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Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2017: Second Stage (Continued)

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 965 No. 5

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Willie Penrose: Information on Willie Penrose Zoom on Willie Penrose] As Deputy Mick Barry stated, people are turning up for work on a Monday morning only to be told they are self-employed, which means that they no longer have rights and must pay their own tax, insurance and so on. This is a disguised form of employment because they are still effectively employees. We must tackle this issue, if not in the Bill, in other legislation, because otherwise it will be left to fester for a long time. The Labour Party has drafted a Bill to address this issue.

I acknowledge that the Minister has made a start with the Bill. In fairness to her, she has been willing to take on some of the old chestnuts some of her colleagues were not eager to address. I am sure the cohort of the working population affected by if-and-when contracts and similar contracts will be grateful that a good start has been made. We can improve the Bill by working together in a collegiate manner to strengthen certain of its elements, while respecting the rights, responsibilities and obligations of employees and employers. There are risk-takers and people who assist in that regard, but progress will not be made without good employees who are treated properly in the workplace. It will benefit all concerned to advance legislation that reflects our desires and objectives in that regard.

Deputy Bríd Smith: Information on Bríd Smith Zoom on Bríd Smith In theory, I should wholeheartedly welcome and support the Bill because it claims to improve the lot of vulnerable, low paid workers who are grossly exploited by unscrupulous employers. Tens of thousands of workers are not informed of their terms and conditions, their hours are not notified to them in advance and they work under low-hour and zero-hour contracts. I do not know how they manage to survive.

It is interesting that, having spent years denying there was a problem, the Government has decided that it wants to address the increase in casualisation and the exploitation of workers. To that extent, the Bill is welcome. However, casualisation and exploitation are taking place by various means across many employments. There is a fundamental imbalance in power between employers and workers. This is a statement of the obvious which the Minister clearly does not accept because she seeks to treat both sides as if they were equals, despite the grossly unequal relationship between employers and workers. For example, it is impossible for workers who are not organised in trade unions to stick their heads above the parapet and demand the protection provided for them in some areas of legislation. It is difficult for them to secure even minor improvements in their lives in the sea of exploitation that occurs in the workplace.

Many of the employers with whom the Minister has spoken will be very pleased with the Bill. They will settle for these measures because the Bill will not significantly change their ways and means of doing business.

At least two sections of the Bill are a response to other Bills. The section on banded hours is a response to Deputy David Cullinane's Bill on the same issue, which was much better, more robust and would have provided much more security than the legislation before us. The section on bogus self-employment contracts is a response to a Bill introduced by Deputy Mick Barry on behalf of Solidarity-People Before Profit. The Minister's response has been to introduce less robust and less satisfactory measures, which is not good practice. The Government, if it were serious about reducing the exploitation of vulnerable workers, should revisit and take the best elements from the Bills introduced by Deputies David Cullinane and Mick Barry.

The Minister has stated she listened to employers and employees when developing this legislation. Since the so-called recovery commenced, profits have returned to pre-recession levels, loads of money is again being made and rents, living standards and the cost of living now exceed pre-crash levels. On the other hand, wages for most workers are not keeping pace with profits and the cost of living. This trend has been compounded by an explosion in the level of precarious work which is having a profound impact on the lives of tens of thousands of workers. Employers have clearly stuck with the mantra that one should never waste a good crisis. Large numbers of young workers have been left disillusioned as a result and many are leaving the country. Those who remain will be the first generation since the foundation of the State who cannot expect to do better than their parents. It is a real tragedy that we are overseeing such a society.

A recent report produced by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, found that more than 158,000 workers had their working hours varied from week to week, often without notice. The number of part-time and so-called self-employed workers increased by 34% or more than one third in the eight years between 2008 and 2016. Serious questions must be asked about bogus self-employment. Behind all of these statistics are real and difficult lives of young workers who are unable to secure a loan to pay a mortgage, who do not know from week to week if they will be able to pay their rent or bills and who cannot make plans for holidays. Their quality of life is suffering and if they try to vindicate the rights they are supposed to enjoy under the law, they find it extremely difficult to do so without the protection of a trade union.

While the Minister claims that many of the good measures included in the Bill flow from the study carried out by the University of Limerick, the study has a hell of a lot more to offer than what the Bill contains. The Minister suggested, for example, that in cases where the cancellation of work hours was not notified to an employee, the employee should receive three hours' wages paid at the rate of the national minimum wage or the relevant employment registration order. What is the position for the many workers who normally earn much more than the national minimum wage or the rate of an employment registration order, often in the care and hospitality sectors?

The Bill prohibits zero-hour contracts but in most, as opposed to all, circumstances. Many of the recommendations made in the University of Limerick report were significantly better than the measures included in the Bill. In my opinion, they have not been included because the employer organisations opposed them. I doubt that they met much resistance from the trade unions the Minister consulted. If no attempt is made to fully eliminate zero-hour contracts, abuses will continue.

It was interesting to listen to the discussion at the hearings on the Sinn Féin Bill on zero-hour contracts. We heard certain employers kick up a stink and deny the existence of such contracts. They argued that if the Oireachtas was to try to legislate against zero-hour contracts, it would ruin the hospitality, private health care and retail industries. The sky will not fall in if we control these sectors. However, we will not be able to do so with this limited legislation.

The Minister has stated and probably believes the vast majority of employers are decent. Today I received an email from a worker in Tesco where there was a strike exactly one year ago. Tesco is the largest private sector employer in the State, employing almost 15,000 workers. At this time last year, workers in the company went on strike to protect the terms and conditions of more than 1,000 staff on pre-1996 contracts. According to the woman who wrote the email, staff had an horrendous year after they went back to work on 24 February. She referred to bullying, harassment, discrimination and downright rude and unprofessional behaviour by management towards workers, which she said was too much to bear at times. In 2016 the trade union lodged a claim for a 2% pay increase which was granted by the Labour Court, but the company refused to pay it to workers on the pre-1996 contracts. In 2017 the trade union lodged a claim for a 3% increase which was granted to all workers, apart from those on pre-1996 contracts. The woman who wrote to me claims this group of Tesco workers are owed 6% in pay and that when they approached the employer about it through their union, they were told categorically that they were not getting it. There has been consistent bullying, the consequence of which has been that the number of workers on pre-1996 contracts in the company has fallen from 1,050 to 180. The employer engaged in systematic bullying, abuse and tyrannical behaviour to get its way. How does the Minister propose to control such behaviour if not through the introduction of robust and decent legislation?

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