Wednesday, 25 January 2006
Employment Issues: Motion.
That Seanad Éireann calls on the Government to:
—develop and extend the registered employment agreements model which gives binding status to agreements reached at sectoral and employment level;
—devote increased resources to the labour inspectorate with more effective enforcement and prosecution of offences;
—ensure enforcement and Revenue inspection of the sub-contractor and agency worker issue in the construction sector;
—ensure that contractors working for local authorities and other public bodies meet minimum labour standards, in order to prevent a repeat of the Gama situation;
—confirm the right of self-employed persons who work under contracts "personally to execute any work or labour" to join trade unions and engage in collective bargaining;
—amend existing equality legislation to prevent any worker being discriminated against on the grounds of membership of a trade union;
—support the temporary workers agency directive;
—extend the equality legislation to cover people in domestic service;
—advocate and support significant change to the services directive, in particular the "country of origin" principle;
—reform the existing work permit system so that it becomes a green card system which does not bind workers to a particular job; and
—gather better data on labour market conditions in order to accurately measure the extent of displacement and wage degradation.
Earlier this week, the Labour Party produced a long and detailed set of proposals entitled A Fair Place to Work and Live. It produced the document in response to a combination of anecdotal and almost universal evidence that problems have developed at individual level and may be developing on a larger scale. We know that the combined enforcement services of the State failed to defend the Gama workers from appalling practices. We discovered that the powers of the Minister to investigate the abuse of workers, such as that found in the Gama case, were quite limited and that the report on Gama cannot be published. We naively assumed that supplementary legislation would be introduced fairly promptly to ensure that a report in respect of a similar case in the future could be published so that we would know what was happening. We still do not know the full details of what happened to Gama workers.
Those who have highlighted anecdotal evidence would do well to remember that while everybody accepts that Gama workers were treated abysmally, the evidence for such abuses is still only anecdotal. We know the anecdotes are true but we do not have any verifiable public document. The absence of any vigorous pursuit of amending legislation to ensure that if the Department carries out an inspection and investigation in the future, the resulting report can be made public, shows the lack of enthusiasm in this area. Much the same scenario occurred in the case of a group of Polish workers who complained to their union that they were being paid €2 per hour. Six months later, the investigation still had not commenced because the inspectorate was overburdened.
Other issues have arisen, such as the extraordinary fact that a country with a booming economy and booming Government revenue does not have booming income tax receipts. A senior official in the Department of Finance, which is not renowned as a vigorous champion of workers' rights, stated that this could be due to the fact that a large number of the approximately 200,000 new jobs which have been created are low paid and, consequently, do not yield much income tax.
I do not wish to price this country's economy out of world markets and I do not want this country to become like the US with extraordinarily well-off people. In the UK, 16% of its income is paid to the top 1% of income earners. We perform worse than the UK on the world indices of inequality so one could estimate that approximately 20% of all the income in this State is paid — I will not use the term "earned"— to the top 1% of the employed population.
We then witnessed the extraordinary situation in Irish Ferries. The ranks of big business in the person of the chief economist of the Bank of Ireland rallied enthusiastically to the cause of a fellow employer until they discovered that Irish public opinion, to use that wonderful phrase, had a belief that there was a threshold of decency beyond which we would not pass. Suddenly, we witnessed the spectacle of the country's largest single bank in magnificent and glorious retreat from a position which had been uttered with great enthusiasm by its chief economist on "Questions and Answers". The reason for this retreat was that the bank was in danger of upsetting its customers who did not want to live in an exploitative economy.
The minimum wage is a very good measure but it is not a guarantee against exploitative employers. It only guarantees against an excessive degree of exploitation. Perhaps the best way to describe it is as a starting wage but it ought not to be the wage on which anyone is expected to live indefinitely. If one was to ask a first year economics student in any third level institution to write an essay on the effect on wages at the lower end of the wage spectrum of the taking of possibly 100,000 to 150,000 jobs — between 5% and 10% of the labour force — by people with no social welfare rights, he or she would reply that such a development would drive down wages at the lower end of the economy. This would occur because these people lack the basic right to negotiate from a position of any strength. It is no good talking about minimum wages because these people are not in a position to negotiate seriously.
One case with which I am familiar involves a young man from outside the EU who asked why he was not paid double time on St. Patrick's Day. I will be careful in what I say because the case is supposedly due to be heard by a rights commissioner. The young man's employer, who is well known in the catering business in Ireland, told him that this right was reserved for Irish workers because it is an Irish public holiday. The young man then moved to Spain but was due to appear before the rights commissioner. At the last minute the employer sought and was awarded an adjournment, which meant the young man had to travel back to Spain, and probably will not return.
I am concerned about that young person and that the case is documented. A proactive approach to defending the rights of people in our new economy would have immediately begun an investigation. One cannot prove this but perhaps 150,000 or 160,000 new jobs yielded only a marginal increase in employment. If one looks at the CSO figures one sees that for a significant period of 2004 and 2005 the average weekly earnings in the accommodation and catering business declined. This is the longest period of decline on the CSO website. It has probably gone up again now. One should look at the extraordinary explosion of self-employment in the building industry. At a time when we were told that there was a booming building industry we have fewer people employed in the industry and thousands of self-employed people.
In a rapidly changing economy groups of people can be left behind, exploited and be unaware of their rights. Groups of people who have come to this country and who are welcome here, who have limited English, who come from cultures where the state has been seen for much of their young lives as an oppressor from whom one expects nothing but hostility, oppression and negativity are offered perhaps twice what they would have earned at home but which is barely the minimum wage here. What happens when an unscrupulous employer finds a way to use that combination of naivety, limited English and past experience to use these people instead of Irish workers who know their rights and who may be unionised? One ends up with a slow, step-by-step displacement.
I received a phone call this afternoon about two separate contractors in the Cork region who have set up agencies in two eastern European countries to recruit people there without advertising the jobs locally. If we have genuine vacancies at the current rate for a job in any area we welcome people here. However, we want to ensure we do not build our prosperity on a combination of the exploitation of our new arrivals and the consequential exploitation of Irish people.
Although this motion comprises a list of statements to which no reasonable person could object, the Government amendment omits and fails to mention many of them. Why does the Government not accept our suggestion that it should gather better data on labour market conditions? It knows if one begins to look at what happens one will move from our anecdotes and patchy information to a comprehensive model that will clearly indicate that, to the benefit of unscrupulous employers, Irish workers are in danger of being replaced by other workers who will be easier to exploit, manipulate and deceive. It is a pity, in the spirit of partnership, that the Government felt the need to amend a mild and positive motion such as this and remove some of the obvious suggestions such as the assembly of information.
I am happy to second the motion. This issue has emerged quickly considering it is only approximately seven months since the European Union expanded on 1 May 2004. In that period of time we have experienced a rapid level of social change of which the arrival of many thousands of workers from the new accession states is only one element. It is urgent that the impact on wage rates and the labour force of the arrival and exploitation of such large numbers of new workers is addressed. This motion is an attempt to bring this matter higher on the Government's agenda. It will be on the agenda for the partnership talks and that is welcome but it must be managed in that context. Considering how quickly this issue has developed it is important that the Government respond quickly.
Our motion proposes a framework of responses which is reasonable, possible and comprises positive, practical ways the Government can act on this issue. If the Government does not act there will be consequences. There may already be consequences of which we are not aware. The impact on the fabric of our society of an outbreak of xenophobia or a serious level of negativity towards immigrant workers would be very serious.
Let us look at the context of this debate. I quote from Deputy Rabbitte in the Labour Party policy document published this week:
There are two principal views in this debate and they are present right across the EU. One view — with which our Government has been associated — is that employers should have free access to an unlimited supply of cheap labour ... The other view is that we must defend the European social model and social protection. Labour takes the latter position.
That is the context for our policy and our motion. We support a European social model and social protection. Workers coming from poorer nations, new members of the European Union deserve to be protected. There is increasing evidence that they are not being protected but exploited and the impact of that exploitation is on already low-paid workers and is driving down the wage rates in a number of industries, particularly in construction.
Last November SIPTU president Jack O'Connor cited CSO figures to confirm the race to the bottom, which refers to the debate around the degradation of wages and its impact in the private sector. He cited the latest comparative earnings statistics published by the CSO in November and said they show that the absolute minimum Sustaining Progress increases for the 12 months to June 2005 should have yielded at the very least a 4% increase in average earnings in the private sector. This was at the point of the expansion of the European Union. By last November, evidence was published showing that the rate of earnings increase in the private sector was not as high as it should have been. Instead, average earnings in business services including transport had only increased by 3.3%, while earnings increased by only 2.7% in the retail trade. Ominously, average earnings for all industrial workers had only increased by 2.4%, lower than what would have been expected, given the framework of Sustaining Progress and the pay increase contained therein. That would certainly appear to be more evidence of the exploitation of foreign workers. The impact of this is very serious for communities all over the country. The whole reaction to the Irish Ferries dispute is that Irish people do not support the Government's approach.
The Labour Party supported the issue of open access to Ireland under the Nice treaty, because we support the free movement of people. On the surface, it looks like the best way forward for everyone, but it will only work if exploitation does not occur. Against the background of evidence of exploitation, the Government must act as soon as possible. What we are saying now does not undermine our position of support during the Nice treaty debate, but it brings forward a framework to deal with a situation which is evolving as we speak.
In July 2005, I went around a town in north Tipperary knocking on doors. I entered a three year old estate of approximately 60 houses, of which 48 were on the register. It was a Friday evening and quite a significant number of people were at home. Of the 48 houses on the register, only 12 of the registered inhabitants still lived on the estate, which I thought was quite a high figure. The people who had replaced them were all from eastern Europe. Between 30 and 34 of those houses were occupied by people from eastern Europe, which is fine. However, I did some research on it afterwards and discovered that around 15% to 20% of the population of the town now come from eastern Europe. That has serious implications for education resources and for the resources of that town. This issue is not being examined or planned and I suggest it urgently needs to be addressed.
The amendment was tabled by the Government because the motion is addressed to the Government.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "Government" and substitute the following:
(1) the commitment of the Government to address, in a partnership context, concerns about the maintenance and protection of employment standards in the Irish labour market including, in particular:
avoiding any diminution of standards; developing a meaningful package in the area of enhanced employment standards addressing a range of issues including enforcement of employment rights and improvement of labour market standards;
focusing on the position of workers who have relocated to Ireland from abroad and who may be particularly vulnerable; securing an appropriate balance between employment protection and labour market flexibility;
(2) the record of this Government in introducing a comprehensive range of legislative and other measures which are aimed at and have significantly improved the terms and conditions available to workers in the Irish labour market, including:
health and safety; part-time and fixed-term workers; national minimum wage levels; substantial increases in redundancy entitlements and improvements for carers and parents; and
(3) the Government reaffirms its commitment to the social partnership model as the most appropriate mechanism for advancing these issues in the interest of both employees and employers.
The Minister of State must be pleased that the Labour Party put down this motion because since his appointment, he has addressed all of the issues involved in the motion. He can point out the positive contributions that he and his Department have made since his appointment.
Each year, millions of men and women leave their homes and cross national borders in search of greater human security for themselves and their families. Most are motivated to migrate by the quest for higher wages and better opportunities, but some are forced to do so because of famine, natural disasters, violent conflict or persecution. Historically, immigration has been economically beneficial to host countries as well as to the migrants themselves. Many of the fears surrounding the impact of immigration on developed economies are unfounded or exaggerated. For example, there is no evidence that immigration significantly reduces wages or pushes up unemployment. Immigration is one of the most important challenges currently facing Ireland and the other member states of the European Union. As a society, it is imperative that we deal with the issues posed by immigration in a positive, coherent and humane way.
Immigration is a relatively new phenomenon in Ireland. We have changed radically from the mid-1990s onwards from a country of emigration to a receiving country, a major achievement by the Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats Government. The experience of Irish emigrants in many different countries has often been one of discrimination and hardship. Deputy Rabbitte, leader of the Labour Party, is trying to exploit this issue for political purposes.
The Senator may record her objection. There is great concern about the views expressed by the leader of the Labour Party and by many members of that party. It is certainly not in keeping with the old Labour Party although it might be in keeping with the new party.
I must object to the tone of the Senator's remarks. He is going too far. Can we stay within the context of a political debate? The Senator should not make such personalised and negative remarks. In the interests of a reasonable debate on an important issue, I ask him to stay within the context of the debate.
I certainly will do so, but I must make the point that many of the views being expressed by the Labour Party do not have our support on this side of the House.
The experience of Irish emigrants exhorts us as a nation to treat immigrants humanely and with respect. We have an opportunity to manage the relatively new phenomenon of immigration in a positive, non-discriminatory, person-centred manner that will benefit both immigrants and Irish society. We must recognize fully at a legal level the rights of migrant workers and the important contribution that such workers make to the European and Irish economy. The Employment Permits Bill 2005 is a sophisticated response to the issue of migration. In line with the increase in employment, the labour force, that is, employed and unemployed, rose very rapidly and now exceeds 2 million for the first time since the foundation of the State, which is an enormous achievement by this Government.
As well as the natural increase of 18,000, the labour force was augmented by net inward migration of 36,000 and a 40,000 increase in participation. The latter was due in particular to greater participation of women aged 45 or older in the workforce. Non-nationals now make up 8% of the Irish labour force — equivalent to one of the highest percentages in the EU.
Attracting and integrating immigrants will be an important aspect of labour market policy over the coming years. Immigrants will be needed both to supplement domestic sources of labour supply — the CSO has estimated a need for up to 40,000 immigrants per annum — and to help fill particular areas of skill shortage.
However, it is important that policy makers and stakeholders do not see immigration as an easy alternative to trying to meet Ireland's future skill needs from domestic sources. Many issues have arisen as regards the Gama workers and Irish Ferries. Those issues are being looked at and will be dealt with by the Government. I have much more to say on this particular issue. I hope there will be another opportunity for returning to it, when we will be asking the Government to outline matters in more detail.
Our Members in the House are very proud of the Government's achievements. As regards work permits, green cards, etc., I fully support the right of people to work in the economy while not being tied to any employer. It is very important that this should be allowed.
I also welcome the Minister of State and his officials to the House and I thank the Labour Party for bringing this motion to the floor of the Seanad. It gives the House a chance to bring up many of the issues that are raised in the Labour Party document, entitled A Fair Place to Work and Live, and many other issues which have been the talk of the nation for some years.
Nobody could have failed to detect the palpable sense of dismay and anger over recent events at Irish Ferries and Gama. Before getting into the detail of what the Labour Party is proposing, I want to comment on these disgraceful developments. As regards Irish Ferries, the fact that a former State company would resort to such Dickensian tactics in order to cut costs without the slightest concern for the workers whose livelihoods it was destroying, is nothing short of scandalous. Whatever captain of industry decided that this was a good idea should be ashamed of himself or herself. The developments in Irish Ferries are significant not just because of those whom they directly affect. Every employee in the country is looking at Irish Ferries and reflecting that this could be him or her. We have a duty in this House to ensure this does not happen.
In late 1999 Irish Ferries announced that it was to spend €17 million on purchasing the ship, M.V. Normandy. It is extraordinary that only five years after such an enormous capital outlay it tried to take the by now infamous remedial action. The House should know that in May 2005 it became known that Irish Ferries was one of the main beneficiaries of the so-called tonnage tax scheme. It saved an estimated €3 million in tax payments in 2003, the first year of the scheme's operation. The House should also know that it was made clear at that time that without the tax break jobs would be lost. The House is well aware of the industrial relations pariah that Irish Ferries became when it decided that it was perfectly acceptable to pay a Filipino worker just one euro an hour to work on one of its ships. All of this came from a company that apparently buys into social partnership, a project that has served both Irish Ferries and the nation well.
Similarly, revelations regarding foreign workers in Gama Construction are shameful. I sincerely hope that the labour inspectorate of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment investigates, prosecutes and punishes those responsible for any impropriety, exploitation and fraud that may have taken place. However, if any good is to come from this development, perhaps we may finally see the emergence of a proper rational debate on immigration and thought-out Government policy on the subject.
The findings of last week's TNS-MRBI opinion poll in The Irish Times, where a majority of voters indicated their support for the reintroduction of work permits for eastern European workers, is hardly surprising. However, we must look beyond this to what the country really needs. Fine Gael believes the country should be upfront and honest about the need for immigration, the benefits it can bring and the repercussions of not welcoming inward migration. It is a simple fact that Ireland will need to import the skills needed to ensure that we remain a world-class player.
The economy has the potential to post cumulative growth of 45% between now and 2016, with the performance to be fuelled by immigration, according to Goodbody Stockbrokers. Growth of this magnitude would see Ireland expanding at more than twice the rate of the average eurozone economy over the next decade. Goodbody went so far as to say that for this growth to be achieved, inward migration must play a vitally important role. Against that background we have the absurd farce of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform deporting and then bringing back leaving certificate students and construction companies paying migrant workers a euro an hour to build this country, quite literally.
As a public representative, I am tired of this phoney debate. I am tired of the constant portrayal of immigration as a problem. It may be politically astute to give the nod to the baser instincts of some of the electorate, but it is foolish to think that without a flow of migrant labour to staff the service and construction industries the economy can survive. I ask those who complain that there are too many foreigners working here to ask themselves honestly who will staff our hospitals and our restaurants. How will our tourism industry operate without the necessary staff? How will our service industries survive? Where will we get builders and construction workers or computer programmers? All of these areas — and more — suffer from staff shortages, which would be much worse were we to close the door on foreign workers.
My party shares the concern that the motion expresses as regards the EU services directive. Fine Gael fully supports the free movement of goods, services and labour within the European Union. We are the most pro-European party in the Oireachtas, and view the EU as a force for good in this country and beyond. It has been the EU, in many instances, that has dragged Ireland kicking and screaming into the 21st century on everything from the rights of women to worker protection.
However, we cannot agree with the services directive in its current form. The European People's Party, EPP, of which we are part, would not support the country of origin principle and it cannot be implemented without the EPP's approval. There is much to be welcomed in the directive. Moves to give consumers greater choice, to improve efficiency, promote competition and widen markets are all very good. What is not good, however, is the suggestion that someone from Poland should be exploited in this country at a wage rate that is significantly below the minimum rate of pay for Irish workers. The repercussions of such a disastrous policy would be felt not merely in an industrial context — although it would obviously have industrial ramifications.
Without going over the top, we risk creating a whole new underclass of underpaid and undervalued foreign workers if we go down this road. It is not an enormous step for our growing immigrant population to become disillusioned with this country. Given a mixture of poverty, disillusionment and a lack of any sense of participation in our society, ghettoisation, cultural separation and even crime can become rife. Ireland is well placed to avoid the mistakes of the United States, Britain and France in this area. We can avoid ethnic ghettos and a two or three-tier society. However, we can only avoid these pitfalls if we enshrine equality as a basic tenet of our approach.
On other points raised by the motion, I fully support the call to properly resource the labour inspectorate and collect better data on the issue. This and many other areas of Irish life suffer from a data deficit that exacerbates the problems. We also fully support the green card system referred to.
Since the publication of the Employment Permits Bill, the Minister has referred to green cards in an effort to suggest his Department has come up with a comprehensive and compassionate answer to the problems faced by the migrant workers who make such a contribution to the economy. The last time I checked, Irish citizens had the right to quit any job they liked and look for another one. However, the Bill does not give immigrants the complete freedom to do that because it does not give the employee rights over his or her employment status. While the Bill makes it easier for migrant labour to move jobs, I am at a loss to know why the Minister did not go all the way and grant the green card to the employee and not the employer. We support the Labour Party motion.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and second the amendment. The Government has a proud record. Some of the difficulties it has faced had not been experienced by previous Governments, such as dealing with vast numbers of immigrants. This is borne out by the fact that the Opposition constantly berates us for not having the numbers necessary to enforce standards. This issue was raised within social partnership and at the time the numbers were not regarded as a difficulty. This Government is managing growth very well despite what the Opposition may say.
I acknowledge there have been difficulties but nobody had the Government's permission to behave in such a way. The actions taken by Gama and Irish Ferries were unacceptable. The Government wants only the highest and best standards of employment for workers. There is no distinction in employment rights legislation between Irish and migrant workers. For the avoidance of doubt, section 20 of the Protection of Employees (Part-Time Work) Act 2001 provides that all employee protection legislation on the Statute Book in Ireland applies to workers posted to work in Ireland, in line with Directive 96/71/EC of 16 December 1996 of the European Parliament and Council. This directive relates to the posting of workers in the framework of the provision of services and applies also to a person, irrespective of his or her nationality or place of residence who has entered into a contract of employment that provides for his or her being employed in the State or who works in the State under a contract of employment. All employee legislation applies to migrant workers.
The general approach adopted by the labour inspectorate to employment rights enforcement is to seek compliance and rectification of any breaches identified, including payment of any arrears due to employees. Inspectors pursue allegations of worker mistreatment and seek redress for the individual or individuals concerned and a prosecution is initiated if appropriate. Successful prosecution can be dependent on adequate support from witnesses.
Following the Minister's announcement on 12 April 2005, 31 inspector posts have now been sanctioned for the labour inspectorate, representing a doubling of the inspectorate in the past 12 months. This is indicative of a determination to ensure compliance with employment rights legislation. Following a recent selection process the inspectorate now has its full complement of 31 inspectors.
When the full complement of officers is fully operational they will concentrate on those employment sectors that have traditionally required considerable attention from the inspectorate, for instance, the service sectors such as hospitality and cleaning and agricultural work which are covered by employment regulation orders. It is notable that many migrant workers are currently employed in these sectors.
Work has been progressing with regard to the discussion document prepared in connection with the mandate and resourcing of the labour inspectorate. The discussion document covers all the issues that impact on the operation of the inspectorate, ranging from the legislative framework to the operational aspects and staff development. The social partners, together with representatives from the Departments of the Taoiseach and Finance, are members of the employment rights compliance group, ERCG, which is considering the discussion document. It is anticipated that the ERCG will conclude its business this month.
The Government is committed to having the minimum wage exempt from tax but it is also committed to sustaining economic growth and keeping the public finances in a healthy condition. Budget 2006 removed the minimum wage from the income tax net. The Government introduced the minimum wage to protect low-paid workers and over the past eight budgets it has removed a record number of 465,000 workers entirely from the tax net. Ireland has one of the highest minimum wage rates in the European Union. Since its introduction in April 2000, the minimum wage has increased by almost 37%, taking account of the latest increase, and this is well ahead of inflation. When the statutory minimum wage came into effect in 2000, less than 64% of the annualised figure of €11,330, or £8,923, was exempt from taxation. In the budget of 2002, 90% of the minimum wage became exempt from tax and in budgets 2003 and 2004 this position was maintained even though the minimum wage was increased in October 2002 and February 2004.
The current entry point to income tax is €14,240 per annum for a single person aged under 65 years. It is estimated that approximately 37,000 income earners will be in an income range which would bring them into the tax net if their annual earnings fully reflected the increase in the national minimum wage. However, this group will, of necessity, include part-time workers earning more than the minimum hourly wage and certain pensioners whose earnings are in the equivalent range. These 37,000 people should therefore be regarded as the upper band for any estimate of the number who may ultimately come into the tax net on a full year basis as a result of the minimum wage increase.
The Government has a fine record in maintaining employment rights. Where the labour inspectorate has found that people have been mistreated, this mistreatment was not done in our name. This country is still Ireland of the welcomes.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. As my Labour Party colleagues have stated, the Labour Party recently launched a document entitled, A Fair Place to Work and Live. It deals with the issues raised by this motion. I wish to highlight some of the proposals made in this document. The first proposal relates to the issue of the standards that should be applied and complied with when companies are employed by the State and local authorities. Senator Hanafin referred to the Gama workers and the revelations about their conditions of work and the exploitation to which they were subjected by the company while they were working on contracts for the State and local authorities, including my own local authority.
Gama was contracted by South Dublin County Council to build council houses. As a local public representative I was shocked on learning of the conditions which these workers experienced with regard to their pay and daily living conditions. We must learn from this and ensure it does not happen in the future. The issue has been raised by public representatives and the local authority. Councillors from all sides of the political divide were appalled at the conditions and wanted to ensure this did not happen again. The Government needs to take action, if necessary through legislation, to ensure that the State has the right to insist that contractors working in the public sector are in compliance with basic standards of behaviour, including their treatment of their staff. The Government must introduce the legislation required to provide for this. Perhaps the Minister will comment.
The public sector, of all sectors, must ensure there are proper conditions. The public sector looks after its own employees, and rights and basic standards have been fought for and secured over the years. However, there is now a system where the State and local authorities can have people working on their projects who do not have the basic rights we have come to expect. What is the Minister's response to this issue?
Second, the Labour Party proposes the reform of the existing work permit system to provide for a green card system which will not bind workers to a particular employer. This is long-standing Labour Party policy. It is a key part of the policy document issued by the then Labour Party spokesperson on justice, Deputy Howlin, entitled Ending the Chaos, which outlined Labour Party immigration policy. I have put forward this policy many times in this House. We must have a comprehensive immigration policy that is based on a green card system. It would be a positive system.
The Labour Party supports immigration controls. They are necessary for many different reasons. A country must have an immigration and emigration system. One of the reasons it is needed is so people can know where they stand. It will also prevent the racism that results from people having fears about the immigration system and being misinformed. There must be a comprehensive system under which everybody will know their position. I have argued previously in the House that our system is a negative one. People who come to this country for economic reasons are badly treated, unless they arrive under the work permit system. We need a system under which they can apply for a green card. People from many different countries should be allowed to apply for these cards.
The work permit system bonds employees to an employer. Although the Government has introduced reforms in that regard, it has not gone far enough. The permit still relates to a specific employer and a specific job. There has been a change in the application process but it is still based on a restrictive system. A restrictive system such as ours encourages exploitation. If the employee is not happy in a job, he or she does not have the freedom to seek another job. The system is very restrictive in that regard. A green card system similar to that in the United States would be better. It could be applied on the basis of monitoring the country's labour needs from year to year and adjusting the system accordingly.
The United States has a strict immigration system but it is much more positive than ours. It does not criminalise immigrants in the same way our system does and it does not bond immigrants to employers. Unlike Ireland, it also grants citizenship to people on the basis of being born in the country.
I will now refer to an issue raised in the Dáil by my colleague, Deputy Broughan. It relates to displacement and the position of people who were previously employees and who have — subject to their own agreement, although they felt they had no choice — become self-employed. This arose in a case brought to my attention involving hauliers. They were originally employees of Roadstone but then became owner-drivers. They had an agreement with Roadstone but they have now discovered that Roadstone is directly employing drivers from eastern European countries. The original employees of Roadstone, who are now owner-drivers, are getting less work from Roadstone.
When we examined this issue we found that the owner-drivers, even though they are members of trade unions, cannot have their trade union negotiate on their behalf with the company. This leaves them at a severe disadvantage. This issue must be addressed because it is another means to abuse workers. It can be used to displace people from their employment. These people have a difficulty asserting their rights, particularly through trade union membership. On the one hand they are allowed to be trade union members but they cannot negotiate with the company as members of that trade union. This must be addressed through legislation. It is a problem we have identified in our policy document.
When the Labour Party leader, Deputy Rabbitte, raised these issues, the first people to criticise him were economists. The economists concerned spoke about the economy and the importance of growth. Those things are important but they are not the ultimate objective. They are the means to a better society. The economy is there to serve society, whether it is people who have immigrated to this country or natives of this country. That is where our immigration system should be pitched. Obviously, we must encourage growth and improve our economy but the purpose of that is to look after our people properly, be they immigrants or natives, and to provide a good quality of life.
That is how we must think about our system. So far, our system has been focused on the employer and the economy but we are not thinking of those we should be thinking of, that is, people in our society. We should introduce a comprehensive immigration system based on the positive ideas I have proposed. It has been done in other countries, such as the United States. I do not claim their system is perfect but we have much to learn from it. There is no point labelling a work permit system as a green card system. What is needed is a proper green card system and a comprehensive immigration policy.
I support the motion and urge the Government to give the proposals outlined by the Labour Party full and active consideration in the interests of the economic viability of communities throughout the country and the security and wellbeing of individual workers within the system. The continued prosperity of this country and its economic wellbeing and viability are dependent on such a commitment by the Government. Senator Mansergh, on the Order of Business today, pointed to the lack of a row-back by Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats.
The system must be seen to be fair and equal, with all areas of the country enjoying equity under employment policy. Longford and Westmeath are getting less than their fair share of State-assisted jobs. It is only approximately 3%. Now a disaster has temporarily destroyed the C&D Foods company, which was the lynchpin of the Longford economy and one of the largest industrial and employment centres in the country. Future employment must be created in the constituency by attracting new industry and giving every possible support to C&D Foods Limited to get its production up and running again in the shortest possible timescale.
The temporary closure of C&D Foods Limited will have a serious impact on the economic life of County Longford and parts of County Westmeath. More than 40 40-foot containers left the factory each week. The spin off of the accident will be far-reaching in the business community in the midlands with up to 50 other companies directly or indirectly affected by the fire. The impact will be felt by every shop, pub, entertainment centre, bank, credit union, taxi and other business within a 30 miles radius of Edgeworthstown. The disaster was a bitter blow for the people of Longford-Westmeath and the Reynolds family. The effects of the fire are far-reaching for the people of the midlands, some of whom had four or five members of their families employed by the plant and whose lives were interlinked with its success over the years.
While praise is due to the management of the plant, who acted to reinstate 173 workers within a fortnight of the disaster, much needs to be done for the 300 remaining employees who have no realistic hope of resuming their jobs in the immediate future. The company has said that it will be at least 16 months before full production can resume. Following on the financial strains of Christmas, these workers are devastated by this terrible tragedy. I ask the Minister of State to set up a taskforce with the aim of providing support for families with mortgage payments and other commitments to meet with little means to do so. Security of existing jobs in the county is the main concern in the area and I hope the Minister will ensure these jobs are maintained.
The progression of the decentralisation programme will now be more essential than ever to the area. The projected timescale for completion of the move by the Prison Service is September, involving approximately 143 jobs. This will provide a necessary boost to the hard hit population of Longford.
In recent years we saw the failure of Cardinal Health to open a plant in Longford, with the resultant loss of 1,300 jobs, the failure to follow through on phase 2B of Mullingar Hospital, with the resultant lack of new employment possibilities, the fire at Glennon Sawmills outside Longford town, with a fall-off in employment, and the closure of the Glanbia meat factory in Rooskey on the Longford border, also due to a fire.
With regard to this debate, it is important we ensure that work contracts with local authorities and other public bodies such as the health service, etc., meet minimum labour standards. Recently, a company employer on the power station in Lanesboro treated some of his workers very shabbily. I hope such incidents never happen again and it is up to the Government to ensure they do not.
I support the temporary workers agency directive. We must also extend equality legislation to cover people in domestic service, particularly home helps who provide valuable support to our sick and elderly. I raised this issue on numerous occasions in our previous session. Home helps looking after our sick and elderly must get status in the workforce. There are no regulations in place for the valuable work they do.
We need to reform the existing work permits system so that we have a green card system which does not bind workers to a particular job. It is important we gather better data on labour market conditions in order to measure accurately the extent of displacement and wage degradation. The Government has been negligent in the area of FÁS schemes and has been all talk and no action. It has a stop-go attitude. People are taken on for one or two years and then midway through training they may be let go without any hope of employment. There must be more flexibility in this area.
I compliment the fire services throughout the midlands for the excellent job they did during the crisis at Edgeworthstown. I support this Labour Party motion and hope the Minister takes note of and acts on it.
I am delighted to see the Minister of State here and welcome the opportunity to speak on the amendment to this motion. It is important to speak and put forward the view which reflects the feelings of many small and medium-sized enterprises throughout the country. As the Government knows, indigenous industry is the lifeblood of our economy. The entrepreneurial spirit throughout the country has pulled our economy up by its bootstraps over the past number of years. This has been achieved by the men and women around the country who started small businesses in the service industry and manufacturing sub-supply industry to large multinationals. This all ties in well to the continued growth in employment and in the economy and continued prosperity through which we can provide social welfare services, schemes, training and health services, etc.
The creation of an economy and the sustenance and management of that economy to ensure it maintains the environment necessary to allow our prosperity to continue and survive is one of the key challenges facing the Government. In the context of the forthcoming partnership talks, it is important — not to take away from anybody else's view — to bring an element of reality to our world as it is, a small island country operating in a global economy. This means we have many small and medium-sized organisations, or even a small section of a multinational organisation, that on a daily basis face the competitive challenges of other suppliers providing the same type of service or goods throughout the world.
I think of one in particular based in the north-western region. It is part of a worldwide multi-billion industry. It provides a service to its global corporation and is singularly the most expensive plant when looked at on a cost per product basis. On a daily basis it is fighting to survive by providing greater added value. Sometimes it does this by reducing costs without reducing the quality of its product and sometimes by taking in people on the minimum wage. In this regard we have introduced a minimum wage we have decided is acceptable. Throughout the country this type of company daily faces the global challenge of lower cost economies in China, India, the Philippines and around the world. Anything we do in terms of ensuring continued employment must include smaller companies. Not only must we look after the large added-value Microsoft and Intel industries, where people do great research and development work for which they get well paid, but we must look after smaller companies, ones that do not have this added value.
We also have the challenge of ensuring we do not exploit lower paid workers. Whether these workers are from new European Union countries or from outside and working on a permit, we must give them the protection of Irish legislation. We must also ensure that all Departments involved in the management of this issue be given adequate resources so those standards are upheld.
The main idea I want to put on the record is that we can go too far in one direction and therefore need to be careful. If, as a country, we cannot afford what we are trying to provide, we will not be able to survive. Anybody who runs a small business will note, on a daily basis from January onwards, the increasing number of letters from suppliers stating their costs have increased, including the costs of insurance, advertising and wages, such that they will have to charge more. Owners of companies who receive such letters must then send similar letters to the companies to which they are connected stating their costs have increased also and that they cannot employ the people they want at the rates they would like to pay. The global competitiveness of companies in this position is being eroded. It is also being eroded in the national economy because it is possible to buy many of the services we buy locally or nationally.
Members will have read the recent analyses of our economic growth in recent years and the reasons for it. Let me refer to the lack of growth in the export industry. If we do not export more and more product to the extent we were exporting previously, given that we are now exporting less, we will become entirely dependent on the infrastructural projects under way at present. I refer to the many housing developments, the Dublin Port tunnel and the roads to Galway and Cork. If our economy is dependent on this type of growth, we will not be able to sustain our prosperity beyond the next ten to 15 years. Beyond that point we will have a more elderly population and our tax base will decrease. We will have to consider those on social welfare and provide them with pension cover — this is a separate challenge. We need to ensure that the country is in a position to survive.
Although there is a significant difference in opinion on both sides of the House we must look after people and ensure they are properly protected and paid for the work they do. The challenge is to prevent our creation of an Ireland in which nobody can afford to do business. This is a real challenge for us, including small business owners. I am sure the Minister of State meets the latter on a daily basis. I meet them quite often throughout the country and they say circumstances are becoming increasingly difficult. They refer to increased regulation, erosion of competitiveness and cost increases. They claim these detract from the objective of sustaining our prosperity and economy and ensuring we can live in the type of Ireland in which we want to live — the type of Ireland that looks after the sick, disabled and those who, for whatever reason, need help in looking after themselves. We must create a society of which we are proud, in which we can bring up our children and which we can hand on to the next generation.
I welcome the amendment. It is good to have these debates in the Seanad. For some reason we do not have them often. I would like to see the Minister of State coming to the House more frequently because one of the challenges we face is deciding on the future direction of the country. We should focus on this as one of the key aspects of sustaining our prosperity.
I wish to speak in support of the amendment to the motion proposed by Senator Leyden. In so doing, I am sure the House will agree that no Government has been more committed to the social partnership process than this one and the previous one, led by the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern. No other Government has been prepared to utilise social partnership to the maximum in seeking to advance the social and economic objectives to which we all aspire.
I want to show to this House how the Government and the social partners can work together to propose, negotiate and develop practical and achievable improvements in our workplaces, as well as the attainment of a fair and inclusive society. These are challenges which the Government set for itself in its programme for Government. The Government is proud of its achievements and can point to commitments delivered and progress made in the social partnership process.
This commitment by the Government is well understood and acknowledged by the people, who in recent surveys have shown strong confidence in the capacity of the Government to maintain high employment and to deliver the conditions necessary to maintain the strong economic growth which underpins our social success. This Government is not about reducing the high employment standards we have attained. It is committed to working with the social partners not only to maintain but also to build upon and improve the conditions of those at work.
The social partnership process is accepted by all in this House, and by many countries and commentators overseas, as being a major contributor to the attainment of our societal goals. This is how it should be as it is an inclusive process which gives a voice and role to many constituencies, none more so than the unions and employers, together with the farming sector and the community and the voluntary groups.
Both employers and unions, through the National Implementation Body, have been clear in strongly recommending that negotiations on a new partnership agreement be commenced urgently, with a view to early agreement. This call has been heard by all parties and the process is under way which I hope will enable negotiations to get under way in the near future.
In issuing its call to the parties, the National Implementation Body made the following recommendations to the social partners and the Government. First, there is a need to review, improve where necessary and promulgate the range of employment protection measures which apply to workers in the Irish economy on the lines of the terms of the Taoiseach's letter to the ICTU and related issues subsequently raised. Second, the process outlined above should comprehend in particular the incentives and disincentives within public policy which might influence decisions to substitute lower paid workers for those currently employed in existing positions. Third, there is a need to ensure that inspection and enforcement systems in respect of mandatory employment standards are effective in providing assurance both to employees and to responsible employers who meet fully their obligations. Fourth, the position of vulnerable workers who have re-located to Ireland from abroad should be the subject of a particular focus in these enforcement issues. Finally, the arrangements which the NIB envisages should arise from the foregoing recommendations to secure an appropriate balance between employment protection and labour market flexibility are best reflected in the terms of an agreement between the social partners and the Government, since such agreement provides the strongest assurance of the widest support and implementation of these measures.
The scene has been set, as the Taoiseach has already made clear. The Government will not be found wanting in contributing to the negotiations and the attainment of an agreement. As stated in the amendment to the motion, a meaningful package in the area of employment rights, standards, education, promotion, compliance and enforcement is appropriate to support the network of trust and the associated stability which has been developed over successive agreements. It is entirely appropriate that the social partners play an important role in the evolution and development of employment rights. It has been the practice of this Government to deal with legislative proposals, the transposition of EU directives and reviews of legislation or processes against a background of consultation with the social partners.
The development of employment and workplace entitlements always feature in the social partnership discussions and agreements and have, over recent times, led to legislation, increased entitlements and additional resources towards enforcement. I expect this will be the case in the event that the negotiations get under way in the near future. It is in the capacity of social partnership to deliver.
The Government has been alert to the necessity of adapting employment rights, compliance and enforcement guidelines to changing circumstances. Following on commitments in the programme for Government and in Sustaining Progress, the Government has taken decisions to address the complexity of legislation in the employment rights area to improve understanding and compliance. It has established the employment rights group, in which the social partners and employment rights bodies participate, to oversee the development of proposals for Government for a simplified body of employment rights legislation. The group also guides and drives the implementation of the Government's decision on the role and functions of the employment rights bodies themselves to ensure user-friendly and simplified compliance, appeal and enforcement procedures are put in place, with all cases being dealt with initially by rights commissioners and only by the Employment Appeals Tribunal on appeal.
The rights of workers from overseas are established by legislation as being equal to those of Irish workers. The vast majority of overseas workers have an entirely satisfactory interaction with the Irish labour market, which interaction is beneficial to all sides and the economy in general. However, there are instances in which overseas workers have not been getting their entitlements in certain sectors and particularly in cases where they may have been relatively isolated. It was for this reason that the Government increased the number of labour inspectors last March to an all-time high of 31. These inspectors are in place, have completed their initial training and are now conducting inspections.
Conscious of the position on employment rights compliance, and in accordance with the commitment in Sustaining Progress, the Government completed a review of the mandate and resourcing of the labour inspectorate. The review, which was not prescriptive, presented the arguments for and against an extensive range of issues impacting on the inspectorate. Having obtained the views of the social partners, the Government established the employment rights compliance group, on which the social partners were represented, to identify a compliance model which was both effective and efficient in enabling people to establish their entitlements and to ensure compliance. Much has been agreed during the course of the review. Final comments from the social partners will be reflected in the report and the remaining issues relating to the compliance model, and the organisational aspects, have been clearly signalled as being matters for consideration in any forthcoming social partnership discussions. The Government has every confidence that agreement will be reached.
More needs to be done in regard to the promotion of employment rights entitlements to employers, employees and migrant workers in particular. For approximately five years employment rights literature has been available in nine different languages and is distributed not only through the work permit system but also through embassies in Ireland, as well as through citizen information centres. This has been followed by a pilot scheme currently under way, whereby classes in basic employment rights are given to migrant workers in their own language. In this I must commend ICTU for its initiative and signal that I would endorse this greater support for the social partners for educational and promotional purposes.
Many workers from overseas work in sectors which are covered by the joint labour committee, JLC, system, where their terms and conditions are negotiated and agreed by the social partners within the framework of that system. The resulting agreements become employment regulation orders once cleared by the Labour Court and are enforceable through the labour inspectorate or directly with the employment rights bodies themselves. This is a robust approach which has worked well for many years. As part of Sustaining Progress, the Government undertook a review of the JLC system by outside consultants, following which the Government entered into consultations with the social partners with a view to developing proposals to further refine the system. These proposals will contribute to any forthcoming social partnership negotiations.
The Government delivers on its commitments and, in making preparations for a further social partnership agreement, has developed strong and deliverable proposals across a range of areas to meet the issues which Government wishes to address and also to meet the concerns identified by the National Implementation Body. The resulting package for consideration within the social partnership negotiations will cover employment standards, employment rights education and promotion and employment compliance and enforcement, together with a range of issues which are appropriate to the social partnership negotiation process.
I propose to address a number of discrete issues which are relevant to the motion and the amendment before the House. I will begin with employment rights. The existing very formidable corpus of legislation and associated rights and protection must be borne in mind in a debate of this kind as we are sometimes asked to react as if there were no social and employment protection framework in place in this State. The challenge in a rapidly growing economy is to ensure that there is adequate, timely and effective enforcement of compliance with the statutory and other provisions now in place. I have already referred to recent developments in this regard and I am quite sure that these will be the subject of further consideration in any forthcoming negotiations with the social partners.
The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, explained to the House in his opening address on Second Stage of the Employment Permits Bill 2005, on 12 October last, the reasons the Government decided that work permits and green cards for certain highly-skilled and highly-paid employees would be predicated on the offer of a job. Such a system would certainly be more flexible and responsive to the needs of the economy than the green card system being advocated by the Labour Party, which it describes but does not define. International experience has shown that alternative systems such as points or quotas create an undesirable and unnecessary level of bureaucracy, a mismatch between available skills and labour requirements, and entail forecasting future needs, which is difficult to achieve.
The Employment Permits Bill also provides a great degree of mobility for holders of work permits or green cards. There will be an automatic right to change employer after 12 months and a right which may be exercised with the agreement of the Minister during the first 12 months of employment. Additionally, in future the permit or green card will be granted to the employee and this document will contain valuable information for the protection of the employee, including the right to be paid at least the national minimum wage, which is the second highest in the EU, the prohibition on the deduction of recruitment expenses and the retention of personal documents by employers.
Ireland's position as regards the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families is no different from that of any of our EU partners, none of which is party to or has signed the convention. An examination of the EU convention by the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Foreign Affairs has shown that ratification would require significant and far-reaching changes across a wide range of existing legislation, including legislation addressing the authorisation to stay and to work, education and training, health and medical care and electoral matters. These changes would also have implications for our relations with our EU partners and possibly for the operation of the common travel area between Ireland and the UK.
With regard to employment and displacement, since EU enlargement in May 2004, the domestic labour market is effectively the 25 member states of the EU. Irish employers are free to hire anybody from any of these member states and Irish workers are free to work in any of these states, either temporarily or permanently. I am aware of concerns expressed that Irish employers are replacing Irish workers with workers from overseas at lower rates of pay or on poorer conditions. However, we have full employment and a very buoyant labour market situation, with low unemployment and with many workers from overseas successfully finding employment.
To date, it appears that any degree of displacement is not being reflected in higher unemployment. Nevertheless, the Government will, of course, listen carefully and respond in the course of any social partnership negotiations. The Government is committed to avoiding a race to the bottom and the Taoiseach has made it very clear that the Government does not want to see people building competitive advantage based on poor wages, casualisation of labour, low health and safety standards or other poor compliance standards. This is not a race to the bottom but rather a race to the top as we upskill to strengthen our employment capacity and growth potential.
In a modern, competitive economy, where goods and services are freely traded, the concept of job security is changing. The days when an employee might expect to stay with the same employer for a lifetime are largely gone, as are the days when defensive action by a combination of the State and other domestic interests could shelter sectors of the economy from international competition. The benefits of the newly-integrated international economy can be seen in full employment, healthy public finances and improved public services in Ireland. The ready supply of relatively cheap consumer goods has contributed to the rise in living standards of the great mass of Irish people, including those on low incomes. Ireland and the Irish workforce have been major beneficiaries of the growing global economy and part of the public policy challenge is to ensure that we continue to benefit.
The experience of Ireland in recent years may be unique in our history but it is by no means unique in terms of international experience. Other societies have adapted well to new challenges and there is no reason this society cannot forge its own way to a new equilibrium. Part of this process of adaptation involves the identification and promotion of those factors that can contribute to quality work and greater employment security in the circumstances of the new economy. International experience in recent years suggests that, instead of job security being guaranteed by traditional economic structures and State regulation, individual employees can find greater economic security through greater flexibility, underpinned by continuous training and development. This calls not only for a supportive environment being provided by employers and the State but also for a positive and personal commitment from individual workers.
As an indication of the forward-looking stance being adopted by the Government in regard to the changing workplace, the Taoiseach last March launched the report of the forum on the workplace of the future, Working to our Advantage: A National Workplace Strategy. If we are to meet the challenges presented by the globalised 21st century market, our workplaces must be geared for constant change and innovation. All involved — employers, employees, policy makers and social partners — need a shared understanding of what needs to be done, particularly at the level of the workplace. This is the basis upon which the national workplace strategy has been developed. This is the first time the workplace is the focus of a national report, and deservedly so. The workplace can be seen as the hub of the Irish economy. It is where employers and employees interact, where productivity happens and where competitiveness is forged. It provides employers, shareholders and employees with the resources to live their lives, and provides the national economy with the factors that make it thrive.
The report presents a vision of the workplace of the future as being agile, customer-centred, knowledge-intensive, responsive to employee needs, networked, highly-productive, involved, participatory, continually learning and increasingly diverse. In identifying the gaps in Irish workplaces, the report focuses on five strategic priorities: commitment to workplace innovation; capacity for change; developing future skills; access to opportunities; and quality of working life. I chair the high-level implementation group which is overseeing the national workplace strategy which will provide a comprehensive framework to assist and support workplaces to meet the challenge of enhancing Ireland's economic competitiveness and performance. The national workplace strategy underlines the need to move forward with an increased emphasis on adaptability, high performance, employee involvement, innovation, learning and skill development.
Change has become a constant feature of economic life. In Ireland and the EU, and across the world, all sectors are affected by change and restructuring. The structure of employment is moving ever further away from traditional sectors to new, rapidly expanding service activities, many of which require different forms of work organisation. There is an increased need for flexibility in the workplace and both business and employees have to be able to adapt to new ways of working. The national workplace strategy highlights the various steps that are required to ensure improved adaptability in Irish workplaces. The State has a significant role in providing a responsive regulatory framework, which ensures that a flexible workforce does not suffer from a lack of social protection. This approach, however, requires a balanced contribution from all players. It cannot work if all the flexibility is demanded from employees.
In recent years the Government has sought to link and promote the related concepts of flexibility and security through labour market initiatives involving tax and secondary benefits which have made it easier for unemployed or otherwise economically inactive persons to enter or re-enter the workforce. These have proceeded with significant development in the areas of training and lifelong learning. "Flexicurity" was the theme of last week's Council of Minister's meeting chaired by the Austrian Presidency.
The draft directive on services has recently aroused much comment and controversy. The Government considers that a single market in services would be in Ireland's interest in terms of employment prospects, trade opportunities, consumer choice and welfare enhancement. Since the draft directive was tabled over two years ago it has been subject to a largely technical examination in the Council of Ministers. The technical experts have been clarifying the various elements of the proposal ahead of the consideration by the competitiveness council of the main policy issues, including the country of origin principle on which the Council of Ministers has not yet reached any decision.
Some stakeholders have expressed concerns that the country of origin principle might circumvent our employment law. The Government shared these concerns and successfully sought changes to the text of the original Commission proposal to clarify this issue. The most recent draft of the proposal includes significant improvements in the area of labour law. While this is not a formal new proposal it is a good indication of what the member states can and cannot agree. As a result of the changes, our employment law would apply to all workers posted to this country and to all workers who obtain employment here. I made Ireland's position in this regard very clear in Austria last Friday.
Workers posted to work in Ireland from other EU member states have the protection of all Irish employment legislation in the same way as employees who have an Irish contract of employment. This is covered by section 20 of the Protection of Employees (Part-Time Work) Act 2001 which states that all employment legislation which confers rights or entitlements on an employee applies to a posted worker in the same way that it applies to any other employee. As the Industrial Relations Act 1946 applies to posted workers, all collective agreements registered under that Act also apply to posted workers.
There are approximately 60 binding registered employment agreements to protect employment standards, many of which cover the services sector. They cover statutory minimum rates of pay and other conditions of work and would continue in force if the services directive were adopted.
Much work remains to be done on the draft directive before it is agreed by the Council of Ministers. The Commission will come forward with new proposals in the next few months, especially on the country of origin aspect. Let us wait and see what it proposes, then we will continue to avail of every opportunity to protect our interests under the directive. We will go through a consultative process with the stakeholders, including the social partners. This process has been totally open and transparent, and has been open for all to follow on my Department's website. In light of those consultations we will formulate a position which is in the best interests of Ireland and Europe.
The Commission's amended proposal for the draft directive on temporary agency workers of November 2002 was the subject of detailed consideration by the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council on many occasions between 2002 and the end of 2004. No agreement, however, could be reached on compromise proposals tabled by presidencies over that period. The differences between member states have, if anything, widened as the new member states adopted positions.
The directive is stalled. Should the Austrian Presidency re-open discussions on the proposal Ireland will be willing to participate in a compromise that meets its requirement of ensuring that temporary work can continue to provide a firm path to full-time employment.
It is anticipated that some of the issues under consideration here today will also be addressed in the context of the Green Paper on the evolution of labour law, in preparation in the Commission. This will consider the implications for maintaining standards as workers become increasingly mobile. Ireland will take a close interest in this work this year.
Turning closer to home, the question of employees being classified as sub-contractors, particularly in the construction sector, is a matter of concern. There has been a substantial increase in the level of Revenue activities around the construction industry in 2005, enhanced by several new special compliance initiatives. The chairman of the Revenue Commissioners recently informed the Committee of Public Accounts that for 2006, Revenue would devote 25% of its audit resource to policing building-related sectors. As part of this national project, the issue of misclassification of building operatives as self-employed will be addressed.
In the context of so-called bogus self-employment in the construction industry, the Labour Court recently made a significant decision on the registered employment agreement, REA, in this area. In this case, the employer maintained that two workers were employed as self-employed sub-contractors and accordingly not covered by the construction industry REA. The court concluded, however, that the workers were covered by the REA. The Labour Court was guided by a 2005 High Court case which found that the definition of a "worker" in the 1990 Industrial Relations Act is wide enough to include an individual sub-contractor.
Thus, a worker in one of the designated occupations covered by the REA who is engaged by a building or civil engineering firm is entitled to all the benefits of the agreement and an employer may not avoid liability under the agreement by seeking to designate the worker as an independent contractor. This decision of the Labour Court will inform discussions at any social partnership negotiations.
Under the current conditions of contract for Departments and local authorities there is a requirement that contractors pay rates of wages and observe hours of labour and conditions of employment in public procurement not less favourable than those laid down by the national joint industrial council for the construction industry. I hope this contract-based approach to compliance can be extended.
On the issue of a joint labour committee for domestic workers, the Employment Equality Acts 1998 and 2004 cover all employees in domestic service regardless of race or gender. The scope of the Acts is comprehensive and covers discrimination in respect of access to employment, conditions of employment, equal pay for work of equal value, training, promotion and work experience.
While not specifically relevant to the issue of amending equality legislation, the suggestion of establishing a joint labour committee for domestic workers has recently been raised. I have asked the Department to consult with the Labour Court and the Labour Relations Commission on the practicalities of establishing a new joint labour committee for domestic workers. The critical issue here is that under the Industrial Relations Act 1946, a joint labour committee can be established only on the basis of an approach made to the Labour Court by a trade union or any organisation or group of persons claiming to be representative of relevant workers or of relevant employers. I also have a role but the issue revolves around representation.
The range of issues I have mentioned is not comprehensive but it gives this House a sense of the capacity of social partnership to engage and contribute. It is a valuable process and the outcomes achieved reflect the commitment of all parties to the common good.
The Government delivers on its commitments in social partnership, be they pay increases, improvements in redundancy payments, development and enactment of legislation or improvements across the whole range of employment rights and entitlements. Many issues need to be addressed in any forthcoming social partnership negotiation in which all parties will have to contribute and compromise. I am confident, however, on the basis of the trust and proven commitment of all parties, that the outcome will contribute to our shared vision of a successful society. The Government is committed to, has delivered on and will contribute to, and continue to deliver on, social partnership.
Do I have time to address some of the points made by Members?
I am happy to listen to the Minister of State. I was only teasing when I said "No" but Senator Henry wishes to contribute too. As long as Members are accommodated I am sure the Minister of State can be brief because he reads extremely quickly.
I am sorry to inhibit the Minister of State in this way but I am glad to have the opportunity to speak and to provide time for my colleague Senator Henry who will now have time to speak. I am glad too that the Minister of State has the facility to read at such great speed because otherwise we would not have had time to speak. What he said was rather interesting.
At the beginning of his speech he referred to social partnership. It is a pity he was not here for the Order of Business today because my colleague, Senator Ross, raised an important point about the transfer of powers extra-democratically to this unelected and not entirely representative body. I agree with the Minister of State that social partnership and such discussions have laid the foundation for much of our economic and social progress, whose results I welcome.
There is, however, to use a cliché, a democratic deficit. Members on both sides of the House this morning suggested that representatives of the social partners come into the House to engage in an information and question session. This would be very useful because it would bring this type of negotiation back into the democratic process. I hope the Minister of State will support that call and assist us in responding to it.
I regret the fact that there is an amendment to the motion. What is the point of it? The motion is concerned with the protection of workers, developing registered employment agreements, devoting increased resources to the labour inspectorate, and ensuring enforcement and Revenue inspection. We all know that is right. The Minister of State could not possibly quibble with any single item in the motion, yet we get this stupid, knee-jerk reaction all the time, which is demeaning politics. It is a case of the Government side saying "White" if the Opposition says "Black". If an Opposition motion states anything, the Government amends it by deleting everything in the text and saying "We commend the Government for its wonderful work". The public is not fooled by this and it is a waste of time. If only we could get together and agree a central ground in the interests not of our parties but of the workers of this country, we would be much better off.
The Gama construction workers are mentioned in the motion. It is a shame and a reproach on every party in this House that it took Deputy Joe Higgins, the Independent Socialist Member in the other House, to unearth this scandal which had been concealed. All the matters which have been correctly mentioned by the Labour Party were found not to have been operated properly. It was only the investigative action of Deputy Joe Higgins that managed to bring this matter to the surface and rescue the situation for Gama workers. That is a great pity.
The fact that these abysmal conditions exist can be ascertained by putting a human face to them. I wish to cite some quotations that were issued from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. A chef from Romania stated, "I moved to Ireland in 2001 on a work permit. Since then I've had five or six jobs. In my last job I started on €2 an hour". I pay my cleaning lady €20 an hour. What is the minimum wage, it is €9 or €10 per hour?
Well, €2 is less than a third of that. Sarah, a domestic worker from Sri Lanka, stated:
The December 2004 tsunami destroyed my family's land. My father and uncles have no work. I have to stay here so I can send money to them. One day, my employer threw a wet, dirty cloth in my face and told me to clean the floors. Her children sat at the kitchen table laughing at me. I cried and went to my room. I am regularly used as target practice.
Akim, an asylum seeker from Nigeria, stated:
My employer, who is a farmer, paid me just over €2 an hour to pick fruit and stones and do other general work. I work long hours. I worked until my hands bled.
That is slavery. Apart from anything else, nobody will pay a blind bit of notice to this debate. It is over the critical time period and we will never get this onto "Oireachtas Report" or anywhere else. Therefore, instead of fighting for a mean-minded and stupid advantage, why do we not do the decent thing, unite and accept that we need to assist people in these critical situations. I applaud the Labour Party for tabling this motion which I intend to support.
I welcome the call in the motion for reform of the existing work permit system to allow for a green card. Last night, I had a meal with a friend who is from outside this country. He is a decent lad who regularly attends a gym. He was complaining because he pays his taxes and is legally resident here. He does very good work for this country. The gym he attends is full of Polish, Latvian and other workers who are employed by builders. I know that those in the construction industry are good friends of the present Government, but sometimes one must look at one's friends. Those workers in the gym were being paid €50 or €100 a day in cash. In Britain, when Irish labourers were treated like this it was called the lump. They used to go off and spend all their money on drink. As we speak, however, we have that situation in this country. Of the 20 people from various eastern European countries to whom my friend spoke in the gym last week, not one of them paid a cent in tax, although they were earning reasonably good money. My pal is not a mean-minded person. Quite reasonably, however, he said:
I pay my taxes. These people are making large amounts of money. The entrepreneur is doing well out of it, but what happens when one of them gets sick? We'll all have to pay out of our taxes to keep them in hospital.
In equity, therefore, we need to examine both ends of the scale — people who are illegally kept in slavery, and foolish workers who, like many Irish people in the past, take cash wages, do not register for income tax and then expect the State to support them. This is a great pity.
I welcome the green card proposal, but I do not think it goes far enough. I accept the response of ICTU which described it as a bad and defective law that needed a good deal of amendment. I will instance a couple of matters to which the Minister of State referred in his speech. One is the question of work permits. There is a real problem in that people are dependent on their employers for the permits. The green card proposal is supposed to get around that difficulty but it does not because the ownership of the work permit does not transfer. It should be in the possession of the worker. Why can workers not be allowed to have such permits legally? Currently, it is up to a new employer to obtain a new work permit, which is a mistake. There should be a transferable work permit attaching to the worker and his or her talents. This is a serious and important point because if such workers want to change jobs, the prospective employer must obtain a new permit. That is wrong in my opinion.
The Minister of State has indicated that under the proposed legislation, green card holders will be allowed to bring their spouses to Ireland. That is true up to a certain point, but I would like to hear a full articulation of the Government's policy regarding the reunification of families. That has not happened and it is not exclusively the prerogative of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.
Another problem is a domestic Irish one which fits into this debate. It is a scandalous situation concerning Irish Actors Equity. I will declare my interest here because I am a member of three trade unions. Earlier today, Senator Ross claimed he was a member of a trade union, but I am member of three — the Irish Federation of University Teachers, the National Union of Journalists, and Irish Actors Equity. We had an extraordinary situation in Irish Actors Equity whereby the Competition Authority, mar dhea, coerced it into signing an agreement whereby it would not represent freelance actors. It signed an agreement that it would not even provide or share with any self-employed actor undertakings or information relating to minimum fees to be paid to other self-employed actors. What is going on here? It cannot publish a fees guide for freelance photographers or reporters either. In addition, where named musicians are being engaged, the Musicians Union is prohibited from telling its members what is the going rate. That is farcical. The Minister of State should get stuck in and resolve the situation. These rights were enjoyed by Irish workers since 1901, yet the Competition Authority has seen fit to try to take them away.
This shames all of us because we are supposed to be a cultured country and we have contributed enormously not only to the culture of Europe but also of the world. However, the average overall payment for performing artists in specialised areas is €7,200 a year. Income from all theatre work is €10,000, while the rate for performing artists is €5,000. The Minister of State can read the figures in the report for himself. People are earning this pittance but it is nonsense to have the Competition Authority, which is a statutory body, stating that these poor devils cannot be told the going rate for a job. The Government should examine the matter.
I am delighted that this debate is taking place because I have just returned from Latvia which is currently sending us many workers. While I am glad the Minister for Foreign Affairs has been in discussion with his Latvian counterpart, who opened the conference I attended, I would like to read some extracts from this month's Baltic Guide, which is widely distributed in Latvia in English and, I presume, in other languages as well. The heading of the article is "Not very funny mushrooms". It states:
Thousands of Latvians have headed for other European Union countries, especially Ireland. They earn their former daily salary in an hour, picking mushrooms, milking cows, working in factories and doing other menial tasks the Irish no longer want to do. Since Latvia joined the EU last May, the UK and Sweden have given Latvian citizens the right to work without a work permit. About 150,000 new workers — mostly Poles, Lithuanians and Latvians — have officially registered in Ireland, although the actual figure may be much higher.
Help wanted ads in Irish papers appear in Russian and Latvian to help the new immigrants find jobs. Many say they hope to return to Latvia and buy a home or farm, and hope they will one day be able to prosper in their homeland. In Ireland they often work gruelling hours, living a dozen to a house or in a factory trailer, all in the name of money.
The mass emigration is also causing a new sad trend, so called "mushroom orphans", or children left behind in Latvia with neighbours or relatives as their parents go off to pick mushrooms. Another side effect: husbands leaving with the intention of working for a few months to raise money, then abandoning their Latvian family and creating a new one abroad.
Ireland, at least, views the new immigrants positively and officials say the influx of Latvians has been good for the economy. Balts work hard and are willing to take low-level jobs that upwardly mobile Irish avoid. Indeed, more than 400,000 trade unionists protested in Dublin in early December when the Irish Ferries company began introducing Latvian labourers, who were willing to work for lower wages.
The Latvian Government hopes the migrants will come back, armed with new skills and languages. Migration studies, however, suggest that two-thirds will never return.
I felt rather sad when I read that article, since I did not feel that this was the picture of working in Ireland that I wanted presented. Another article on the Irish Ferries dispute stated the following.
Many Irish citizens feel that if the restructuring plan goes ahead, other Irish companies will carry out similar restructuring programmes. Any such trend will no doubt suit many Latvian immigrant workers in the short-term, but it is sure to foster further resentment and racism towards Latvians living in Ireland. Furthermore, it must be hoped that Latvian salaries will rapidly catch up with the EU average or the country will suffer from a "people drain" to add to the brain drain already occurring.
Those were on pages 3 and 4 of a widely distributed journal, and I was very sorry to readthem.
Perhaps I might comment on one other group, which I am glad was addressed in the Minister of State's speech, namely, the situation regarding domestic workers. I also found that a source of concern, and I admit that I was with female parliamentarians from the Baltic area who took a particular interest in what work their young women might become involved in when they went abroad. There was great concern that, because of what is described as the growth in our adult entertainment industry, some young women who come to work here in domestic service and find that they are incredibly badly paid and cannot survive will be tempted to join the ranks of those dancing naked in the new clubs which have now been permitted. Naturally, it is much easier for a stranger to the country to appear naked or very scantily clad in these joints than for Irishwomen, who might fear seeing their neighbours from down the road, no matter how enthusiastic they may be about dancing.
We must take a special interest in social aspects of workers' lives here. When I returned on the aeroplane from Latvia, I saw that those coming over were incredibly young — I would have thought that the majority were between 20 and 25. One is very vulnerable when one is in a strange country at that age, and I suggest that we must address not simply the economic aspects of the issue but the social ones too. When people are living in a strange country, they are far more vulnerable to being exploited than in their own home place with the backup of family and so forth. I hope that the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, will also consider that area.
The tone of these articles is very sad, pointing out the disparity in wages and also what Irish people are apparently content to offer workers who come here. Someone is going back and telling these stories to reporters in Latvia. From what other speakers have said, there seems no evidence to suggest that those stories are in any way untrue. I know the Minister of State to be a good-hearted person, and I sincerely hope that in addressing this issue, he will not simply address the economics but also the social issues. I do not wish to see the Crisis Pregnancy Agency making a special effort to help those who have come from abroad. I hope that this side of employment in this country will also be addressed.
The Government had our support in allowing free access to this country for citizens of the accession states. However, we did not support it when it decided to load the dice against them by telling them that they would have no access to social assistance until they had been here for two years, therefore putting them in a non-negotiating position with employers. Happily, and not for the first time, the EU has now forced the Government to accord those recently arrived and very welcome guests some rights if treated badly by an Irish employer.
I apologise to the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, that I was not here for his speech. Unfortunately, I had two meetings to attend simultaneously. However, I read his script carefully. I have great regard for the Minister of State, who is the nicest of men, but I am tired of the Government's hand-wringing woe regarding the exploitation of workers. It is not that hard to do something about it.
It is worth pointing out that it was the last national agreement that proposed an increase in the number of inspectors. It is now January 2006, a time when we are beginning to negotiate the next one, and the Minister of State has only now said that it will happen, because someone in Government sat on the proposal for years. One cannot believe that the delay happened because it was forgotten about. It was because the Government did not want to expand the numbers of inspectors, since it did not want the resulting greater number of inspections.
We have that over and over. It took a series of dreadful tragedies in the building industry to get the Health and Safety Authority off its behind and start enforcing the law. We were also tired of the authority turning up to investigate after the event. I remember how Mr. Justice Kelly wondered how it had taken it so long before it took a case to court regarding lack of safety and closed down an entire Zoe Developments site because of its appalling safety practices.
We now have the beginnings of serious efforts at safe practice in the building industry, but it took years. Will we now go through the same process again regarding every issue that we raised today? Nowhere in the Minister of State's script can I find any commitment to examining whether the stories that we are all hearing of individuals here, there and everywhere being treated badly, manipulated and abused are simply isolated incidents. Why do they not find out what is happening by asking and looking? They do not want to find out the truth. I should have known from the very beginning that if the Progressive Democrats were keen on having a vast number of workers enter this country from the EU, it would be to look after their friends in business rather than the immigrants. We must be very careful here.
The issue Senator Norris raised is extremely threatening for people because if the Competition Authority is right that competition law precludes people who are nominally self-employed from joining a trade union and using a trade union to negotiate a collective position for them, the 70,000 so-called self-employed in the building industry will not be allowed to have a trade union represent them, even if the Labour Court rules, as the Minister told us, that they have the right to the same standards as those in the building industry. They will not be allowed even to talk to each other. That is what the Competition Authority forced SIPTU to do in the case of actors. It will apply similarly to other people who are self-employed. The Government is the only body that can change that by changing the industrial relations legislation and ensuring that the Competition Authority butts out of this area and deals with those who are ripping off the country.
I was intrigued by Senator Cox's constructive and thoughtful contribution. She was wrong, however, because there is no conflict between good-quality, well-paid employment, with good social protection, and success in the world economy. If we want evidence of that, and nobody wants to do this, we should look to Germany. In spite of its domestic market problems, Germany is the world's most successful exporter in terms of innovation, technology and its capacity to compete. It does not do that by ripping off workers but by creating a genuine social partnership, which this country has never really got into because a genuine social partnership means that the burdens and the benefits are shared. As far as I am concerned, it is more and more the case that social partnership in Ireland means workers sharing the burdens and big business holding on to most of the benefits.
It is a great pity that the Government decided to amend what was an innocuous enough motion calling for measures on which I thought everybody in this country was agreed.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 23 (Michael Brennan, Peter Callanan, Margaret Cox, Brendan Daly, John Dardis, Timmy Dooley, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Tony Kett, Michael Kitt, Terry Leyden, Don Lydon, John Minihan, Tom Morrissey, Pat Moylan, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Mary O'Rourke, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Eamon Scanlon, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Against the motion: 18 (James Bannon, Paul Bradford, Fergal Browne, Paddy Burke, Ulick Burke, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Frank Feighan, Michael Finucane, Mary Henry, Joe McHugh, David Norris, Kathleen O'Meara, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Brendan Ryan, Sheila Terry, Joanna Tuffy)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Minihan and Moylan; Níl, Senators O'Meara and Ryan.
Amendment declared carried.