Seanad debates

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Industrial Relations (Joint Labour Committees) Bill 2019: Second Stage (Resumed)

 

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

10:30 am

Photo of Alice Mary HigginsAlice Mary Higgins (Independent)
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I congratulate Senator Nash on his Bill. It is part of what has been a progressive series of progressive workers' rights Bills that have come from across the House and on which there has been co-operation across the House. I support it.

Regardless of whatever incomprehensible reason there is for Fianna Fáil opposing this excellent legislation, I urge it, if it is deciding to support the Government on this, not to adopt the language we have been hearing about the new edict and principle of voluntarism that has suddenly been elevated. Let us be clear. There is a role for the State, the Legislature, the industrial relations machinery, which this Bill would enhance, and our courts in determining the decency of work and the progress of our sectors.

Photo of Alice Mary HigginsAlice Mary Higgins (Independent)
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Let us go back 100 years to the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil. We are celebrating that Dáil's centenary and we all attended grand events in this regard. The Democratic Programme refers to our industries and to ensuring their development according to the most beneficial, co-operative and industrial lines. It refers to the role of the national Government in promoting a "general and lasting improvement in the conditions under which the working classes live and labour". It is established at the foundation of the First Dáil. It is understood that one reason we have a state is so we can set standards and floors of decency. It is key.

The minimum wage is not a voluntarist measure. It was introduced to ensure decent standards, as was the case with various wage agreements that were negotiated, various processes that were brought into place, evolving workers' rights and industrial relations machinery. I include the industrial relations machinery of the Low Pay Commission, which Senator Nash introduced as Minister of State.

This is a proposal that is not at odds with our industrial relations machinery but that is for its enhancement and improvement to ensure it does what it is meant to do, which is redress what would otherwise be a completely unequal balance of power. The power relationship between an employer and one or two members of staff in a small place, or 500 members of staff in another, is not necessarily a natural and normal one. In some cases it is, but in many cases there is an imbalance of power. That is why we set standards of decency and accept what are decent terms and conditions.However, it needs to be addressed sometimes on a sectoral basis such as with the hospitality industry. It is not the case we have been standing back and seeing what might happen. The hospitality industry is one in which the State has intervened plentifully in the past. I have sat here through multiple budgets where we sustained the special VAT measure given to the hospitality industry and hotels because, as we were told by other Ministers from that same seat, this is a key, high-employment industry which must be protected. We gave it special tax relief as it is considered part of the State and having a common good function. If the hospitality sector matters, if it is one of the great values we highlight when pitching Ireland to the world on the St. Patrick's Day rounds, and if it is a higher density employment sector, we must get it right. Getting it right in hospitality means we get it right for many people. If hospitality matters, then the decency of standards in hospitality, as well as other areas such as agricultural work also matter. We have a duty to ensure we have functioning industrial relations mechanisms which do not leave it to each individual worker on a temporary contract to fight his or her own battle but we can collectively set a basic floor.

What did this mean in contract cleaning? It meant the workers were not charged for their uniforms. They got to know they would have two weeks’ holiday in the year, some predictability about their hours and sick pay. These are the real mechanisms. I have launched reports for TASC, the Think-tank for Action on Social Change, on living with uncertainty. Living with uncertainty undermines lives. Every person's life, along with the time for work and their life on this planet, matters. The decency of having terms and conditions, along with basic pay and standards, is important.

We have not seen any improvement. In fact, we have seen disimprovement. At the audiovisual room briefing recently, we heard from people who started as kitchen porters, acquired skills and worked their way up to be pastry chefs. They spoke about the new people coming into the sector who have no guarantees and where it is the luck of the draw if one happens to get a good boss for one year or six months. We should have people deciding that, as they like engaging with people and have skills they want to bring into the area, they will work in hospitality for the next 15 years. They should be allowed to plan their life and plan to have a family. They should be able to know that if they stick with an area for two years, they will move up, or if they do some training, they will get another opportunity. They must be able to look ahead.

That is what this Bill is about. It is a fundamentally basic matter. One cannot have a veto on decency in one of the crucial, high-employment sectors. Good employers should have nothing to fear. When we talk about the State washing its hands of this area, a point with which Fianna Fáil apparently agrees, we are not being neutral but subsidising bad employers. I sit on the Oireachtas committee on employment affairs and social protection and know how many people are on working family payment, formerly family income supplement. These families are on this benefit because their employers no longer feel they have to give them enough hours with enough pay to live. To keep their families fed, we subsidise them through our social welfare system. Meanwhile, good employers who pay their workers decent wages are not getting that supplement. The State is not neutral if it decides to stand back, claiming that because they did not come to the table, it does not believe it needs to address issues in the sector. We are subsidising and supporting bad practice. It is absolutely unacceptable.

I urge Fianna Fáil to consider supporting this Bill as it is important. I sit with Fianna Fáil Members on the social protection committee where we hear the testimony of families and what precarious work does to people's lives. I urge everybody to support this Bill. I hope it passes Second Stage today. I guarantee these good ideas will be coming back if it does not pass as they are necessary. I know it is not entirely within the remit of the Minister of State but I urge him not to turn a blind eye to those real people in every coffee shop, restaurant or hotel, or those workers who picked the lettuces or the mushrooms in the punnets, to be allowed to plan their lives. We must update our industrial relations machinery to ensure it is actually functioning.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I find invoking the principle of volunteerism to support opposition to this Bill a perfectly sickening piece of hypocrisy. I just do not understand it.

There has been legislation for over 100 years to protect the vulnerable. This is part of that great liberal tradition in this country. An Act was introduced in the British Parliament in 1909, the Trade Boards Act, which was intended very clearly to reduce the whole idea of downward wage progression. Even somebody as conservative as Winston Churchill proposed and supported it. At the time he said, "the good employer is undercut by the bad, and the bad employer is undercut by the worst". That is the classic race to the bottom.

We followed this with our own legislation in 1946, the Industrial Relations Act, which was quite good. It is worth reading into the record because the language used was significant. It was also language from which the Government resiled very curiously and handed a veto to the employers. The 1946 Act stated, "Before appointing a representative member of a committee the Court shall, so far as is reasonably practicable, consult any organisation of employers or, as the case may be, workers concerned." That is interesting because the term "so far as is reasonably practicable" is not prescriptive or an extreme position. It means that one goes as far as one can and then, when one cannot, one goes on with the process. It is not restrictive in the way in which the Government accepted in its response to a particular court case. The 1946 Act also used the term "consult" which is a fairly neutral word. One takes the opinion but one does not have to act on it. One just seeks the opinion or the attitude of the employers.

The Irish Hotels Federation got a judicial review of the Act. That is when it all began to really change in a negative way. The legal counsel, on behalf of the Government, put forward the case that a joint labour committee could not be established or operated in the absence of employer representatives put forward by the employer representative organisations. That was a disastrous withdrawal from the stronger position previously. In fact, what it did was nothing else than handing the employers a veto which they previously did not have. That was a substantial change in the situation. It followed that any in sector of industry, whether there is little or no worker organisation and representation but there is an employer representative body, that latter representative body can prevent the establishment of a JLC by not turning up to the negotiation table, even though these are the sectors which the legislation always targeted for intervention. It is an astonishing situation.

I agree with Senator Nash when he quoted the excellent explanatory memorandum to the Bill which states "this represents a dramatic collapse of machinery that has been working for over a century and which was aimed precisely at sectors where representative bodies were not to be found". It also states, "if the ‘inadequacy of the existing machinery for effective regulation’ of pay and conditions of employment is the ground for setting up a JLC, then it cannot be right that the refusal of a representative body on one side to either support collective bargaining or to support a JLC can be a bar to its establishment". This veto is completely and utterly wrong. The fact employers might do this, have done this and do this is the clearest indication possible that this legislation is necessary.

This Bill is quite rightly intended to remove this veto. We must get rid of this anti-worker veto today in the Seanad.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I thank all nine Members who spoke on the Bill today - Senators Nash, Bacik, O'Mahony, Davitt, Craughwell, Gavan, Warfield, Higgins and Norris. I noted their contributions and their concerns. I particularly thank Senator Nash for the work he has done on this Bill, and also his co-sponsor, Senator Bacik.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Private Members' Bill. Having listened to the opening speeches, I know the sponsors worked hard in bringing this proposed Bill before the House. A great deal of work has been done in the preparation of this Private Members' Bill and as Minister of State at the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation with responsibility for employment affairs, I commend the Senators accordingly.

I also appreciate and understand the reasoning behind this Bill, in that it seeks to remedy what the Senators perceive to be a fault in the industrial relations mechanism. I note that the stated purpose of this Bill is give statutory powers of appointment to the Labour Court in the process for setting up a joint labour committee.

Joint labour committees are bodies established under the Industrial Relations Acts to provide machinery for fixing statutory minimum rates of pay and conditions of employment for employees across various sectors. They may be set up by the Labour Court on the application of the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, a trade union or any organisation claiming to be representative of such workers or such employers.

The joint labour committees' wage-setting mechanisms provide a framework within which employers and employee representatives, through the joint labour committee system, can come together voluntarily and negotiate terms and conditions of workers in their respective sectors. Once agreed, and once the Minister of the day has approved and accepted the approach taken by the Labour Court in approving the recommendation, the terms and conditions are given effect by way of ministerial order, known as an employment regulation order, ERO, for the sector. Currently, EROs are in place for the contract cleaning and security industries.

The word "voluntary" has been mentioned by many Senators here today. It is precisely the voluntary nature of parties coming together to agree terms and make commitments which underpins, validates and gives strength to the resulting employment regulation orders.

In should be noted that a revised framework for wage setting under the joint labour committee framework was introduced through the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2012. The Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2015 provided a new statutory framework for establishing minimum rates of remuneration, pension and sick pay, in the form of sector employment orders. That Industrial Relations Act also ensured that where an employer does not engage in collective bargaining, an effective framework exists that allows a trade union to have the remuneration and terms and conditions of its members assessed against relevant comparators and determined in a binding way by the Labour Court. This has been successfully used by trade unions, and this Government will continue to support the important role that trade unions play in our society.

The 2015 Act was the culmination of a process of in-depth consultation with stakeholders, including employer and worker representatives, and included a review of the experience of the operation of the existing legislative framework as put in place under the Industrial Relations Acts 2001 and 2004.

It is important to note a joint labour committee is composed of equal numbers of representatives of employers and workers in an employment sector. The committee meets under an independent chairman, an industrial relations officer of the Workplace Relations Commission, appointed by the Minister, to discuss and agree proposals for terms and conditions to apply to specified grades or categories of workers in the sector concerned.

Where parties fail to reach agreement or do not engage in process, the Act allows the chairperson to refer the matter to the Labour Court. The Labour Court will then make a recommendation on the matter.

Our laws do not try to impose a solution on parties to a trade dispute but rather are designed to help support the parties in resolving their differences. The State has, by and large, confined its role to underpinning voluntarism through the provision of a framework and institutions through which good industrial relations can prosper. Unfortunately, this Bill fails to properly appreciate the tried and trusted voluntary nature of industrial relations in Ireland and does not try to achieve a sense of balance or reasonableness. That sense of balance is extremely important for us all.

I must again emphasise that Ireland's system of industrial relations is essentially voluntary in nature and that responsibility for the resolution of industrial disputes between employers and workers rests in the first instance with the employer, the workers and their representatives.

For its part, the State provides the industrial relations dispute settlement mechanisms to support parties in their efforts to resolve their differences. Deputies across the board will agree-----

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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Senators.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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Sorry, I should say Senators. I thank Senator Norris. It is good the Senator is listening.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I am listening carefully.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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Senators across the board will agree that this voluntarist system has served us well over the years in the resolution of various disputes between workers, worker representatives and employers.

There has been a consensus among the social partners that the terms and conditions of employment of workers are best determined through the process of voluntary bargaining between employers and workers and between employers' associations and trade unions or staff associations. We are fortunate in Ireland in terms of the industrial relations systems we have developed over the years. We should also appreciate that since the introduction of joint labour committees, a comprehensive and evolving suite of employment legislation, including the National Minimum Wage Act, has been introduced for all workers in Ireland. Employment regulation orders, the legally binding instruments resulting from an agreement reached at a joint labour committee, can enhance these statutory minimums.

A stable industrial relations climate is crucial to economic growth in this country. Our industrial relations bodies - the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court - have a strong reputation in resolving even the most intractable disputes. Their work, most of which happens under the radar, is invaluable in supporting jobs and the economy as a whole. Unfortunately, this proposed Bill is flawed and has the potential to greatly disrupt a fully functioning and fit-for-purpose industrial relations mechanism. The Bill, as proposed, does not accord with the voluntarist approach to industrial relations that has existed and been nurtured down the decades. Aside from this ideological criticism, the practical issues which would arise if this Bill were to be enacted are numerous and capable of creating mayhem across all sectors of our economy.

On the basis of the significant problems with this Bill which I have outlined today, I propose that the Bill be rejected.

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Labour)
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It beggars belief that Fianna Fáil, a party that continuously tells us it is moving to the left, has decided to oppose this modest legislation to enhance the terms, working conditions and pay of some of the lowest paid workers in society. That is a party that has traditionally apportioned to itself some responsibility for representing the interests of working people in this country. Senator Davitt outlined some of the ways in which it had sought to do that historically. This is the same party, one must remember, that cut the national minimum wage at the first sign of an economic crisis. This is a party that we can not now trust with the interests of working people in this country.

Quite frankly, the dividing lines ahead of the next general election are clear. Why do we not simply move to a point where Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil forget their marginal political differences and merge once and for all and create a real divide in this country and give people real choice in terms of who they support and what kind of Government they want to see formed in this State?

Photo of Aidan DavittAidan Davitt (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator only attacked Fianna Fáil. He never attacked Fine Gael. It is only a stunt for votes.

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Labour)
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I spoke to the leader of Fianna Fáil and asked him to support this legislation. He professes that his party is moving towards the centre left. It is a disgrace that his party has refused to support this very modest and far from radical legislation that is in keeping with the industrial relations model in this country and seeks to fix a real problem that affects the lowest paid workers in this State.

I understand entirely the Minister of State's rationale for opposing this legislation. If I hear the phrase "voluntarist model of industrial relations" and talk of how well it has served this country once more, I will not be responsible for my actions. This is a model that is only serving one side of industry in this State. Sometimes the way this House decides to divide beggars belief. I cannot understand the rationale of those Members of this House who claim to represent the interests of people on modest incomes and people who are having difficulty making ends meet. We deal with the fallout of that day in and day out in terms of the housing crisis, access to public services and the cost of education. I understand where the Minister of State is coming from and am familiar with much of the language contained in his script. It is the kind of language I refused to read out in this Chamber when I was a Minister of State because I did not agree with it. Unfortunately, successive Governments have had a long-standing commitment to the voluntarist model. The curtain needs to come down on that model and we need to declare which side we are on.

I remind the Minister of State that in order to get herself out of a political fix regarding English language teachers, the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, accepted a Labour Party amendment to the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Bill establishing a joint labour committee to support low-paid workers in a very precarious sector of our economy. On the one hand, this Government believes that joint labour committees can and should work but on the other, it is not prepared to fix an outstanding problem to allow these committees to work in the best interests of working people. This is inconsistent and hypocritical and I will not accept it.

It was interesting that in his response, the Minister of State did not actually point out any constitutional issues surrounding what we are proposing. I said at the outset that this is not a constitutional issue. This is a political and ideological issue. This is merely mechanical. It can be fixed but, politically, this Government, with its allies in Fianna Fáil, has decided it is not prepared to fix it. The Minister of State has declared very clearly, the evidence is there and we now know what side the Government is on. It is about time the people of Ireland understood that.

We spend €430 million per year on the working family payment in this State - money that could be better funnelled into our schools and health system and towards our carers, who are doing remarkable work across this country. Spending €430 million per year on the working family payment is a massive subsidisation of poverty wages and a form of corporate welfare in respect of which this House should collectively hang its head in shame because that is not how we should be spending taxpayers' money. The Minister of State is abrogating his responsibilities to working people by opposing this legislation, which is in the best traditions of industrial relations in this country. We have identified a problem that needs to be fixed. I am not proposing that we merely rush to enable the Labour Court to examine pay and conditions in an industry and present an employment regulation order to the Minister. We are merely using this as a backstop to try to address a dysfunctional element of our industrial relations system that is letting working people and industrial relations in this country down and causing catastrophic situations for people who are dependent on low pay. This needs to be fixed.

Yesterday, the CSO labour force survey was published. It shows that, on average, the workers we are trying to assist by promoting this legislation are on, wait for it, the grand total of €383.75 per week. This is a 39-hour week on the national minimum wage. As this legislation appears set to fall because of the lack of support from Fianna Fáil, ambitions for the lowest-paid workers in this country to make anything above the national minimum wage will be stymied by the actions of Fianna Fáil combined with those of Fine Gael.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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Can I point out that despite the fact that it is almost December, the alleged heaters in this House are blowing cold air into the Chamber?

Photo of Maria ByrneMaria Byrne (Fine Gael)
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We will get that looked at.

Question put.

The Seanad divided by electronic means.

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Labour)
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Under Standing Order 62(3)(b) I request that the division be taken again other than by electronic means.

Question again put:

The Seanad divided: Tá, 20; Níl, 22.



Tellers: Tá, Senators Alice-Mary Higgins and Gerald Nash; Níl, Senators Gabrielle McFadden and John O'Mahony.

Question declared lost.

Sitting suspended at 2.17 p.m. and resumed at 2.45 p.m.