Other Questions. - Workplace Inspections.

Brendan Howlin

Question:

13 Mr. Howlin asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment her views on whether it is satisfactory that inspections have not taken place later than 10 p.m. under the Protection of Young Persons (Employment) Act, 1996, having regard to the provisions of the Act relating to young people working after this time; the steps, if any, she will take to ensure that workplace inspections take place at all relevant hours; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [21997/99]

In earlier replies this year to similar questions on this issue I detailed the requirements imposed on employers by the Protection of Young Persons Act, 1996, and how the Act seeks to protect the welfare of "children", persons under 16 years of age, and "young persons", 17 and 18 year olds. The Act seeks to protect the welfare of young persons in the workplace by requiring employers to keep wages and employment records detailing the hours of work of any such young persons, rest intervals etc. The Act also lays down specific limits as to the hours that can be worked by young persons and prohibits the employment of persons under 18 in late night work.

The Act is administered by the employment rights division of my Department and is enforced by the labour inspectorate within that division. Enforcement practice to date has involved carrying out inspections based on complaints received about specific breaches of the Act and as a matter of routine. Breaches of the Act can be detected by close examination of these records. Inspections have taken place during normal office hours as the majority of employers carry on business during these hours. Enforcement experience has shown that the majority of employers found to be in breach of the Act are willing to adjust their practices to conform with the legal requirements. To ensure that corrective measures are taken by employers in such instances and that further breaches do not occur it has been normal practice for a follow-up inspection to be carried out after a suitable lapse of time.

While I am satisfied that all reasonable measures have been, and are still being, taken to enforce the 1996 Act with a view to safeguarding the rights of young persons in the workplace, I am very conscious of the continuing concerns being expressed by various groups in relation to the exploitation by less scrupulous employers of young persons. With these concerns in mind I am pleased to state that arrangements are now being put in place for the immediate involvement of the labour inspectorate in inspections outside of normal working hours.

As ever I urge anyone with information in relation to breaches of the Act to notify the employment rights division of such breaches. I am confident that all such reported breaches will be dealt with expediently and that every effort will be made by the officials of my Department to eradicate non-compliance with this and any other employment rights legislation.

Does the Minister of State consider there to be any point in having legislation on the Statute Books when measures are not put in place to enforce it? Inspectors are not going out after 5 or 6 p.m. to examine whether this Act is enforced.

I do not know if the Deputy heard me, but negotiations have taken place and I can now report to the House that arrangements are being put in place to immediately involve the labour inspectorate in working outside normal working hours at night time. I have requested that there be a particular focus on the workplace at night time in the run-up to Christmas.

Is it true there are just ten inspectors working in this area? Has the Minister any plans to increase the number of inspectors and, if so, to how many and how soon?

It is true and I think that is an important point. In my view there are not enough inspectors. There are ten posts in the labour inspectorate and, as I have said before, as part and parcel of the implementation of the minimum wage the Government is committed to increasing that number. That process is at an advanced stage. The plan is to have seven additional posts in place as soon as possible. This is very much tied in with the minimum wage and I very much look forward to it being put in place.

Will all these inspectors be taken from looking after young people to work on the minimum wage? Will they be working exclusively on the minimum wage? Can the Minister provide for more inspectors to look after the exploitation of younger people in the context of them remaining in school and third level education and not taking up low paid jobs?

The inspectors will be working on both issues. Clearly, there will be a cross-over. The inspectors will be working in the workplace. As I said earlier, we depend on people to report malpractice in the workplace and I encourage people, not just parents but equally members of the public, particularly teachers, to report such incidents.

That will not happen.

I have had a number of meetings with many interested parties on this specific issue. The inspectors will be working on the minimum wage and on this legislation in the context of young persons.

I am still not clear whether the Minister is saying this new regime for the inspectorate has been put in place. Has it been negotiated and agreed with the unions etc? Will it be operable before Christmas 1999?

Yes. The Deputy may be aware that there were protracted negotiations for some time regarding members of the inspectorate working outside normal working hours, that is, going to workplaces at night time. Those discussions have finally come to a satisfactory conclusion and we are now in a position to put arrangements in place for inspectors to go into the workplace at night time.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.