Seanad debates

Thursday, 15 September 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Wage-setting Mechanisms

10:30 am

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House. On 3 August the Minister of State promised to sign the employment regulation order, ERO, for the security sector into law by the end of the month. The Minister of State will know that this ERO is the culmination of three torturous years of trying to get a pay increase for security workers in this country. It was 2019 when they last saw a pay increase. These are the security workers who we lauded as vital front-line workers during the pandemic. They are the workers who maintained safety and order among people going into shops, construction sites, testing centres, vaccination clinics and anywhere else that people had to go to do their business and maintain a social distance. They work around the clock, 12 months of the year on a 24-hour basis of operations to keep people and places safe and secure.

However, when three employers went to court on 24 August to secure an ex parteinjunction to prevent the Minister of State from signing the workers' hard-won pay increase into law, it seems the Minister of State and this Government have sat on their hands. In the weeks since then the Government has done nothing to defend what the Minister of State knows is a legally and constitutionally sound wage agreement entered into between employers and employees in the security sector. The Government has not even made an appearance in the court, let alone mounting a defence on the matter. Is this what happens when a tiny number of employers choose to block and delay a collectively bargained wage agreement? Does the Government roll over and do nothing? All the while the Government professes to want to support workers but in private it is cowering to two or three employers.

I have no doubt that the Minister of State will tell me today he will be constrained because of legal proceedings but we need to tease that out for a moment because the judicial review challenging the constitutionality of the security ERO was initiated on 22 August. It is back for mention on 15 November. It is not back for a hearing on that date, only for mention, and with any luck it will be well into next year at the earliest before that judicial review takes place. All the while, security workers going out doing an honest day's work will have no pay increase for the foreseeable future. Is the Minister of State prepared to stand over that? These professionally trained and licensed workers will be earning just 35 cent more than the national minimum wage next January. That is outrageous and it is all the more outrageous that it is within the Minister of State's power to do something about this and he has done nothing.

This was supposed to be a good news story for workers. This is a story of trade unions and employers coming together to negotiate a collectively bargained wage agreement, which we have in the contract cleaning sector and which we are about to have in the childcare sector. We should have it in the security sector as well. However, we have a situation where the Government is doing nothing. I am speaking today and we had the workers in here on Tuesday expressing their frustration. Ian, Tony and Christy told us that they received 90 cent of a pay increase in the last 12 years, with nothing coming in the last three years. Now they have a wage deal on the table on behalf of the vast majority of employees in the sector, including 16,000 workers, and yet three small employers with a small number of workers are holding up this pay deal. There is an irony in that some of these companies have Government contracts for security in the Chief State Solicitor's office.

There are serious questions about what this Government will do about a pay agreement for low-paid workers and ensuring they get their pay increase as soon as possible. The Minister of State knows about the cost of living increases and this is about dignity for the workers and ensuring that collective bargaining works in this country. We need to hear answers from the Minister of State on what he will do about signing this pay agreement into law. In the first instance the Government must go into court to challenge that ex parteinjunction.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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From the outset I would like to inform the House that I am restricted on what I can say on this particular matter at this moment. This is because on 24 August I received notification that the High Court had granted a stay and an injunction expressly prohibiting me from signing the statutory instrument on 29 August, as announced. This injunction has not been lifted.

Proposals for an ERO are formulated in the first instance by a joint labour committee, JLC, where it is satisfied that such proposals would promote harmonious relations between workers and employers. The Labour Court then considers whether or not to adopt the proposals of a JLC. In doing so it also invites submissions from the public. If the court, having complied with its statutory functions, is satisfied that the proposals are in a suitable form for adoption, the Labour Court will adopt the proposals and submit them to me as Minister of State with responsibility for this area. My role then is to consider the recommendations against the statutory process. If I am satisfied that the process has been complied with and if I am satisfied that it is appropriate to make an order, I will give effect to an ERO.

In July 2022 I received proposals for an ERO for the security sector from the Labour Court. Having considered and accepted these proposals, my officials began drafting the order to give effect to the proposed minimum pay rate increases for the security sector, an extremely important sector as has been mentioned. This order was to come into effect on 29 August 2022 and was to replace the ERO that was signed in 2017 for the security sector. On 24 August 2022 my Department received notification that the High Court had granted an injunction prohibiting me from commencing the proposed statutory instrument giving effect to a new ERO. The court has issued that the notice of motion in respect of the application is returnable for 15 November 2022. My officials and I are in the process of seeking legal advice on the matter and I will update this House at the first opportunity.

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for that reply. It is still not clear why the Government has not gone in to try to lift that injunction placed on 24 August. To be frank, it is telling that there has been nothing from the Government to lift that injunction in the weeks since then. This is about a modest pay increase of 40 cent-----

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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With respect to the Senator, does that involve the separation of powers?

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour)
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I appreciate that and that the court's role is to adjudicate but it is the State's role to go out and challenge an injunction that has been placed on it and the State has done nothing. It has lain down and done nothing and that is unacceptable for those workers because what is in question here are three modest pay increases: 40 cent in phase 1; 45 cent in phase 2; an allowance for unsociable hours; and 40 cent in phase 3. At a time when workers are crying out for pay increases the Government has not even bothered to go in to try to lift that injunction. These workers cannot wait until 15 November, and as I already said, the judicial review is only for mention on that date; it is not even the hearing date. It will be well into next year before this is decided, therefore.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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Again I will make it clear to this House when I am in a position to do so and I have no problem with returning here for a second part to this debate at a later date. I re-emphasise that in our view the JLC process sits within the context of Ireland's volunteerism system of industrial relations and has worked extremely well for very important sectors.The advantage of the JLCs is that they see fair terms and conditions, such as wage rates and sick pay, agreed and given effect by an employment regulation order. For some employers, the advantage of the system, based as it is on the principle of self-governance, means that they can agree and set minimum pay and conditions and agree on work practices which are custom-made to their industry. This flexibility cannot be achieved by primary legislation. It is a system that I thoroughly support. I look forward to updating the House in the very near future.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 11.40 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 12.02 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 11.40 a.m. and resumed at 12.02 p.m.