Thursday, 8 October 2020
Trade Union Representation (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2018: Second Stage [Private Members]
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I will be sharing my time with Deputy Louise O'Reilly. I am honoured to bring the Trade Union Representation (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2018 before the Dáil this evening. Its purpose is to close a loophole in Irish law that has been exploited by some employers for many years. This has to do with collective bargaining and the way employers have an effective veto over who represents workers in matters of pay and conditions. This issue is of even more importance today in light of the effect Covid-19 is having on livelihoods and the nature of work itself. It is vital that trade unions are allowed to do their job and negotiate these issues on behalf of their members. That is not always the case under the State's voluntary system of industrial relations.
Just last month in Drogheda, both the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union, SIPTU, and Unite the Union were frozen out of negotiations by management at Premier Periclase. This dispute was not about a pay rise. It arose from the company's proposals to lay off some workers and put others on reduced hours while transferring work to non-union labour and retaining contractors on site. It was classic union-busting and workers had no choice but to take to the picket lines as management repeatedly refused to engage in talks at the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, in any meaningful way. Some four days into the strike the company issued letters to workers informing them that their long-standing collective agreement with SIPTU and Unite the Union was no longer valid. It refused to sit around the table with these unions at the WRC to resolve this matter while at the same time speaking to other unions and staff associations. Things have moved on and talks are now ongoing under new management, but the incident served to highlight the enormous power employers have in collective bargaining. There are many other examples. Each highlights the need for the law to change so that trade unions finally have legal protection that ensures they can represent their members when collective bargaining takes place.
This Bill does three things. First, it enshrines in law a definition of an authorised trade union as a trade union in receipt of a negotiation licence. A negotiation licence is a licence issued by the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation allowing a trade union to legally engage in industrial disputes. Second, the Bill introduces a definition of collective bargaining to the Trade Union Act 1941. Third, it provides that where a process of collective bargaining is in place, the right of employees to nominate an authorised trade union to negotiate on their behalf shall be recognised by the employer. In other words, when workers say they want a certain union to negotiate on their behalf their employer must accept that decision and get on with negotiations. This is an extremely simple and straightforward addition to the current law which will be of significant benefit to workers and their unions.
I will now say what the Bill does not do. It does not make it mandatory for employers to engage in collective bargaining. It does not force an employer to the negotiation table. However, where an employer is already engaged in collective bargaining with either staff associations or employee representative committees, the employer cannot then refuse to engage with a trade union if members want that union to represent them.
Under this Bill, an employer will no longer be able to discriminate against trade unions by choosing to engage with staff associations only and not with unions. An employer is still free to refuse to engage in collective bargaining, but under this Bill that refusal must apply across the board. An employer cannot veto the right of workers to representation by trade unions where negotiations are already ongoing. The right we are talking about here is the right to be heard. That is what we want to give trade unions and their members. This right exists in other EU countries, but such is the backwardness of our industrial relations system that even in the 21st century we are playing catch-up.
It is well known that our Constitution gives everyone the right to join a trade union, but the laws underpinning that right are so weak that it is not always possible for workers to exercise it. I will explain what I mean by that. Trade unions are not social clubs, although they have a social function. Their purpose is to allow workers to come together and bargain collectively with their employer for improvements in pay and conditions.
If the right to join a union means anything, it means union members have the right to bargain collectively. Collective bargaining is based on a recognition of the fact that employer enjoys greater socioeconomic power than individual workers. Workers, therefore, need to act together to provide themselves collectively with sufficient power to bargain effectively with employers. The current situation is that although the Constitution gives workers the right to join a union and, by implication, the right to bargain collectively, the law that underpins that right makes recognition of that right by employers voluntary. That is obscene. It is not worth the paper on which it is written. It is like being told that one has the right to join a gym but not to use any of the equipment, or join a golf club but not play golf there, or bring a case to court but not choose one's lawyer. The fact that this has been allowed to stand for decades by Fianna Fáil and certain other parties is a sad commentary on those parties' time in government, but this is a moment when we can rectify that.
I call on the parties in government to support the Bill and allow it to progress to Committee Stage. If they have any legal or other issue with it, let us apply pre-legislative scrutiny to it. Let us trust the committee system and allow the committee to do its job. It is time to give workers and trade unions the right to be heard. The current law states that workers have a legal right to be a member of a trade union and be represented by their union, but an employer does not have to recognise the union because there is no legal obligation on an employer to deal with a trade union for the purposes of negotiations on pay and work conditions. It is high time that law was changed. The Bill does nothing other than bring this State into line with the rest of the EU. There is no point in having a right that cannot be expressed.
I thank Teachta Munster for bringing the Bill before the House and facilitating this important discussion. It is timely that we are discussing organising, trade union membership and workers' rights because it is obvious to anyone who cares to look that this pandemic has shown up the way in which successive Governments have failed to safeguard workers' rights or ensure that workers' terms and conditions are protected.
Indeed, the terms and conditions of workers have been diluted over time. I refer to precarious work and zero hours contracts. When I was growing up, such practices were something we thought might happen in America or somewhere else far away. When Margaret Thatcher came to power, we thought that would be part of her agenda. However, we now have precarious contracts in the public service. Tutors, lecturers and nurses are hired but when they wish to turn up for work they are told to register with CPL or another agency. Direct employment is becoming less and less the norm.
It has never been more important for us to have a conversation about workers' rights because workers are facing the twin threats of the fallout from the pandemic, which we know will be substantial, and the threat of a no-deal Brexit. In a statement released this evening, SIPTU stated that the time is now for us to have that conversation about workers' rights.
I wish to be clear, because sometimes there can be some misunderstanding about these issues. It is not our job as Deputies to organise or bargain for workers or do the job of a recognised trade union but it is our job to create the conditions necessary for trade unions to organise and thrive. There is nothing to be feared from a well-organised and well-run trade union movement. We, as legislators, must create those conditions. We are not here to organise unions. Rather, our job is to allow them to get on with their work.
I would ask anyone who thinks there is something to be feared from the Bill two very simple questions. Are they afraid of decent wages? Are they terrified of fair practices in work? Those are the only reasons I can think of for opposing the Bill. If there are issues with the Bill that need to be teased out, the committee is the appropriate place for that to be done. The Bill can undergo pre-legislative scrutiny. It is extremely important that that be done and that engagement take place on the Bill.
Employers and their cheerleaders on the right tell us things such as workers want flexibility. In all my years as a trade union organiser, I never met a worker who wanted a precarious contract, but I often heard employers state that workers love precarious contracts as they do not wish to be tied down by a contract. The employers contended that workers do not want all of that; rather, they want the right to come and go as they please. All Members know that is simply not true and that it is anti-worker and anti-trade union rhetoric, but it has been allowed to grow. We need to challenge that.
The Bill is around strengthening the power of trade unions to organise and collectively bargain for their workers. Trade union organisation is a matter all Members should stand behind and about which they should be concerned. Members are aware of the disputes on big State projects such as significant construction projects. I will not name the companies in question in the Chamber because some of them are run by people who are quite litigious. Deputies are aware there have been recognition disputes. The State is spending money on these projects but it is not safeguarding workers' rights. Surely that is wrong and is something we must tackle. Is there any reason not to include a social clause in State contracts? That is extremely important.
As Teachta Munster outlined, employers can simply walk away. The voluntarist system of industrial relations can and does work well in many instances but it does not always work well. When a boss can simply shrug his or her shoulders and decide not to turn up at the Workplace Relations Commission, there is very little power left for workers, apart from taking industrial action. The burden is on workers to do so.
There is a role for the State in ensuring that the conditions are created to facilitate union organising and a growth in trade union membership because there is no better defence for a worker. I do not think there is a worker in the State who thinks it is my job or the job of any other Deputy to go in and protect them at a workplace level, but there is no better defence against the race to the bottom than a union card. A union card is a worker's best weapon in that fight but we need to be able to create a strong, vibrant trade union movement. It is our job, as legislators, to facilitate that. It is the job of the unions to organise.
At a SIPTU conference I attended many years ago, Tony Woodley, the then general secretary of the Unite the Union, then known as the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union, stated that the choice for trade unions in Ireland is simple: they must ask themselves whether are they a partnership union or a fighting-back union. That is the conversation trade unions need to have with their members. They need to make the decision. The conversation for Members of this House is whether the Government is on the side of workers and workers' rights and whether it is willing to facilitate a strong and well-organised trade union movement. Will it stand up for workers? Will the Minister of State, Deputy English, use his voice and platform and his powers as Minister of State to vindicate and stand up for workers' rights?
I will conclude with this simple observation. During the debate on the leadership election within the Minister's party, the man who now leads that party spoke about wishing to bring in compulsory recognition of Labour Court recommendations such that they would be binding. We could spend all day debating the intention behind that statement, but I know a good old-fashioned Thatcherite strike ban when I hear one. To workers, I say to join their trade union and get active in it. To the Minister of State, I say that if his party wishes to lose its reputation as being anti-worker, it can do so by facilitating the passage of the Bill and by working with us to create the climate for workers to get organised, to be able to bargain and to have their rights at work vindicated.
I thank Deputy Munster, the proposer of the Bill. I understand the motives behind it.
We have had discussions here already in the past few weeks. I note the Deputy is prominent in flagging the issues affecting local business. It is not just that as in general, the Deputy wants to bring forward the discussion as well.
I listened carefully with interest to both Deputies Munster and O'Reilly. I note that the Bill introduced by both essentially proposes an expressed statutory right for trades unions to have their representative duties to their members recognised for collective bargaining and disciplinary matters. It is proposed that this could be achieved primarily through an amendment to section 10 of the Trade Union Act 1941. The short Bill also proposes definitions of authorised trade unions and proposed that a new definition of collective bargaining be introduced to the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2001.
I am not supporting the Private Members' Bill for the following reasons. The approach to industrial relations in Ireland is one of volunteerism, whereby the law will not seek to impose an obligation or a solution on the parties to a dispute but will, where appropriate, assist them in arriving at a solution. There has been a consensus that the terms and conditions of employment that exceed the statutory provisions of workers shall in general be determined by the collective bargaining process between an employer and employers' association and one or more trade unions or staff associations. This process can cover the entire range of issues arising from the employment relationship and I believe that the trade union movement is very well protected by the Constitution and by our laws as well.
Contrary to Deputy O'Reilly's assertion, we have a strong trade union movement in this country. It is very effective. I am not sure why the Deputy thinks it is not.
Dispute resolution in Ireland is based on the structures created by the Industrial Relations Acts. It is based on the concept of the parties voluntarily seeking to resolve their differences with the machinery being provided by the State.
The Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2015 significantly changed the industrial relations landscape in Ireland. It reformed the law in respect of employees' rights to engage in collective bargaining so as to ensure Ireland's compliance with judgments of the European Court of Human Rights.
The 2015 legislation provides a clear and balanced mechanism by which the fairness of the employment conditions of workers in their totality can be assessed in employments where collective bargaining does not take place and brings clarity and certainty for employers in terms of managing their workplaces in this respect.
The 2015 Act already provides a definition for collective bargaining as being voluntary engagements or negotiations between any employer or employers' organisation on the one hand and a trade union of workers or excepted body to which this Act applies on the other with the object of reaching agreement regarding working conditions or terms of employment or non-employment of workers.
The 2015 Act ensures that where an employer does not engage in collective bargaining, an effective framework now exists that allows a trade union to have the remuneration and terms and conditions of its members assessed against relevant comparators and determined in a binding way by the Labour Court.
The process in the 2015 Act is designed to be compliant with the Constitution. It has been established in several legal cases that the constitutional guarantee of the freedom of association does not guarantee workers the right to have their union recognised for the purpose of collective bargaining. The right of association does not place any requirement on an employer to recognise or negotiation with any union. The implication is that although there is a right to form unions, this does not have the corollary right to recognition, negotiation or representation. Engagement remains voluntary. That system has served us quite well in most cases in our history.
The freedom of association and the right to organise and bargain collectively, as set out in Article 40 of the Constitution, is guaranteed in a number of international instruments which the State has ratified and which it is, therefore, bound to uphold under international law. Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects the freedom of association, and this has been held to include the right to bargain collectively. To this end, as some Deputies may recall, the previous programme for Government contained a commitment to ensure that Irish law on employees' right to engage in collective bargaining is consistent with judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. Accordingly, An Garda Síochána was granted access to the State's dispute resolution bodies, the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC and the Labour Court, in early 2020.
There is a limited right to representation arising out of international cases under the European Convention on Human Rights. It is arguable that this right is restricted to representation in individual grievance and disciplinary cases and does not extend to the right of negotiation on terms and conditions of employment. The Supreme Court has remained firm in its support for the individual right to disassociate as a corollary of the right to associate. The comments of Mr. Justice Geoghegan in a 2007 Supreme Court case, Ryanair v. the Labour Court, indicate that it may not be possible to enact legislation obliging employers to deal with trade unions, certainly not in the manner proposed in this Bill.
The Government will continue to protect the robust measures that have already been put in place to support collective bargaining with a volunteerist industrial relations framework, which has served the State well to date. We also intend to augment the existing protections by prioritising a series of reforms to improve workers rights, including the introduction of statutory sick pay and a living wage.
I recognise that the Tánaiste has signalled - we discussed this in this Chamber yesterday, where the Seanad was sitting at the time - that he has already started that process to achieve the statutory sick pay scheme and has begun an engagement, through the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, with the relevant stakeholders, which will lead on to a more formal public consultation in November too. The Tánaiste is already acting in this area to progress conditions of work and protect the rights of workers. That is something to which the Tánaiste is strongly committed. Of course, members of the Opposition will argue that the Tánaiste is not but he will be proven by his actions. He has already taken swift action when it comes to introducing statutory sick pay, which we all recognise is an area that we need to make progress on.
For the reasons outlined above, I will not be supporting the proposal that the Bill be read a second time.
I welcome the Bill and thank Deputy Munster and Sinn Féin for bringing it forward.
There is a real need for robust workers rights legislation in this country. Often legislation comes through, IBEC steps in the way and the Government goes its way and not the workers' way.
Last week, in a debate on child poverty, I spoke about the relevance of low pay in relation to the high levels of poverty in society. One in every five workers is low paid. In some sectors, particularly in hospitality, the minimum wage has become the maximum wage and is the norm across the industry.
Two years ago, I was approached by a group of workers employed by the then newly-opened restaurant, The Ivy, in Dublin. These workers were being denied their tips. They had a contract of, say, €12.10 an hour. They were only getting paid the minimum wage and it was being topped up by the tips that the restaurant was taking from the customers. A small group of the workers joined the Unite the Union. The company refused to negotiate and then sacked the two workers who were the key advocates of joining the union. In a follow-up campaign, every restaurant, café and hotel in Dublin city centre was visited by activists. What we found was an interest by workers in unionisation and a campaign for a living wage but a real fear of speaking out, of standing up for their rights and joining the union. There is a reign of terror out there and Covid is not helping. Workers need a union to combat on their behalf. Covid-19 has already exposed the draconian conditions facing workers in meat factories. The Health and Safety Authority, HSA, does not have the resources, or, it seems, the inclination, to properly examine the conditions in meat factories or other problem workplaces.
I also raised the issue of two female workers in Spike Island Tours who have been working as seasonal workers on that tour for the past three years. They had not got toilet facilities or hand-washing facilities. They used the hotels and the cafés locally. When the pandemic hit and they returned to work, they still had no toilet or hand-washing facilities. They were told to use the tap on the pier to wash their hands by the board of Spike Island Tours. These workers had to get their union involved. They eventually got their toilet, and then they were sacked. The company first spoke to the union and then refused to talk to them until the two workers and other activists launched a major campaign to name and shame Cork County Council and the board. They eventually spoke to the union and they were reinstated. I support those workers in their struggle and fight for their jobs.
I also have been approached by driving instructors recently, who must go to Road Safety Authority, RSA, centres for their work. They are being locked out of the RSA centre. They cannot go in and use the bathrooms. They cannot use any hand-washing facilities. They cannot access a roof over their head against the elements. They have gone to the Road Safety Authority. They have gone to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who advised them to go to the HSA, which advised them to go to the RSA. They are still in the situation where they are standing outside their places of work in the cold and rain. They have joined Unite the Union to represent them.
As yet, they have not had an opportunity to speak to the RSA.
Trade unions need a right of access for health and safety reasons to go into workplaces and speak with workers. This legislation would be a big step forward in assisting the trade union movement to organise. A strong unionised work force is the key to ending low pay and to ensuring good working conditions, good health and safety conditions and good environmental standards. I support the Bill.
I thank the sponsors of the Bill, Deputies Munster and Cullinane. The right to collective bargaining and the right to union representation is and should be a pillar in any civilised society. The denial of such a right is the denial of freedom of association itself. However, this right does not come about easily. It was hard fought for in many countries, sometimes with violence as was the case in the Dublin Lock-out of 1913 or sometimes by peaceful means, but it is always at a supreme cost to working men and women such as the young South African medical student, Steve Biko.
This fundamental principle brings about real, tangible change in workers' lives and working conditions. It protects vulnerable workers against unscrupulous and exploitive employers. I note recent examples of zero-hour contracts, 15-hour contracts and the recent magnanimous increase of the minimum wage by 10 cent an hour, which might purchase an extra sliced pan and a carton of milk at the end of the week.
There are 750,000 workers in the State on low wages. The importance of this Bill cannot be overstated. The Bill gives the labour force a strong hand in organising its future and in organising a decent wage capable of supporting and rearing a family. Surely that is something that any government would want for its people. I fully support the Bill and implore all parties and none to support it through the Oireachtas and give legislative empowerment to the working men and women of this country to chose their rightful representation through their chosen authorised trade unions.
I thank Teachta Munster for bringing this Bill forward. The Covid crisis has opened many eyes as to whether their employers were one of the good, the bad or the ugly. At the start of the crisis, my office was inundated with inquiries from employees, some about the pandemic unemployment payment but many on employment law issues, which would have been better dealt with by union officials. This is a very simple Bill with one key objective, namely, to protect workers. We have all learned, from the experience of Debenhams workers, how rogue employers can behave. I have visited Debenhams workers in Newbridge several times. I commend them and their colleagues around the country on sticking to their principles.
The Government needs to intervene to help the Debenhams workers. Many members of the Government wrung their hands after the Clerys debacle and said never again, enough is enough, but here were are again. The Duffy Cahill report must be implemented immediately. The shopping centre in Newbridge, of which Debenhams was the flagship shop, is assisting strike-breaking by facilitating the removal of stock from the Debenhams store. Shame on those responsible.
The main aim of this Bill is to give statutory footing to allow unions to represent their members in collective bargaining, including grievance and disciplinary issues. Employment law case history show the consequences of disciplinary issues in particular can be far reaching. There is a strong constitutional protection to the ability to earn a living. We must provide the strongest possible protection in legislation to people's ability to earn a livelihood. Each one of us is entitled to that and this Bill is a great start.
I also welcome the Bill and thank its sponsors. It is timely because People Before Profit is putting a similar Bill before Stormont to repeal the anti-trade union legislation introduced by Maggie Thatcher many decades ago, which have been implemented by the Stormont regime. I welcome that as it gives us the sense that the same problems face workers all over Ireland, on both sides of the Border.
A war has been waged against working class people in this country for decades. It is often not overt - it is not the kind of thing that a person might see - but it is subtle and often dressed in language that seems to suggest otherwise. Partnership is often a word that is used, such as the social partnership model. It is a war nonetheless, and one side has been winning, namely, the employers and their backers in the State bodies and Government agencies directly responsible. The results of the war are seen in the headline rates and statistics of low pay, precarious contracts, the lack of sick pay schemes and pension entitlements. They are seen in the decline in union membership over the years and the fact that a whole generation of workers entering the workforce has never known the very idea of a stable, pensionable, and secure employment. It is like a pipe dream for those workers. It is also evident in the poor provision of all our public services, the services that workers need, the provision of decent housing, a decent health service, proper public transport and so on. On the front line of this war is the ability of workers to join a union and have their employers negotiate with it. In this, the State pretends to be neutral - the Minister of State's response indicates that - but that neutrality contrives with employers to ensure the imbalance between the relationship of employer and employee remains. A legal right by a worker to have his or her union recognised by his or her employer would be an important step forward to correct that imbalance, to give workers the confidence to look for the things that previous generations enjoyed and are being stripped away from them, such as decent pay, decent pension rights, sick leave entitlements and dignity and respect at work. Another debate is to be had, albeit not in this forum, about the type of union we need and whether the ones we have are doing the job that is required.
I wish to raise two groups of workers who illustrate the point I am making very well. First, I raise the Debenhams workers. Yesterday, a High Court injunction was issued to KPMG, a global corporate conglomerate, which often provides assistance to this State and others for consultancy and other matters like the carrying out of insolvency procedures. That injunction has insulted those workers who will have been out on strike for six months tomorrow. They are workers who have put their lives and those of their families on hold to achieve their just rights. Other Deputies have spoken about the Duffy Cahill report. The previous Government, of which the Minister of State was a member, failed to implement it. Now 1,000 workers from Debenhams have been thrown on the scrapheap because of the Government's failure. Instead of the Government moving to tell KPMG, the liquidators, to give Debenhams workers the priority in order of creditors, every time it is raised in the House, the Government responds with more legalistic jargon to say that it cannot be done.
I will cite Kieran Wallace, who went to the High Court yesterday. He is a highly experienced, well-versed legal representative of KPMG, who is working on this job of liquidating Debenhams. He told us at a meeting a couple of months ago that what is required is for the Irish Government to instruct KPMG that it will step aside as the primary creditor in the list of creditors for the liquidation. The Government can do that and if it does so, then KPMG can push the workers up in that list of priority. The Government is refusing to do that and is trying to bamboozle Deputies and parties here with legalistic jargon that we are not in a position to prove wrong.
At this point, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions needs to step up to the plate and demand an immediate and urgent meeting with the Government to make these points. I remember well how in 2005, as will others of my vintage, nearly 80,000 to 100,000 workers took to the streets for an afternoon. They went on strike - but it was not called that, it was called a day of protest - to defend the rights of workers in Irish Ferries, to stop the race to the bottom. It was an incredible occasion. ICTU should think very strongly about doing something similar and while we cannot breach public health and safety guidelines, we could organise a few hours or a half-day strike to demand justice for the Debenhams workers.
I wish to refer to Ryanair, the notoriously and proudly anti-union company. Last year, it was forced to recognise unions across Europe. I have with me a letter from a group of Ryanair trade union representatives from approximately seven European countries. According to it, eight workers were dismissed during their strikes - four union representatives and four cabin crew members. The base chief in Tenerife who was part of the strike committee was demoted in the afternoon after a mediation took place to avoid a strike. Three union representatives were dismissed in Prague. Cabin crews in Europe describe the "brilliant" model of Ryanair as being based on continuous disrespect for the most basic laws around union rights - an illegal model that is used to hire agency workers - as well as an ongoing atmosphere of threats to workers and poor working conditions.
Their question to us is how can Ryanair ask for state aid for its industry during Covid when it has used Irish labour law to employ workers in many countries and benefit from and take advantage of that market for 30 years. These are workers who are not based in Ireland, yet Ryanair cherry-picks the most beneficial laws and often ignores local laws in many countries. Now that Ryanair comes holding out its hand to the State, Ireland rewards it by appointing the former CEO of Malta Air, a subsidiary of Ryanair, as Aviation Regulator with the Irish Aviation Authority, IAA. The appointment of Mr. Diarmuid Ó Conghaile to the IAA is a disgrace.
I will finish by citing a famous clarion call for all workers: "An injury to one is an injury to all." That call must ring for us all when we attempt to redress the imbalance between employer and worker in this country. The Bill deserves all our support.
We have 37 minutes left in the game and five Deputies offering. If everyone condenses his or her contribution a little, it will work. Next is Deputy Ó Laoghaire, whom I understand is sharing time with Deputy Cullinane.
Trade unions have shaped the modern world. They have brought us weekends, paid leave and protections of all kinds. They did so through the struggle and toil of thousands, including in this country. It is not the case that the trade union movement in Ireland or anywhere else is beyond criticism, but the fact remains that, anywhere one cares to look, strong trade unions and a high percentage of workers in them mean better pay, better conditions, more security and better standards. That is an objective fact, not only across the developed world, but everywhere. I urge people to join a union. Unions are undoubtedly imperfect and people may have frustrations with them, but a union offers protections and the chance of advancement along with fellow workers. There is power in a union. Of that there is no question.
Every country has its own labour history. At the heart of ours is the fundamental point of the right to join a union in and of itself and to be represented by same. Some 107 years ago, the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, ITGWU, took to the streets of Dublin in opposition to Mr. William Martin Murphy's locking union workers out and his attempt to blacklist them on the basis of not recognising them. It is ironic that when Larkin is now revered as a hero of Irish trade unionism, it is still acceptable and legal to ignore and not recognise a union chosen by workers to represent them and instead to negotiate only with associations that employers have set up themselves. These associations are basically yellow-pack unions. People might dispute that, but it is often the case. When any legislation establishing a structure is before the House, the question arises of whether the structure is truly independent and who appoints it. If a structure is set up by an employer, how can we be confident that it has the ability to oppose an employer independently and powerfully when the employer is choosing a course that is not favourable or fair to the workers? Employers' associations are all well and good, but let us not kid ourselves. They are not trade unions or anything like them, and they are not capable of representing workers the way that unions are.
If an employer is engaging in collective bargaining, it should be obliged to engage with a legislatively recognised trade union with a permit for negotiating. There is no logical reason for an employer to be unable to do so, nor is there a good constitutional reason.
As matters stand, an employer can lock the gate against a rightly and legally constituted union in favour of its own structure. Our infrastructure for the enforcement of labour law is feeble. There have been issues with many employers down the years. I salute the workers in Ryanair who, over the course of many years, broke down its resistance to trade union recognition. That was a significant advancement and put workers in Ryanair in a much better position to fight for their rights. Many other employers in the retail, hospitality and financial sectors recognise staff associations but will not negotiate with trade unions. That is not good enough.
Under the Bill, the right of a trade union to represent its members for the purpose of collective bargaining shall be recognised by an employer, and where a worker declares that he or she wants a union to negotiate pay on his or her behalf, the employer will have to accept that decision and get on with the negotiations. It is perfectly reasonable.
There is also an obligation on the State. For example, the HSE is refusing to recognise the National Ambulance Service Representative Association branch of the Psychiatric Nurses Association of Ireland. This is based on the ludicrous argument that it is not a member of ICTU. That is the branch's right and entitlement, but it has a valid negotiating licence. There is no good reason that the HSE cannot negotiate with the union that workers, including ambulance drivers, paramedics and related staff, want to represent them. This situation needs to be addressed, as there is no good reason for the HSE to adopt such a position.
The Minister of State's objections do not stand up to much scrutiny. There is no constitutional or logical obstacle to the Bill. If an employer is happy to engage in collective bargaining, then why can it not be with a union, an organisation that is truly independent? Why should a union be excluded?
As I have said time and again, the harsh reality is that Fine Gael represents a cosseted and privileged class. It is not just our perspective, as the facts speak for themselves. It will always put big banks ahead of struggling mortgage holders, the greedy landlord ahead of the hard-pressed rent payer, and an unscrupulous employer ahead of a disadvantaged and victimised worker. Over the past ten years, worker after worker has fought for his or her rights. In terms of legislation, what did the Government do after the Vita Cortex dispute in Cork? Nothing. After Waterford Crystal workers had to take the Government through the courts for their pension rights, no changes were made. Think of workers in La Senza, GAME and Clerys. The Government set up a review panel to consider what to do. We had to produce legislation, but the Government voted it down despite the fact that it was the Government's review panel that made those very recommendations. Recently, Debenhams workers have become the victims of a weakness in legislation and the base instincts of Fine Gael, which are Toryism and Thatcherism. Fine Gael will always side with big business, banks, landlords and unscrupulous employers against ordinary working people.
There is only one thing worse than a Tory Fine Gael Deputy, and that is a two-faced Fianna Fáil Deputy. Many Fianna Fáil Deputies have stood on picket lines with Debenhams workers in recent weeks. They had selfies taken with them. The same thing happened during the earlier Clerys dispute and many other disputes. They had the brass neck to turn up at those disputes time and again to give tea and sympathy only to enter this Chamber when legislation was proposed and vote it down. That is the harsh reality of what Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have done.
Time and again, I have produced legislation, as has my party. In this instance, Deputy Munster has introduced a Bill to improve the lot of workers. Every time I come to the Chamber, I have some hope that Fine Gael will do something for workers, but every time there is a reason it cannot. The Minister of State referred to the voluntary system. This Bill would not change that. Rather, it would give someone the option to be represented by the trade union of his or her choice. That is all it does. Imagine if a party in this House were to say that someone could not have the right to be represented by a solicitor or barrister of his or her choice. There would be an uproar, yet the Minister of State and the Government believe it is okay for some workers not to be represented by a trade union of their choice.
That beggars belief but it is only more of the same old, same old from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. I came to the conclusion a long time ago that the Minister of State's party represents a cosseted and privileged class. That is why I could never vote for Fine Gael and would never give the party a transfer on the ballot paper, because I know what side it is on. Politics is about division and choices and whose side one is on. I know what side the Minister of State's party is on. I am firmly of the view that nothing will change until we have a different type of government and a Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation like Deputy O'Reilly, who fought for workers' rights in the trade union movement for many years. Unless we have a Minister of her calibre, or one from among the progressive parties of the left in this House, we are never going to get the changes that are required for workers.
The Minister of State needs to explain to us in clearer language why he cannot support this Bill. The speech he gave tonight is the same speech I have been listening to for the past five or ten years. It is hollow. Some time ago, I brought forward a Bill - into which I had put a lot of effort, working with the Mandate trade union - which sought to address the issue of if-and-when contracts. I recall a similar response from the Minister of State's party in government at that time, namely, that it could not be done. However, in that instance, when the pressure was put on, something was eventually done, although it did not go far enough and was the typical half-baked response from Fine Gael. The party was shamed into acting, which is what happens all the time. Shame on the Minister of State and his party for letting workers down again by not supporting a fair and reasonable Bill that would improve their lot.
I advise Deputies that there are 37 minutes left, into which I must fit four remaining speakers, five minutes for the Minister of State to respond and ten minutes for the proposer to conclude the debate. I ask speakers to keep within their allocated time so that everybody can be accommodated. I call Deputy Gannon, who is sharing time with Deputy Ó Ríordáin.
We in the Social Democrats support this Bill and we commend Deputy Munster on bringing it forward. It is timely and incredibly appropriate that we should be debating it today. I will use some of the short time available to me to acknowledge the passing away today of Fergus McCabe, a trade unionist, organiser and man of immense standing in Dublin's north inner city. If colleagues do not know him by name, they certainly will know him by his work. Fergus was one of the architects of the Gregory deal and was involved in every single organising capacity in the north inner city, right up to his recent involvement in the Mulvey report. I expect the Minister of State may have met him in that capacity. Fergus was involved in the founding of Belvedere Football Club. He developed, enhanced and brought to the fore the very idea of community organising. His work did not just have an impact in the north inner city but set a standard that was replicated throughout the country, in drugs task forces, community policing forums and in organising communities to stand up against the oppression of drugs and the indifference of the State. Fergus will be remembered by many people. He taught me and many others in the north inner city the ideals and concepts of collectivism. He encouraged us to educate ourselves, he was there when we needed to agitate and he was to the forefront whenever there was a requirement to organise. It is incredibly appropriate, during a debate on trade union rights and collectivism, that I get to pay tribute to the man who created many of the structures that have enhanced and fortified the community in which I grew up. I pay homage to Fergus McCabe. He will be remembered and carried in the hearts of everybody he helped and encouraged along the way.
Ireland has the second highest incidence of low pay in the EU, affecting 23% of workers in 2019. By contrast, last year also saw Ireland register the highest growth in domestic product in the Union for the third year in a row. Recent research by Oxfam indicates that Ireland has the fifth largest number of billionaires per capitain the world. These statistics are not unrelated to the fact that we have such a poor level of trade union rights. Rather than damaging our economic competitiveness, collective bargaining enhances it. Ireland is ranked 24th in the global competitive index, lagging behind countries such as Austria, Belgium, France, Denmark, The Netherlands and Finland, to name but a few, in which there are much higher levels of collective bargaining. Ireland is unusual in the European context in that employers are not legally obliged to engage with trade unions to negotiate pay agreements or other conditions of employment. This explains our much lower levels of collective bargaining coverage. We are simply way out of line with European norms in this area.
Article 40.6 of the Constitution sets out the right of citizens to form trade unions or associations. Unfortunately, this only protects an individual's right to join a trade union; it does not confer a right to be represented by one for collective bargaining purposes. The Social Democrats are proud to give our support to this Bill. We hope that it passes but, if not, we will continue to fight to ensure its provisions are enacted.
It is refreshing that a number of Private Members' Bills and motions dealing with the issues we are discussing this evening have been put forward by Opposition parties and groups, including the Social Democrats, Sinn Féin, Solidarity-People Before Profit and the Labour Party. I have made a number of speeches on these issues in the House in recent months. That is to be welcomed. As previous speakers noted, there is a direct correlation between the fact that our economy is underpinned by poverty pay - with 23% of Irish workers on low pay, according to the OECD, and 40% of young people in insecure work - and the fact that collective bargaining regulations in this country give employers a veto. The current provisions have been described by the trade union movement as offering the possibility of joining a golf club without being allowed to play golf. I wish the Government would understand that there is a direct link between poverty pay, poor pay, exploitation and vulnerable work and the lack of trade union rights and collective bargaining rights. The two absolutely are linked and that is why we will continue to bring forward motions regarding sick pay, insecure work, poverty pay, low pay and collective bargaining.
The Minister of State's party leader became leader of Fine Gael on the strength of his view that the rights of essential workers to engage in industrial action should be restricted. Some time later, he is leading the cheering for those same workers when it has been proven how important they are. It is not necessary to have these adversarial, over-and-back debates in this House between Government and Opposition. We do not have to drive a wedge between us and play the pantomime villain and pantomime hero on the issue of workers' rights. What is at stake is extremely important. People in this country are going to work even if they are sick because they are worried they will otherwise lose their jobs. We do not have statutory provisions in this country that other European countries take for granted. In fact, Ireland is one of only five European countries that does not offer statutory sick pay.
Even though it may be imperfect, we support the Bill that is before the House this evening. I know Ministers are handed scripts by civil servants or from the Attorney General's office that poke holes in things. The Government needs to understand that trade unionism is good for living standards and for business. It is good for the economy that workers are protected and empowered in their workplace. We cannot go back to an economic model under which too many workers are poorly paid and vulnerable.
Deputy Gannon spoke very eloquently in his tribute to Fergus McCabe. Given the issues we are debating, it was my intention, in coming to the Chamber, to speak about Fergus and his legacy. I have spent time in the north inner city and I know he was the type of man whose trust one would never want to lose. If one ever did lose the trust of somebody like Fergus, one would know one was doing something wrong. He had an interest in everything, including music and football. As Deputy Gannon noted, Fergus was one of the founding members of Belvedere Football Club and he was also a fan of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. It would be wonderful if Matt Doherty, a former Belvedere footballer and current Spurs player, were to do the business tonight for the Republic of Ireland in Fergus's memory.
There was not a cause he ever gave up on. There was no individual he ever gave up on. He spoke passionately about the drugs issue for generations. He wrote the Gregory deal some 40 years ago and still spoke as passionately this year as he did in the early 1980s about housing, employment, drugs and education, as Deputy Gannon said, and always with a glint in his eye, always close to having a chuckle on his lips. Fergus was always articulate and forthright. It was his birthday this week. He was 71 years of age. It breaks my heart to think that we have lost so many good, decent and articulate people in that part of the world who were speaking to a better future. More recently, Fergus spent much time with young people from immigrant backgrounds, speaking to their reality and trying to find ways to empower them. It is appropriate, on a night like this, that the national Parliament would hear of the memory of Fergus McCabe. We will not get a chance to go to his funeral. We will not get a chance to say these words in a church or other place where normally we would do these things. When a person has worked so hard for those who needed him so much, for so many years, then Dáil Éireann is an appropriate place to speak of the name Fergus McCabe. I am delighted that Deputy Gary Gannon did so and I am delighted to join with the Deputy to pay tribute to him.
I have said before that Covid-19 has highlighted the weaknesses we have in society, whether we are talking about housing, healthcare, workers' rights, or the ICU capacity we will need, and which we do not have at this point. From my perspective we are also dealing with the realities of the Border. I call on the Minister of State to bring again to Government the fact that there will be a need for an all-Ireland response in the very short term. We will also need to ensure that we have the supports that businesses, families and everyone require into the future. We do not know exactly what the future will hold with the pandemic. We have had a changing narrative in the last days.
I commend Deputy Munster on the Bill. Collective bargaining and union recognition is an absolute necessity. Deputy Munster has been absolutely to the fore with regard to the workers at Premier Periclase where we have an almost William Martin Murphy-esque busting of trade union-type operations. This Bill is what we need to give protections to workers.
In May in my town of Dundalk there was the announcement by National Pen of more than 170 job losses. The problem was that some of these jobs were actually being advertised on Tunisian websites before the job losses were announced. This is the reality that some workers have to deal with. As it relates to this Bill, those workers who dealt with management from the point of view of negotiating their exit were not allowed to be represented by union representatives. People were being dealt with on an individual basis. These were people who may not have been greatly experienced in negotiations and they were going up against an American multinational with a top-tier management team with years of experience. That is the disparity and the weakness. It is the David and Goliath. I call on the Government to see right by these workers and to give them that little step up and that little bit of protection. Otherwise, we will have what we have, which is the memory of William Martin Murphy in operation. We need those protections that have been fought for in the State, and long before the State was ever created, by the likes of Jim Larkin and James Connolly. That is what we need to see.
I thank Deputy Imelda Munster and her team for putting forward the Bill and for the discussion around it. While I might not agree on the necessity for it, it is still no harm to have the discussion and to go through it.
It is wrong, however, to portray this Government, including my party and our role in the Government, as being against improvements in workers' rights and conditions. That is absolutely not the case. There is a consistent effort by Sinn Féin and other speakers to portray the Tánaiste, my party leader, as someone who does not believe in improving workers' rights when all his actions have proven the opposite to that.
The Tánaiste has consistently made the right progress when it comes to parental leave, parental benefits, illness benefit and the changes that were driven during his time as Minister for Social Protection and during his work as Taoiseach working with other Ministers for social protection. In the Tánaiste's first few weeks in the job in this Department he very clearly set out that the State's role would change when it comes to implementing a statutory sick pay scheme. All of us have called for it for years and we have all talked about it, but he has stepped up, is going to do it and has started the process.
This portrayal or some other impression of the Tánaiste is the wrong one. It is a dishonest one that Sinn Féin keeps peddling. The public will judge that and will recognise the Tánaiste for the work he is trying to do and the efforts he makes. I look forward to working with the Tánaiste on this agenda in the years ahead and we will make progress in improving workers' rights and conditions, while also recognising the balance and the importance of being able to create jobs and to have an environment in the State where jobs can be created and which attracts investment. It is about the balance.
Members of Sinn Féin repeatedly and consistently, and certainly Deputy Cullinane, try to portray my party as being on one side or the other, and we are not. We are about balance and working for people's rights in this country and for the public interest. As a party we have consistently proven that through all our history. The Acting Chairman, Deputy Durkan, would be much better than I at portraying our party's history, but I can certainly say that when in government and on behalf of our party that is what we aim to do, and we work constantly to improve getting the balance right.
This constant thing that we are pro-landlord and against the tenant is not true. It is not borne out by work over the past four or five years, which I worked on with the former Ministers, Deputies Coveney and Eoghan Murphy, on the housing agenda. Nearly every piece of legislation we brought into the House was more pro-tenant than anything else, and tried to strengthen tenants' rights, and rightly so. Deputies should not come in here and tell me it is the opposite and that we are pro-landlord. That is not the case. Housing is a work in progress. I never claimed that it was completely fixed. It is certainly in a much improved space than it was four or five years ago, and is on the right track to being fixed permanently once and for all. That was led by a Fine Gael-led Government. This portrayal that we are against the tenant is not true. Repeatedly the accusation is made that we are against housing, social housing or affordable housing. Again, the track record does not prove that. Fine Gael brought the delivery of social housing to the highest it ever was in the State. This is on record and is proven. We were committed to it and we committed taxpayers' money to it. I recognise the taxpayers' role. It is their money and our job is to make sure it is spent in right way and under the right conditions. Of course we would like to do more but the constant portrayal that we are against that is not borne out by fact. People are beginning to see through that also and we will work on that.
With regard to banks, mortgage holders and protections for people's homes, I have listened for many years to claims that there was going to be tens of thousands of people shoved out of their houses by the banks. That did not happen because Fine Gael-led Governments did not let it happen. They put in place many protections to protect the family home for those who could not pay but wanted to pay and who made every effort. They were protected but consistently in here the opposite impression was given. The facts do not bear that out. This does not mean that there were not some sad cases that came through the courts, of course there were. I wish there was not. The portrayal that tens of thousands of people would be put out of their houses did not actually happen under our watch, because we did not let it.
The current Government and its programme for Government is committed to strengthening that position again for workers' rights. It is about getting that balance right because we also want investment and we want people to be able to get mortgages at the right price.
I would like to add to the comments on Fergus McCabe, who was well recognised for his role in Dublin's inner city. Most Members in the House would have known him and dealt with him. I extend my condolences to his family and friends and, importantly, to his community which he served for many years. I remember when he challenged the then leader of Fine Gael, former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, to really deliver long term for the north inner city.
Enda Kenny responded to that with the Mulvey report, the implementation body and a commitment to long-term intervention. Fergus McCabe acknowledged that there were some short term improvements but he demanded there be medium and long term commitments too, and rightly so. That is now happening in the north inner city. I remember being at events and repeating that it was important that we did not just have two or three years of quick wins and that long-term intervention was needed. Fergus McCabe and many others have worked for that over a long number of years. I am not saying that the Mulvey report will solve everything but it certainly focused many Departments on an area that needed extra focus. Many have come into this House and called for similar approaches to be taken in other towns and villages, including Dundalk, Drogheda, Navan and elsewhere. That is what we are trying to do but Fergus McCabe and many others led the way in terms of that work and were ahead of many people in terms of what they were calling for in their area.
Lastly, I am not sure what is behind it but there have been some veiled attacks here on our current unions and the work they are doing. Those unions have served our country quite well and I am not sure what Sinn Féin and others, including Deputy Bríd Smith, are at in that regard. They are trying to sneakily undermine the work of the unions. I am not sure of their agenda, and that is up to them, but I want to call it out for what it is. There have been veiled attacks on the unions by some in here tonight.
My father was a full time trade union organiser and led a very strong union in this State. My grandmother was a shop steward with the Irish Women Worker's Union and my grandfather was a shop steward with the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, ITGWU. The Irish trade union movement raised me. I came in here and one of the very firm agendas I have is to further workers' rights and to strengthen their rights.
At every turn, we are met by Fine Gael which stops us. It is never the right time to legislate to facilitate trade union recognition. It is never the right time to legislate for people to have a right to their tips or for a decent increase for people on the minimum wage. When the Minister of State talks about balance, is he referring to €2,000 for Deputies and ten cent for low paid workers? Is that his idea of balance? That is not balance. We live in a very imbalanced society and we can see that clearly. One of the most shocking statistics arising from this pandemic is the fact that when tens of thousands of people were laid off from their jobs there was not a massive decrease in the tax take. What does that tell us? It tells us that people are not earning enough to pay tax. They are working all the hours God sends in the country that the Minister of State governs but they are not earning enough to pay tax. They are trying to keep body and soul together.
Sinn Féin says that Fine Gael is on the side of landlords because all of the evidence suggests that. We say that the Government is not on the side of workers because all the evidence suggests that too. We make no apologies to the Minister of State, to his leader or any member of his party or his Government for standing up for workers' rights. It is wrong to say that we have characterised trade unions as weak because we have not done so. There is no disputing the fact, however, that trade union density is declining and that suits the Minister of State, his Government and people on the right. It does not suit us and it does not suit workers so we will work to create the conditions to ensure that trade unions can organise and that the voluntarist system, where it does not work, is strengthened. We will also work to ensure that where there are to be legal protections, those protections work in favour of working people. We will not apologise to the Minister of State, his leader or members of his party or his Government for doing that. We have been consistent; consistently on the side of workers and those who have been battered by the policies of this and previous Governments. The evidence is all around us. When the Minister of State goes outside he will see people racing to a drop-off with refrigerated bags on their backs. This is happening in modern Ireland - imagine that. People are racing to the next drop but they are entrepreneurs, they are self-employed. They can just download an app and will be like Michael O'Leary one day. They are starting their own one-man businesses. The Minister of State should look around him and see what is happening. We need strong trade unions and it is our job, as legislators, to create the conditions for trade unions to organise, not to organise for them.
Deputy Funchion and I are two of the few Deputies in this House who have worked with the Industrial Relations Act but if the Minister of State does not want to take our word for it, he should talk to the trade unions. They will tell him what they need. They will tell him where the Act needs to be strengthened. That is what we are doing; we have begun and are continuing the process of speaking directly to trade unions and workers. It is disingenuous to suggest that we came in here to attack trade unions or trade unionists because we have not, would not and do not. The Minister of State knows that and to suggest otherwise is extremely disingenuous. I would have expected it of other people in his party but not of him. My eyes are open now.
I thank the Deputies and parties that have signalled their support for this Bill. This legislation does nothing more than bring this State in line with other EU countries. There is a long tradition in this State of treating every single move towards improving workers' rights as the beginning of the end of Irish civilisation. The suggestion is always that the sky will fall in upon us and there will be economic chaos. The response is always overblown when it comes to anything that might, God forbid, help ordinary people to help themselves.
When one looks at every single social and economic crisis in this State over the past 80 years, one must ask how many have been caused by trade unions or by ordinary people. The answer is none. We stand here in 2020 in the middle of a whole series of crises. There are crises in housing, health, child support and crèches. There is a crisis in the provision of services for people with disabilities and of home care packages and home help hours. There is also a crisis in mental health service provision and the treatment of rural Ireland. On top of all of these is the Covid-19 crisis and this Government's scattergun approach. How many of these crises were caused by trade unions? Again, the answer is none. Our problem lies with this State and successive Governments bending over backwards for developers, landlords, tax avoiders and bankers who are allowed to do whatever they want while the rest of us suffer the consequences.
The truth is that no employer ever went broke by talking to trade unions. Support for this Bill would not cost the Government one cent of public money because this is a rights issue. The Minister of State knows that it is a rights issue and that it would not cost the Government a single cent to support this legislation. The fact that it is a rights issue is the reason the Government will not support it. Does the Government consider it important for ordinary workers to have the same rights as every other worker across the EU or does it want to continue to deny workers the right to have their employer recognise their union through collective bargaining negotiations? It is that simple and the Minister of State's answer tells us that the Government wants to deny workers that right. The Minister of State seems to think that the Irish people do not keep abreast of the laws that the Government passes or the rights that it rejects but he is wrong because they do. Last February was a clear indication that they do pay attention to the laws the Government passes, the rights it grants and the rights it rejects.
If ever there was an appetite for change, if last February told the Government anything, it should be to listen to the people. The people out there, workers and their families, clearly see that the Government is refusing tonight to give workers the same rights as other workers across the EU. To them, that sends a chilling message that the Government wants to keep workers down. There is no point in having a right that cannot be expressed. It is time the law was changed fully. Sometimes, it is good to give this Government the benefit of the doubt in the hope that it will actually do the right thing. As I said, it would not have cost one single cent to support them but the Government could not bring itself to do it. Why? It is because it is a rights issue, in particular a workers’ rights issue. If it was bankers, developers, tax avoiders and landlords, the Government would be tripping over itself to say, “How can we help you? What can we do? What legislation can we bring in to assist you?”
The Minister of State said earlier the Government is working to improve rights. How can he seriously stand there and say that? It is costing the Government no money to support this but it would give workers the right to have their trade union involved and be recognised in collective bargaining. It would ensure that the employer recognised the right of a worker to say, “I want that trade union rep to represent me in my workplace.” However, the Government cannot even bring itself to do that. It begrudges something that costs it nothing.
If people are watching in, they will just say it is the same old same old. The Government just does not have it in itself to stand up for workers. They are not on its radar. We know who is on its radar, but Irish workers and their rights to trade union representation, collective bargaining and ensure the employer recognises their rights is not on its radar. It would not help the big boys in business, would it?