. We are told that poverty is both a cause and a consequence of poor health, something any of us who is committed to working for this increasing body of citizens across the State, understand deeply. Poverty increases the chances of ill health and ill health keeps families and whole swathes of society in the poverty trap. There has been a disproportionate effect of successive austerity budgets on low income families who are also particularly dependent on the public health system and therefore most affected by cuts in health services. The inverse care law tells us that those who need health care most, get it least. Lack of housing, poverty, lack of education and low occupational status are all linked. Low pay and zero hour contracts, along with these factors, all converge to create a perfect storm that acts against good health. It challenges the ability of these workers to seek health, to afford health, to make informed decisions about their health and it most certainly increases mental stress.

There are considerable differences evident in Ireland in terms of life expectancy and premature death between people from different socio-economic backgrounds. This relates to the reduced availability of health care services and reduced coverage, along with reduced disposable income for many of our citizens. Reports tell us of 10% food poverty in Ireland and one in five children going to bed or to school hungry. Wide gaps in health indicators between children of different socio-economic groups are evident from as young as five years of age. Cancer survival is decreased and cardiovascular disease rates have higher mortality outcomes among patients from lower income and deprived families. Ireland is the only EU country that does not offer universal access to free GP care and charges on prescription drugs inadvertently hit those who can least afford it. Charges went up and stayed up, despite evidence that this stops many from accessing necessary medications.

Access should be based on need alone. Free GP care and free medication charges are essential but these alone are not enough; to truly break the cycle we need to address the root of the problem and the perpetuating factors. To break the cycle the Government must take a stronger role in labour market regulation. The Government must introduce collective bargaining and robust anti-victimisation legislation to protect workers. That we have to ask this of a Government party that styles itself the Labour Party is particularly worrying. Zero hour contracts give an inability to plan from week to week and certainly not longer term. This and previous governments have failed to further workers' rights.

Who are most likely to be low paid workers? Clearly, they are women, people with low levels of education, young people, vulnerable people, and undocumented migrants with many having increased health care requirements. Low pay is not good for workers, the economy or for wider society. Social transfers such as family income supplement mean that the State subsidises the low pay in some businesses. Ireland is a low wage economy by comparison with other EU countries. The minimum wage must be increased by €1 to €9.65 per hour. This might not mean a lot to the Minister and many in this House but for someone on the minimum wage it can mean the difference of providing a healthy meal for their children, being able to repair a washing machine or, under this Government, for those bullied and frightened, being able to afford to have access to water.

1:40 pm

Photo of Sandra McLellanSandra McLellan (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
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As Sinn Féin spokesperson on children and youth affairs, I will use my speaking time to focus on the impact of low pay on families, particularly on children, and the increase of child poverty in this State. The growing number of families living in working poverty is having a detrimental impact on children and families with consequences felt by entire communities.

The reality is that thisGovernment is failing in how it deals with child poverty. With the country regressing ten years in this regard, as has been noted by the Children's Rights Alliance, low pay and precarious employment is more often than not intrinsically linked with poverty in the home. Low pay and precarious employment is characterised by work that is unstable, unprotected and increasingly unable to sustain individuals and families. It means the future of work is uncertain and workers face a constant possibility of job loss. We also know that precarious work is often characterised by situations in which workers lack a voice provided by unions or other organisations. They work under inadequate regulation and receive pay rates which are considered low in relation to hours worked.

Unfortunately, as we have witnessed most recently with Dunnes Stores, the treatment of workers is secondary to profit. No matter where it happens, precarious employment overwhelmingly undermines women workers as we also saw in the case of the La Senza lock-in. Precarious employment and low pay has such an impact on the lives of those it affects, including on their current and day-to-day lives, as well as on their future prospects, that their lives and the lives of their children, not just their work, are made precarious.

It is increasingly clear that women are carrying a heavier burden of responsibility, accompanied by increased levels of poverty for them and their children. Often described as the triple burden of women, the feminisation of poverty underscores the three fundamental roles women play, as mothers, as workers and as community advocates. Often, the burden in one area of responsibility results in decreased attention to the others, in this case, detracting from women's participation in community and family. Women around the world are more likely than men to be in precarious work.

Child poverty is not inevitable; in the past, child poverty levels have been significantly lower in the State. However, the number of children living in consistent poverty has dramatically increased since the recession started. Fergus Finlay from Barnardos has said it is undeniable that public policy has played a significant role in this increase. He has correctly pointed out that not only has no progress been made in meeting the national target to reduce child poverty but the situation has become steadily worse and that child poverty remains not just a moral imperative but a national scandal. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has also expressed serious concern at the lack of progress made to deal with child poverty. It has pointed out that the increase in child poverty over the past five years coincided with an increase in calls for help. Around €40 million a year was given in direct assistance to families over the period. This is double the figure in the pre-austerity years.

Last year a UNICEF report found that Irish families with children lost the equivalent of ten years of income progress, ranking Ireland No. 37 of 41 OECD countries in its league table measuring relative changes in child poverty. Barnardos has stated that there are 130,000 children in poverty in Ireland, roughly equal to the entire population of County Mayo. Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children's Rights Alliance, said the number of children experiencing consistent poverty has doubled since the beginning of the downturn in 2008 and that we can only conclude that children were and continue to be the real victims of the recession. She has asked, as I do, how will the Government respond to these children during its last year in office. She has said that families are struggling with rising rent prices, utility bills, personal debt, homelessness and food poverty and she has called on the Government to carry out a social impact assessment in advance of budgetary decisions, ensuring budget 2016 is poverty proofed. It is widely known that a child raised in consistent poverty is much more at risk of raising his or her own children in consistent poverty. Child poverty blights childhoods. Growing up in poverty means being cold, going hungry and not being able to join in activities with friends.

It has long-lasting effects. Leaving school with fewer qualifications translates into lower earnings over the course of a working life. Poor children are more likely than their wealthier peers to grow up obese, to have poor diets and to have behavioural problems. The negative consequences of poverty can be seen in children as young as three years. Poverty is also related to more complicated health histories over the course of a lifetime, again influencing earnings as well as the overall quality and indeed length of life. Professionals live, on average, eight years longer than unskilled workers.

Child poverty imposes costs on broader society. Governments end up committing themselves to providing services in the future if they fail to address child poverty in the here and now. Ultimately, the effect of zero-hour contracts, precarious work and resulting low pay on mothers with families is detrimental to society as a whole. If the Government is in any way serious about tackling societal issues, it must begin to introduce protections for workers from the start in order that parents, especially mothers, are given a decent chance to provide a future for their children.

1:50 pm

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal South West, Sinn Fein)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht seo. Tá cónaí orainn i ré dúshlánach. Tá sí dúshlánach d'oibrithe ar a laghad, cé nach bhfuil sí ró-dhúshlánach do dhaoine eile sa tsochaí a bhfuil cosaint an Rialtais acu. Táimid tar éis éisteacht inniu agus aréir le roinnt figiúirí scannalacha, a léiríonn an scála teacht i dtír ar oibrithe sa tír seo. Tá rud éigin bunúsach contráilte le córas eacnamaíochta nuair atá oibrithe le postanna lán-aimseartha i mbochtaineacht tar éis an lá pá. Tá rud éigin cearr le córas inar féidir le hoibrithe a bheith ar ghlaoch ag an bhfostóir ach gan chinnteacht oibre acu ar aon lá nó seachtain ar leith. Tá rud éigin mícheart nuair a bhíonn 95,000 oibrithe i mbochtanas agus os cionn 40,000 duine a bhfuil post acu ach atá ag breith ar an Stát tríd an forlíonadh ioncam teaghlaigh chun tacú leo. Tá fás eacnamaíochta ag breith ar oibrithe ag obair agus ag fáil pá cóir cothrom ag deireadh an lae. Tá an prionsabal seo ceaptha a bheith ar cheann de na comhréitigh i sochaí nua-aimseartha an iarthair: cuireann oibrithe a gcuid saothar ar fáil agus faigheann siad pá don obair seo atá go leor le marachtáil. Ach in Éirinn sa lá atá inniu ann, tá an prionsabal seo curtha ar leataobh. Tá an coincheap seo, go mba cheart go mbeadh meas againn ar an oibrí, i mbaol agus tá sé seo ag tarlú ag go leor pasanna faoi láthair.

We have heard the excuses again today from Deputies from the Labour Party and Fine Gael. We all know them. They say we must be competitive and flexible and so on. All those clichés amount to excuses to allow the exploitation of workers across the State. Sinn Féin is clear: there is no justification or excuse that can allow for the exploitation of workers. There is also no economic rationale for running an economy like a low-fare airline. A sustainable and fair recovery cannot be built on a low-paid workforce unsure of how much will be in the next pay cheque.

A culture of exploitation of workers and of labour has been allowed to develop under the Government. It has always been with us to some extent but some employers have taken full advantage of the economic crisis to stoop to new lows. They have done that in the full knowledge that the Government will turn a blind eye at worst and fully support their plans at best. Government policy has been to support fully the exploitation of workers and even to take part in it itself. JobBridge is a scandalous scheme when it exists in the private sector but is particularly disgusting to see it used by the State. That is the example the Government is setting for the private sector.

That is not the way an economy is supposed to work. The State should not subsidise profitable companies by allowing them to hire for a few months mainly young workers for a pittance. A job should be a guarantee of having enough to live on. Something has gone terribly wrong. A culture of economic exploitation has developed and has been allowed grow to horrible levels. However, the Government is not concerned. Its counter-motion contains lots of promises but on reading it the only question that springs to mind is whether this is a different Government than the one that has been sitting across the floor for the past four years. No worker should believe one word from the Government. Its record is clear: it has supported a system where workers are exploited. The Government throws out useless excuses with no basis in reality. For it, the Dunnes Stores dispute is regrettable but none of its business. It is only the Government after all.

The anti-worker rhetoric of the Government has had its day. It is time to build a society and economy where workers are rewarded fairly for their labour whether their employer is the State or a private company. That goal hardly seems too ambitious, but having listened to the contributions of Fine Gael and Labour Deputies and others to this debate, it is clear it is not even on their agenda. The rest of us will do it for them.

Photo of Dessie EllisDessie Ellis (Dublin North West, Sinn Fein)
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A sound and stable economy is built on fair, stable and decent work. At the moment we are building an even more unequal and unfair economy than the one we had before the fall of the Celtic tiger. We are building this economy on precarious, low-paid work which brings little protection for workers and their families and puts more strain on social protection to pick up the tab for the gap between what workers are paid and what they need to survive. We now have a Low Pay Commission to investigate the situation. Every day, Deputies in working class communities hear stories from our constituents of families struggling to survive despite the fact that they are working every hour they can get. An economy which does not reward work and punishes those that cannot work or cannot find work is an economy which criminalises working class people and treats them as second class citizens.

In the past, ordinary working people had a reasonable expectation of finding employment, which though hard and often monotonous was secure and allowed them to afford the most basic things needed for some measure of comfort in life, namely, to be able to feed their family, pay their bills and meet their rent or mortgage and still have something to engage in some form of leisure. This is for many today a pipe-dream as they are forced to work in low-paid jobs, which are completely insecure. While large lay-offs are no longer as common as they were five years ago, every week workers wonder what hours they will be given by their employer in the future and whether it will allow them to keep the lights on, put bread on the table and keep the roof over their head. This is best seen in the increase in working people experiencing homelessness. I cannot count the number of people in employment whom I have sought to help who have now become reliant on emergency accommodation. They have been placed with their children in hotels away from their schools, their work and their community. What is the point of work if working people cannot keep a roof over their head?

Currently, minimum wage workers rarely get the 39 hours required to earn the approximately €17,000 per annum they are often said to earn. That is far less than the €35,000 the Taoiseach thinks minimum wage workers get. In fact, many minimum wage workers only get approximately 15 hours a week. On average, that would net a worker just €6,487 a year, which is barely enough to rent a room in Dublin these days. Even two full-time minimum wage earners would need to fork over approximately 50% of their combined earnings to rent a house in Dublin. That is before one factors in water charges, the cost of ESB, Internet, a TV licence, transport costs and bin charges.

People cannot live on such wages, but their employers want everyone but them to pick up the tab. Dunnes Stores has now gone as far as to punish workers for seeking better conditions by cutting their hours or even getting rid of them.

2 o’clock

The majority of these workers are women, who despite much reform in our society remain major contributors to the economy through millions of hours of free work they do in the home. These are the hardest working people in the State yet they are the lowest paid by far.

When these people cannot make work pay enough to live in dignity we need more than a commission, we need root and branch reform of how our economy treats workers at the bottom. Does it continue to support employers in maximising exploitation or does it support workers in achieving a fair day's pay for a fair day's work? The responsibility for this situation lies with the Government. It is its responsibility to regulate the market to ensure that workers receive fair treatment and that all citizens can live in some level of comfort. Zero hour contracts, work place intimidation, rock bottom pay levels and union free work places are the fault of Government inaction on protecting workers and promoting fair and equitable treatment.

We cannot allow a system to remain in place that allows employers to punish women workers for becoming pregnant as we heard was happening to some Dunnes Stores' workers on flexi-hour contracts. Workers are being taught in these work places that they are first and foremost economic units and their needs and their lives come second in the quest for maximum profit. We cannot allow a situation where workers who have been in place for years get reduced hours at busy periods while the workplace is flooded with cheaper temporary workers. Sinn Féin and the Labour Party tabled a motion on this issue during the previous Dáil but like so many of Labour's principles this has been left at the door in order to meet the demands of the right and Fine Gael.

In the United States, US, a major campaign has been going on to raise the minimum wage. The evidence from organisations such as the Economic Policy Institute shows that an increase in wages would in the US create nearly 100,000 jobs by increasing consumer spending power. These benefits would be even greater with implementation of rent controls and an increase in council-owned social housing stock which would increase rent revenues to local authorities while also cutting costs for the low-paid and stabilising rents across the private market.

If we want a fair and decent economy which will be stable and provide decent lives for those working in it we need to embark on a major campaign of reform and this must start with the Low Pay Commission. We must raise the minimum wage to €9.65 per hour. We must abolish zero hour contracts which only provide flexibility to exploit; end, through legislation, victimisation in the work place; reform pay-related social insurance, PRSI, to support low paid workers who receive pay increases; and begin the process of implementing a living wage which will ensure decency and dignity for all workers and access to the most basic needs for their families such as housing, health care, education and transport. An economy which cannot or will not ensure the comfort of those who prop it up is not worth having. Low pay and zero hours should be unacceptable. Exploitation of workers is unacceptable in any society. Everyone needs some certainty in their lives, proper working hours and rotas. I call on colleagues across the political divide to support our motion and not water it down or support amendments or even say there is legislation coming down the road. That is not worthy of anyone.

2:00 pm

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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The legislative changes we have proposed in this Private Members' motion will benefit all workers, particularly an emerging group of vulnerable workers described as the precariat, heavily concentrated in the retail and hospitality sectors and across the service industry. Their working lives are characterised by low pay, part-time work and uncertain hours. Ireland has the second highest levels of low pay in the OECD and one of the most "flexible" labour markets. Employers and businesses stress the importance of flexibility to economic recovery, as does Government, but flexibility in the workplace is starting to look more like exploitation. They emphasise the notion of 'choice' but the reality is different.

Low-paid workers want security around their working hours, decent rates of pay, permanent employment contracts, and guaranteed working hours. In other words, they want to be treated with respect and dignity and to be free from workplace harassment and victimisation. These issues are nowhere more graphically illustrated than in the Dunnes Stores dispute. It is a classic case study of the glaring inadequacies of current legislation in protecting vulnerable workers.

The Dunnes Stores dispute illustrates the failure of the Government and in particular the Labour Party to put in place real, meaningful legislation instead of making endless commitments. Commitments to legislate do not help the workers in Dunnes Stores. Vulnerable workers like them are the last people who can afford to go on strike. For them it is the very last resort. Where else have they to go when on strike except into further poverty? The Dunnes Stores dispute demolishes the notion of flexibility and is a clear and defining argument for collective bargaining rights in legislation. Overall, almost 350,000 workers in Ireland or 19.2% of the workforce suffer multiple deprivation while another 34% of single income households in the workforce are classified as deprived. We now see the wholly unacceptable situation that 150,000 part-time workers are in receipt of dole payments. From an economic perspective this is unacceptable as depressed take home pay reduces demand in the economy as consumer spending is reduced. Investment is also depressed because businesses are reluctant to invest if they are unsure of a return from higher consumer spending. One cannot kick-start an economy and build sustainable growth on low pay.

At another level, flexibility, low pay and exploitative work practices have far-reaching and profound consequences for the broader society. Women are heavily concentrated in the ranks of the precariat. They are over-represented in the retail and hospitality sector and are more likely to have part-time work contracts and low pay. A recent survey by the Mandate trade union, which represents workers in the retail sector and in Dunnes Stores, found that seven out of ten of its members are women.

The Nevin Economic Research Institute's, NERI, most recent quarterly economic bulletin highlights the fact that 60% of low-paid workers are women. The report confirms what has already been highlighted repeatedly by Central Statistics Office, CSO, EUROSTAT, and OECD data, that a majority of low-paid workers in uncertain and precarious employment are women. Constant uncertainty around working hours and no guarantee of earnings constitutes exploitation. Financial insecurity means one cannot get a loan from a bank or the credit union. Uncertainty around working hours means one cannot organise one's family life. This has particular implications for women with children and anyone with caring responsibilities.

Taken together these factors have resulted in the increasing feminisation of poverty and an increasingly worrying trend towards the erosion in the quality of life for large numbers of women in the workforce and their families. While 25% of all workers earn less than the living wage of €11.45 per hour, CSO data tells us that 50% of all women workers earn €20,000 per annum or less. European Community figures also tell us that the gender pay gap is growing, from 12.6% in 2009 to 14.4% in 2012. The National Women's Council is now talking in terms of an income crisis for women in Ireland and has called for State-funded universal child care, social clauses in public spending and legislation to protect vulnerable workers. I suggest to the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Ó Riordáin and to Government that everything contained in this Private Members' motion should be acceptable and there is no reason to oppose these measures.

2:10 pm

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin North Central, Labour)
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As stressed strongly by my ministerial colleagues in the debate on the counter motion last evening, the fundamental philosophy of the Government has been to improve the lives of people and protect the most vulnerable, while at the same time creating conditions that will allow the economy to grow in order that the curse of unemployment, inherited from the previous Government, is lifted from the people. The debate is timely in reminding ourselves what has happened in terms of how the economy has been turned around and what the Government has done to protect the most vulnerable during the crisis and how it has brought forward measures to reduce inequality during that period.

The Government has clearly demonstrated its commitment to the well-being of lower paid workers. On taking office, it restored the national minimum wage from €7.65 to €8.65. It introduced legislation to restore the joint labour committee system and enacted the Temporary Agency Workers Bill 2012 to protect temporary agency workers. It provided collective representation rights for retirees in terms of access to trustees to ensure their collective voice would be heard when the trustees were considering amendments to a particular scheme.

Having returned the economy to sustainable growth through transformational policies implemented on the twin tracks of An Action Plan for Jobs and Pathways to Work, the Government is determined to ensure the benefits of the recovery are felt by all in society, both nationally and regionally. Making work pay, enhancing dignity at work and reducing inequality are cornerstones of the Government's agenda. Its commitment to pursue an extensive industrial relations and employment rights reform agenda continues. We have established the Low Pay Commission to make annual recommendations to the Government on the national minimum wage and related matters. The commission will report to it within the next 12 weeks. We are introducing legislation to provide a revised legislative framework to replace REAs. This legislation will be published within the next few weeks. We are conducting a study of the prevalence of zero hour and low hour contracts and their impact on employees. The study will be completed as a matter of priority and the Minister of State, Deputy Gerald Nash, will act quickly on foot of the report.

As regards collective bargaining, a focus of the debate last night, the Government has approved the drafting of legislation to reform the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2001. It will provide for an improved and constitutionally robust industrial relations framework that will provide greater clarity for employers. It will ensure that, where an employer chooses not to engage in collective bargaining, either with a trade union or an internal excepted body, the 2001 Act will be remediated to ensure there is an effective means for a union, on behalf of members in that employment, to have disputed remuneration, terms and conditions assessed against relevant comparators and determined by the Labour Court, if necessary. Such a determination will be enforceable in the Circuit Court. In addition - this issue was raised last night by Members on the Opposition side - the legislation will contain strong anti-victimisation provisions to protect workers who may believe they are being victimised for exercising their rights under it, including the introduction of interim relief against unfair dismissal. Given the concerns expressed last night, the Government looks forward to receiving the full support of the House in moving these measures along, as they are part of its dignity at work agenda.

It is clear that the Government is succeeding in turning the economy around and improving the lives of citizens. Unemployment is down to 10%. Almost 90,000 more people are at work since the launch of the first action plan for jobs in 2012 and the increase has been in full-time rather than casual or temporary jobs. It is also clear that the Government has demonstrated its commitment to maintaining and improving employment rights, as well as reforming and enhancing both the industrial relations institutions of the State and the industrial relations framework utilised by workers and employers.

I acknowledge those who have made positive contributions to the debate on the motion. The Government intends to press ahead with its programme of work with a particular focus on protecting the most vulnerable workers. It will be seeking the support of the House to ensure the key legislative measures to which I have referred can be passed into law in the months ahead.

Photo of Seán BarrettSeán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Seán Crowe is sharing time with Deputy Peadar Tóibín.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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Who does it suit to have people in precarious, low paid work? Who does it suit to have a legal framework that allows employers to stagger ten hours of employment over five days and have a workforce at their beck and call? Who does it suit to allow workers to live their lives with the real threat of unemployment hanging over them? Who does it suit when employers can tell their employees that due to unemployment there will always be someone there to take their place and do the hard graft for poor wages in poor conditions?

I commend the Dunnes Stores workers for the stand they took in going out on strike recently. It was a brave move and they are not asking for much. As stated in the Mandate campaign, they are only seeking basic decency. We have come to expect these poor employment practices from certain categories of employer, but many more are successfully hiding their actions from public view. There are a huge number of such examples. The Dunnes Stores workers are asking for a permanent employment contract, decent rates of pay, guaranteed working hours and decent working conditions. It is not a lot to ask. It is not as if they are seeking a doubling of their wages or an extravagant pay increase; rather they are looking for security. They are asking to be employed in a manner that will allow them to know if they can make their rent payments week to week, as well as paying for child care and their children's dinners. It is also about paying for their children's education and clothes.

The Government promised that it would introduce collective bargaining legislation, but it is still nowhere to be seen. People are, rightly, asking when this legislation will be introduced in order to tackle the difficulties faced by many workers. Companies such as Dunnes Stores are now punishing and sacking workers for attempting to engage in a fight for better conditions.

One third of all one-income households are officially recognised as deprived. I do not know how anyone can stand over this shocking statistic. Low pay means increased dependency on social transfers. We all understand this, including the Minister of State. The State is subsidising low pay employers in the pursuit of profit, which is not right. There is talk of economic recovery, but there are people who had nothing before the recession, nothing during it and still do not have a penny now. We are talking about building economic recovery, but for whom are we doing it? That is the question on which we are focusing in this debate. Are we building it on the basis of exploiting other workers? That is what is happening and what the motion is about. We want these things to change.

We know that in Ireland there is a significant low pay problem, with almost 12% of workers being at risk of poverty. The issue is not unique to Ireland. It is also a challenge for workers all over the world, many of whom are facing unfair zero hour contracts, reduced rights and poor working conditions. I have met the organisers of the Fight for $15 campaign which is seeking a living wage for fast food workers in the United States. It has mobilised tens of thousands of workers to strike. Workers in 123 cities in 35 countries are joining demonstrations in the first worldwide co-ordinated strike to achieve fair pay, a safe working environment and improved working conditions. Last week I was in Canada during the Dunnes Stores strike. I spoke to trade union activists in Toronto and Montreal about the dangers of zero hour contracts and Sinn Féin's campaign to achieve a living wage in Ireland. The motion, rightly, calls for an immediate ban on zero hour contracts. Certain groups of workers, many of whom are women, are overly represented in being offered zero hour contracts and precarious work.

Many of these jobs are done by people with low levels of formal education, young people, vulnerable people and undocumented migrants. That is the pattern, not only across the developed world but also in the Third World. I welcome the fact that the low pay commission has been established but it is extremely narrow in its focus and is limited in its remit to looking at minimum wage.

I have heard people asking what is going to happen about zero-hour contracts. We are told that the University of Limerick is doing a paper on it. Great, we have a paper on the way. Yet it must be asked what is going to happen for those workers. That is what people want answers for. I welcome the fact that at least for a couple of hours we have focused on this scandal that is happening across this economy and across the western world.

For some bizarre reason, the Minister of State, Deputy Nash is proposing to replicate the current British commission, which increasingly is being found to be totally inadequate and not fit for purpose. I ask the Minister of State to think again about where he is going. There is also no reference in the proposals by the Minister of State to inequality, poverty, gender, migrant workers, public services access or social protection. That is what the debate is about. It is not about scoring points off each other. What we would like to see happening is that this Oireachtas would move towards establishing a real fair pay commission that will look at this whole area.

Some people are saying we are just going to look at minimum pay. Minimum pay can go up or down, a point that was not made by many of the Minister of State's colleagues. We need to see some primary watchdog on low pay and the commission's responsibilities should be widened to tackle the extent of low pay, not just the minimum wage. This would enable it to make long-term, sector-specific recommendations to the Government of the day. It should also deal with other contributing factors to poverty amongst those employed such as regressive taxation, inadequate public services and State support of low pay.

2:20 pm

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Sinn Fein)
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People looking in on this debate will have listened to the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin's rosy picture of how the economy is functioning at the moment. The reality is that these people will be well aware of the continuing unemployment crisis. They will be aware that people who are unemployed and over 65 are not even counted as unemployed, and that the tens of thousands of people receiving a pittance on job activation schemes are also not counted as unemployed. They will be aware that for every job this Government has created, four people have emigrated. That is a damning statistic for the Deputy's Government.

People are also aware that at the same time there has been a savage hollowing out of the pay and conditions of those in work. Low-paid insecure work is now entrenched in the labour force. A total of 20% workers are in casual and part-time work. Ireland has one of the highest rates of low pay in the OECD, and of underemployment in the EU. It is not Sinn Féin that is delivering this information. These are internationally recognised bodies that are respected for their level of research. Half of all workers in this State will earn less than €25,000 this year and 30% will earn less than €20,000. Every day 135,000 children face material deprivation. These are startling facts and they are a disastrous monument to the Government's two-tier economic policies.

Last night in the debate we heard the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton speak. Not for one second did he acknowledge that there is even a problem with regard to low pay or job insecurity. "What crisis?" was his mantra. What crisis indeed? The Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny earns €3,500 a week, more than the British and French Prime Ministers and nearly seven times the weekly pay of half the workers in the State. Its clear from the comments by the Minister, Deputy Bruton, that politicians cannot represent if they cannot relate.

The truth is that Ireland's economy is built on two tiers and that this is not by accident. For example, the average senior manager's earnings are 7.7 times those of secretaries, as opposed to Nordic countries where senior managers' compensation is 3.5 times that of secretaries. Fine Gael and Labour Ministers are beneficiaries of that income inequality. Real change is a material threat to them. As a result, the junior party in the Government has been politically neutered yet again. We welcome the fact that there is a low pay commission but it is deficient. It will tackle only the minimum wage and ignores the plight of 8% of workers who are in danger of poverty.

All we seek to do in this motion is offer positive, real solutions to deal with the current crisis. The fact is that work and poverty discriminate on the basis of gender, age and race. We propose that the low pay commission is built to take this into consideration. Poverty is a result not just of wages but also of the terms and conditions of work, access to public services, taxation, and State supports. We propose that the low pay commission take this into consideration.

The Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin shook his head during the last speech, when my colleague indicated that the low pay commission was narrow in its focus. The fact is that it only has one focus, the minimum wage. If I had a year left in government and had one shot at rectifying this disaster that is happening in the labour force, I would make sure the commission's remit was broad and robust enough to deal with the problems at hand.

Another problem at hand is the zero-hour contracts. They are a disease in our society and are eating away at job security. They cause poverty and they prevent workers from getting another job and from getting mortgages and car loans. Everyday issues for families, such as child care, becomes next to impossible. Indeed, zero-hour contracts create opportunity for exploitation that has not been seen for decades. We saw this in the recent Dunnes Stores dispute. For "zero-hour contract", read "poverty trap". However, rather than tasking the low pay commission to end their use, the Labour Party says it will outsource analysis of zero-hour contracts to a third party and on that basis make the decision. Is this to be "Labour's way" in the midst of an immediate workers' rights crisis? When Labour Party candidates who were standing for election in 2011 were asked what they were going to do about these issues, why did they not stand up and say they would outsource the analysis to somebody else and then make a decision?

Under this Government insecure, low contracts have been allowed to develop and to create competitive advantages for unscrupulous employers. This motion simply seeks to remove that competitive advantage to make sure that exploitation of workers does not increase the profits of employers. Our motion seeks to make banded contracts an option for workers who seek them, so that they can improve their own job security.

The motion proposes a number of positive solutions. It seeks to create a good environment for workers from which decent employers will benefit. It would create good standards of living. It would also end the bullying and manipulation of workers and negate the need for industrial action. I can understand that the Minister of State gets a little bit prickly around these issues. The Labour Party does not like other parties being critical of it. I assure the Minister of State that this is an effort to wake up the Labour Party to the catastrophe that is happening in this country. I urge him to give workers real legislative protection.

Amendment put:

The Dáil divided: Tá, 67; Níl, 35.

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Emmet Stagg and Paul Kehoe; Níl, Deputies Aengus Ó Snodaigh and Peadar Tóibín.

Amendment declared carried.

Amendment No. 2 not moved.

Question, "That the motion, as amended, be agreed to," put and declared carried.