I was associated with the Department of Enterprise and Employment for two and a half years and although I have had responsibilities in other areas I have always followed closely legislation produced by that Department.
The Bill is welcome because it updates the principal Act, the Unfair Dismissals Act, 1977. As time goes on and as work practices and customs change there will be a need to review labour legislation. The Department of Labour was set up in 1966, making it one of the most recent and its first Minister was the former President Hillery. Some of the Ministers who served in it, with the exception of myself, achieved great things. Indeed the former Deputy, Mr. Michael O'Leary, was responsible for enacting much of the labour legislation prompted by the European Community. The body of legislation is so voluminous that it has taken many years for people to come to grips with it. Indeed it took employers a long time to accept that they were governed by this legislation.
Legislation becomes outmoded and needs updating and, therefore, I welcome the proposed changes in this legislation. A discussion document was prepared in 1986-87 which covered three areas; unfair dismissals, employment equality and the payment of wages. A payment of wages Bill was enacted a year ago and this Bill before us is a follow-up to the other areas under discussion which were considered in need of updating. I am sure the Minister for Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Taylor, will have an input to the equality aspects of this Bill and we look forward to the introduction of legislation in that area.
This is a very welcome Bill. Although the Minister with responsibility in this area is not present, I commend her on the job she is doing and I am sure she will ensure that the legislation enacted by this House is enforced.
I look forward to the implementation of the European Social Charter, which sets out the rights of workers. It is worth reminding the House that the Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers lists the rights of workers: (1) workers have a right to work in any EC country of their choice; (2) they should be guaranteed a fair wage; (3) they should have improved living and working conditions. It is interesting that the EC Foundation for Living and Working Conditions is located just down the road from me and it would be interesting to hear its reports discussed in the House. It would be useful if an invitation was extended to Members to visit this foundation; (4) they should have social protection under the prevailing national systems; (5) freedom of association and collective bargaining — we are reasonably up-to-date in this regard — (6) vocational training; (7) equal treatment of both men and women; (8) information, consultation and participation; (9) health protection and safety at work; (10) protection of children and adolescents; (11) minimum living standards for the elderly and (12) improved social and professional integration of the disabled. It would be hard to find anybody who could find fault with that Charter.
Members on all sides of the House are in agreement that the Social Charter should be adopted as part of the Maastricht Treaty agreement. There may be some confusion because in the Maastricht Treaty agreement it is known as the Social Chapter, but I still refer to it as the Social Charter. Some of the Community countries have adopted a pick and mix approach to the Maastricht Treaty agreement. Germany, Holland, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Ireland are enthusiastic about the adoption of the Social Chapter but others are not because it will impose an additional cost on production. It is worrying that our neighbour across the water is totally opposed to the adoption of the Social Chapter of the Masstricht Treaty agreement.
It should be remembered that the Social Chapter states only fundamental social rights, and they must be enacted in every country. Britain's feet dragging on the Social Chapter gives cause for concern. This will give them a competitive edge in attracting foreign investment to set up in Britain. As it imposes a cost on industry, investors from America, Japan and other countries may not wish to be tied down by legislation that does not apply in their own country. I hope that the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise and Employment, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and anyone representing us in Europe will insist that all countries should adopt the Social Chapter and that the Maastricht agreement is not one from which they can pick and mix. The Danes have said they do not like the defence policy and the British have said they do not like the Social Chapter and they are allowed to take on board what they want. It would be very dangerous for us if this were allowed to happen.
When one considers that Digital transferred its operation from Galway to Ayr in Scotland one wonders if an added attraction was the fact that Britain did not adopt these rights. In Packard Electric approximately 200 workers were laid off and a certain section of that operation was moved to Portugal. If countries like Spain, Portugal and Britain will not apply these fundamental rights to workers why incorporate this chapter in the Maastricht agreement? Why incorporate a chapter that advances the conditions of workers unless we ensure that it is accepted by all EC countries so that labour legislation throughout the Community is on the same base? I cannot see how anybody in an advanced Community can say: "this is an aspirational document, we do not have to adopt it but we may adopt certain parts of it".
If we are adopting the 12 rights they should apply to the entire Community. Ireland, the poorest country in the Community, is prepared to accept these conditions and rights. I insist that our Ministers ensure that the bigger, wealthier and stronger countries do something similar, otherwise I see a danger in their having a more attractive package to offer in rural investment. That is dangerous for us, the IDA and the 300,000 people who are unemployed. It is not for us to lower our standards, but we must ensure that the standards of other Community countries are raised to the highest levels.
When we adopt certain aspects of the social chapter, as contained in this Bill, we have to say loud and clear that countries who are not prepared to accept forward legislation on behalf of their workforce should not be allowed to remain within the Community. If we are part of the Community we should accept all the conditions, simply not those that suit us.
I am vice-chairman of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, on which there are 25 members from each Parliament. At our plenary session in Cork at the end of next month it is my intention to table a motion on this subject not to embarrass our British friends, because I know that half the group are totally supportive of the social chapter but to have open discussion. The British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body was set up to deal not only with security and protection in the country but to discuss all issues, for example, social issues, our position within the EC and problems arising from that and the position and conditions under which Irish people in Britain and British people in Ireland live and work. I have already indicated to the joint chairmen that I will be moving this motion which cannot be brought forward without the support of the Dáil, Seanad, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. According to the rules, a motion has to be joined by members from both sides. I hope to have the opportunity of a full open discussion in Cork on this matter and to encourage our British colleagues to ensure that the social chapter is adopted by them.
I am glad the Minister is bringing forward legislation which will give protection in the case of the termination of certain second or subsequent fixed terms and fixed purpose employment contracts. This has become popular in Ireland in the past ten or 15 years. Fixed contracts are being offered rather than contracts which are debated and agreed between the trade union movement and the employer. In my view, fixed contracts are being offered to exclude the trade union movement organising, particularly in new ventures some of which are multinationals setting up in Ireland. Fixed contracts are being applied right across the board from the most highly paid person down to the lowest paid worker in the organisation. This reminds one of film stars or TV personalities who sign up for a length of time. That is where the idea originated. The person could work only in accordance with that contract for the term it was set up. This is a way around all the legislation we enact.
I welcome that provision in the Bill and I hope it will discourage employers from thinking they can get around the legislation by offering jobs to potential employees on the basis that they sign contracts. With 300,000 people unemployed those seeking employment are almost forced into taking whatever is on offer. Legislation such as this is needed to ensure that these people are protected when they are in a vulnerable position. I welcome that section and I hope, when enacted, it will remove the present weakness and discourage potential employers or companies setting up in Ireland from excluding workers from the terms of any legislation in the labour area.
Obviously, this Bill will improve the lot of people who work in small businesses where there is no tradition of organised labour, where they are unorganised employments and, therefore, employees have to work in unacceptable conditions. A number of Deputies referred to the fact that those workers are ignorant of the laws enacted over the years to protect their interests. It is important, therefore, that Bills such as this update the provisions and make their position clearer.
It has been said that many people who are dismissed have no knowledge of the law in this area and are not concerned about how they can get redress. In our clinics we meet people who have been let go by employers who are either ignorant of their responsibilities or who flout the legislation. I hope we can improve these matters. In rural areas the situation for workers is not good. Travelling to Dublin to a Labour Court or unfair dismissals hearing can be off putting for many people. The old idea of holding hearings in local areas should be maintained. More publicity should be given to the fact that a worker can have the services of the Labour Court in his or her own county. Local newspapers are keen to report discussions at council meetings, court hearings and so on and would be keen to attend such hearings and highlight the difficulties people experience. I hope rural employers accept they have the same responsibility as if they were in any part of the city of Dublin or any of our other major cities.
I congratulate the Minister on her appointment. She is very capable and the first woman to have responsibility for industrial issues. I congratulate her on taking over that job. That position used to be known as the bed of nails in comparison with other Departments. It is now a progressive Department, and has expanded its area of operations. Many people now depend on it. I wish the Minister well in dealing with her first legislation in the House. It is excellent legislation with which to start and I look forward to its operation.