: When I saw the Minister for Economic Planning and Development coming into the House this evening on this Bill I could not understand why he should be here. Of course, any Minister can come in on any Bill but, since he has spoken, I have discovered the reason—probably he is one of the few Minister in the Cabinet who knows absolutely nothing about agriculture and he was the ideal person to put up a smokescreen and that is what he tried to do.
First of all, let me make something very clear. When the question I put down to the Minister for Labour was being debated in this House there was no intention on my part to cast any slur on officials of the Department of Labour. I have never done it and I do not propose to do it now. I would hate anybody to get the impression from the suggestions made by the Minister present that that was my intention. The details as given by him do not coincide with the facts. I hold the then Minister and the present Minister responsible for actions in their Department. I am aware that letters were sent to the Department from the trade union of which I had the honour to be general secretary for 30 years, who deal with agricultural workers, pointing out the necessity for this action. I am aware of the replies received to those letters from the Department, I am aware of what the Minister for Labour said was the advice he got. That is as far as I can go on that point. The Minister present is quite correct when he talks about recommendations to have this dealt with—"Proposals for Employer-Trade Union National Agreement, 1976"—which were defeated by a mere nine votes but which, if they had been agreed then, would have contained, and I quote paragraph 5 subparagraph (iv):
"The Employer-Labour Conference agrees to make immediate representations to the Minister for Labour on the prompt enactment of amending legislation to the Industrial Relations Act, 1946 which would give the Minister for Labour power to reduce or eliminate the six months limit referred to in Section 42 (3) of the Act for the period covered by National Agreements."
That was not done; the recommendation was not accepted and was not included in subsequent agreements. The result is that we now have this mess. It would be rather amusing were it not so tragic to hear the Minister ask why, if we did not think it important in 1975 do we want to do something about it now. The reason that we did not do anything about it in 1975 and 1976 was that we were assured then by the Minister—and Ministers usually take the advice of their officials—that this was not necessary. We know now that it is necessary. Therefore, two wrongs do not make a right. If the Minister was wrong then—and I am not prepared to agree that he knew he was wrong —there is absolutely no reason why the present Minister or Government should attempt to perpetuate that wrong and to say that because it was not done then it will not be done now.
We are great people in this country for talking about our wonderful agricultural industry. Since I came into this House in 1954 time and again I have heard people refer to agriculture, the primary industry, and how important it was. Yet in every type of legislation going through here—from legislation on wages, on conditions of employment, even on the Poisons Act, and on accidents, holidays, everything —there were two types of worker referred to, agricultural and others. The agricultural worker was always the second-class citizen. They were the people who did not get that to which other workers were entitled. Throughout the years the State did this. Long after the five-and-a-half day week was granted by law to everybody else, the agricultural worker had a six-day week. I had the honour, on the trade union front, to negotiate the first five-and-a-half day week for agricultural workers. We found that even then the State was not terribly anxious to fall into line. As a matter of fact, on State farms the six-day week was nearly made mandatory while the five-and-a-half day week was in operation on private farms outside.
Now we come to the question of the payment of agricultural workers. The Agricultural Wages Board, when first set up in 1936, served a useful purpose. They put a floor under agricultural workers' wages. The wages first were 24 shillings a week and then 36 shillings, which was considered to be a reasonable amount at the time and bore quite a decent relation to that being paid to industrial workers. Throughout the years something happened which should not have been allowed happen, that was, that the Agricultural Wages Board were set up in such a way that they dealt with wages and hours of working in a way in which no other wage fixing machinery of the State would be allowed operate. First of all, the chairman of the board constituted a quorum for any meeting. I was a member of one of the sub-boards for a while and on every occasion of which I am aware the chairman voted with the employers' representative, chairman after chairman. I wonder was that a coincidence. The mere fact that he was appointed by the Minister for Agriculture seemed to show that there was that bias against the workers.
Therefore, instead of it being four against four it was five against four. For perhaps 20 to 25 years I campaigned against the continuance of the Agricultural Wages Board as a means of fixing wages and hours of working. I am glad that I was a member of the Government which eventually abolished the Agricultural Wages Board and replaced them by other wage fixing machinery. The last thing the Agricultural Wages Board did before they went out was to take an action—which turned out to be illegal and had to be rectified at the first meeting of the new board, a dying kick—in regard to equal pay. The extraordinary thing is that not alone did they want to, and did, prevent agricultural workers from getting the benefit of the national wage agreement as long as they existed, but they also took the necessary action to try to prevent female agricultural workers from getting equal pay.
The new board were set up. I do not want anybody to get the impression that I am saying that they have not done good work. They had a slow start. Their first meeting did not take place for a very much longer space of time than should have elapsed. The reason for that was that the employers did not appoint a representative to the board. I would imagine that that was a deliberate ploy in an attempt to hold back agricultural workers' wages. Even yet—and the Minister had to admit it—they are low paid workers, at the very bottom of the scale. When the board met and the decision was taken we thought it was plain sailing. Then we found that because of this specific regulation which we suggest should be amended, that is, section 42 (3) of the Industrial Relations Act, 1946, we have the situation that agricultural workers who are due an increase of £3.50 per week with effect from 1 March cannot be paid that increase until late September at the very earliest and, with a bit of fiddling around by the employers, may not be paid until October next.
The Minister has said that it does not matter and will not happen again. He talked about setting up a committee in a couple of years' time which would eventually make a report on industrial relations and this would make matters all right. He talked about a 12-month agreement which would not arise until 1979. An old man whom I knew in the country used to say. "God help his foolish with" and this can be applied to the Minister. If the Minister thinks that we are now in a situation where we are guaranteed a wage agreement of 12 months' duration every year he had better go back and have a look at his Green Paper and at the price increases announced during the past few weeks and those that will be announced during the coming months and see whether the existing wage agreement can stand up to the strain which will be put upon it.
There is no point whatever in attempting to give the impression, as this Government have been doing, that workers' wages must be kept to the minimum if the country is to prosper. Because of the low wages being paid to many workers, particularly those in agriculture, we have a situation in which those people will not be prepared to carry on in their jobs unless something is done for them. We hear so much talk about whether or not agriculture is doing well. If you are not a farmer, you think that farmers have become millionaires since we joined the EEC. If you are a farmer, you feel that farmers are only now beginning to catch up. I am not farmer-bashing. I was reared in the country and I know that over the years farmers had a very tough time, particularly the smaller type. I know that in recent years they have done very well and it saddens me to think that they are not prepared to share their wealth with those who are creating that wealth for them. It is too bad when we find that people who are working very hard on the land are being asked to continue at these ridiculously low wage rates.
The Minister may have looked at his brief; possibly it was handed to him before he came in here. In case he has not had the opportunity to look at it, I would point out that the current employment regulation order was made on 23 January 1978 and published as Statutory Instrument 17 1978. This order provides for a minimum wage of £42.50 in zone "B" or £1 per hour. If the people who are entitled to an increase of £3.50 per week with effect from 1 March do not get that increase until next October, does the Minister consider that these people are likely to agree with him when he says that it is all right and will not happen again? This should not have happened and we are asking that this Bill be accepted by the Government and at least put on the record to show that they are not entirely anti-worker. Very many of their activities since they came into office would give the impression that they are very much anti-worker.
It is clear that the current wages order relates to the 1977 agreement. This is something which obviously has been completely missed by the Minister for Labour and the other Ministers. It follows that the 1977 agreement has not been implemented in full by the Joint Labour Committee for Agricultural Workers. It is quite clear that no provision was made in the current wages order or in the previous order to respect the operative date of the phases in national agreements. The 1978 agreement was due to apply to agricultural workers on 1 March 1978. This is also the date on which the agreement was applied to forestry workers, county council road workers, agricultural workers employed by the Department of Agriculture, drainage workers and so on. It is clear beyond all doubt that there are two factors which prevented agricultural workers from obtaining their pay adjustment with effect from the due date. These factors include, first, the six months limit which the Bill would abolish and, secondly, the fact that the employers' representatives on the Joint Labour Committee, who are also represented on the Employer-Labour Conference, must have adopted a policy of refusing to implement fully the agreement and must be using the six months statutory rule as an excuse, otherwise there would have been provision in the existing order and in the previous order for a monetary compensatory amount in favour of agricultural workers. No such amount can be identified in either order.
As far as I can find from the last meeting of this new body, there is no intention on the part of the employers' representatives on that body to make any effort to try and hurry up the making of an order which would prevent this from happening again. They seem to be perfectly satisfied to sit back and delay things in order to prevent agricultural workers from getting a miserly increase as a result of the last national wage agreement. If this is the object of the agricultural representatives, I feel that the agricultural workers will have no option but to tell the agricultural employers through their trade union that they are no longer interested and are simply not accepting the terms. If the agricultural employers refuse to accept the terms of the national wage agreement and implement them, the workers will have no option but to do the same. There cannot be one law for one and another law for the other.
I am sure that the Minister is familiar with the EEC regulations. They issue enough of them on various matters. In Supplement 2/75. Stocktaking of the Common Agricultural Policy, they refer to the incomes of people in agriculture and to the provision of a fair standard of living. Paragraph 41 states:
"Article 39 (1) (b) of the EEC Treaty is worded as follows: `thus (i.e. by increasing agricultural productivity) to ensure a fair standard of living for the agricultural community, in particular by increasing the individual earnings of persons engaged in agriculture'.
The Treaty does not define `a fair standard of living' but in Article 4 of Directive 72/159/EEC on modernising farms the Council has defined a comparable income in agriculture as `the average gross wage for a non-agricultural workers' in the region in question."
If the EEC are interested in ensuring that farmers are paid at least the rate comparable to that being paid to industrial workers, can the Minister give any good reason why the other group engaged in agricultural production, the farm workers, should not be entitled to the same amount?
The farmer has his farm and even though over the years he did not get a very good living he always has the farm to fall back on and to pass on to his family when he is leaving this world. What has the farm worker to pass on? He has the blisters on his hands for his work down through the years and whatever few shillings his wife may have been able to save as a result of trying to housekeep on an inadequate income. Very often there is barely enough to pay funeral expenses. Yet we find a group of clever people attempting to prevent those workers from getting a fair share of a booming industry. If the farmers representatives do not want to pay the increase, and do not want the workers to get the increase which is due to them, it follows that there is no option open to the workers but to say that the agreement has been broken and to take whatever action is necessary through the trade union movement to try to recover it. If that means going back to the EEC and telling them that the farmers who have been getting the increases and who are employing workers are not prepared to give those workers the share which is their just right, there is no option but to say that and ask the EEC to ensure that they will not be as flaithiúlach about fixing prices in the future.
The irony of the thing is that, while the agricultural worker has to pay the increase in the cost of food which has resulted from the increases given to the agricultural community, he cannot get the compensation normally sought and secured by other types of workers. So, we are quite serious about this Bill. It should have been accepted, even though the Minister for Labour told me a week or so ago that he was thinking of other amendments —he did not think of the commission which the Minister present has mentioned—which he would find it necessary to put into this Industrial Relations Act and that the whole lot would be put in together. That is all right for a Minister or a Deputy or anybody not engaged in agriculture depending on a week's wages, but it is not all right for the farm worker who has only what he gets at the end of the week.
I was born and reared in the country. I negotiated with farmers for many years. The one reason why the Agricultural Wages Board did not effect very much was because many farmers did not and still do not pay reasonable wages and take no account of what the wage is set at. But there are thousands of workers employed in agriculture who are paid what the farmer likes to call the standard wage. He does not refer to it as a minimum wage, but as the standard wage, that being the lowest amount which the law will allow him to pay the worst worker he employs. He expects the worker to be happy with that. Perhaps I am wrong and misrepresenting the employing farmers. Perhaps they will be anxious to have the necessary arrangements made to give the increase. If so, they should bring the matter to the notice of their representatives on this board, because as it stands at present their representatives are speaking with two tongues: while on the Employer-Labour Conference they make one case and they make an entirely different case before the joint labour committee which fixes agricultural workers wages.
It is quite evident that this increase must be granted and that can only be done by having this Bill become law. The farmers are guaranteed prices under the price fixing procedure of the common agricultural policy of the EEC under Article 39 of the Treaty of Rome. This is a mandatory transfer of income to farmers from other sections of the Community. This massive transfer of income was of the order of 48 per cent in 1975; 13 per cent in 1976 and 39 per cent in 1977, according to information furnished to the House by the Taoiseach on 31 May 1978 as reported in the Official Report at column 241. If the farmers were unable to pay the increase there might be some argument in favour of the Government refusing to accept the Bill but under no circumstances can farmers now say that they are unable to pay the increases which are the floor increases I mentioned. In fact, farm prices are fixed under the common agricultural policy at a level which would enable persons employed in agriculture to receive the industrial wage in the area concerned. Therefore, a function of the Agricultural Joint Labour Committee would be to fix wages at a level which would have the the effect of transferring to agricultural workers from farmers' incomes a sum of money equivalent to the yearly, weekly, or hourly industrial wage. The farmers are in no position to refuse to pay it while their prices are fixed so that an efficient farmer is deemed to be given an income through prices sufficient to enable his income to be of the same order as industrial wages after payment of expenses.
If farmers' representatives refuse to transfer to agricultural workers the money that has been awarded to them in the price fixing structure so that they could afford the industrial level of wages to employees, some other action will have to be taken. I should hate to see that happen, but the situation is very serious. It may not be known but there has been a sharp decline in the number of paid agricultural workers in recent years. Machinery is replacing men and women. When I hear people talk of full employment I wonder if they do not have their tongues in their cheeks because the more modern machinery is introduced the more people are left on the labour exchange. This is as true of agriculture as of anything else. In 1975 there were 21,100 permanent agricultural workers in the country; in 1976 the figure was 17,400. This information was furnished to the House by the Taoiseach on 13 June 1978.
In proposing this Bill we are not farmer-bashing. The object of the common agricultural policy is to enable persons engaged in agriculture to obtain an income comparable to the local industrial wage. In sponsoring this Bill we do not object to a farmer who works an efficient holding for 280 days or 2,380 hours in a year from receiving the industrial wage after payment of expenses. But an agricultural worker should also be paid the average industrial wage, and, if farmers through their representative organisations decide to confiscate the employee's share of the transferred farm income, steps will have to be taken to question the level of farm prices fixed for our farmers under the common agricultural policy. Agricultural employers must realise that they cannot be allowed to confiscate their employees' share of the massive increases in income transferred to agriculture under the mandatory price-fixing system. Incidentally, the word "farmer" does not appear in Article 39 of the Treaty of Rome.
The facts are as stated. A mistake was made when the Bill was going through the House. There is a difference of opinion as to whether the mistake was the responsibility of the people then in office or of the advice they got. That is a matter for which the Minister must take responsibility and I am sure he is prepared to do that. No matter who was at fault, whether a miscalculation occurred and people thought that certain things which did occur could not occur, I do not know; but the situation now is that, unless this Bill is passed, the second increase of the national wage agreement will be almost due and may in fact be due before the first increase is paid. That is a ridiculous situation. It would be terribly unfair if we allowed such a situation to continue.
Because of my long time in this House I know that Government dislike having to introduce short amendments to Acts that have been passed as recently as a few years back. In spite of that, this is a very important matter and therefore, to be fair to the agricultural workers, we should now agree to accept this Bill. But if the Minister is prepared to agree that a similar Bill will be introduced by the Government—I do not care who introduces it—I am prepared to accept that. You cannot get arrears of wages over a period; you cannot make an order fixing wages back six months for farm workers. It is not possible to operate in that way and because of that I ask that something be done now. If something concrete is offered by tomorrow evening, we on this side of the House would be perfectly satisfied to accept that. If that is not being done we shall insist that the Bill be put to a vote.