Tuesday, 11 July 2023
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 9, inclusive, together.
The social dialogue unit, part of the economic division of the Department, co-ordinates and assists the Government's overall approach to social dialogue. This includes the labour employer economic forum, LEEF, which engages with representatives of employers and trade unions on economic and employment issues insofar as they affect the labour market and which are of mutual concern. The most recent meeting of the LEEF took place on Monday, 3 July. This provided an opportunity to look at current challenges, in particular in the area of the cost of living. There are also a range of LEEF subgroups dealing with issues such as employment and enterprise, pensions and early years issues.
Social dialogue and engagement also take place through the national economic dialogue, which was held on 12 June; the National Economic and Social Council, NESC; the national dialogue on climate action; the national competitiveness and productivity council; the national civic forum for dialogue with the community and voluntary sector, which will meet again in the autumn; and many sectoral groups and consultative forums.
Another model for broad-based social dialogue are citizens' assemblies. In addition, I and other members of the Government regularly meet bilaterally with representative groups to hear their views on a wide range of issues. The social dialogue unit will continue to assist me and the Government in these engagements.
Did the issues facing the Tesco.com pickers and drivers come up during the work of the social dialogue unit? Some months ago Tesco Ireland announced a decision unilaterally to impose significant changes to the rosters of Tesco.compickers and drivers. These are the workers who fill the orders when people place an order online. The move, which workers and the Mandate trade union have described as out of the blue, will potentially cost workers thousands of euro in lost income. The changes will not only have financial consequences for workers but it will also impact on their work-life balance.
It beggars belief that a change like this would be railroaded through. It is even more astonishing that the company is doing so without any negotiation with the workers. I am not asking the Taoiseach to intervene, I understand fully what his role in this is, but will he join me in encouraging the Tesco management to sit down with the Mandate trade union and agree these roster changes?
I am raising again the issue relating to section 39 workers. They carry out many necessary types of work, including work for people with disabilities, healthcare and addiction services. These services are all talking about how they cannot retain workers. Sometimes that is because people are leaving to work directly for the HSE where they are on better conditions which makes sense from a personal perspective. To deal with this, we need to see the introduction of decent pay and conditions. I would like to see some engagement on this.
I also raise hourly respite in Dundalk. I have been dealing with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, on this. I do not expect the Taoiseach to come back with an answer but it looks as though it is closed. There is an issue with the staff from there and there may be others so that it can keep two other respite centres open. This is not something we want to see and I would like the Taoiseach to speak with the Minister of State and whoever else is necessary to deliver an optimum solution.
On Thursday the Dáil debated the report produced by the Committee on Budgetary Oversight on the section 481 film tax credit and issues in the film industry. This was the second committee in a number of years to recommend there would be a stakeholder forum to address very serious issues that echo in a very serious way the things that have happened recently in RTÉ. There are allegations of systematic blacklisting; that the law, in terms of the copyright directive on the remuneration of actors, performers and writers, is being systematically broken; that there is abuse of the rights of crew in terms of systematic law breaking in the fixed-term workers’ legislation; and there is an inside culture of a small number of producers getting all the money while other producers are effectively excluded. These are very serious allegations which are very similar to the closely related audio-visual sector. Indeed, RTÉ is involved in commissioning many of the television series.
There is claim and counter claim but given what we have seen in RTÉ, does the Government now not need to commit to getting to the truth and establish the stakeholder forum that will objectively investigate these very serious issues when there is a lot of public money at stake?
Last week, I and others raised with the Taoiseach the treatment of Tesco.comworkers - those drivers and pickers who make the online store work, who pick up the produce in store and deliver it to people’s homes – and in particular the fact that these workers have had imposed on them unilaterally a change of their rosters which means some of them are down over €4,000 a year as well as having massive disruption to their plans including their family lives, childcare and so on.
Many Tesco workers shared the video of our engagement in the Dáil on their private social media pages. However, as a consequence of that and of other criticism, one worker, Patrick Reid, who works in Tesco in Naas as a driver received correspondence from Tesco summoning him to a disciplinary meeting for inappropriate material on a social networking site. This is his own personal Facebook page which he used to share a video from the Dáil and to criticise the behaviour of his employer for which he now faces a disciplinary meeting. At the very least, will the Taoiseach agree that workers should not be disciplined for what they post on their own social media pages and that they should be freely entitled to make criticism of their employer online and share videos from the Dáil?
More than 700 people attended a public meeting in Navan last night on the closure of Tara mines. It is fair to say the miners and the people at that meeting have not seen much evidence of a social dialogue. Some 650 jobs have been put on ice and no say for the workers. The mine is shuttered with no date for a re-start and no say for the workers.
During the pandemic this employer said those workers were essential. Three years later, it says they are dispensable, at least for the rest of the year. The Government should nationalise the mine, use the skills of the workforce to supply zinc for a new, not-for-profit Irish zinc battery industry which is good for the environment, for jobs and for Navan. Why does the Government not decide to go down that road?
One of the many benefits of the Good Friday Agreement has been the establishment of all-Ireland bodies including Tourism Ireland which is responsible for marketing the island of Ireland as a premier holiday destination. It has been successful in growing the tourism industry North and South. The British Government has introduced secondary legislation to put in place its electronic travel authorisation scheme for autumn this year. It will require people visiting Britain to have visas. Irish citizens are exempt due to the common travel area and legal residents in this country are also exempt. However, the introduction of this scheme is the source of serious concern for the tourism industry in this island. The majority of international visitors to Northern Ireland arrive via our jurisdiction. The tourism industry North and South is very disappointed that there has not been or that there will not be an exemption for tourists travelling to this State and then going on to Northern Ireland. The free movement of people has been critical in growing our tourism industry and our economy North and South. I would like the Government to continue to push the British Government on this matter and provide exemptions for tourists travelling to our country who visit North and South.
I also raise the issue of Tara mines. Tomorrow, representatives of SIPTU, Connect and Unite will be in the AV Room at 2 p.m. I encourage all Deputies to attend and ask the Taoiseach to spend time listening to the union representatives tomorrow. Workers will gather at the gates of Leinster House to protest the manner in which they have been treated. I encourage the people of Meath to stand in solidarity and swell their numbers so that we can have a very strong voice outside the gates here tomorrow on what is happening to those workers and their incomes - they are being pushed off an income cliff – and also what is happening to the economy and society in County Meath with the loss of these jobs.
The workers have been treated disastrously by Boliden in my view. The company is extracting Irish ore and paying very little corporation tax or royalties. It has experienced the loyalty of these workers and it is showing very little loyalty back. The Government itself is doing very little to reduce the cost of electricity which is a significant impediment to getting that business back on a sustainable level. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has promised to provide an income support to step down if people are made redundant or laid off yet it is not being done on this occasion when it is needed. It was done in relation to the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and I ask that the Taoiseach see that it is done in emergency legislation to help these workers now.
I thank the Deputies for their questions. As regards Tesco workers, pickers and drivers, that matter was not discussed at LEEF. Individual disputes rarely are discussed at LEEF but sometimes they are touched on. There are mechanisms for disputes to be resolved, such as the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, and the Labour Court. I would encourage Tesco to sit down with Mandate. Provided the workers want Mandate to represent them, Tesco in those circumstances should sit down with Mandate and discuss any issues that have arisen. Whether or not they can be made to agree is an entirely different thing, as I think people will appreciate, but engagement is the least that should happen.
As regards Deputy Ó Murchú's question about respite in Dundalk, I am not up to date on that but I will check the position with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. The truth is that we are experiencing recruitment and retention problems almost everywhere at the moment. It is a feature of full employment. Perhaps one of the unintended consequences of achieving full employment is that there really is not any sector of the economy where we do not have labour shortages now. They are in the public sector and in the private sector; they are in the towns and the cities; they are in well-paid jobs and in not-well-paid jobs; and they are in big businesses and small businesses. Just increasing pay or improving terms and conditions will not necessarily solve the problem. We have many more jobs available than there are people adequately skilled or qualified to fill them. That is why we need to increase the number of people who are trained for particular jobs and use our work permit system to bring in from overseas people who either have the skills or are willing to work in the particular areas concerned.
Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the issue of a stakeholder forum in the audiovisual sector. As he said, there are claims and counterclaims, and it is hard to know what is true and what is not. I do not think a stakeholders' forum could have any investigative powers - that is not how forums work by their nature - but it is not a bad idea on the face of it, and I will certainly bring it as a proposal to the attention of the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, given that she is the person who is responsible for the sector. We are supporting the sector in its growth with very generous tax incentives, which we put in place largely because we are competing with other countries that are doing the same. It is a sector that we will see expand, but it is important that there are proper career paths and a degree of economic certainty for the people who work in the sector. I know that the Deputy has raised this many times and that he is sincere about it. I will certainly speak to the Minister about it.
As regards Tara Mines, I know the situation is having a huge impact on Navan and on County Meath. It is about the hundreds of people who are losing their jobs and experiencing major reductions in their incomes. It is also about the wider impact on the payroll being lost in Navan and the wider area. There has been a lot of engagement by the Government. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Coveney, has been very engaged in this matter. Only a few moments ago Deputy Bríd Smith gave the Minister a backhanded compliment by asking that he take an interest in the Iceland dispute to the extent that he took an interest in the Tara Mines dispute. There is a WRC agreement now. It is to be hoped that this agreement can be honoured. The Government will work with the company to try to get the mine reopened. We would like to see it open within months and we are of course willing to talk to the company about issues such as royalties and electricity costs. However, what it is saying now very clearly is that with the price of energy being high and the price of zinc being low, the mine just is not viable. We do not have any proposals to nationalise the mine. To do so we would have to pay the owners I do not know what amount of compensation. That is what happens when you nationalise something: you have to pay the owners compensation for it. It is a compulsory purchase, essentially. Also, it is loss-making. Our country has spending ceilings. I would not like to divert money from housing, education and pensions to nationalise a mine which would then lose money. That does not make sense, from my point of view.
We could not introduce it for just one employer or one set of employees. That would not be fair. We should bring in pay-related benefits. There are disputes about it, by the way. I think it makes sense. The more you pay in PRSI the more you should get back out. Other people take a different view and think that is inequitable. In particular, people on the left oppose that concept. I do not. I hope we can get that done, but it would not be possible to do it for one set of employees. That just would not be fair. It has to be done for everyone because everyone pays PRSI.
As regards the matter Deputy Brendan Smith raised about a tourist exemption, we are pursuing that with the UK authorities and the British Government. When I was in Jersey at the British-Irish Council not too long ago, I discovered that there is an exemption for people making day trips from France to Jersey, so there must be some degree of flexibility around this. Could people coming to visit this State, the Republic of Ireland, not be exempt if visiting Northern Ireland for a few days as well? We are raising that issue with the UK Government and it is hoped we will get some progress on it.
It is a fair question, but I just do not know exactly what happened, and I am loath to comment on something without knowing the facts. There may be a different side to the story.