Dáil debates

Thursday, 25 March 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Workplace Relations Commission

6:55 pm

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, inspectors do a fantastic job. They are an absolutely vital part of the industrial relations machinery. I am sure the Minister of State will not disagree with me that in an ideal world we would not need labour inspectors. However, we do not live in an ideal world, so we do need them. They perform a vital function.

Just by way of illustration of what they do and how important they are, in the period 2015 to 2020, WRC inspectors found breaches in employment law in 48%, almost half, of inspections carried out in the meat industry.

The reason this is so important is that in some sectors, there are workers who may not know what their rights are, who may not speak English as their first language, who may be afraid of their employer or who may have an employer who does not follow the regulations, though most employers do. Most employers are decent and want to do the right thing and most employers are reasonable to their employees. However, in 48% of inspections the Workplace Relations Commission's inspectors found that there were breaches of employment law.

In that period, they also recovered €184,000 on behalf of these workers. These are not high earners. It is not a big, high-earning sector. This sector is marked by low wages and precarious work and €184,000 was recovered by the inspectors on behalf of these workers. In 92 inspections in the horse racing and equine sector, 340 contraventions were found. That happened over a two-year period as part of a special project the inspectors undertook. It is not just about the money the inspectors recover but the fact that when they go to a workplace they are in a position to inform those workers about their rights. We could debate all day about why workers need more rights at work, because they absolutely do, but these workers can get information on even the minimum entitlements they have from the WRC inspectors.

I remind the Minister of State that as far back as 2006 I was involved in the negotiations for the Towards 2016 national wage agreement, as part of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. It was agreed at that stage that there was a need to increase the number of labour inspectors from 31 to 90. We are nowhere near that figure now. We have more people at work and some would argue there are more unscrupulous employers acting at the moment, which underlines the very real need for these inspectors. For the workers whose workplaces they inspect and for whom they find breaches and rectify them, they are worth their weight in gold. It beggars belief that we have to have this conversation.

I know the Minister of State values the work of the WRC inspectors and that he will tell me so when he has a chance to speak. We all value them but we need more of them. Even with the reduced and limited numbers they have at the moment, they were still able to find breaches of employment law in 48% of inspections in one sector. To me, that means we need more of them because if we had more we could do more for those workers, uncover more and make their workplaces not just decent places to work but safer places to work as well. That has to be considered because it is a very important factor.

7:05 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank Deputy O'Reilly and thank the Minister of State for being here to deal with this important matter.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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The Ceann Comhairle will be glad to hear that I am in agreement with the Deputy on this issue. We have found some common ground and we both recognise the great and important work these inspectors, and the WRC in general, are doing. They are there to make sure employees are secure in their employment and that their conditions are being met satisfactorily. That is why we value the work of the WRC and its inspectors. We are absolutely committed to increasing their numbers.

To give some context, the WRC is an independent statutory body under the aegis of my Department, which was established on 1 October 2015 under the Workplace Relations Act 2015. The WRC’s core services include: the inspection of employment rights compliance; the provision of information; adjudicating on complaints under employment protection, equality and industrial relations legislation; and the provision of mediation, conciliation, facilitation and advisory services. This is all very important work, which Deputy O'Reilly has just gone through as well.

The WRC’s inspectors are appointed by the director general with the consent of the Minister, and they exercise such powers as are conferred upon them by the Workplace Relations Act 2015. Inspectors visit places of employment and carry out investigations on behalf of the WRC in order to ensure compliance with equality and employment related legislation. These inspections arise in response to complaints of alleged non-compliance with relevant employment rights legislation, as part of compliance campaigns which focus on specific sectors or specific pieces of legislation, or from routine inspections, announced and unannounced, which act as an overall control measure. Often their work is targeted at certain key areas, which is why one might see high findings in certain sectors.

The WRC inspectorate is staffed by civil servants of my Department. WRC inspectors are ranked at executive officer, EO, and higher executive officer, HEO, level. As of 19 March 2021, there are a total of 53 WRC labour inspectors, 48 of whom are at EO level and five at HEO level. My Department is committed to ensuring adequate resourcing is provided to the WRC. For 2021, the WRC has been allocated €12,566,000 in respect of pay and €2,613,000 in respect of non-pay. This is an increase of €1 million since 2019. We have managed to make sure that increase was matched in 2019, 2020 and 2021. As the Deputy said, commitments were made as far back as 2008 and 2009 to increase the funding for WRC inspectors, which were under a different title at that time. That is what we had intended to do and we will continue to work to do that.

The national Return to Work Safely Protocol was published on 9 May 2020 in response to the Covid pandemic. The protocol supported employers and employees in putting measures in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace when restrictions eased. Again, this recognised the work of the inspectors. WRC inspectors carried out on-site inspections in support of the protocol and combined this work with their primary statutory employment related work. In 2020, the inspectorate division of the WRC carried out over 7,000 inspections in many different areas and has recovered €1,700,000 in unpaid wages. That is only one part of their work, the other being conditions and so on. This work continues in 2021.

We will engage with the new chairman of the WRC and with the director general on a regular basis to make sure we can complement the WRC's work and provide the number of people it needs. An appointments process for new inspectors is ongoing at the moment through the Public Appointments Service and in conjunction with the director general. We hope to beef up the numbers because we are committed to doing so. As the Deputy pointed out, it is very important that we do this.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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It is all very well to describe who the inspectors are and what they do. By dint of my former employment, I know well who they are and I know very well what they do. There are 53 of them, which is 37 short of the 90 that were recommended back in 2006. At that time, the parties to the agreement, that is, the social partners, the employers, the employers' representatives, the workers' representatives and the Government, agreed that 90 was the figure that was needed. We are at 53 now. We have more people working and living on the island now and working conditions have arguably deteriorated in line with the reduction in trade union density. Notwithstanding that, there are new phenomena in the workplace such as Deliveroo riders. That type of work was not work when I was younger and was not work even back in 2006 when it was deemed necessary to increase the number of inspectors to 90. When are we going to get to 90? That would only bring us up to the number that was required in 2006. It is now 2021 and I would argue - and I do not think anyone would correct me - that we need more inspectors now than we could possibly have needed back in 2006. There was agreement on this issue in 2006. It was put into the national wage agreement at the time that 90 was the minimum number of inspectors needed. The Minister of State and I agree that they do great work and that they are worth their weight in gold. We also agree that they are a very necessary part of the functioning of the industrial relations machinery of the State, but can we not agree that we need more of them? Can we not agree that the minimum number of inspectors must be what was required in 2006, which was 90?

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I am glad to be able to confirm for the Deputy that the recruitment process for inspectors is under way. I am sure she is aware of that. That is why the extra funding was provided, in order that we could reach those numbers. Through the Public Appointments Service, a recruitment campaign is in train in conjunction with the WRC for an increase in the numbers of both EO and HEO inspectors. I was not in the Department at the time but it is my understanding that, after the need was identified in 2006 or 2007, the budget discussion for 2009 was focused on increasing the numbers and allocating extra money.

We all know what happened to the public finances in the years after that and it is only recently that we have restored the public finances to a sound position. We can now rightfully allocate increased resources to the Workplace Relations Commission to carry out its essential work and hire extra inspectors. The process is under way. The chairman of the WRC, David Begg, who was appointed recently, and its director general, Liam Kelly, are very committed to doing this. The Department and I are working with them to increase resources, as they have requested, and match their need. A recruitment campaign is under way and I have no doubt, given the number of applicants and the interviews that are taking place, that we will be able to increase the number of WRC inspectors. We will build on that with next year’s allocation. That is what we are here to do.