Wednesday, 4 November 2020
Ceisteanna - Questions
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 the social partners. The initial focus of the unit will be on supporting and enhancing engagement with the social partners, including through existing mechanisms such as the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, which deals with labour market issues. The Labour Employer Economic Forum has helped ensure useful discussions between the Government, employers and trade unions during the Covid-19 crisis.
I chaired the most recent meeting of the LEEF on 28 October, which saw engagement on a number of issues, including Covid-19 and Brexit. It was agreed at that meeting that officials would engage with the employer and trade union representatives on options for further strengthening the LEEF process. They will also explore how to enhance wider social dialogue mechanisms consistent with the commitments in the programme for Government.
A number of fundamentals have to be right for social dialogue to be successful. First, the processes, custom, practice and expected standards applied to interactions between the State and others should be understood, respected and adhered to. That means, for example, handing a confidential document to one of one's buddies because one is the Taoiseach and can do so, is not a solid foundation on which to build any type of robust process that will be trusted and can deliver for one and all. The second matter that must be recognised is the reality of deep, structural inequalities in our society and the reality of low pay. Entire sections of the Irish economy are low-wage jobs and often insecure employment, with all that flows from that by way of housing insecurity, fuel poverty and the other things we know, or at least should know. Social dialogue must have as its objective not just a mechanism to tread water or to rehash the same age-old positions, but at its core a desire to land on social justice. If it is not about that, one wonders about the value of engaging in it at all.
In that vein, I want to bring two matters to the Taoiseach's attention. They have been raised with him previously and, in fact, were raised by me and other Deputies yesterday. One is the ongoing pay issue for front-line student nurses. I am at a loss as to and do not understand why the Minister for Health is taking so long to resolve this. No right-minded Government sends people into the trenches on the front line without pay, yet that is what is being asked of student nurses during a pandemic. It is unconscionable. These nurses have traditionally relied on part-time work in private nursing homes just to make ends meet, but that practice, rightly, is to be discouraged because of the risk of Covid-19 and our concern to keep people in congregated settings safe. Why is the Minister for Health dragging his heels on this matter? When will it be resolved for once and for all? I note that the HSE has been unhelpful in this regard. It has taken a quite entrenched position. Be that as it may, it is ultimately for the Government to resolve the matter.
Second, I wish to raise again the testing and tracing staff and the need to ramp up our capacity. The essential point is that one cannot ask anybody to be on a zero-hour contract. A Government that talks about social dialogue must be committed to social justice as its end. Such a Government could not tolerate the type of sharp, abusive practices that zero-hour contracts represent. If the State is making use of the services of an agency that engages in such sharp practices, the agency should be dropped. That should happen immediately.
I wish to apologise to the ambulance paramedics because I meant to raise this matter last night in the context of the debate with the Tánaiste. There are many angles to that discussion, but one is the attitude the Government takes to negotiating with trade unions or representative organisations. A huge contrast was glaringly apparent, and this is directly related to the issue of social dialogue. At around the same time that the then Taoiseach was sending back channel packages to his mate in the National Association of General Practitioners, NAGP, he was refusing repeated requests from Deputy Bríd Smith, former Deputy Ruth Coppinger and others to engage with the National Ambulance Service Representative Association, NASRA, the ambulance paramedics. The then Taoiseach said explicitly at the time that one could join whatever union one wishes to join, but it does not have to be recognised. The HSE does not have to recognise it.
The then Taoiseach refused the requests to instruct the HSE to engage with the ambulance paramedics and said - this is relevant to the evidence the Tánaiste gave yesterday - that the Government engages with the trade union movement through ICTU. That was the Government policy. I do not agree with that policy. I believe it should engage with the organisations by whom workers choose to be represented. Clearly, however, the then Taoiseach did not abide by that policy. He operated a back channel to his mate in the NAGP, but would not extend the same courtesy to the ambulance paramedics, who are still denied recognition by the HSE. What does the Taoiseach think of that in terms of double standards and not being willing to recognise the chosen representatives of a group of workers, in this case ambulance paramedics?
I wish to make a second point. On 20 October, I raised with the Taoiseach the issue of student nurses and the failure to pay them. They were given healthcare assistant pay in March and April, rightly, for the major role they were playing in the dangerous environment of Covid-19. The Taoiseach said that they should get the pay they got in March and April and that he would follow through on it. Nothing has happened since then. When I asked the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, last night about paying these student nurses, he essentially made it clear that it was not the Government's intention. These student nurses are, in many cases, holding hospital wards and health workplaces together in the context of Covid-19, in which massive numbers of employed staff are out of work because of extraordinarily high levels of infection with Covid-19 among nurses and healthcare assistants. It is unacceptable that we continue to exploit them when they are holding workplaces together on the front line in dealing with Covid-19. There is much anger among student nurses about this. The Taoiseach should follow through on the commitment he made to me on 20 October and ensure that the exploitation of student nurses ends and that they are given the respect and remuneration they deserve for the role they are playing in the fight against Covid-19.
First, I am a strong believer in social dialogue and I am working with our social partners on the challenges facing society in areas such as housing, climate, education and health services.
That is something that I want to strengthen during my time as Taoiseach. These issues concerning how we could strengthen social partnership in the future were explored in the recent meeting we had with ICTU and IBEC. My officials will work with the partners on how we can enhance and strengthen the existing LEEF programme and approach to make sure we can advance that agenda. That very much speaks to the issue of social justice and also to the area of low wages. I accept that the Covid-19 pandemic has illustrated the gaps and disparities in income terms between different sectors of the economy. The Tánaiste has identified this. The aim of working towards a living wage is in the programme for Government. It is something that will form part of the agenda of the Government, notwithstanding the very difficult circumstances that we are in, with the implications of the pandemic and so forth.
I have raised the issue pertaining to student nurses with the Minister. I do not conduct the negotiations between the HSE and the INMO. There have been negotiations and my understanding is that they are ongoing. There are issues on both sides. I urge that they would be resolved. Nobody wants to exploit anybody in any situation. I hope we will see a resolution of that and a positive outcome to the negotiations that are currently ongoing.
In the context of the social dialogue and the remarks made by Deputy McDonald, one has to be fair all round. The current public service pay talks will commence with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, leading them. Public service agreements were reached under the previous Government and the then Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, was centrally involved in them. There were no breaches during those talks. My firm view is that the forthcoming engagement with the unions on pay issues will be robust and challenging but will be conducted in the normal way, as previous talks have been, with respect to both sides in terms of the confidentiality that applies to such talks and the teasing out of issues by the various parties to the talks.
I take Deputy Boyd Barrett's point on NASRA. He said he does not agree with the ICTU position. ICTU has a very strong view about new unions emerging, splits from unions, and multiple unions creating difficulties in terms of efficiencies and the effectiveness of negotiations. I have a bit of a conflict myself in this regard. I was reared in a different environment and my late father broke ranks with the then Irish Transport and General Workers Union, ITGWU, and founded the National Busmen's Union, NBU. He was a founding member of the NBU in Cork and was involved in much industrial activity in terms of strikes and other such actions. He always strongly defended the actions he took at the time but, latterly, he also understood the need for balance and some coherence in the representation of workers in various sectors, in terms of how one pursues one's rights to pay, pension entitlements and so on.
However, I understand the point Deputy Boyd Barrett makes. Regarding the GP contract, because of the independent contractor status of GPs, it is in many ways one that must ultimately be adopted by each individual GP in terms of whether he or she signs on for the offer that is presented by the HSE in that regard. My view is that if one has too much fragmentation in unions, that can be very negative too. Historically in Ireland, we had too much fragmentation and that resulted in a lot of unnecessary industrial action and strife when unions were competing with each other to win membership and in so doing undermined workers.
I am not talking about NASRA in that context. I am just speaking generally. That is why ICTU's position has validity. The reason I respect ICTU's position on this is because ultimately it has resulted in significant advances in society as well, through a whole range of its own activities and how it has pursued pay and pension issues but also wider social justice issues. That has to be acknowledged in this debate.