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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 John Lahart: Information on John Lahart Zoom on John Lahart] All the other points my colleagues made, on the insecurity of the banded hours, living with the associated tension, waiting for the call, and not being able to make plans and follow through on them if one is a single parent, build on that basic argument. Therefore, I will not repeat all the themes mentioned.

It was mentioned that there are 150,000 affected workers. I acknowledge the unemployment rate is down to 4% or 5%, which is fantastic, but we must also consider employment. People have mentioned underemployment. Are there 250,000 households in which there is nobody employed? I do not know whether pensioners are included in that figure. It is up to the Government to maintain the standards that employees came to expect over a generation. This Bill does not meet those standards. It holds out no hope that householders can ever get to the point where, on one salary, they might be able to raise a family, never mind own house. Therefore, people are entitled to a little more. It is in this regard that I make my plea. We have come to a certain point but need to start moving further in regard to the quality of employment and life to which people are entitled. Someday we may return to the point where a household can be funded by just one working person, if that is what the household wishes to do. We have gone a million miles away from that.

Deputy Thomas Pringle: Information on Thomas Pringle Zoom on Thomas Pringle This Bill is welcome. Any efforts to bring about greater security for workers must be commended. The Bill attempts to focus on employees being better informed about the nature of their employment arrangements and, in particular, the core terms at the early stage of their employment; prohibit zero-hour contracts in most circumstances; and strengthen the provisions on the payment of low-paid employees who may be called in to work for a period but not provided with that work. I am aware that many employee groups have welcomed aspects of the Bill, including the entitlement of workers to a minimum payment if called in but not given work. I am well aware of this practice in the fishing industry in Killybegs. We were called in many times at 9 a.m., sent home again at 10 a.m., called back at 2 p.m. and given work then until 6 p.m. Workers all across the country have to contend with this.

The unions have done considerable work on this Bill but the workers in question are non-unionised. The workers right across rural Ireland affected by this Bill are non-unionised, and they have been left behind, as I will explain later.

The Bill is by no means perfect. While I support it, I agree with some commentators that it does not go far enough in dealing with if-and-when and zero-hour contracts. In the context of Donegal, it certainly does not go far enough for seasonal workers who have been largely left behind under existing legislation and in any reports looking into atypical work patterns. The most recent report, which was commissioned by the Fine Gael-Labour coalition, did not include seasonal workers within its remit and failed to adequately define if-and-when contracts to include seasonal work, while failing all the while to assess the implications of legislation on them. I would like to take the opportunity today to discuss the matter of seasonal work, the need for greater trade union recognition in the workplace and for the proper and effective enforcement of existing and new legislation to ensure employers respect the rights of workers across the board.

Seasonal work is a common form of employment for many people in Donegal and includes work in the tourism, farming and fisheries sectors. There are very few coherent statistical data available on seasonal work so we have little information on the trends of employment in these sectors. This is because most of the employments are non-unionised, particularly in rural areas. Unfortunately, workers are disadvantaged when decision-makers are ill informed. That political decisions are being made without sufficient knowledge of the issues affecting seasonal workers warrants a separate report into this category of work. In the case of Donegal, particularly Killybegs, fish factory workers are often wrongly classified according to the current definition of seasonal work. This may have been the case 20 years ago when, in each year, there were three fishing seasons. Owing to substantial changes in the sector, however, the fishing season currently lasts only six to eight weeks of the year. Fish factory workers often engage in employment between the shorter seasons and, as a result, may be incorrectly labelled as self-employed. This severely reduces their income security and social welfare entitlements.

Seasonal workers do not have written contracts, yet the onus is on the worker to prove a contract exists. I hope that this legislation will help place the onus back on the employer by obliging it to set out the five basic terms of employment to a staff member within the first week of employment. Regarding the core terms of employment, however, I believe all workers should be provided with the core conditions of employment, including the employer details, length of working day and contract duration. These should be provided in writing before the employee commences, as opposed to after the employment has begun.

I want to discuss issues concerning access to social welfare. Obtaining it is becoming increasingly difficult as a result of looser employment arrangements. This must be talked about in conjunction with the legislation because the workers are not fully employed and therefore depend on social welfare to make up their income. As employment is harder to categorise, it makes access to social protection difficult. Many fish factory workers are mislabelled as self-employed initially by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, yet after an appeal the label is removed for some of them.

I deal with a number of people who are part-time farmers but who also engage in factory work in a particular season. Again, they are incorrectly classified as self-employed. However, the issue remains for seasonal workers that hours, as opposed to days, are used to measure eligibility for the jobseeker's allowance. Substantial cuts to social protection payments and income support created greater income insecurity for people in precarious employment as their nature of employment makes them heavily reliant on income supports, such as the jobseeker's allowance and the farm assist payment, and subsidiary employment and income disregards. Much of my work involves assisting workers to appeal the decision by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection in regard to these entitlements.

As mentioned, fish factory workers are traditionally associated with a particular employer. It may be factory A or factory B but never both, with the expectation that the employee remains loyal to that particular employer, season after season. Deputy Shortall referred to two-sided contracts. They are not. The contract benefits the employer, not the worker. It is not two-sided as workers do not have the choice. They cannot say to the employer they are doing something else on a given today. It does not happen in practice. It might be envisaged when writing legislation for the Dáil, and it might look great on paper, but it does not happen in practice. Employers have the power and workers do not. One cannot say workers have the right to say they are going to do something else. If they say it, they will not have a job afterwards. That is the bottom line. It is not a case of equal rights.

Employees are expected to be available for work when the employer requires them or they risk a reduction in hours or even a termination of employment. Consequently, a worker might not be asked back to work the following season and will be dissociated from a particular factory. For some, there is no option but to start work in another factory, if they can. Another serious consequence of mislabelling certain workers as self-employed, according to the definition that they are not contractually required to work, is that they may not be entitled to any compensation for hours not worked.

I have concerns relating to the barriers still facing workers and their right to be represented by their trade union of choice. Some employers still do not recognise trade unions. Until recently, they included Ryanair. The Bill does not acknowledge or address the urgent need for greater trade union recognition and the associated protections, including visits to the workplace by trade union representatives. Unfortunately, the Minister's people will not visit workplaces. If they do, they successfully prosecute but then never follow up. Therefore, what is the point? If there is no following up, the employer will continue the way he did and will not give workers the compensation to which they were entitled. There is no follow-up from the Department at all.

At the same time, it needs to be recognised that most seasonal workers are not unionised or organised and, therefore, suffer the consequences. A mechanism should be established that would allow non-organised workers to be represented and consulted during the drafting of legislation.

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