Tuesday, 24 January 2023
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I join in congratulating the Minister of State on his appointment. My question is on the EU directive on adequate minimum wages. This is one of the most ground-breaking laws on workers’ rights to come out of the EU in the past 40 years. It contains a clear recognition that we cannot allow a large number of workers to be trapped in low-paid employment and poor working conditions and, crucially, to be left with no means to fight for better conditions and a more sustainable livelihood. There must be a recognition that every single worker is entitled to dignity and respect at work. There must also be a recognition that there are imbalances in workplaces.
I thank the Acting Chair. I think he has taken about 18 seconds off me but we will pardon him that. I was talking about the importance of the EU directive on adequate minimum wages. It is crucial to say that this is not about hiking wages but ensuring there is a framework for workers to negotiate sustainable terms and conditions within their sector and employment. The question is about the timeline and process. What is the Department's plan to transpose this legislation? When are we likely to get the heads of Bill? We know that the Taoiseach, when he was the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, stated last October that he hoped to transpose this legislation by the end of 2023. Some doubt has been cast on that by the ministerial guidance provided to the Minister of State, Deputy Richmond, this year. It is vital that we get this process started sooner rather than later.
Much of the legwork to put in place a comprehensive framework for better collective bargaining rights in this country was undertaken by the high-level group on collective bargaining, chaired by Professor Michael Doherty, who published his report last summer. It is vital that we have an understanding of the timeline. It is important because we know that more than one in four people in this country are low-paid. They are in the sectors that we are all too familiar with, including the care sector in communities and homes, hospitality, retail, agriculture, leisure and a range of other sectors. Just because we have so-called full employment right now, with major worker shortages, I appeal to the Minister of State not to fall into the trap of believing that people can leave those low-paid sectors, up sticks and get jobs elsewhere. They are there because they love their jobs and have trained for them. It is what they know and where they want to stay. They want to improve the conditions in their own sector.
The Minister of State's Department has not covered itself in glory with regard to defending workers' rights over the past year. Joint labour committees for the contract cleaning and security sectors were supposed to be the good news stories with regard to how the State supports collective bargaining.Yet on three separate occasions last year the Department did not even bother to turn up to court, even though the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment was being injuncted to prevent him from signing into law the security sector wage agreement. We were assured by the then Minister of State, Deputy English, the then Tánaiste and now Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, and officials in the Department that they were working to resolve this issue but in August and, in particular, November and December, the Department failed to turn up in court. I tuned into proceedings on 21 December. It made a laughing stock of the State when the solicitor for those taking the judicial review, when asked what engagement there had been with the other side, said contact could not be made with the State. When the judge gave a date for the hearing he said that maybe "they" would turn up the next time, "they" being the Government. This is a very sorry and poor reflection of the Department's attitude towards workers' rights. I very much hope the Department will show much more enthusiasm, or at least a willingness, to transpose the spirit and intention of the adequate minimum wages directive because it is vital for workers in this country. There are 16,000 security workers depending on the Minister of State and the Department to sign the wage agreement into law. The very least the State could do is turn up to court and defend their interests.
I am very grateful to Senator Sherlock for raising this extremely important issue. I will deal specifically with the adequate minimum wage directive as per her remarks. It is important to give a bit of background and context to what the Department is doing on the directive and its transposition. As the Senator is aware, the directive was published on 19 October last year and it must be transposed by 15 November 2024. I welcome the directive, as I did when it was published, as someone who, like the Senator, was once elected to the labour panel of the House.
The Government is extremely supportive of the principles of the directive. It must be noted that at the outset it was the Irish officials negotiating this who were pushing hard to have it achieved. The Government has consistently stated its full support for the directive and the obligations that will come with it. Officials in the Department have begun to consider their options for the transposition of the directive, including through bilateral engagement with other EU member states. This will be an extremely important part of the process. It is important to note the European Commission has advised that it intends to hold transposition workshops to assist member states in transposing the directive given the wide variety of approaches to minimum wage settings and collective bargaining throughout the EU. It is very important that we await these workshops before we make any final decision on the transposition of the directive.
Our initial analysis suggests our current minimum wage setting framework, the Low Pay Commission, is already largely in compliance with the minimum wage provisions of the directive. We have one of the highest minimum wages in the EU. The recent announcement that we are moving towards a living wage by January 2026 will help us meet our obligations on the directive's requirements on adequacy measures and indicative reference values for statutory minimum wages.
Article 4 of the directive, which deals with collective bargaining, is of particular interest to many stakeholders. The Senator referenced this at length in her opening remarks. While I will not respond on these matters directly because I do not believe they are appropriate for this debate, I will take the Senator's concerns directly on board and bring them back to the Minister. Article 4 requires Ireland to develop an action plan to promote collective bargaining. The work of the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, high-level working group on collective bargaining, which was established to explore mechanisms to enhance existing industrial relations framework with a view to encouraging greater collective bargaining coverage in Ireland, is of particular relevance here. The group met 11 times and had a public consultation on the issue. It has submitted its recommendations. Officials in the Department are formulating proposals on the implementation of this report and with regard to bringing a memorandum to the Government on its implementation by the end of this year.
The Government is fully committed to improving terms and conditions for workers. Our commitment to this is not just a talking point. We made real and substantial progress on it during the Taoiseach's time in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. This stands the test of time notwithstanding the one or two issues the Senator has cited. From the steady increases to the minimum wage, the progression to living wage, the introduction of mandatory sick pay, which I very much hope to see extended in the coming years, the new pensions auto-enrolment scheme and the right to request remote working, our work and commitment are clear. The directive will build on this work and further enhance the terms and conditions for workers in Ireland.I welcome the detail provided by the Minister of State. Nonetheless, while he is waiting for the transposition workshops, we hope work is being undertaken in the Department in parallel.
There are two further issues I wish to raise. The Minister of State's officials were heavily involved in the negotiations, which is very welcome. It is important to put on record that the Department at one stage wanted this directive to be delegated to the realm of a recommendation as opposed to a directive, but thankfully it is a directive now.
Lastly, I refer to the living wage. I do not for a moment doubt the bona fides of the Government in terms of wanting to move towards a living wage, but the increase in the minimum wage, as of January 2023, did not move the existing minimum wage one iota towards 60% of median wages in this country. In fact, it remains stuck at somewhere around 50%. Again, I urge the Minister of State, in the context of his new role, to set out a detailed timeline on how he will get it to the living wage by 2026 because, right here and now, it is not in any way apparent.
I reiterate it is important to wait for the holding of these transposition workshops by the European Commission so we can look at best practice in other member states as well as how we can lead the discussion in that area, taking on board the points raised by Senator Sherlock. The Minister has stated he is very keen to involve the social partners in discussions on the transposition of the directive in due course. That will feed, quite clearly, into the aspiration and genuine determination to achieve that living wage by the dates set out by the Government, which is something I will be putting the weight of my full support and enthusiasm behind in my new role.