Tuesday, 4 November 2014
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, to the House. I am grateful that he is here to take this Adjournment matter as the senior Minister in the Department.
My case is the need for the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to consider the poor prospects of agency workers who exist on week-to-week contracts and how he can improve their lot. It is in everyone's interest that workers are happy and that people stay working. We do not want to make welfare attractive or to create a welfare trap. The Minister will know that I have a long record in supporting work and employment and in supporting multinational companies as well as small local businesses.
I was quite stunned when I heard of some of the conditions under which agency workers are employed. I will document some of them for the Minister. Agency workers are employed by an agency and not by the company directly, although they work in the company. The main kernel of the problem is that they work on week-to-week contracts and are paid on a scale ranging from the minimum wage to a little more than €10 per hour. One worker met me to describe his plight. He earns approximately €21,500 a year but his biggest problem is that he is employed on a week-to-week contract. He is not a baby; he is 39 years of age. He would like to get married but he cannot even qualify for a credit union loan. He cannot get a car loan or a mortgage because of the lack of job security in the contract. He has no benefits in terms of sick pay or a pension. Others mentioned to me that some agency workers are on a week-to-week contract for up to three years without any definite contract duration. That is quite a long time. They are the issues I would like the Minister to address in terms of legislation he is planning to bring forward and guidelines he can issue to agencies. Is he examining lengthening the week-to-week contract, even to three to six months, which would be helpful? In some cases agency workers' wages have been reduced from €10 an hour to the minimum wage.
This policy of low pay is a big issue. This individual pointed out to me that, under the budget, he will get an extra €3 a week, but that will not make any sizeable difference to his life. I reiterate that the biggest problem is the week-to-week contract because, to use that individual's words, he feels "it is messing with people's lives". He cannot get a mortgage, a car loan or a credit union loan. He said: "my head is exploding as I want out of here but where else can I go - I want to work - but into another agency job". It is desirable that the weekly contracts be extended to short-term contracts, for example, up to six months, which would give workers the ability to plan ahead. This would be good for companies too because they would be able to plan ahead. If there is better morale among the workers, it will improve spirits in the company. While it is somewhat nebulous, one can always recognise good worker morale and good spirits in a company.
The perception is that the law suits companies and the Government backs it. We all need employment and I support jobs, growth and the growth of GDP, but workers' rights and dignity matter too. If lengthening the duration of contracts is not examined, the danger is that it could make welfare attractive, and creating a welfare trap is the last thing we would wish to do.
I have many more examples. Another one is that after the deduction of PAYE tax, PRSI, the universal social charge, the property tax and with the water tax that is being introduced, there is very little left to live on and that all that is left to tax now is the air. I am not being sensational about this but my fundamental question to Minister is what he can do and, more important, what he will do to improve workers' conditions and contracts for agency workers. The attributes of the agency worker are just as important to the company as those of the permanent worker. We are very lucky to produce creative and flexible people and, above all, people who want to work on low wages. I await the Minister's reply.