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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 20 May 1969

Vol. 240 No. 9

Agricultural Workers (Holidays and Wages) Bill, 1968: Second Stage.

I move that the Bill be now read a Second Time.

The main purpose of this Bill is to give agricultural workers legal entitlement to public holidays or to Church holidays in lieu. There are at present six public holidays in the year, namely, St. Patrick's Day, Easter Monday, the first Monday in June, the first Monday in August, Christmas Day and St. Stephen's Day.

Under existing legislation—the Agricultural Workers (Holidays) Acts, 1950-61—agricultural workers are entitled to 12 days holidays a year. The 1950 Act gave them six working days and this was extended to 12 by the 1961 Act. The proposals in this Bill will give them six public or Church holidays in addition to the 12 working days. I am aware that, perhaps, the majority of farmers traditionally give their workers a day off with pay on public or Church holidays or at the most do not require them to do more than a couple of hours work on such days. In some areas, however, workers are not always allowed these holidays and the tendency may be for employers to become more exacting in this respect, having regard particularly to the general scarcity and rising cost of labour. In the circumstances, I consider it desirable that the agricultural worker should have legal entitlement to six public holidays or Church holidays in lieu and this is what the Bill seeks to do. The provisions in the Bill will put agricultural workers on a par with industrial workers who already have the benefit of similar legislation.

I may say that the Agricultural Wages Board is in favour of this proposal and that I am introducing the legislation in fulfilment of an undertaking given to the House by my predecessor in 1965. At that time, a provision on these lines was contained in a Private Members Bill introduced by Deputy Tully with the support of his colleagues in the Labour Party. The Bill was not acceptable to the House but the then Minister undertook to examine further the provisions relating to public holidays.

There are three other matters covered in the Bill which are of a less important nature. The first of these is a provision to amend the Agricultural Workers (Weekly Half-Holiday) Act, 1952, the Act which entitles agricultural workers to a weekly half-holiday.

Section 6 of that Act provides that in order to be entitled to a half-holiday an agricultural worker must work 45 hours in the five days preceding the day on which the half-holiday is to be allowed. When that Act was passed the number of hours to which the minimum rate of wages related was 50 all the year round. Since 1965 the average has been 48 hours, 50 hours being worked during the summer months and 44 hours during the winter period —November to February. The shorter working week in winter time necessitates an amendment of the half-holiday provision. The amendment proposed takes the form of a general provision empowering the Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries to prescribe by Order, from time to time, the number of hours which a worker must work in any particular week to entitle him to a half-holiday in that week. This will enable the present situation to be tidied up and will avoid the necessity for new legislation in the event of further changes in the weekly hours of work to which the minimum rates of wages prescribed by the board relate.

The third matter covered in the Bill deals with the time allowed to the agricultural wages area committee to make recommendations to the board and it is a point which was also adverted to in the Private Members Bill. At present, when the board intends to make an Order having the effect of altering the existing minimum rates of wages it must serve notice of its intention on the five agricultural wages area committees. The committees are given two months in which to make their recommendations to the board and the board is obliged to wait until either the committees have made their recommendations or the two months have expired before they can make the Order. The Bill proposes the reduction of the period to one month with the aim of speeding up the process.

The final matter provided for in the Bill relates to permits of exemption. Under the Agricultural Wages Acts the board is entitled to grant to agricultural workers incapacitated through infirmity of mind or body, permits exempting their employment from the provisions of the board's Orders relating to the payment of minimum rates of wages. The effect of such a permit is to enable an incapacitated worker to be employed at a rate less than the prescribed minimum rate. Experience has shown that a number of workers, particularly those receiving permits at an early age, recover sufficiently to be able, later on, to earn the full minimum rate. As things stand, there is no provision for the revocation of such permits and it is considered desirable that the board should have this authority.

The foregoing are in broad outline the provisions of the Bill and the reasons for them. I hope the House will agree that it is a desirable measure.

This is a straightforward measure which sets out to improve the conditions of farm workers. We, on this side of the House, are prepared to support it. As the Minister has said, the main provision of the Bill is to give farm workers the same statutory right to holidays as industrial workers already enjoy. The form of this Bill was recommended some years ago by the Agricultural Wages Board but, for some reason or other, nothing was done about it. I am glad to see this measure being introduced now. The farm workers here are probably the lowest paid workers and the worst-treated section of workers in the whole country. They have to work seven days a week, simply because we have not got a five-day cow and because animals, like human beings, have to be fed every day of the week. We are anxious to do anything we can to improve their conditions. It is right to say that in some respects the provisions of this Bill represent an improvement on the Act dealing with industrial workers' holidays. The qualifications for annual holidays and for public holidays in respect of agricultural workers differ and may cause some confusion. For example, if a man works 125 hours in five weeks he qualifies for the public holiday or the church holiday. If, on the other hand, in the same period of five weeks, or four weeks for the purpose of annual holidays, he works 125 hours but is absent on four days he does not qualify for that day's holiday. This is something which should be straightened out. Deputy Tully is much more conversant with points like this than I am. There seems to be some contradiction. In order to avoid confusion the qualification for any holiday, either annual holiday or public holiday, should be the same. I would like the Minister to have a look at this provision before we finish dealing with this Bill.

There is nothing undesirable in this Bill, in my opinion. Each of the provisions in it is for improvements we are all prepared to support. The question of making provision for a change in the length of the working week, without having a further change in legislation, is only sensible and is something we would expect in a Bill of this sort so that we would not have to come back to the House to deal with such a simple matter.

The final recommendation in relation to incapacitated workers being brought back into employment at a rate less than the prescribed minimum rate is also well worth incorporating in the Bill. I believe that what the Minister seeks to do in this Bill is already being granted by most good employers. In fact, I would say there are probably very few exceptions now because it is becoming more and more difficult to get farm workers. If we do not try to do everything possible to improve the conditions of the people working on the land we will not get the best type of worker. Agriculture is our most important industry. Unless we bring the working conditions of agricultural workers into line with the conditions of workers in other employment, people will cease to work on the land wherever there are alternative opportunities of employment for them. I am prepared to give full support to the Bill and to give it the most speedy passage possible through the House.

The Labour Party also supports the Bill. It proposes to give farm workers a legal right to holidays with pay and to amend the Agricultural Wages Act, 1936. The Minister should be thanked for introducing a Bill which resembles a Private Members Bill which I proposed in this House some years ago and which was opposed by the then Minister for Agriculture and by the Government. If my memory serves me right, it was beaten on a vote. This matter was raised on five occasions between 1946 and 1965. The Government opposed legislation sponsored by the Labour Party to give farm workers a legal right to public holidays with pay.

This Bill was introduced on the 24th October, 1968. It should have come before the House before Christmas. I would censure the Minister for not bringing it before the House before now.

The provisions are retrospective.

That does not matter. The Minister might have introduced the Bill at any time. He was aware of the fact that the Bill would be favourably received by all Members of the House. Perhaps he will arrange to have the provisions of the Bill backdated to the date of its introduction. That would help matters a little. The agricultural workers suffered a disappoinment because they thought they would get an extra day's holidays at Christmas.

The proposed qualification for public holidays for agricultural workers is 125 hours in five weeks immediately preceding the holiday. This qualification may be varied by Ministerial regulation. If the Bill is enacted in its present form there will be three different ways of calculating holidays for agricultural workers. This may have escaped the Minister's notice. I am sure the Minister will agree with me that it is not desirable that this should be so. Such a situation would lead to confusion and to unnecessary disputes regarding holiday entitlement. A worker working 125 hours in the month preceding a public holiday is entitled to the holiday irrespective of lost time but if he was absent for four days, due to injury or illness, he would not then be entitled to one day of his annual holidays. I do not know why it should be necessary to have a regulation like this included in the Bill. Why not make it 125 hours in a month for both annual holidays and those which would be statutory holidays when they are introduced? This is one of the things which could be dealt with.

Holiday pay for public holidays is defined in the Bill as a full day's pay but a different method of calculating holiday pay applies to annual holidays. Again, surely the Minister should try to do something to have this tightened up?

I would also suggest that the Minister might avail of the passage of the Bill through the House to modify the Agricultural Wages Act, 1936, so as to empower the Agricultural Wages Board to fix overtime. I do not know whether the Minister is aware or not but there is an advice given to the Agricultural Wages Board that they have not at present the legal right to fix overtime rates.

I think the Agricultural Wages Board should also be entitled to prescribe minimum conditions of employment which would extend to the payment of wages during a period when the worker is engaged on a farm training course or is absent due to illness. It is prescribed that a worker, if he is on an apprenticeship course, can be paid his wages but in the case of an adult who goes on a farm training course there is no provision under which he is entitled by law to be paid for it. This is something which might possibly be straightened out.

When the Bill was first introduced —this possibly may be the reason why the Minister deferred dealing with it for so long—the Labour Party prepared 38 amendments with the object of compressing three holiday Acts and several Orders into this Bill but, having considered it and there being always the danger of a dissolution with the result that we might not get the Bill through the House, we have decided to withdraw all except two. We have two amendments which we will put before the House and if the Minister wants to have the Bill taken today, both amendments can be inserted at a few moments notice and we can have them discussed because we are seriously perturbed about the danger of this Bill being hung up somewhere until the dissolution and then we will have to start all over again. If we were introducing a Bill, we would introduce a better Bill. That will come. The amendments are not contentious. I can give the Minister a copy so that he may have a look at them while I am speaking.

We consider, for instance, that section 7 should be amended to enable a trade union official to recover money due to a worker who is a member of a trade union. This is in the Conditions of Employment Act, 1944. There is no reason why this also should not be included in this Bill.

We believe that there should be added to section 12 a subsection which would give power, when the Agricultural Wages Board is fixing a minimum rate, to provide a differential rate in the case of overtime and to determine what employment will be treated as overtime employment and also to prescribe minimum rates for sick pay. In the 1966 Act "wages" includes overtime, sick pay and holiday remuneration. This could possibly be done.

Section 11 is proposed for enactment because of unnecessary restriction in the Agricultural Workers (Weekly Half-Holidays) Act, 1952. There would have been no need to enact the legislation in 1951 and 1952 if the Agricultural Wages Act had given the board power to define what employment should be regarded as overtime employment. The counsel's opinion that I referred to earlier says that the Agricultural Wages Act, 1936, does not purport to control or specify special classes of employment or prescribe conditions of employment or create terms of employment which give rise to overtime; that these are matters left to be legislated between the contract made between employer and worker in every case. This makes it clear.

The right of the Agricultural Wages Board to fix overtime is not there. The former Agricultural Wages Board for Ireland, which functioned between 1917 and 1921, had power to define what overtime employment was and every wage-fixing body in these islands has such power except the Agricultural Wages Board. We feel, for that reason, that there should be no objection to having this done by the Agricultural Wages Board and that will remove another of the claims which are made, rightly we believe, by farm workers that the State seems to discriminate against them and that they are being treated as second-class citizens.

We know what happened when the Holidays (Employees) Act was introduced. A special Bill had to be introduced for farm workers. Why they could not be treated like everyone else, we do not know. An effort is now being made to bring them up. The Minister should not forget that, while we are now legislating for a minimum of 18 days holidays for farm workers, industrial workers have had for a number of years a minimum of 18 days and have, in fact, negotiated in most cases at least 24 days with the result that before very long, I am sure, this Dáil will have before it a Bill to legalise a minimum of 21 days annual holidays for other workers. When that comes I hope the agricultural workers will be included. This is only tightening up the process.

As we know, the Taoiseach recently has advised employers to treat all employees alike. I wonder will the Government care to remove the remaining anomaly from the wage-fixing legislation for agricultural workers, that is, the question of hours. It is no accident that normal hours of work in agriculture to which minimum rates apply have remained at 50 since 1949—50 in the summer, 44 in the winter, an average of 48. I do not think that the Minister can in any way get away from the responsibility for allowing this situation to continue. It is no answer to say that, of course, farm workers are needed for 50 hours in the summer. Of course they are needed for 50 hours but, of course, the reason they are kept at 50 is that apparently they have been allowing successive Governments to leave the situation the way it is. If the working hours are reduced as they should be to 42½, which is the standard for most rural employments at the present time, the farmer may have to pay a few hours overtime but in view of the low wage which agricultural workers get, even though they have got an increase of 30/- per week this year, the few hours overtime would help some of them to be able to balance their own weekly budget.

It is interesting, of course, to find that some people are not even prepared to pay the minimum agricultural rate to persons who are normally referred to as farm workers. Take for instance the millionaire, sometimes American, sometimes German, sometimes Irish, sometimes British, who is running a racing stable here. The Agricultural Wages Board say, rightly, that the workers employed doing normal farm work at these stables are not agricultural workers within the meaning of the Act. So, very many of these people did not get the recent increase of 30/- per week. Many of them are still working at scandalously low wages, even lower than the wages being paid to State employees, and that is bad enough. The reason is that the Agricultural Wages Board have under the Agricultural Wages Acts of 1936 and 1945 and the Holidays Acts of 1950 and 1961 the definition that an agricultural worker is a person employed under a contract of service or apprenticeship whose work under such contract is or includes work in agriculture and a person whose work under any such contract is mainly domestic service is not an agricultural worker; that an agricultural employer is a person who carries on the trade or business of agriculture and who employs other persons as agricultural workers for the purposes of such trade or business; and that the word "agriculture" includes dairy-farming and the use of land as grazing, meadow, or pasture land or orchard or osier land or woodland or for market gardens or nursery grounds. This is the definition.

The unfortunate farm worker who is employed on some of these jobs is not considered a farm worker if his employer is not an agricultural employer. An extraordinary thing one finds is that a man may be employed and doing everything the Act says he should do as an agricultural worker but, because his employer is not himself normally an agricultural employer, he does not come under the Act. You have these people sliding out.

Since the last increase, I have had a number of complaints from people who have not received the increase. I am sorry to say that, included in the list, were employees of racing stables, men who are employed around hotels or big houses looking after what is known as pleasure grounds and I am especially sorry to have to say one priest's boy who was not employed, he was told, as an agricultural worker. If there is any loophole left by which people who do not want to pay a fair wage are allowed to opt out, I think these loopholes should be plugged. It is not every day that we get an Act like this before the House. We had a reference during Question Time to Moses striking the rock. I think we could say here that it has been as difficult to get legislation before this House to help the farm workers as it was for Moses to see the Promised Land because we have been for a long time attempting to get something definite done about farm workers.

The Minister referred to the man who is being paid a lower rate because of what is known as a certificate of exemption. There should be some way of allowing him to opt in as a normal worker: I agree entirely with it. There should be some better system of considering who is or who is not entitled to a certificate of exemption. It is surely galling to find some hefty big fellow working for a boy's wage because he may have an impediment in his speech or he may not be able to write his name or to count and it is considered that because of that, they are entitled to give his employer a certificate of exemption and to get cheap labour. That is what it amounts too.

I believe that the Bill now before the House could and should have been used by the Government, the Minister, to tidy up a lot of items which have been left untidied for many years. Particularly, I believe that something should be done to ensure that the Bill will give a lead in regard to the number of hours which these people work.

The suggestion that there should be a reduction in the period during which the regional committees get an opportunity of looking at—or supposedly looking at—conditions in their area and sending in a recommendation, from two months to one month, is good. I suggest the Minister could go further. He could wipe out the regional committees altogether. If he looks at the records of the Agricultural Wages Board and finds that the board have in fact carried out the recommendations of the majority of those committees at any time during the period, then I would say he is right. However, if my information is correct, at no time did the regional committees recommend anything, as a majority, which resulted in the board's making the decision in favour of what they recommended. As a matter of fact, we have had over the years such things as a recommendation for an increase of 5/- from one committee and an increase of £2 from another committee—both supposed to be dealing with the same type of worker.

I suggest that one of the reasons regional committees do not work so well is because the type of people put on, admirable though they may be, are not people who represent agricultural workers. It is ridiculous to suggest that, if the regional committees are to continue, we should, for instance, put a road ganger who never worked for a farmer in his life—his father may be a farmer—to represent farm workers on the committee. There is the famous case in County Cavan where a workers' representative on a regional committee, who possibly might have worked for a farmer, had worked for years as a builder's labourer in Birmingham; still, he was retained as a workers' representative on the regional committee.

The votes are taken of the number of people present. There is an evening-off on the joint industrial councils—if a workers' representative is missing, the employers' representative drops out. This makes the chairman and the people with him responsible for making a decision if it is not a unanimous decision. With the Agricultural Wages Board, it is a straight vote: whoever turns up—OK; if they do not turn up —they are letting the side down. If they are not interested, why should they turn up unless it is that they are getting their expenses to Dublin or to Ballyshannon or to somewhere for the day?

I am sure the Minister is as interested as I am in having a fair code fixed for agricultural workers. I do not think the present set-up allows that to happen. The Minister knows that while the board itself has, for the past few years, improved considerably in its recommendations, there is a proviso that the chairman of the board is a quorum if nobody turns up but himself. Then, on his own, he can take a decision affecting the wages of agricultural workers. I do not think there can be anything more ridiculous than that.

We are terribly anxious to get this Bill through the Oireachtas. If the Minister is prepared to discuss the amendments here with an offer to introduce them even in the Seanad— something like that—we are prepared from these benches to give him all Stages of this Bill this afternoon so long as he remembers that the primary object of the Bill is to give natural justice to the people who are engaged in the primary industry of this country. It annoys me when I hear people talk about our primary industry being agriculture and then going along and giving the crumbs that fall from the table to those engaged in agriculture.

It might have been said—though I would never agree—that people employed as farm workers were people who just did rough, unskilled work. I personally believe they always required a certain amount of training. They had to know about crop rotation, what type of crop would suit a particular soil, and so on. At present, perhaps 80 per cent of farm workers—in addition to knowing certain agricultural basic facts—must also be mechanics. When a piece of machinery goes out of order they must be able to fix it or else to keep it going until somebody can come to repair the machine properly. It is a serious matter if a machine breaks down on a farm and the nearest town is many miles away. The day might be good for sowing or for harvesting. The machine must be kept going. I do not think these people are getting a fair "do" and unless somebody takes a firm stand on their behalf I fear the attitude will still be that they are unskilled workers. They are anything but unskilled workers. While this Bill is a step in the right direction, I do not think it goes nearly far enough.

This is really not the appropriate time for discussion of the amendments suggested by Deputy James Tully. On the one hand, it is difficult for me to say offhand, just like that, if I can accept any or all of them. On the other hand, I should not like to say that I will not. It is rather difficult for me to say that I will accept them or that I will not accept them, and I hope the House understands that. There is an appropriate time, the Committee Stage, for an exchange of views and arguments on these amendments.

As far as acceptance of the Bill by the House is concerned, I thought it would be acceptable to all Members and I am glad to know that this is so. I wish to join with Deputy Tully in making it clear that I am of the same mind as that expressed by him on the importance of agricultural workers and of the growing necessity that they have even more skills in the future than they were called on to possess in the past. I wish to make it clear, however, that in the great majority of cases agricultural workers have been more highly skilled than may have been apparent. They may not have had the same formal training but they had basic knowledge acquired during their lifetimes, skills which many years of schooling could not have instilled in them. They had a great variety of innate skills of which many people outside were not aware. Therefore, those in agricultural employment should be regarded as being on a par with the best workers in comparable grades of employment outside agriculture. People should realise that there is no lack of knowledge or skills—that in fact agricultural workers have a greater fund of knowledge, a greater variety of knowledge, than many employees in a wide range of industry.

As Deputy Tully has said, these people deserve all the recognition that we can give to them. They should not be regarded as the cast-outs in employment fields here. They should not be regarded as people who are good for nothing else. I have never believed that and I do not believe it now. However, as the years go by the demands to be made on their skills and their knowledge will mean that training in a formal sense will have to be provided in a meaningful way. This is apart from the skills they have acquired in their own homes, in their own little farms, or from the fathers who have worked on the land as agricultural employees throughout their lifetime.

I repeat that this is not the appropriate occasion on which to discuss the amendments Deputy Tully has handed to me, even though I should have liked to have got all Stages of the Bill this afternoon.

Without discussing it further at the moment, the House might agree to take the remaining Stages tomorrow. In the meantime, I do not mind taking a closer look at the suggestions of Deputy Tully. There are involved legal aspects and I should not care to say "yes" or "no", offhand, to some of the things contained in the suggested amendments. If the House agrees to take them tomorrow, that would give me sufficient time to look into these matters. There are some matters about whose legality I have some doubts. If the Whips could arrange to have the Committee Stage taken tomorrow——

If the Minister is agreeable, it can be arranged for tomorrow.

I suggest that we consider it after Questions tomorrow.

I am sure that can be arranged.

If it can be arranged between the Whips, and if the House is agreeable, that is all right. There is not a great deal I can add to what I said in introducing the Bill. If there is further argument it will be more appropriate tomorrow afternoon when we can tease out all the aspects of the Bill. At the meeting of the Whips, will the Deputy raise this point?

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 21st May, 1969.