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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 Brady: Information on John Brady Zoom on John Brady] The Minister has named numerous organisations that she has consulted, but she has not genuinely listened to them. If she had, she would have taken on board all of their views and concerns and ensured they were addressed in the Bill.

Deputy David Cullinane: Information on David Cullinane Zoom on David Cullinane It is welcome that we are at least having a discussion on the Bill that will go some way towards addressing the issues arising from low-hour contracts and low-paid jobs. As An Teachta John Brady said, I sat where he is sitting almost a year ago and proposed a Bill that would have gone much further and dealt in a more substantial way with low-hour contracts. That legislation sought to implement the recommendations made in the University of Limerick report, made on the back of a study which had been commissioned by the former Minister of State with responsibility for job creation. I was taken aback by what I would describe as the viciousness of the responses of the two Ministers who responded on the day. They gave me an insight not only into the thinking of Fine Gael and the Government but also of senior officials in the Department who would have had to sign off on the speeches made. It was quite incredible to hear some of the responses and some of the officials' reasoning as to why the Bill could not proceed.

  As it turned out, we had a very good hearing at the Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. I attended two sessions, at which we listened to a range of groups. Notwithstanding the very negative comments made by the employers' organisations, to which I will get in a few minutes, the vast majority of delegates supported the broad thrust of what we were trying to achieve and made recommendations which resulted in a substantial report. A number of amendments were proposed. Had they been taken on board, our Bill would have been much stronger and more robust. It would have done exactly what was necessary for low-paid workers. Despite the viciousness of, and opposition from, the Government at the time, lo and behold it brought forward its own Bill. Of course, it does not go far enough. The bands and exemptions are too broad. The look-back period of 18 months which was and is being considered was seen as too long, but at least the Government recognised that something needed to be done. This is a considerable step forward from where it was when we first introduced our Bill.

  In the past few days we have seen the highest rent levels ever recorded in the State. We are discussing the issue of banded hours which employers' groups have labelled as dangerous and unnecessary. This is the type of Alice in Wonderland world in which we live today, in which decent work and secure hours are seen as evil, while housing and rent crises are championed as the efficient joys of a functioning free market.

  I have listened to criticism expressed by the employers' groups of even the Minister's weak Bill which I do not believe will make much of a difference. It gives us an insight into how the employers' groups think and regard employees, most especially those in low-paid jobs. It is a matter of forgetting about their rights and entitlements. The thinking is that it does not matter and that is not really a worry if workers are being treated unfairly or shabbily as long as the employers can make a profit and maximise their returns. This thinking does not reflect my experience of the vast majority of employers who are decent and want to do the right thing and look after their employees. The best employers and most efficient companies are the ones that look after their workers, treat them with respect and afford them their proper entitlements, rather than treating them in the way that companies such as Dunnes Stores and some of the big multiples in the retail sector have treated their employees in recent times. The position of the employers' groups which certainly engaged with the sectoral committee and with which I engaged is out of kilter with that of the vast majority of employers. Certainly, they are not representative of the vast majority who believe in dignity at work and fairer hours. They believe that if a person works for 30 hours per week for a year, two, five or ten years and is still stuck on a five, ten or 15-hour contract, it is not fair and should be changed.

  My colleague talked about the level of engagement of the Minister's Department and office. I acknowledge that this issue was dealt with by previous Ministers. The Minister has engaged with the ICTU and I assume she has also engaged with employers' groups for which I commend her. I met Ms Patricia King and her officials from ICTU last week. An Teachta John Brady and I will meet ICTU representatives again tomorrow. I had a telephone conversation with Mr. John Douglas, the general president of Mandate, the union that represents the workers in question. What the representatives want is a Bill that will work and do exactly what it says on the tin. It does not matter whether the amendments are supported by Sinn Féin or Fianna Fáil; once the Bill does what it needs to do, we will support it. Even if it does not go as far as we want it to go, we, in Sinn Féin, will support it if it is better and makes it easier for those on low-hour and if-and-when contracts. We will examine amendments being suggested by the ICTU. We also have our own views on issues, on which we will engage with the Government.

  The problem with low-hour contracts - I do not really have to remind the Minister because I am sure the unions with which she engaged will have told her - is the level of control given to an employer. If an employee steps out of line and does not do what he or she is told, the 30 or 40 hours he or she has been getting, possibly for years, may be taken from him or her. This might be because he or she has asserted his or her rights or because he or she might not have done exactly what the local manager, in a shop or otherwise, wanted him or her to do. The contracts give far too much power to employers, resulting in an imbalance in the workplace.

  I held a briefing in the audiovisual room on this issue. A Dunnes Stores worker told us that he had complained about a fire exit being blocked by stacked pallets and his manager cut his hours from 40 hours per week to ten for six months. It was punishment because he had not done what he was told to do, even though he felt what he had been told to do was not the right thing to do. He said his wages were down by three quarters, or more than €300 per week. One needs a set number of hours to obtain family income supplement. The family income supplement payment of the individual in question was also cut, which had a massive impact on his ability to provide for his family. There are hundreds of cases like this that we could rehearse for the Minister. Real people in real-life circumstances experience these circumstances on a daily basis.

  The one point I made when I addressed the Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation was that, notwithstanding whatever faults the Government saw in our Bill, if we could collectively agree in this House that where an employee was working a set number of hours per week for a set period - we will debate the appropriate look-back period on Committee Stage - it should be reflected in the contract. In the 21st century, that is an entitlement every single worker should have. For the Minister's officials, the Minister or me - our jobs are precarious in many ways - there is always some certainty. For many of the workers in question, there is not the certainty they deserve and need. What we need to do is support workers as best we can and put in place legislation that will achieve what needs to be achieved. We need to ensure unscrupulous employers who comprise the minority do not win and are not able to exploit workers. Since they sometimes get away with exploiting workers, they might see the practice as giving themselves a competitive advantage over smaller shops or multiples that do the right thing. Therefore, we must create a level playing field and do in this House what we need to do, that is, set a legislative floor to put in place the minimum entitlements and supports workers need. If we do our job, we will minimise the ability of unscrupulous employers to exploit low-paid workers in their workplaces.

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