Private Members' Business. - Dunnes Stores Industrial Dispute.

I ask the Minister to intervene in the Dunnes Stores dispute. Earlier this year the Minister had an opportunity to grasp the nettle not only in regard to the problems at Dunnes Stores but also in regard to the ongoing problem of the exploitation of part-time workers. The Government was very concerned about part-time workers when it cobbled together the Programme for Government last year. However, that concern by a supposedly left wing dominated Government has gone out the window along with many more of its promises.

Part-time workers in Dunne Stores and elsewhere have been left unprotected because the Government turned its back on them. Other EU states have dealt with this issue in one way or another. I am grateful to the Minister for coming to the House to reply to this matter but I wish to remind him that during the Cork by-election the Fine Gael Party in particular promised that it would introduce legislation to control Sunday trading. There will be more disputes similar to the one at Dunnes Stores and chaos and confusion will continue while this free-for-all prevails. The Minister refuses to introduce the necessary legislation to regularise Sunday trading and provide statutory protection for part-time workers.

I wish to put forward proposals in this regard to the Minister. My first point is that there is a need to control Sunday trading, not ban it. There is a clear demand from consumers for Sunday trading at certain times of the year. The case for Sunday trading in tourist areas has been well made and equally good cases have been made for Sunday trading by the family corner shop, filling stations and garden centres. I understand the Minister has been advised by the Attorney General that it is constitutionally impossible to control Sunday trading. Will he say if this is the case and, if so, will he publish the legal advice? The Members are entitled to know the basis for his arguments.

The second point concerns the issue of zero hour contracts, which was dealt with in the Dunne Stores dispute but must be dealt with by way of legislation. The time has come to make zero hour contracts which do not make a guarantee of a minimum number of working hours illegal. These contracts are used by shops, hotels, catering firms, contract cleaning companies and nursing. These contracts can be made illegal within weeks if the Government implements the EU working time directive into Irish law. This can be brought about through dialogue with the social partners.

The third point to make is that Sunday is different to other days and a person should not be forced to work on this day. Under British legislation workers can agree an opt out clause which means they are not obliged to work on Sundays and will not lose their jobs if they do so. Fourth, the Shops Hours of Trading Act, 1938 which requires employers to give starting and finishing times in an hours of work notice needs to be updated. The sanction for a breach of this rule is a maximum fine of £20 plus a penalty of £4 per day where the offence is a continuing one. It is clear that this legislation is out of date.

I put forward those proposals which will provide greater protection for part-time workers to the Minister as I appreciate this is not an easy issue with which to deal. Part-time employment accounts for approximately 11 per cent of workers compared with the figure of 6.5 per cent in 1985. I ask the Minister not to expose these workers to the free-for-all atmosphere which prevails today but to face up to his responsibilities and introduce the necessary legislation to protect their rights and working conditions.

I thank Deputy Kitt for raising this matter and for putting forward proposals in regard to legislative change. If I am to do justice to the issues he has raised and to be in a position to give authoritative responses then he will have to table a separate question. This matter deals essentially with the Dunnes Stores dispute and the need for intervention. I am not trying to avoid dealing with the other issues but this is a separate matter.

The current dispute at Dunnes Stores concerns the rates of pay to be applied for Sunday working during the pre-Christmas period. There was a four week strike in the company during the summer and this was eventually settled on the basis of a Labour Court recommendation. At the time the court's recommendation dealt with a number of issues in dispute, including Sunday trading. This issue arose against a background of an emerging trend by some stores to open on Sundays at times other than at Christmas. Traditionally the company paid treble time to staff who worked on Sundays during the pre-Christmas period. However, the management informed the union that it intended to apply the Labour Court formula to all Sunday working, including the pre-Christmas period. This would involve paying double time to staff employed before October 1994 and time-and-a-half to staff taken on since then. The union finds this unacceptable on the grounds that there is a long standing agreement on treble time payment for pre-Christmas Sunday trading and the Labour Court recommendation did not alter this agreement. In a clarification issued to the union the Labour Court confirmed that its recommendation on year-round Sunday opening did not relate to the agreement on pre-Christmas Sunday trading and added that negotiation on Christmas opening was a matter for the parties concerned.

A conciliation conference was held in the Labour Relations Commission yesterday to try to resolve the dispute but regrettably no agreement was reached. The resolution of any industrial dispute is ultimately a matter for the parties directly involved. I do not regard it as appropriate for me to intervene directly in industrial disputes. However, dispute settling services are provided by the State in the form of the Labour Relations Commission and the Labour Court. Both bodies have well proven track records and considerable experience in dealing with industrial disputes.

While no agreement was reached during the talks at the Labour Relations Commission yesterday the services of the commission are still available to assist the parties if they so request. Alternatively, if the parties feel that no useful purpose would be served in returning to the Labour Relations Commission they can refer the matter to the Labour Court for investigation and recommendation. Both services are available on a voluntary basis and it is up to the parties involved to decide whether to avail of them. Dunnes Stores is a major employer in the retail distribution sector. It also provides an outlet for many indigenous manufacturing companies. It would be deeply regrettable not only for the company and its workers but also for the wider general public if its activities were to be seriously curtailed during the peak trading period before Christmas. Having regard to all the considerations, I call on both sides to resume negotiations immediately.