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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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Deputy Clare Daly: Information on Clare Daly Zoom on Clare Daly I will be relatively brief because I am losing the will to live listening to some of the contributions we have had to endure here tonight. I do not say that lightly. However, nobody should be patting themselves on the back because of this legislation. This is one of the worst examples of the misnamed “new politics”. What we have is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. In 2016 we had a perfectly good Bill passed through the House moved by Deputy Cullinane in response to the heroic Dunnes Stores strike which took place as far back as April 2015. Then, every political party in this House promised those workers their full support. Now, we have a watered-down and flawed version of a Bill which already had progressed. There is nothing to be proud of in this. It is absolutely appalling.

Some of the contributions tonight were galling. It must be sickening for the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to have to listen to the former Minister of State, Deputy Penrose, a former Government colleague, who sat in power for five years when they had the chance to deal with this issue, rave about a weaker Bill tonight saying, "We have a great Bill to do that." When the Labour Party was in power, it did nothing but commission a study - a good study at that. Where are the changes the Labour Party brought in? This kind of nonsense has to stop.

I am reminded of the comments, even worse in some ways, at the time of the Dunne Stores strike by Deputy Micheál Martin. He told us then: "I endeavour to get the full Oireachtas behind the [Dunnes Stores] workers, in the name of common decency, and in the name of basic rights that these workers are entitled to." When Sinn Féin moved the legislation to do just that, however, it was a Fianna Fáil amendment which cynically delayed this Bill's progress for 12 months. After that delay, it was eventually moved to the next Stage where it was subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by an Oireachtas committee. A report on this was published last June. Over 13 hours the committee heard from 45 witnesses who put forward 23 recommendations with cross-party support. That Bill is now shelved and we get a much weaker version.

I find that shocking. It is so far out of kilter with the needs of the people who are suffering as a result of low-hours and if-and-when contracts, the very reason the Dunnes workers took on the fight on behalf of all casual workers. We need to put this debate in its context. Casual working contracts have grown at an alarming rate since 2008. This has had a devastating impact on the financial welfare of many people, particularly young people, women workers and foreign nationals. The years of austerity were years of opportunity for some and years of severe hardship for others, many of whom have not yet recovered from it. The austerity years gave an opportunity to engage in a race to the bottom, undermining workers' pay and conditions, standing on the head of rights and benefits hard fought for over decades. This has resulted in the number of those in insecure employment rise from 17% of the workforce to 22%. As other Deputies said, over half of those employed in casual work are not there by choice but are actually underemployed. This is a term our society did not use ten years ago. Now we have the second highest rate of underemployment among our EU counterparts.

While this has an effect on the workers involved, we need to look at the flipside, namely, the significant State subsidy going to supplement the wage bill of some of the most highly profitable retail companies in this country. That is what is being facilitated. The hours are there to give people secure jobs. Instead, they give them rubbish at the lower end and get the State to pick up the tab through family income supplement, FIS, or other benefits. Up to 10% of Tesco staff receive FIS payments. Statistics from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection show 58,000 workers were subsidised by the State last year because their wages were insufficient to meet their financial needs. Up to 127,000 children live in homes reliant on FIS payments. That is an absolute disgrace.

Over 32% of women in employment are on part-time or casual contracts. This is one of the key reasons we perform negatively in terms of the gender pay gap. It is precisely because women are disproportionately numbered on a casual contract basis. Other Deputies have explained well what that means. It means the women in question do not have a decent life, have no security, they cannot plan and are constantly in terror of even being able to meet the basics. It has an even bigger debilitating effect where the person is the main breadwinner in a family.

The lack of clarity could be addressed with legislation which places an outright ban on zero-hour contracts and ensures the introduction of banded hour contracts to reflect the regular working hours which people do. This is not impossible. Companies such as SuperValu and Marks & Spencer have negotiated with staff and their trade unions to put in place a system of banded hour contracts. The idea this is going to break retail operators and cannot be done is absolute nonsense. It can be done and has already been done by some employers in the State. The sad fact is that the ones who are not doing it are probably the ones pocketing the extra profits as a result.

It is a shame on all of us that two and half years after the Dunnes strike, we still have no legislation enacted. That is utterly shameful. What we have today is a Bill which is hardly fit for purpose. It is an IBEC-approved Bill which does not go far enough to protect workers and will have to be subjected to a significant number of amendments. Obviously, it will pass Second Stage with no opposition. However, it will have to be butchered to be radically improved on Committee Stage. This Bill falls short of the recommendations contained in the University of Limerick study. What is the point in the Government paying for a study, lauding that study, producing its findings and then enacting legislation which will not take account of it? That is a shameful waste of money. The Bill will have to be substantially amended to meet the levels contained in the University of Limerick report.

The bands in the Bill are too wide, are open to manipulation and give far too much control to those spiteful managers who use rosters to sanction and be punitive towards staff. Unfortunately, this has been a widely reported experience of Dunnes workers, particularly in the aftermath of the 2015 strike. Up to 85% of Dunnes workers surveyed by their union said the allocation of hours was used as a control mechanism by management. We must be honest. While these workers have waited on us to deliver legislation, many of them have been subjected to harassment, have had their hours cut, difficult hours allocated which their employer knew they could not work, shift patterns altered and roles changed. Unfortunately, some were forced to leave and others were unfairly dismissed as punishment for taking action in the strike. We know of one person in the store in the Northside Shopping Centre who was sacked the day after the strike. The insecure nature of their rights as workers does give a disproportionate level of control to a management which might be vindictive, and which in the case of Dunnes Stores, was steering a path of conflict to suit its own agenda and punish union members, an action we would all oppose.

The bands should be, as originally proposed in the Sinn Féin Bill, of five hours duration. The Government's ones are far too wide. The idea of 11 to 24 hours gives a manager capacity to reduce a worker's hours by 54%. Somebody on €10 an hour could have his or her weekly wage slashed from €240 to €110, a substantial difference. Obviously, the 18 month look-back period is far too long for workers in precarious industries who are looking for job security. To suggest they have to wait 18 months is completely unacceptable. It gives managers the ability to manipulate hours at the tail-end of the contract to reflect fewer hours and keep them below a certain threshold.

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