Tuesday, 4 November 2014
I thank the Senator for raising this issue. There is no doubt that pay and conditions form a continuing issue to which my Department gives very careful attention. One of the first things we did on entering Government was to increase the minimum wage, which had been reduced under pressure in the previous negotiations with the troika. We restored that minimum wage. We have also been implementing a wide range of reforms in the wage-setting area where we have sought to re-establish the system of joint labour committees and the registered employment agreements which were struck down by the courts. Specifically, in regard to agency workers, we introduced the Protection of Employees (Temporary Agency Work) Act 2012, which provides that agency workers must receive equal treatment in regard to the pay they receive with the permanent workers in the same company. That has been a very important measure and it was backed by an EU directive but had not been implemented in Ireland. That gives protection to agency workers.
Clearly, we are concerned about what are called zero-hour contracts. In our new agreement for the second phase of the programme for Government between the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste, a study of zero-hour contracts is being undertaken. The position of zero-hour contracts is somewhat different in Ireland from the UK, where this has been a centre of very considerable concern, in that people here who are required to be on-call have some protection from the Organisation of Working Time Act, which provides that they will have to be paid for 25% of the period during which they are on call. I think that is a provision under section 18. They have to be paid for 15 hours or 25% of the time whichever is the lesser. There is a protection there.
Employment law does not seek to regulate the duration of a contract but it provides that people who are on contracts enjoy the same access to employment rights, holiday entitlements and so on as any other worker. I do not think the State can start insisting on the duration of a contract because inevitably people set contracts depending on the scale of the projects they are working on and it is not possible to require companies to have contracts of a certain duration. Clearly, agency working, and temporary working generally, is a feature. It should never be a major part of the workforce but there are employees it suits and employers it suits who have seasonal fluctuations whereby they can arrange some of their production on this more flexible arrangement.
We have introduced a large number of changes. We are establishing a commission on low pay and the newly appointed Minister of State in my Department, Deputy Gerald Nash, will steer that legislation through. It will come to the House in due course and it is his intention to appoint an interim commission on low pay. There has been such a body in the UK and by common acclaim it has done a good deal of valuable work in understanding the process and making sure that the both the employment opportunity and the need for protection of people in low paid positions would be balanced. We have a programme of work in terms of examining the zero-hour contact and the establishment of a commission on low pay. We have implemented legislation on agency workers and are bringing in the REA legislation. We have a good suite of protections in place. I am always open to looking at amendments in our legislative framework but the emphasis in recent years has been to consolidate legislation following a number of court decisions that undermine the existing approach. I hope those comments have addressed some of the Senator's concerns.