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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 Mattie McGrath: Information on Mattie McGrath Zoom on Mattie McGrath] Some 32% of women are in temporary employment, many of who are on zero-hour contracts. That is not fair because in many instances they are homemakers as well and some are single parents but they are locked in a bind. Some 10% of Tesco staff are in receipt of family income supplement. Companies such as that make massive profits and while they give jobs and pay local rates, they have special deals and they should be well able to support their workers. I went to a supermarket with members of the IFA some years ago and we filled two trolleys with vegetables and other produce for €9 or €10. It is a race to the bottom and they are putting huge pressure on suppliers, the people who grow the potatoes, the cabbage and everything else. These people give employment and are the backbone of our economy but the supermarkets are putting them under enormous pressure to supply for below-cost selling. There is a lot of murky business going on, such as hello money, and with very few exceptions this is not going in small companies. Big is not always beautiful and we had a big beast here a few years ago in the form of a tiger, which wrecked us all then left us all in a heap of brus.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall Zoom on Róisín Shortall Far too many people in this country are suffering because of insecure and precarious employment. Our young people, in particular, find themselves locked out of secure employment, decent conditions and fair pay. Having a set working week and a set wage is, for many people, now only something their parents' generation enjoyed. Too many people find themselves waiting for emails or texts from their managers or co-workers telling them the roster is done, or checking with trepidation to see where and when they are going to be called in to work in the week ahead. Plans for child care or social events go out the window along with the family's budget.

Increasing globalisation and the sense that some employers are getting away with treating their staff very poorly raise huge questions about the future of employment and there appears to many people to be a race to the bottom. The driving down of standards in jobs through low pay, zero-hour contracts, bogus self-employment and the growth of the gig economy all pose major challenges for our society and for young workers in particular.

It is not unreasonable for all workers to know in advance what their expected working week will look like. It is not unreasonable for all workers to know how much money they will be paid from week to week and it is not unreasonable for children to expect to know when their parents will be home from work. A dilution or an erosion of these expectations harms society in general. It harms families and it undermines the ability of people to plan their lives with any kind of certainty. While the Government is to be commended on bringing this Bill forward, the Social Democrats see this as the first piece of a larger suite of measures required to ensure all workers are treated with dignity and respect, and that all work is valued. The Social Democrats have proposed that there be a new deal for young workers, which guarantees fair terms and conditions in order that everyone is assured that their hard work will be properly rewarded. That is not too much for anybody to expect. They have a right to expect that work-life balance is possible and there should be a legitimate expectation that a decent job will allow a person to live a decent life, which is far from the case at the moment.

Fair pay and conditions are vital if we are to achieve high productivity and quality employment, which is evident in so many other countries where there is real social democracy at the heart of their politics. We can only hope the Government will see the value of this approach and choose to treat all workers with the respect they and their work deserve.

Precarious work is not a recent phenomenon and the issues this Bill purports to address have been consistently raised by workers in certain sectors and by the unions that represent them for more than ten years. Despite expert evidence in the form of an extensive and thoroughly researched report on low-hour contracts from the University of Limerick, which was commissioned by a Department, it seems the Minister has chosen to temper the recommendations of the report to satisfy employers. Elements of the Bill as it stands simply fly in the face of evidence-based decision making and I will table amendments to rectify these shortcomings in due course.

The fact that key recommendations of the report were completely ignored to keep employers happy speaks volumes when we look at the reality of the working conditions of those employed on these contracts. Qualitative research, carried out as part of the University of Limerick study, highlighted a number of serious issues for those who are employed on low-hour contracts. The two central issues highlighted are the ideas that people who take up low-hour contracts do so because there is nothing else available for them, as well as the unpredictability of hours and the related issues that stem from that. The idea that individuals are taking on employment described by one organisation as a business school model of running a business, that is, just-in-time for workers, says it all.

According to an ICTU report on low-hour employment practices, the exact number of employees on zero-hour contracts and subject to zero-hour practices in Ireland is unknown but we do know that 8% of workers - more than 150,000 people - work hours that vary considerably on a week-to-week or month-to-month basis. These workers disproportionately work in the retail, hospitality and social care sectors, all sectors where women dominate the workforce. Access to benefits, mortgages and loans and the protection of anti-discrimination law are inhibited by insecure contracted hours. Such arrangements have been shown to have long-term negative impacts on earnings potential and physical and mental health. The Bill should seek to address these issues but, sadly, has been found wanting in a number of respects. While the precise number of employers offering zero-hour contracts here is not available, some estimates can be gleaned by statistics compiled by the CSO. According to congress, employees on zero-hour contracts are likely to be a significant component of the group categorised as underemployed.

Ireland has the highest level of underemployment in the EU bar Spain and the increase in the numbers of underemployed has been substantial. Since the third quarter of 2008, the first year for which Ireland has data, the number of underemployed has increased by 50.5%, compared with growth of 31.9% across the EU during this period. These figures represent a complete indictment of the Government's ability to create quality and sustainable employment.

The second issue highlighted by the report is the broad issue of the unpredictability of hours and the issues that flow from that. In the University of Limerick, UL, report, congress and the National Women's Council of Ireland referred to the impact on individuals who are on low-hour work, which range from not knowing a schedule to waiting for a phone call and guessing hours. Congress argued that even where employees have regular hours, the fact they are on an if-and-when contract leads to anxiety because they do not know which is the week they will not get the hours. How can employees expect to be able to plan their lives around this type of unpredictability? It is simply not reasonable to expect workers to arrange for child care, transport, their personal lives or anything else which we take for granted, on the whim of the person doing the roster for the week.

The second issue is the power imbalance these contracts create for employees. In the qualitative research for the UL report, the National Youth Council of Ireland noted that there was not a relationship of equals between organisations and people on low hours. The National Women's Council argued that people on non-guaranteed hours can become trapped in a cycle of poverty, which strengthens employers' control over them.

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