Wednesday, 11 December 2013
Critical Utilities (Security of Supply) Bill 2013: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I welcome the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton. I hope the debate will be an interesting one and one in which I hope there will be an exchange of views.
There are a couple of points I wish to explain at the beginning. This Bill was prepared over a number of weeks. There are those who think I looked for an opportune time to prepare it when there was the threat of a strike, but it so happened that it occurred at the same time. A lot of work has gone into the Bill in terms of what happens in other countries.
The supply of water and electricity to homes and businesses in this day and age is a basic and an essential service. The threat of an ESB strike was a real cause for concern in communities around the country last week. I was particularly concerned about the impact a strike would have on the elderly and in homes in which somebody was sick or being cared for. Many homes still depend on electricity as their sole source of heating and an ESB strike would have a major impact on them. On top of this, Ireland's reputation as a place in which to do business has suffered because of the threat of a strike. I was really struck when I heard Barry O'Leary, chief executive officer of IDA Ireland, say the prospect of an ESB strike was damaging Ireland's international reputation. If we cannot guarantee the supply of basic services such as water and electricity, how can we credibly persuade investors to do business here? I know that in recent years Minister has put in a huge amount of work into doing exactly this, trying to get investors to do business here.
Artificial interruptions to the supply of water and electricity should not be tolerated. The continued supply of these basic utility services should not be allowed to become a bargaining chip in an industrial dispute. A threat to these services is not tolerated in many countries in Europe and I do not see why we should allow it to happen in this country. Historically, the trade union movement has made a valuable contribution to the improvement of the rights of workers and the conditions under which they work. The role of trade unions is recognised in Article 40.6.1° of the Constitution and Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, both of which protect the right of freedom of association. The Bill does not seek to extinguish or modify these rights, something I have to say so often. On the Order of Business today Senator David Cullinane did not appear to understand this. The Bill is not understood by many people.
The right to strike is an important part of the armoury of trade unions and can be a very effective tool. However, in the context of basic services such as water and electricity supplies, it can be a very blunt tool. I say this because when workers in electricity or water supply companies down tools and go on strike, their actions do not just upset their employer but can also have a direct and dramatic impact on the everyday lives of people and businesses across the country. As legislators, we should seek to balance the right of workers to strike in a disruptive manner against the right of individuals to a supply of water and electricity. The aim of the Bill is to strike that balance in a proportionate and minimal way. The Bill seeks to provide for the security of supply of mains water and electricity and it seeks to achieve this in two ways. First, it would make it an offence for a person to induce another to cause an interruption to the supply of a critical utility service. Second, it would also make it an offence for a person to engage in industrial action which causes an interruption to the supply of a critical utility service. It not seek to remove the right to strike, the right to picket or the right to take industrial action. Let there be no doubt about this and I cannot say it often enough. Strikes can still take place, but what the Bill would require is that strike cover be put in place to protect the continued supply of water and electricity. I would expect the supply of electricity and water to be maintained on a day-to-day basis with a skeleton staff. What I am saying in the Bill is that staff in businesses which supply electricity or water are free to go on strike; however, when they do go on strike, they would have to provide strike cover – a minimum level of cover – so as to maintain basic services.
The principle of safeguarding an essential service is already provided for under legislation. Section 18(3) of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 goes much further than the Bill; it prohibits gardaí from becoming members of a trade union. Section 59(1) of the Act makes it an offence for a person to induce a garda to withhold his or her services. Although now repealed, the Electricity (Special Provisions) Act 1966 provided for an outright ban on strikes and pickets in the ESB. The Bill is far less draconian than that legislation.
In many member states there is an obligation on strikers, under law, to maintain a minimum level of service while on strike. Legislation to protect critical utility services has been enacted in Belgium, France, Germany and Greece. Other countries have gone even further to protect utility and other services. In Bulgaria strikers must not impact on the supply of gas, electricity, public transport, broadcasting and telephone services. In Hungary strikers are required to ensure there is no disruption to transport and telecommunications services and electricity, gas and water supplies.
A similar, broad approach is taken to the protection of services in Portugal and Romania. There is a wide range of steps being taken in other countries. There are many precedents for what I am proposing in the Bill, although my approach is far more timid than that adopted in a number of other countries.
The need for this legislation is even more compelling than it was. I am pleased that the threatened ESB strike has been averted, but this legislation is no less important this week than it was last week. We are looking to the future. I have been working on the Bill for some time and it is important to understand it is not just an immediate reaction to the danger of a strike. I have long held the view that the continued supply of critical services should not be used as a bargaining tool in industrial disputes. The resolution of the ESB dispute does not alter that principle but actually serves to demonstrate just how vulnerable the critical utilities are to the whims of trade union leaders. We need to act now to protect critical services from the effects of strike action that might take place in the months and years ahead.
The Bill does not seek to remove the rights to strike, picket or take industrial action. What it would require is the arrangement of strike cover to ensure electricity and water supplies would not be interrupted during strikes. The Bill seeks to balance carefully the right of workers to strike and the right of customers to key utilities. The result would be a reasonable and proportionate approach. I, therefore, urge the Minister to support the Bill. I look forward to a debate in order that we can understand the issues involved.
We have had nurses strikes during the years, but when nurses go on strike, they ensure no lives are endangered. They ensure there is a skeleton staff to run essential services to keep people alive. They do not want to be responsible for deaths. This is a very good example of what we are proposing in the Bill. A skeleton staff should stay back to ensure electricity and water would continue to be supplied because they are essential. There are those living at home who would die if they did not have electricity or water during strikes. In the future, when a strike occurs in the areas I have outlined – I would love to believe there would never be a strike as we have become so good at avoiding them – a skeleton staff should ensure the two essentials, water and electricity, would continue to be provided. It is a life and death issue. Therefore, the Bill would have a long-term effect. The threatened strike this week drew attention to the issue, but the onus is on us in this House to ensure we have legislation in place that stipulates we should not endanger lives. I urge the Minister to support it.
I welcome the Minister. It is an honour to support Senator Feargal Quinn’s Bill. Last night the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government indicated we consumed 145 litres of water per person per day. Some 82% of this water is for drinking, sanitation and the washing of dishes, etc. One can imagine that a cessation of the supply of water would soon lead to health problems as people would be unable to flush toilets or wash themselves or their dishes. The supply of water is vital.
Owing to the recent strike threat referred to by Senator Feargal Quinn, we have addressed the issue of the supply of electricity. There are so many continuous-process industries that the Minister has been so active in promoting in recent years, following on the work of previous Ministers. The high-tech sector needs a continuous supply of electricity. Food would be wasted very quickly in the food sector if we did not have power for refrigeration, which is part and parcel of retailing and the activity of every hotel.
We have a 24 hour economy. I was talking to the Minister some days ago and noted he had been to so many places. These places link up with us 24 hours a day. This is needed and we cannot say we are shutting down for a number of hours because we are supplying electricity only in zone B, for example. We must link up with industries on the west coast of the United States that want us to be operational and send them data and supplies when needed.
Our reputation is important. We have had to build it up in so many fields because of the financial collapse and the collapse of banking. We should consider how much damage was done in Belfast because of the flag protest. Shopkeepers in Belfast tell me that sales decrease significantly when such a protest occurs. We do not need to return to the bad old days. We progressed from having a strike problem to having one of the best records. Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern who is not often praised and thanked nowadays did a notable job in changing an unacceptable industrial relations record to one that allowed us to be proud of our reputation. Our reputation is important, given that so many of us have had to leave the country in recent times. A reputation as hard workers precedes those moving to Canada, the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. We are at risk if the two vital supplies Senator Feargal Quinn mentioned are at risk.
There is a right to strike and picket, but this stems from an era in which we had much more exploitative employers. All of the State's industrial relations machinery provides for a much more co-operative experience than heretofore. Senator Feargal Quinn asks that the striking parties have a skeleton staff available to provide vital services such as water and electricity. We do not want to harm innocent bystanders, nor do we want the so-called law of unintended consequences that would have a small dispute affect the whole macro-economy, leaving everyone worse off.
Industrial relations evolve and become much less confrontational and much less based on exploitative employers such as those of 100 years ago in 1913. I am glad that this evolution has been happening in the time I have been examining the economy. Formerly, employees worked in dreadful conditions in coal mines and so on. Through the success of Governments, the trade union movement's powers of advocacy and politicians improving social services all the time, we have evolved from the world in which now traditional industrial relations laws of 100 years ago had to be framed to protect workers. The legislation proposed is to protect society as a whole from the unintended consequences, as well as to protect innocent bystanders. It is to ensure patients in hospitals, children, food stocks, the national reputation and the ability of high-tech industries to continue to attract investment and employ people on a 24 hour basis would be protected. Strikes that would do damage in all of these areas do not really solve problems. We have many other ways of solving problems. We are asking that, when problems arise, the plug not be pulled on the water supply as it would have serious consequences for the country as a whole.
The Bill is an important contribution to bringing industrial relations to another stage of consultation, without damaging third parties and innocent bystanders. We escaped from the brink ten days or so ago. I commend the Minister, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, for his work in that regard. We should discuss matters in Parliament, however, because people say the Dáil and the Seanad are irrelevant. This was a very important issue and we should be prepared, with the proper machinery, to deal with the problem if it arises again. We should have a consultative framework in place to prevent huge losses among innocent bystanders. Senator Feargal Quinn is to be commended for his initiative in bringing forward the Bill which I am proud to support.
I welcome the Minister and the debate. I hope the other Chamber will also debate this issue. Certain services are critical to the common good. Electricity, water, fuel and transport services are all essential on this island and I would like to see them being protected for the consumer. How we go about this is the question.
I have reservations about how the Government could square the Bill's provisions with the need for industrial peace. We have had genuine industrial peace for many years and it has contributed to much of our economic development in the past 20 years, but there was a price to pay.
There were national wage agreements that at the end of the day had to be paid for, in the main by the taxpayer. Unions fought their corner, employers fought theirs and the Government sat as judge in the middle as both employer and representative of the taxpayer.
I, and others, would venture to say that the vast majority would support the view of Senator Quinn that essential utilities, such as electricity and water, should not be cut off by industrial action, but how do we do it? While we strive to rebuild a shattered economy, the last thing we need is to face into large-scale industrial action in essential services. I can remember the power strikes of the 1970s and 1980s where there were rolling power cuts all over the country. Since then, many large employers have been attracted to this country by industrial relations stability and also by a guaranteed supply of labour, water and, most importantly, electricity.
While the threatened ESB strike has for now been averted, we should use all methods of intervention to settle disputes without having to introduce new laws to prevent industrial disruption. Unions in these utilities have a duty to look after their members but they must recognise there is also a duty to the common good. I have spoken to many small business owners who state that they can see business picking up in the economy, but they were horrified to see what was going on with the ESB unions and that they had called a strike for the day after this country would finally leave the bailout programme. The thinking behind this is to bring the country to its knees again and to tell international markets that Ireland is not a place in which to set up because a union can turn off the lights at a moment's notice. It is sheer madness to threaten to cut off the power to the homes of the elderly who are struggling to heat themselves through fuel poverty, to cut off the power to industries which are fulfilling orders for the domestic and foreign markets and to cut off the power to shops at their busiest time of the year when they work all God's hours to bring in the money that will keep them and their employees going in the quiet periods of the year ahead. All of this is because of a perceived deficit in a pension fund.
The power of these utility unions must not be abused. In 2001, IBEC called on the Government to ban strikes in essential services. This has been repeated by Retail Excellence Ireland in November of this year. In August 2010, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development advised the Fianna Fáil Government to consider banning strikes in essential services.
This is not the first time this has been raised, but it is the first time that somebody finally put down a Bill which has started the debate here. Senator Quinn has an impressive CV in business and politics. He has been an employer of thousands up and down the country and I recognise his sincerity in bringing the Bill before us today.
Unfortunately, I cannot support the Bill. I certainly support the spirit and the thought process whereby we can never have a gun held to our head by any group in this country as we allowed happen in the past. I am trying to figure out how to, as the fellow says "square the circle", how we can deal with that in support of the Bill. There were debates about how we should deal with the likes of the power unions and the power supply. At this stage, we need to look seriously at those utilities and never allow the type of threat that was put over head over the past couple of weeks. I am aware it is not taking place, but it is not good enough to even contemplate that, given what the people of this country have gone through over the past number of years. It is an appropriate Bill to have arrived. I am aware that in a sense it is by accident that it arrived. It sends a big message as to where we are at and we need to address this seriously over the coming months.
I welcome the Minister to the House.
I echo many of the sentiments expressed by the previous speaker. There is much agreement across the House that the ESB strike, if it had gone ahead, would have been disproportionate. No doubt workers have a right to protect conditions of employment such as their wages and, as was at issue here, their pensions. The ESB showed bad faith in appearing to unilaterally change the status of the workers' pension schemes and the workers were right to be outraged about that. They have an entitlement to resort to industrial action to protect their rights, as do any workers. At this, the coldest, darkest time of year, if the union had gone ahead with its threatened power cut this week, the consequences for the country would have been disastrous. As has rightly been pointed out, it would have ended up where householders, many of whom would be elderly, sick or have families with young children, would find themselves in a situation where they would have no light or heat in their homes, and where they cannot use their cookers and cannot provide food for their families, and in small businesses having to close their doors because they do not have the essential services to open at the one time of year in the few weeks leading up to Christmas where many of them bring in one third or more of their annual turnover. This is already one of the most difficult times for small businesses. They are struggling as it is. They do not need that extra burden. Restaurants, with perishable stock, would find themselves in a position where they would have to dump food. It would impact on large companies, such as the pharmaceutical industries to which Senator Barrett and others referred, that employ thousands of staff in this country. It would do considerable damage, not only to persons' daily lives but also to Ireland's international reputation as a place to do business at a time when, more than ever, we desperately need not only to protect existing jobs, but to attract other leading international companies to Ireland to do business.
I saw the coverage during the week. Members referred in the previous debate on the Finance (No. 2) Bill to Forbes declaring Ireland as one of the best places in the world to do business. I welcome that we are starting to get positive coverage internationally and commentators are noting that the economy is turning around. I would have some concerns about some of the criteria on which they based that analysis, for instance, in seeing a high unemployment rate as a positive development for employers, but it is essential that we on all sides of the House would support any measure that would help to get the country back on track and turn the economy around. A power strike would have been disastrous.
Within my party's Seanad group, there are different views. We debated the Bill on a couple of occasions over the past week and members had different views on it. Some of my party's Senators believe in the absolute right to strike, particularly when essential terms and conditions or wages are at risk. Others strongly support the principle in Senator Quinn's Bill that the right to which I refer, which is protected by the Constitution and by the European Convention on Human Rights, should also be balanced against the right to essential services for the population and the public order and common good interest which are equally protected by the Constitution and by the European convention, and that there should at least be provided the minimum level of service to which Senator Quinn referred.
Senator Quinn was quite correct to point out that his Bill does not propose that all industrial action would be ruled out in utility companies and rather it would insist that there would be a minimum level of service or, as he stated, a skeleton staff would be in place. Speaking on behalf of the group, I reflect that diversity and state that we had different views. I appreciate that Senator Quinn pointed out that his Bill was in the works before the current industrial action was threatened but, of course, it falls to be considered in that context because that is the big issue at present. While we as a group respect the rights of the ESB staff to protect their terms and conditions, equally, we were alarmed and shared the concern that most Irish people would have that it would get to a point where one would end up two weeks before Christmas with no power in the country.
Personally, I would be concerned, if we are returning to a strike culture and a period of industrial unrest, to see both the threatened ESB strike and the threatened strike by the ASTI because that kind of culture will work well for certain types of employees. If one is in a job where one holds a bargaining chip, such as that one can threaten to turn off the power or close the schools, then one is in a fairly strong position, but the vast majority of workers in this country are not in such a position. It would not be right to resort to a situation where some workers are more protected than others only because they happen to work in environments where they can make such threats. Every worker, regardless of whether he or she is packing bags in a supermarket on minimum wage or is a highly paid professional, should enjoy the same protections under the law, should be able to avail of the same mediation processes, including independent mediation when something goes wrong, and should have the same chance as others of success in a dispute. It should not depend on where one works or how strong a bargaining chip one holds.
Both this threatened strike and the ASTI one, raise issues with the industrial relations machinery, as did CIE strike which, thankfully, also was resolved last year.
Again, it looked like we might end up in a situation where other workers in Dublin would not be able to get to work. It is timely that we review our industrial relations machinery to ensure it is fit for purpose and that all workers are protected equally.
I commend Senator Quinn for tabling this Bill. He is known to all of us as a compassionate and responsible employer. When I was still in school, one of my part-time jobs was packing bags in Superquinn. The shop in which I worked closed at 6 p.m. and the Senator wanted it to stay open until 7 p.m. He came into the shop and sat down with all the staff personally to negotiate with us as head of the company and listen to our concerns. He is someone who cares about workers' rights and has a good track record on this issue. I respect his bona fides in this debate and I ask the Minister to reflect on the issue in the cold light of day now that the immediate threat of strike has diminished so that processes are put in place to ensure we do not end up in a similar situation in future.
This is a timely and topical debate. I have the utmost respect for Senator Quinn not only as a captain of industry and entrepreneur but also as a commendable employer who set the highest of standards. He has the support of Senator Barrett, who also commands our respect when he speaks. However, not all employers are as decent as Senator Quinn or as forthcoming with their employees. We have to consider this issue in the round. It is fortunate that the immediate threat has been diffused because our discussions on this Bill would have taken a different tone in the previous climate. I understand the motivation behind what occurred over the last several weeks. All of us feared the prospect of a breakdown in industrial relations in ESB that would wreak havoc on families, the elderly and the infirm in the run-up to Christmas and would damage our economy and international reputation. There is great relief that the immediate threat has passed and I commend both sides in the dispute and the Labour Relations Commission on the tremendous work it has done behind the scenes to diffuse the dispute.
It was confirmed during the week that certain trade union officials - I will not name anyone in the House - and their families received serious personal threats. That is despicable. Nobody deserves to be personally vilified for representing workers, even if we do not agree with the extent to which they were willing to push matters. In this instance, the threat of strike action was disproportionate to the nature of the problem and I am glad it has been resolved.
It is ironic that we are having this debate during the centenary of the Lock-out. It would be no harm to reflect on the progress that has been made by both sides in our society. It is also interesting that we are having the debate against the backdrop of Nelson Mandela's passing this week in light of the plaudits given to the Dunnes Stores workers for their courage in taking a stand in 1984. I do not think Nelson Mandela realised how many friends he had in Ireland. There are certainly more people on his side today than was the case in 1984. The same goes for the Dunnes Stores workers. A number of people jumping on that bandwagon were not as full as praise for those young women at the time. History is judging the Dunnes Stores workers positively for their courage and perseverance but not all of those who are commending them today were behind them when they were on strike.
Over the weekend we saw the sad sight of Marks and Spencer workers picketing in the run up to Christmas. Again, it was mostly women on the picket line. They did not want to be picketing but felt they had to strike because their employment terms and conditions, their pension entitlements, their holiday pay and their weekend rates were under serious threat. I know of no worker who wants to be out on strike or on the picket line. This Bill refers to utilities but we should consider these issues in the round. As a member of the NUJ since I was 17 years old, I have spent time on the picket line. Nobody wins in a strike situation. It is important to acknowledge the significant progress that has been made in industrial relations in this country. In the 1970s, we lost 58,000 days per annum due to strikes. We became known as the sick man or basket case of Europe. The situation improved somewhat in the 1980s, during which we lost an average of 32,000 days per annum. Industrial peace and industrial relations mechanisms have improved the situation significantly, for which both employers and the trade union movement should be commended. Employees have dug deep to help this country rebuild after the fiasco of the bank bailout. I would not like us to squander that progress by criminalising or vilifying workers who feel they have to strike as a last resort.
One of the best, if not the best, union in the country is the Irish Farmers Association, which is fantastic at looking after the interests of its members in farming and rural communities. All of us are relieved that the ESB strike has been diffused but I remind the House that Mr. Justice Peter Kelly stated in the Commercial Court that there was a deficit of €1.8 billion in the company's pension fund. The workers feared that the funds to which they were contributing would be lost. Many workers in this country have been short-changed by the collapse of pensions. People who saved prudently throughout their working lives found out upon retirement that their pension funds were insufficient to meet their requirements.
While I understand that Senator Quinn is approaching this issue in good faith, I cannot support his Bill because it could be seen as provocative legislation. That is the last thing we need at present. Instead of taking sides, we should continue working together. The threat of strike in ESB brought people around the table and focused hearts and minds on achieving a result that was of benefit to the entire country.
I welcome this legislation and the debate around it. Senators' views diverge on the issue of whether critical workers should be allowed to use the ultimate sanction of striking when it comes to industrial action or whether there should be a minimum level of service.
One of the critical issues concerns those at home, who have necessary and vital equipment for kidney dialysis and medical devices to keep them alive and healthy. We know hospitals and vital services have back-up generators but there is the issue of ensuring critical industries are maintained and sustained during any period of industrial action. Some of the views expressed in the debate on the topic among our group concerns where to draw the line on critical industry. Electricity is one, so are water and telecommunications. Very few utilities are not critical.
Senator Whelan pointed out that this is the 100th anniversary of the Lock-out. There is a fine balance between the worker and the employer. Where the worker has a monopoly, being the only provider, he can hold the State to ransom and that situation must be dealt with through the trade union mechanism. The worker has the sanction of strike but if he or she did not, the balance of power would go to the employer. The ESB is a semi-State company with a commercial mandate and has the objective of making money as well as providing electricity. If the bonuses, to use the word bandied about in the committee rooms today, of such employers are related to profits and the workers do not have the sanction of striking, the employer will continue to make profit at the cost to the employee.
We have seen this in private industry in respect of pensions and pension rights. In private industry, pensions were not there when the workers needed them. There is no sanction for the employer. Where did it go? Who was in charge of ensuring the fund was there for workers? The ESB workers do not have a State pension to fall back on, as may be the case for others. One of the critical points is Irish Water, a huge superquango that is a disaster given that we cannot measure the quantity of water being used in urban areas such as Dublin. Nevertheless, we will spend billions of euro putting in infrastructure through a superquango that may not fulfil its remit. It is an essential service.
The issue of the strike is off the table and it takes away the pressure from the debate. However, if everyone's electricity was to be shut off on Monday morning and we were receiving phone calls about the electricity being shut off, Senator Quinn would have a heated debate. The country could not tolerate it in respect of those who would rely on it for life-sustaining medical devices and maintaining current jobs. It would be a disaster for the country. If the industrial relations mechanism had failed abysmally, we would be a different situation. We would be voting on it but with a different view taken by the Government. The chief executive officers of large multinationals and Retail Excellence Ireland said this is vital. That is why we have labour relations mechanisms, which are tortuous but exist so that it does not come to the 11th hour, at which point we are facing emergency legislation to prevent the strike and to keep on the lights. I welcome the debate on the Bill. The Bill might be brought back by the Government.
As the previous speaker mentioned, if we were facing a strike on Monday, the tempo of the debate would be different. The context of the Bill, trying to protect critical utilities, is important. This afternoon, I thought back to the 1970s and 1980s, to which Senator Whelan referred, and the power strikes. We were given notice of the time we had power and we prepared for it. Senator Quinn referred to a minimum level of cover to maintain basic services. We can understand in respect of nurses or health care settings but for utilities such as electricity, it is either on or off. Where do we decide the services are essential or basic?
We had a discussion on the Water Services (No.2) Bill about cutting off water. That will not happen but pressure can be reduced and people can have supply restricted. In the case of electricity, it is either on or off. Over the past 20 years, industrial peace has come about through negotiation with unions, the Government and those involved in partnership talks. Many who were not involved in partnership talks and who were in opposition were quite critical of the fact that discussions and agreements were not made public. Agreements were made behind closed doors and the debate was not held in a public forum. Nevertheless, we have had industrial peace following for social partnership, which I acknowledge. It has come at a cost and we are paying the price in terms of coming to grips with the costs in terms of delivering public services in an economically different time when frontline services are suffering because of our economic situation. Public services expanded when it could be afforded but there was no foresight on how the expansion could be sustained.
I commend the Labour Relations Commission. The Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, asked it to step in last week. It has essential expertise and it has delivered previously in other difficult situations. It is an important mechanism in the industrial relations procedures. The code of practice on dispute procedures includes procedures for essential services. There is a framework for resolution and perhaps the Minister can address the point. It was not utilised in the past number of weeks. We need to recognise, as Senator Quinn said, that his proposal does not take away the right to strike but that certain workers are working in essential areas. If they are going to work in an area that is critical and essential and we go down this road, the issue of pay and employment rights will have to be different to those deemed not to work in essential services.
Concerning critical services and infrastructure, the quality of our infrastructure is important and we must ensure we invest in it.
I am thinking of EirGrid and the ongoing debate around the country. The company's mission is to ensure security of electricity supply into the future. Uisce Éireann will be responsible for ensuring critical infrastructure is maintained and guaranteeing the quality of drinking water. That is important and we are addressing that in legislation before the House to establish Irish Water.
It is important to have this debate without the threat of a strike in the background. As a country seeking investment and selling itself abroad, we need to be make sure we have supplies of critical services such as water and electricity because they are essential to attracting investment.
I cannot, as is customary, commend the author of the Bill for bringing it forward. I spoke to him prior to the debate because this legislation is abhorrent and unhelpful and it is beyond me how any Oireachtas Member would put effort into criminalising workers. The Senator disagrees but I will demonstrate how it does. He also said the legislation does not and will not prevent workers from withdrawing labour but it makes it a criminal offence for a person to engage in industrial action that causes an interruption to the supply of a critical utility. If ESB workers withdraw their labour, that could cause a interruption to services. If we were to accept the Bill, therefore, it would prevent them from doing so. That is the reality and, therefore, it is odious legislation. It would criminalise some groups of workers.
The language used is clear and self-explanatory. The Bill states, "It is an offence for a person to engage in industrial action". It provides for fines, indictments and prison terms, all of which I would characterise as criminalisation. It will also be an offence "to induce an employee of a critical utility to do anything which directly or indirectly causes an interruption or stoppage to the supply of a critical utility." The punishment, fine or deterrent for such behaviour can be 12 months imprisonment and, on indictment, a fine of €250,000 or five years imprisonment and a fine of €50,000. I fail to see how that would not criminalise workers if the Bill was passed.
I do not believe that such right wing, Thatcherite, oppressive and anti-labour policies have any place in this country. These policies were introduced in Britain in the 1970s. The plan then was to crush unions, demoralise workers and break organised labour. This was done by recourse to the law, courts, police and prison. The Bill is a replica of the anti-union legislation passed at that time but the reality is this is not Thatcher's Britain in the 1970s; it is Ireland in 2013, 100 years after the 1913 Lock-out. I am certain the Senator who proposed the Bill is aware of and understands history but the history he seeks to identify with is that of William Martin Murphy and not the workers of Dublin or Larkin or Connolly. This was prompted by IBEC and a number of other employer representative organisations which want such legislation introduced in order that they can be as vengeful, narrow minded and selfish as their colleagues in the 1900s.
The Bill also makes it an offence to induce an employee of a critical utility to do anything which might disrupt supply. What does "induce" mean? Induce and seduce have a similar sound and meaning. Is Senator Quinn of the opinion that unions induce workers to engage in industrial action? Is he saying workers are unthinking and cannot make up their own minds? The intent of the Bill is clear to workers and trades unions. Perhaps it is beyond the Senator's comprehension to imagine workers as thinking human beings who are capable of making up their minds on such matters. They are also rational beings and they are aware of the consequences of industrial action because no worker wants to strike. More than 40% of workers earn less than €30,000 a year. The fastest area of growth in terms of those falling into poverty is among the working poor. There has also been a dramatic increase in part-time, insecure contract employment.
One wonders why the Senator did not dream up legislation that would make it a criminal offence for senior management in strategically important companies to break agreements with their workers and unions. I do not see legislation coming on these issues but that is what the ESB did. Why else would workers have contemplated such extreme action as a strike in the first place? People do not go on strike for the fun of it; they go on strike because they are being denied basic rights and the industrial relations machinery has not worked in their favour. It is a fundamental right to strike and that right is recognised in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which states, "Everyone has the right to form and join trade unions and the right to strike". The explicit right to strike is also recognised in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his or her interests and to engage in industrial action". It is about solidarity and it is also about the common good. We have made several requests on the Order of Business for the Minister to come to the House to discuss what form of collective bargaining rights the Government will introduce. I remind him in the context of this odious legislation that workers still do not have the right to be represented by their trade union and or to engage in collective bargaining in this, the centenary of the 1913 Lock-out.
I very much look forward to the legislation the Minister brings forward but I robustly stand against this legislation.
I welcome the Minister to the House and I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. The proposed Bill has been tabled by Senator Quinn for whom I have great regard. He was a fantastic businessmen who employed thousands of people and I worked closely with him during the recent Seanad referendum campaign. Despite that, I will not support the Bill because it seeks to take advantage of the plight of ESB workers to introduce counterproductive measures that provide for the imprisonment for up to five years of workers who choose to strike. Striking is the last act of a worker in dispute. Sometimes ESB workers are blamed for the jobs they have but it is easily forgotten that the same people were out in snow blizzards restoring power this time three years ago for weeks on end. In some quarters, they are said to be privileged and, therefore, they should not have the right to strike.
We are in the fortunate position as a country that the lights will be on for Christmas. I would like to record my appreciation to the Labour Relations Commission, the trade unions and ESB management for their efforts in resolving this dispute. Churchill famously said: "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war".
In this instance, "jaw-jaw" proved to be the winner. The workers involved themselves, through the union, in healthy horse trading and transparent bargaining, which is part of any democracy, and Ireland is no different. What seems to be lost in all this is empathy for the workers involved, the same people who in some cases for 40 years paid into pensions and were told there would not be a pension available when they retired. The ESB workers are men and women with families and in many cases they have given the best years of their lives to the company which sought to pull the rug from beneath them.
Much has been said tonight about strikes and industrial action. It is worth noting that the last strike in the ESB of any significance was in 1991 and lasted four days. In my research I have been unable to find any strike in water utilities in the past 30 years. It is important to remember such facts when we debate not allowing these people the right to strike. I commend their spirit and solidarity, and I hope their actions show the public the power of the collective and a clear demonstration of the importance and relevance of the trade union movement 100 years after the Dublin Lock-out.
Pay, pensions and working conditions of all workers in this country have been dramatically eroded since the beginning the recession and now that we are entering a post bailout Ireland, we have the opportunity to shape our society and our economy. This Bill, if accepted, has the potential to prevent nurses, doctors, teachers and other public sector workers from entering an industrial dispute. What kind of anti-worker message is that? We are talking about workers who have carried this economy on their backs and taken all of the cuts and pain since the recession began. That is not an Ireland of which I want to be part. We should as a country and a Parliament look to be strengthening workers' rights rather than trying to divide and conquer, eroding the gains fought for so hard by workers. The public and private sectors should be standing in solidarity with the Marks & Spencer workers all over the country, the ESB workers and the Milne Foods workers in Offaly if we are ever to move away from the radical individualism that infected our great country as the Celtic tiger roared.
The Labour Party has worked hard in order to protect the low-paid and workers in precarious employment since we took the responsibility to clean up the mess left behind after Fianna Fáil. I am proud that as a Labour Party during the worst economic crisis in the history of the State we restored the minimum wage, took 330,000 low-paid workers out of the USC net and, against much opposition, fought for joint labour committees, JLCs, and employment regulation orders to be reformed and revitalised while putting them on a safe and secure legal and constitutional footing that will protect workers earning their wages in those sectors.
People have referred to Hungary, a country which in 2011 introduced legislation of this nature. On nine separate occasions, workers sought to have the right to strike but each time this was refused by the equivalent of our Labour Relations Commission in Hungary. In 1981, then US President Ronald Reagan passed legislation that forbade strikes by Government employees where public safety was at risk. On that occasion, air traffic controllers were forced back to work, and America now has the most glaring example of a two-tier society in the world, with union membership dropping to 12% and the disparity between rich and poor growing by the day.
The programme for Government includes a statement that we will "reform the current law on employees' right to engage in collective bargaining (the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2001), so as to ensure compliance by the State with recent judgments of the European Court of Human Rights." I am also pleased that the Tánaiste has announced that the Government will begin the process of legislating in the coming weeks to give employees the rights to engage in collective bargaining. In the year of the 100th anniversary of the 1913 Lock-out, Mr. Jack O'Connor, SIPTU general secretary, has stated, "Even to the extent that the right of collective bargaining, the core issue at stake in the Lock-out, which is respected in virtually every EU country, is still denied in this republic." I am glad to say it will not be denied for much longer. I look forward to the Minister's response. I thank Senator Quinn for moving the legislation so we could have an open and frank debate on the matter.
I welcome the Minister and Senator Quinn's Bill. I also welcome this debate, and it is refreshing to hear contributions like Senator Landy's. Senator Landy and I may come from different places on the political spectrum but I hope it will not in any way affect our political friendship. His contribution nonetheless would not have been out of place in the political and industrial language of the 1970s and 1980s.
I spoke to a number of friends and colleagues earlier and as we normally do, we wandered into all sorts of political tours of history. We were discussing the former British Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock. I reminded one of my friends about Kinnock's address to a famous conference of the British Labour Party when he tackled the militant element within the party. He challenged the Liverpool Labour Party leadership, which had a militant tendency and at that stage was running and ruining the city. As Kinnock stated, taxpayers' money was being used to send taxi drivers across Liverpool to hand out redundancy notices to members. His challenge at the time to the party was for it to live in reality rather than the ideology of a past era. He asked the party to accept that society had changed and the relationship between workers and their bosses had also moved on, with everybody having to accept new realities.
In a few days the country will mark the official exit from the bailout. The Taoiseach, his Government and anybody concerned about the future of the country wants Ireland to be a place where people can invest and we can put hundreds of thousands of unemployed people back to work. Anybody wishing to invest in the country needs a number of certainties; such people need certainty about investment policy, long-term planning, taxation and the issue raised by Senator Quinn. We are lucky not to have an ESB strike on our hands next week as that would be an appalling vista for the country. It is not just a question of lights being shut off as tens of thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands of workers across the country would have been at significant financial disadvantage as a result.
There is a role for worker representation and unions but we have all moved into different types of thinking, and both employers and employees must see co-operation as part of the new and better equation. In his Bill Senator Quinn makes it very clear that he is not seeking the removal of the right to strike, picket or take industrial action. The legislation is trying to ensure that citizens of the country - workers and non-workers - will have certain guarantees of essential services, and it is very difficult to argue that there should not be a guarantee that when one needs to switch on a light, it will come on, or that when a tap is turned, the water supply will work. We are discussing the new water Bill in the House but we must ensure such basic services are guaranteed in whatever ways are practical and possible.
This should not precipitate a major philosophical or political divide and the issue is about common sense. This is about offering certain assurances to every citizen in the State. Whether one is young or old, it is not unfair to expect basic services to be guaranteed. Everybody in the House demands basic health services, which is correct.
We rightly demand that basic education and other essential services be protected. This proposal would ensure some of these basic services would be guaranteed and could not be switched off at a whim. When there are industrial, political or other disputes, as Mr. Churchill said, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” Why have the war-war option at all? Why not only have the option of jaw-jaw to force people to negotiate and compromise? Society, industrial policy and labour relations have moved on; our industrial relations mechanisms should move on also. Basic utility services such as water and electricity, utilities essential not just to the everyday running of the economy but also lives, require certain minimum guarantees of supply. Accordingly, I hope Senator Feargal Quinn’s Bill will receive the maximum consideration from the Government.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach.
It is a considerable relief that no disruption to ESB power supplies will take place and that no small or large business, home, school or hotel will be without a supply at this time of year which is akin to harvest time for many small businesses. I thank those involved in bringing the negotiations between the unions, management, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, and the Labour Relations Commission, LRC, to a successful conclusion for everyone’s benefit.
Those employed by the ESB and other critical utility companies such as water and telecommunications providers are perfectly entitled to be members of trade unions and I support their right to join them. I also support the right of workers to strike, but the cause must be proportionate. The recently threatened strike in the ESB was out of proportion. The last strike in the company was over 22 years ago, one in which I participated on the picket line. There is no satisfaction for workers walking with placards on cold and dark nights on a picket line. It is a last resort. Those past ESB strikes were dark days for the workers, businesses, schools and hospitals. Even then, a minimal supply was maintained for hospitals and those living near them were lucky to keep their supply, too. Thankfully, we have not had similar strikes since, with no blackouts for over 20 years owing to successful negotiations between the unions, workers, management and the LRC.
Senators Feargal Quinn and Sean D. Barrett always make significant contributions to debates in this House. However, I am concerned that the Bill which would remove the right of trade union members in certain utilities to go on strike might impose criminal sanctions for going on strike, a penalty we should avoid, as it could be counterproductive and undermine the entire trade union movement. I agree that the Bill has merit in providing for a minimum supply, where necessary. The State’s industrial relations system has served us well, however, in reaching agreement between unions, workers and management, which has ensured no strike action has taken place in the ESB in the past 22 years. I hope the system will continue to be successful and that we will not have a disruption to supply again, with the country being held to ransom, for another 22 years. At that stage, I will not personally be concerned about the issue.
I welcome the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, and compliment him on the good work he is doing in promoting job creation. I also compliment Senator Feargal Quinn on bringing forward this legislation for debate. In every utterance he makes in this House he is constructive and promotes the country’s interests. I know he is motivated by the best possible intentions in introducing this legislation which proposes to provide for the security of supply of electricity and mains water which can be deemed to be critical utility services. While the Minister will not accept the Bill, we are having a mature debate on how to ensure critical utilities are protected from industrial disruption.
The recent threat of an ESB strike brings into sharp focus how vulnerable we really are in this regard. The proposed action was disproportionate, with one group of workers putting the livelihoods of many other workers across the country at risk. That is simply unacceptable. I met many concerned small retailers in my home town of Ballinasloe who were concerned that they would be without a supply in the run-up to Christmas and, accordingly, not able to keep their businesses open. If the strike had gone ahead, the impact on their businesses and employment levels would have been catastrophic. We have many large manufacturing companies across the country that have continuous manufacturing processes which require continuity of supply. The manufacturing and production sector would have been severely damaged by such a strike.
Much time has been spent by the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and every other Minister in repairing the damage done to our reputation in recent years. Overnight, all of this good work could have been undone and we could have suffered a serious loss of investment, not to mention the impact on the ordinary citizen. The elderly in particular were likely to be seriously stressed and discommoded by having no light and heat over the Christmas period. Our transport system and other vital services would also have been severely affected.
It is not right for key utilities to be used as a bargaining tool in an industrial relations dispute. While I have some reservations about the use of statutory provisions that contain criminal sanctions, I feel that consideration must be given to establishing negotiated agreements that include a no-strike clause in identified critical utility providers. That is a road we should go down. We have had good industrial relations in recent years and we can never go back to the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s. I pay tribute to the staff of the Labour Relations Commission and to all of those working for the industrial relations machinery of the State. They have ensured that days lost through strikes have been kept to a minimum in recent years. However, we saw last week how vulnerable we are and we need to address this particular issue if we want to continue to develop our economy. We still have more than 390,000 people unemployed. We cannot do anything or allow anything to happen that will in any way damage our efforts to get our people back to work and to attract inward investment.
I totally acknowledge the right of employees to withdraw their labour if they are not being treated fairly by their employer, but where key utilities are concerned, we need to put in place special systems and structures to deal with that. Disputes within those critical providers must be capable of being addressed without resort to strike action. I applaud Senator Quinn for giving us the opportunity to have a discussion on this key issue. We must ensure we never arrive at a situation in which critical utility providers are closed because of an industrial dispute.
I thank the 12 Senators who participated in this debate. It has been a very interesting discussion. Like others, I welcome the recent resolution of the dispute at the ESB, which is a good example of our existing industrial relations machinery in action. The trade unions, management and staff of the Labour Relations Commission certainly deserve recognition for ending the uncertainty that threatened a disproportionate outcome to the matters in dispute. That must be put on the record.
I thank Senator Quinn for tabling his Bill, which was done with the very best of intentions. We live in an increasingly interconnected world and our communities are dependent on one another in ways that simply were not even thought of decades ago. Through our communications, our dependence on health systems, energy, transport, power and so forth, we are deeply interconnected in a way that was not the case in the past. No one is more aware than me, in my current job, of the importance of confidence in our industrial relations environment. It is very important for investment, success, for good quality employment and for allowing companies to grow. All of that is built on trust and confidence. It is vital that we have good industrial relations, which helps to contribute to and secure economic progress.
As Senator Mullins and others have said, our framework for industrial relations has delivered remarkable industrial peace in this country for many years. We must understand the nature of that success and how it has been built. It is built on a voluntarist system and at its heart is the constitutional freedom of association, the right to join trade unions, the linked freedom to withdraw one's labour, the protection from tort where dispute procedures have been followed and a voluntary system of collective bargaining. It is not built on criminal enforcement or mandatory industrial relations procedures. It is not built on that foundation. Not only is it built on a voluntarist approach, it is also built on the development over many years of exceptional experience in our industrial relations machinery, coupled with exceptional ability to build the sort of confidence and trust across the industrial divide that secures good outcomes. These are embodied in institutions such as the Labour Relations Commission and the Labour Court. That is an asset which we have built over many years and it has served us well in developing a strong export-led economy. I will not get into the difficulties we have had in recent years, but we must rebuild that strong economy.
Clearly, for the voluntarist system that we have developed to continue to work, those who are involved in industrial relations in critical utilities must know that they carry an enormous responsibility. That is absolutely vital. Senator Quinn singles out water and power providers, but one could also include communications, energy and health providers. The same principles apply to all. We must ensure that our very strong voluntarist code continues to develop so that it can continue to handle the challenges that are thrown up by our more interconnected world. Under our industrial relation legislation, a code of practice for dealing with disputes in essential services was first developed in 1992. It is designed to assist employers and trade unions in making agreements which recognise the rights and interests of parties concerned. It outlines procedures to resolve issues in a peaceful manner, avoiding the need for the parties to resort to actions which will lead to disruption. The code recognises that there is a joint responsibility on employers and trade unions to resolve disputes in essential services without resorting to strikes or other forms of industrial action. The code also recognises that there is a joint obligation to have in place agreed contingency plans and other arrangements to deal with any emergency which may arise during an industrial dispute. In particular, the code states that employers and trade unions employed in providing an essential service should co-operate with each other in making arrangements concerning the maintenance of plant and equipment, all matters concerning health safety and security, special operational problems which exist in continuous process industries, the provision of urgent medical services and supplies and the provision of emergency services required on humanitarian grounds. In the case of essential services, the code contains provisions to the effect that general dispute resolution procedures should apply along with additional procedures and safeguards which are necessary for the peaceful resolution of disputes. These should be included in the appropriate agreements between employers and trade unions.
These services include those the cessation or interruption of which could endanger life or cause major damage to the national economy or widespread hardship to the community, particularly health services, energy supplies, including gas and electricity, water and sewage services, fire, ambulance and rescue services and certain elements of public transport.
The code is a guide to the way we need to develop our industrial relations in these critical areas. While some employment groups have engaged, the code has not been incorporated to a sufficient extent into relevant dispute procedures in the case of essential service providers. It is worth looking at how the provisions of the code could be incorporated in a more concrete fashion into the dispute procedures of such entities. This would be worthwhile. As Senator Michael Mullins said, we ought to see "no strike" clauses contained in agreements. There are some cases in which this has happened. This protection needs to be encouraged. I will certainly look afresh at how we can bring about greater application of the code which is well structured. This is the route we should take and as a consequence, I will not support the Bill.
I agree with speakers who have said introducing criminal powers or mandatory obligations to a system we have developed over many years would not be the correct route to take. If this were to happen and if, in the context of a dispute, we saw the courts introduced, the police involved and arrests occurring, I do not believe this would be seen as a route to resolve the issues involved or provide the certainty we seek. We need to build on a model that has served us well, but we must not be complacent and pretend it is perfect. We need to strive constantly to improve it. The existence of the code needs to be promulgated further. This is the route we need to take. In recent years industrial relations have been extremely good and we can build on that experience and deepen the commitment on both sides.
This debate is timely and underlines again the importance of some of these services in the interconnected environment in which we live. The debate has been worthwhile. The direction I would like to see us take is the one where we use and develop the model in place to deal more effectively with these new areas and categories of service. Despite the respect demonstrated on all sides for the Senator and his motivation in bringing it forward, I cannot support the Bill.
I thank the Minister and everybody who has spoken on the Bill. I found it interesting that Fianna Fáil had appointed somebody with the name Power to debate the issue of electricity. I wondered whether the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, whose name is Robert Watt, was also going to turn up to speak.
I listened to and appreciate everything the Minister said. I also appreciate the contributions made to the debate. I do not want to be complacent. We have had good labour relations in recent years. However, my concern is that there is a degree of complacency. There is a huge responsibility on everybody involved in labour relations to ensure that even the threat does not do harm. There was a threat last week and it did harm to the hard work the Minister had been doing to try to get industry to come to Ireland. The threat that power or water may be lost is dangerous.
I looked into this area and discovered that eight countries in Europe had legislation covering essential supplies. This is a debate that should continue here, which is the reason I suggest I adjourn this debate in order that we may continue it in the future. Perhaps we might come back to it on another day. I thank everybody who contributed to the debate and thank the Minister for his kind words about the Bill. In particular, I thank Senator Sean D. Barrett who seconded the motion. I hope we now have time to think about and discuss the Bill and, perhaps, come to a conclusion.