Thursday, 28 November 2019
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Bord na Móna
11. To ask the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if he will meet trade unions representing Bord na Móna workers; his views on their demand that Bord na Móna management attend the Workplace Relations Commission to discuss issues relating to a just transition for their members; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49437/19]
I must say I learn something new every day when I come into this place. I have learned today that under the same question, a Deputy can skip from the national broadband plan to community radio advertising in a couple of seconds. I am just amazed.
I must remember that trick as a way of getting a neat little video of myself out ASAP. Question No. 11 happens to be about Bord na Móna and the just transition. I ask the Minister to meet the trade unions representing Bord na Móna workers to hear their views. The unions are demanding that Bord na Móna management attend the Workplace Relations Commission on the question of a just transition for their members.
I assure the Deputy that I have met representatives of the Bord na Móna workers on a number of occasions in recent months. I met the workers most recently on 11 November last, when myself and a number of my Cabinet colleagues visited the Lough Boora Discovery Park and Lough Ree power station. I also met Mr. Tom Donnellan, who is the CEO of Bord na Móna, and Mr. Pat O'Doherty, who is the CEO of ESB, on that date. This followed previous meetings I had held with the worker directors of Bord na Móna, representatives of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the Bord na Móna group of unions, and the chief executives of both companies following An Bord Pleanála's decision with regard to the west Offaly power station. I have also met the midlands regional transition team and the regional skills forum on achieving a just transition for the midlands.
On the Deputy's question regarding the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, I dealt with this issue earlier, but I am not sure if the Deputy was here at the time. Essentially, Bord na Móna, while independent, has a joint industrial relations council, which was established under the auspices of the Workplace Relations Commission. The council is well placed to facilitate discussions between Bord an Móna and the group of unions. However, if there are difficulties around finding solutions, issues could be, as is the normal approach, moved from the joint industrial relations council to the WRC and, if matters remain unresolved, onwards to the Labour Court. The WRC, the services of which I am familiar with, provides useful advisory, conciliation, mediation and arbitration services. It is a useful facility for resolving the undoubtedly difficult issues that are arising.
Like everybody else in the country, I could not help but note the Minister's visit to the midlands and the flurry of fast cars involved in that regard as it was well flagged by RTÉ, etc. I am not accusing the Minister of not understanding the issue, because I would not do that. Various committees have spent hours quizzing the CEO and the unions on the nature of a just transition and how it is dealt with, including two days ago, with officials from the Minister's Department. It has become apparent that there is a complete misunderstanding or disagreement on the meaning of a just transition for workers. On the one hand, it is seen as normal day-to-day business as usual and industrial relations issues that can be dealt with by the joint industrial relations council and on the other it is seen as a major issue to do with a society trying to move away from carbon fuelled industries, the latter being how I see it. If it is about major issues then it has to be dealt with in a different forum to the normal business as usual joint industrial relations council, which is not capable of dealing with the plethora of issues facing these workers and their communities.
I have recognised that much wider context as well. I have appointed a just transition commissioner in the person of Mr. Kieran Mulvey and I have given him a very wide brief in terms of the proposals announced in the budget around developing retrofitting opportunities, repurposing the public service obligation, PSO, to allow work occur on the bogs to do a high level of restoration of bogs so that they become genuine carbon assets of the State. I am also making sure there is wide participation such that we will get good redeployment opportunities and the skills that workers need to transfer will be developed. In this regard, the wider involvement of agencies such as the education and training boards, ETBs, and the institutes of technology is important. The Deputy will be aware that the regional enterprise strategy has at its core the transition to a low carbon economy. I believe that through the just transition commissioner we can assist the development of good projects that will see opportunities develop.
Ultimately, just transition is about finding alternative opportunities that will provide both workers and the regions with a strong prosperous future.
I thank the Minister for his answer because it clarifies for me the dispute I have with him on what a just transition for workers means. It is all of the above as mentioned by the Minister but it is also about how they are treated while their jobs are being done away, what access they have to voluntary redundancy, what that amounts to and who is covered by this agreement. There is a cohort of Bord na Móna and subsidiary company employees who are not covered by the joint industrial relations council. Where do they go? The just transition commissioner's terms of reference are limited to the areas mentioned by the Minister such as retrofitting, restoration of the bogs, etc., but that does not deal with workers who are being dumped on the scrap heap, some of them after 35 or 40 years, with inadequate pensions and redundancy payments and many of them without a choice in terms of whether or not they avail of that redundancy. For many of them, their working hours have been changed and their pay has been cut. Where new industries have been provided, such as the plastics recycling facility at Littleton, contracts of employment are subject to renewal annually and, thus, workers are denied access to the industrial relations machinery because, as the Minister will be aware, to be eligible to access to that machinery an employee must be in employment for a particular length of time. Also, these are minimum wage jobs as opposed to the properly paid jobs that Bord na Móna workers had for decades.
There is a problem with the Minister's interpretation of a just transition for workers. We have to get it right. It is not only about the bogs and redeployment, it is about to what happens to workers when they are made redundant. If we do not accept that and we do not give Mr. Kieran Mulvey the scope in his terms of reference to deal with this, as is currently the case, then the only place to deal with this is the Workplace Relations Commission. At a meeting yesterday of the Joint Committee on Climate Action, the committee would not back a proposal from me to send a letter on the issue to the Minister. I am pleading with him to prevail upon Bord na Móna management to attend a just transition forum in the Workplace Relations Commission, which the latter has agreed to facilitate.
The just transition commission is not replicating the industrial relations service of the Workplace Relations Commission. In terms of what I am doing, for which I have obtained funding, I am putting in place a fund that can allow alternative developments to occur, including training for workers. I am also making sure that we repurpose the PSO so that we can continue to employ workers on the same terms and conditions as they have enjoyed before in doing work that will be of real value long-term to rehabilitating the bogs and opening up new opportunities. I am also making sure that we support the emerging opportunities. Some of the assets of Bord na Móna and the ESB can be core to seeing new quality jobs emerge. We need to make sure that the opportunities to develop those opportunities are in place. Mr. Kieran Mulvey will be in a position to make recommendations to Government, through me, on additional measures that he believes are appropriate.