Wednesday, 23 September 2020
Ceisteanna - Questions
Departmental Administrative Arrangements
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.
The Government recognises the importance of regular and open engagement with all sectors of society. This is particularly important as we steer our way out of the pandemic, rebuild our economy and support communities that have been severely impacted by Covid-19.
As committed to in the programme for Government, a social dialogue unit has been established within the economic division of my Department. This division already has extensive engagement with social partners.
Its initial focus will be on supporting engagement with the social partners including through existing mechanisms such as the Labour Employer Economic Forum and the annual national economic dialogue.
The Labour Employer Economic Forum in particular has helped ensure good discussions between Government, employers and trade unions during the Covid-19 crisis and I believe that further social dialogue will help in the many challenges that lie ahead.
I am also aware that the Tánaiste is meeting the employment rights arm of the Labour Employer Economic Forum next week. They will be discussing proposals on how Government can best address concerns on employment rights, particularly in low-paid industries where workers are at high risk of contracting Covid.
The point of this new unit is to help co-ordinate future social dialogue. As the Taoiseach said, the Labour Employer Economic Forum has helped with discussions between employers and trade unions during this crisis as well as beforehand. I am really concerned about the collapse of discussions in the Low Pay Commission. We all know what the Low Pay Commission is. We in the Labour Party created it through the work of Deputy Nash and others. It does fundamental work. We made an absolute commitment to bring it in to ensure that we could get to a threshold level of pay for people.
Patricia King and others have made a fair and rational argument over the increase in the minimum wage, but employers would not budge beyond 1%. I have known Patricia King for a long time and she did not take lightly the decision to walk out. This is not a good moment. The pandemic has clearly shown that the over-reliance on low-paid work in essential jobs in Ireland is a big problem. It says a lot that two unions have walked out. I am concerned not just at them rightly walking out; I am concerned over how employers are behaving. I know the Taoiseach said this is an independent process. I know the process off by heart; I helped create it. That is not the issue. The issue is deeper for me.
The commission can still make a recommendation but I am concerned over how it can function without the trade union side. We need to remember that while it can make a recommendation, the Government does not have to accept it and can always increase it. That is something the Taoiseach might bear in mind.
This comes on top of a report from the Central Bank a few days ago which exposed just how unequal Irish society is. The median wealth of a person in the wealthiest 20% of Irish society is €853,000. The median wealth of a person in the poorest 20% of Irish society is just €1,000 and the gap has widened in recent years. The programme for Government commits to progressing to a living wage over the lifetime of the Government. What process can be used if the commission is broken? How can the Government fulfil its programme for Government commitment if the commission is not functioning?
How will social dialogue work without an acceptance that low pay rates and poor conditions like the lack of sick pay, which we discussed earlier, cannot be addressed? How will all this work in the future? I am totally supportive of Patricia King, as are the Labour Party and our trade union colleagues. We need to look at how we might ensure workers' low pay will be reprioritised.
There is a deeper matter here. What forums will the Government have in the future? How will it be able to engage and monitor this?
I wish to deal with two things. On the work envisaged in the establishment of this unit in the Department of the Taoiseach, I understand the models of sectoral engagement are different from the old social partnership process. I ask the Taoiseach to confirm that for me. There is no doubt that workers, businesses and all of society face sudden and unprecedented challenges. The public health emergency and consequent restrictions will create uncertain conditions for working people, but also uncertain trading conditions and business will require ongoing and substantial support from all arms of Government. Meaningful engagement with employers, particularly small businesses and microbusinesses which provide the bulk of employment, will be critical. From my contacts with business representative organisations, I know they are very keen that this new model of sectoral engagement comes to pass very quickly.
I raised the issue of the Low Pay Commission with the Taoiseach earlier. This commission was destined to fail because the legislation underpinning it is insufficient. It does not have fairness and the intention to move from a status of low pay to a status of decent pay hardwired into it. Labour and Fine Gael ignored the work of the British Labour Party which proposed substantial and progressive reforms of the British commission, the model the commission here mimicked. We need to go back and rewire the commission if it is to fulfil its stated purpose. It is senseless to have a commission on low pay that refuses to tackle and resolve the issue of low pay.
Last week the Taoiseach urged KPMG to talk to the Debenhams workers. Not only has KPMG failed to act on that suggestion, but non-union labour is now being hired to pass picket lines and go into the stores to pack stock that is at the centre of an industrial dispute. In other words the liquidator, appointed by the courts, is overseeing a scabbing operation organised on a national basis.
I appeal to those non-union workers to refuse to do KPMG's dirty work and to respect the picket lines that have been organised by the workers - overwhelmingly women workers - who are campaigning for justice.
In conclusion, I would like to ask the Taoiseach a direct question. Is he prepared, in the House today, to condemn this strike-breaking operation and to call on KPMG to ensure it stops immediately?
Workers in Debenhams in Blackrock, along with almost 1,000 other workers, were on the picket lines at 6 a.m. this morning. I joined them at approximately 7.30 a.m. They had to go through the immense frustration of watching strike breakers brought in by their former manager. To be honest, most of their disgust was directed at the former manager ushering in these strike breakers. Frankly, I do not think the strike breakers really understood what was going on. The workers were appealing to them not to do what they were doing.
It would be a very strong message for the Taoiseach to stand up and say that this strike-breaking operation is absolutely reprehensible. I have an invitation to him from the Debenhams workers in Blackrock. If one talks to them, it is clear that they are some of the loveliest people one could ever meet. They did not blame the strike breakers. They blamed KPMG, the inaction of the Government and Debenhams. One of the workers, Martin, has invited the Taoiseach to go to Blackrock and he will buy him lunch in the McDonald's there and give him a cup of coffee. Martin wants to talk things through in a social dialogue, explain the workers' plight and ask what the Taoiseach can do. That is a direct invitation from Martin, Viv and the shop steward, Eilis, at Debenhams in Blackrock to the Taoiseach. They are asking him to go there and engage in social dialogue with them tomorrow morning as they fight for justice in a very just cause against reprehensible treatment at the hands of KPMG.
Deputies Kelly and McDonald asked about the Low Pay Commission. Sinn Féin and Deputy McDonald could take a leaf out of Deputy Kelly's book. Let us argue these issues in as non-political and non-partisan a way as we can. We are all in favour of looking after and doing the best we can for low-paid workers. The problem I see in the exchanges this morning is one party wants to party-politicise the issues. That party now blames Fine Gael and the Labour Party for what it is saying is a commission that was not wired properly. The commission made five recommendations that were accepted by successive Governments. It is a serious issue that a statutory body that was set up by the Oireachtas and had input from all parties is now in a breakdown situation. We have to move carefully before we just abandon it.
This matter can be dealt with as part of the work of the social dialogue unit in my Department. I established that unit, by the way, because I believe strongly in working with trade unions, employers and other interests to develop a consensual approach to society. Fianna Fáil brought in social partnership in the late 1980s at a time of great economic crisis. Social partnership did a lot for this country in its first ten years or so. It did a lot for workers and it did a lot to advance social entitlements and rights. I make no apology for saying I am a strong advocate for engagement in social dialogue with trade unions, employers and broader interests in society to advance a better quality of life and better rights and entitlements for workers. That is why I, as Taoiseach, set up a new unit within my Department to intensify our effort on that front.
There is a commitment in the programme for Government to move towards a living wage. Deputy Kelly is correct in suggesting that we must consider what is the mechanism or forum by which we arrive at that. I believe we should make an effort to restore equilibrium on the Low Pay Commission. The Deputy is also correct that the Government has not made a decision as to whether it will accept the particular recommendation to which he referred. That will be done closer to budget time. We are very conscious of the issues. One should, in fairness, ascertain the reasons that this recommendation has come forward. I am conscious that, as a Government, we are supporting a lot of employers. The vast majority of those availing of the wage subsidy are micro-employers through to small and medium-sized employers, as Deputy McDonald noted. That is who is availing of the wage subsidy scheme. More than 350,000 workers are being supported under the scheme and will be supported through to April. It seems to me, with the prevalence of Covid-19, that this support could be needed beyond then in terms of financial and economic requirements and impact.
I also take Deputy Kelly's broader point. I have gone through some of the work of Thomas Picketty, for example, which outlines how, globally and throughout Europe, those on higher incomes have got proportionately more over the decades compared with those on lower incomes. There is an obligation on the State to work towards bridging that gap and giving people a decent wage with decent entitlements such as sick pay. The Government is working on that and we want to work constructively with the legislation Deputy Kelly has brought forward. That was our intention at Cabinet yesterday - not to dismiss it but to recognise the need for a serious engagement with unions, employers and all concerned to see how we can devise a more structured sick pay regime within our overall pay and entitlement framework in this country.
On the sectoral issues, the Government appealed the High Court decision in regard to the sectoral pay awards. We are keen to protect the rights that have been enshrined in the various orders.
In regard to the Debenhams situation, I have met a number of workers on a number of occasions. I do not approve of strike breaking or any approach like that. It is not going to resolve these issues. The union involved has been seeking to resolve the matter. What I do not want to do either is walk people up a hill by pretending we can do everything. The workers now know that is not the case. Whatever we say and do has to be grounded in reality.