Seanad debates

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

5:00 pm

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to speak first. I also thank the Minister of State, Deputy John Perry, for coming into the House to respond. I know the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, is abroad promoting the country, about which I will not complain.

My Adjournment matter concerns the strike at the Irish Cement plants in Platin, County Meath and Limerick. Over 100 workers are on strike over the refusal by Irish Cement to implement a recommendation of the Labour Court which partially found in favour of both the workers and the company. The Labour Court's recommendation read:

Taking all matters into account, this court recommends as follows:

1.) The company should pay to the staff concerned the "bonus" amounts outstanding for 2011

2.) The Court notes that while pay costs have been significantly reduced in line with the decline in over production levels, the pay structures and/or pay rates have not been reduced to date. From the information made available to it the Court was not in a position to make a considered or definitive recommendation on this basis. Accordingly, the Court takes the view that the parties should, on an on-going basis and where appropriate with the assistance of the appropriate advice, engage with each other regarding the total cost base of the company with a view to bringing it into line with the levels necessary to protect the maximum number of sustainable jobs in the two plants. Depending on the precise information exchanged between the parties and developments in the company itself and/or in the sector that affect the company's trading position and any consequent threat to jobs or profitability, this may involve a review and adjustment of the pay rates structure of the coming year.

3.) The Court will remain available to assist the parties in this process.

The recommendation is short and to the point. In one respect, it benefits the workers and in another gives them a huge challenge. This was fully accepted by them but not by Irish Cement.

The workers went through all of the formal procedures available to them in the industrial relations mechanisms of the State. Mediators and financial analysts were involved. The Labour Court recommended that the company pay the bonus which has been treated as pay, not an extra, and, if necessary, enter into negotiations on its cost structures. As I understand it, Irish Cement has refused to pay the workers the money owed until they accept a wage cut of 18%. The workers have already accepted significant changes to work practices in terms of hours worked and, as such, are earning a lot less, as acknowledged in the Labour Court's recommendation.

This is the first serious breach of industrial relations in the company for over 20 years. I grew up beside it and it commands tremendous respect across the region and country. People are reluctant to give out about Irish Cement because of the employment it provides, but in this case it is my considered view the workers are being treated shabbily. It is not right that the company is withholding wages as a bargaining chip to secure a considerable reduction in pay and that companies can refuse to comply with Labour Court recommendations when they do not suit them. During the years the majority of Labour Court recommendations went against workers. However, when one partially goes against a company, it refuses to implement it. We have to have a fundamental examination of labour law and labour relations.

What is the point of the Labour Court if workers who go to it to look for their rights and entitlements and find that it agrees with them then find the company does not implement its recommendations? I appeal to the Minister and the Minister of State to intervene in the dispute and talk sense to Irish Cement which has a good export business, which we welcome. Something needs to be done to support the workers. As I said about another industrial dispute in the same sector in my constituency, it is a pitiful sight to see men and women on a picket line throughout the night and during holiday periods. When I travel home at midnight from meetings in my constituency, they are on the picket line. They need help and support from the Government.

Photo of John PerryJohn Perry (Sligo-North Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. Industrial action by 110 workers at the Irish Cement production plants at Platin, County Meath and Castlemungret, County Limerick began on 3 April. I understand the Labour Court's most recent recommendation of January 2012 in the dispute was the culmination of protracted dialogue between the company and the group of unions representing the workers on restructuring issues that had already involved three successive Labour Court recommendations, the previous two being in August 2010 and December 2011.

In its recommendation in January the Labour Court recommended the company pay to the staff concerned the bonus amounts outstanding for 2011. In addition, the court concluded that it was not in a position, on the basis of the information provided through a report of the financial assessor undertaken following agreement between the parties, to make a definitive recommendation on an adjustment of pay rates and pay structures for the future. Accordingly, it urged the parties to engage with each other on the total cost base of the company.

The Labour Relations Commission was subsequently closely involved in facilitating talks between the company and the group of unions which were aimed at finding an agreed solution to the matters in dispute. That process of dialogue proceeded to the stage at which proposals for a settlement of the dispute were rejected by the trade unions concerned and a work stoppage commenced.

According to the company, pay rates have remained unchanged since 2008 and are currently 60% higher than the average industrial wage for unionised staff, despite the unprecedented deterioration in the construction sector. According to the Irish Cement group of unions, the company has insisted on a pay cut before outstanding bonuses are paid. The Labour Court previously noted in its first recommendation of August 2010 that it was clear the company was facing severe market conditions that required significant changes to enable it to compete and survive. It was equally clear that the unions were prepared to engage seriously on these issues with the company with a view to reaching agreement on a viable way forward that would optimise employment levels and conditions of employment, consistent with the current and medium-term financial and trading environment. With the exception of the issue of the pay cut sought by the company, it appears it was possible for the parties to reach agreement on a number of issues in dispute.

I urge the parties involved to have regard to the continuing availability of the industrial relations dispute resolution bodies to assist them in seeking a settlement and addressing the underlying challenge presented by a major restructuring of the company in the face of the dramatic changes in the building industry. I urge them to put their difficulties and differences behind them and approach the process in good faith with a view to accepting the outcome of the process. Ireland's system of industrial relations is essentially voluntary in nature and responsibility for the resolution of industrial disputes between employers and workers, whether in redundancy or other collective disputes, rests with employers, workers and their representatives. The State provides the industrial relations dispute settlement mchinery to support parties in their efforts to resolve their differences. Even what appears to be the most intractable of disputes is capable of resolution where both sides engage constructively and in good faith in this voluntary process. The principle of good faith implies that both sides in a dispute will make every effort to reach an agreement and endeavour, through genuine and constructive negotiations, to resolve their differences. I urge the parties involved in this dispute to work together to break the impasse by utilising the established dispute resolution machinery which is available to assist at short notice.

I again compliment the Senator for raising this very important issue. I hope the parties involved will take the clear message from the Government that there is a mechanism in place to resolve it.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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What has to happen is that the Government must put pressure on Irish Cement to implement the Labour Court's recommendation. The workers have been through the process and the Labour Court has acknowledged that pay costs have reduced significantly. Shift allowances and overtime payments have been withdrawn. While rates of pay are still the same, what workers are taking home every week is much lower because of the various changes made to work practices. The workers are prepared to talk about pay cuts, which is what the Labour Court recommended. However, they must be paid what is due to them immediately. No Irish company should be allowed to get away with this. It is, therefore, incumbent on the Government to put serious pressure on the company to pay the money owed. The staff must then respond and deal constructively with the second part of the recommendation of the Labour Court which they have accepted and which refers to pay cuts.

Photo of John PerryJohn Perry (Sligo-North Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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To clarify, I urge Irish Cement to take action and pay the bonuses due. The system of industrial relations is essentially voluntarist in nature, with the terms and conditions of employment of workers being determined, in the main, by a process of negotiations to reach agreement without direct intervention by the State. Nonetheless, I hear clearly what the Senator is saying. In general, the law does not try to impose a solution on parties to an industrial relations dispute, rather it is designed to support them in resolving their differences. The State takes a supportive role by providing a framework and institutions through which good industrial relations can prosper, rather than taking an interventionist course. Institutions such as the Rights Commissioner Service and the Labour Court were established to assist in the resolution of disputes between employers and workers. It is important to indicate the expertise of the State's industrial relations machinery offers the best avenue for resolving issues in dispute. It is expected the parties to a dispute will come to the process in good faith and, as a consequence, are prepared to give serious consideration to the decisions or recommendations made. Even what appears to be the most intractable of disputes is capable of resolution where both sides engage constructively and in good faith. As I said, the principle of good faith implies that both sides will make every effort. However, responsibility for the resolution of disputes remains with the parties involved and as such, there are no plans to make changes to the Industrial Relations Acts to compel either party to accept a Labour Court recommendation in disputes referred to the court under the Acts.