His proximity to Shannon may give him that view. That shorthand phrase means they are closer to the concept where workers' rights are not as well regarded. The jury is out on the view of this Minister of State and I welcome his involvement in the debate. When we deal with the minutiae of this and of the Work Permits Bill on Committee Stage, we will find out where he stands.
The deadline for transposing this important workers' rights directive into law passed on 23 March 2005. Uniquely among all the member states, we have failed in our obligation to do that because the Government attached no great urgency to it. When the Bill was published, I described it as unwanted and unloved by the Government. Its publication was accompanied by none of the usual fanfare that we associate with the publication of significant legislation. Why was that the case? After all the time it has taken for the Government to publish domestic legislation, all we have is a minimalist and grudging adoption into Irish law of the 2002 directive. Unfortunately, the Government has taken the opportunity to weaken and to emasculate the ground breaking innovative provisions of the directive. The Government has watered down the directive as much as possible and I can give a few examples of this. It is availing of the option to phase in the directive over three years so that it will be well into 2008 before the legislation comes into effect in workplaces with 50 or more employees. Workers in smaller enterprises may never receive the full benefits of this legislation. The Government is attempting to avoid worker representation as a statutory right, by providing for so-called direct information and consultation. What does that mean? Does the information consist of mail shots and e-mails? Is that the sort of consultation that will be used as a substitute for real dialogue and negotiation between employees' representatives and management? This is an American solution to a European situation and it is inappropriate.
Workers must opt into the system of information and consultation by signing up, in writing, at least 10% of the workforce, rather than automatically including the provision as a right. This is very problematic. In companies such as Ryanair, members were threatened with being fired if they joined a union. How likely is it in those circumstances that a critical mass of 10% of a company's workers signs up and triggers those rights? The Minister of State has a duty to ensure that it happens as of right. Protection against victimisation for asserting rights is weak in the Minister of State's proposals. On Committee Stage, we will have a chance to deal with the specifics of this and I hope he will listen to some of the proposals submitted by the Opposition for strengthening the protection against victimisation. The standard rules for the employees' forum provide for only two meetings per annum with the employer. That hardly represents a permanent, on-going process of consultation and information envisaged by the 2002 directive. The Labour Party will fight to strengthen this legislation on Committee Stage.
A literal reading of the directive might lead some to the view that machinery could bead-hoc, that is, information and consultation would take place only as particular issues arose, rather than as part of a process of partnership and dialogue. A more positive view is that the establishment of a permanent process of consultation and information is implicit in the provisions of the directive. A permanent machinery could be established, such as a form of the works councils. This model is tried and practised in continental Europe and it is the norm in German manufacturing. A two tier system exists, with management and a board of directors on one tier, along with the next tier that is an on-going dialogue between the partners in a company. These partners, consisting of workers’ representatives and management, evaluate the needs of the company and the future of the company. It is not the old fashioned Victorian model of employer, manager and worker, whereby the worker receives instructions on occasions and is told what to do. We want to give workers in our dynamic economy a stake in their own undertakings. That is the central core of the proposals in the original directive and it has not been grasped by the Government. It had a legal obligation since last March to transpose this into Irish law, but it felt like a burden.
The response of IBEC has been very begrudging. IBEC did not see the directive as part of the next generation of the partnership that worked so well for Ireland. It could give people a stake in the company, a pride in the company, as well as a shared ownership in the company, so that they are not stunned by shock announcements, as is all too often the lot of workers in Ireland. Without warning, a company announces a particular set of difficulties that could well have been avoided had the workers been involved. If the workers had been alerted to the difficulties, they could have negotiated arrangements and got themselves out of those difficulties. That mind-set underscores the mind-set of the framers of this directive and I hoped it would have been robustly transposed into the legislation before us. There is a compelling case for partnership in information and a proper structured consultation process.
This legislation is a wasted opportunity, although I may be convinced by the Minister of State's willingness to engage with the Opposition on Committee Stage and accept amendments. It wastes an opportunity that would not only be good for workers, but would be good for business and ultimately, for the Irish economy. Choices must be made about the future direction of Ireland's economic model. The Taoiseach talked about the concept of partnership and his role in framing it, but the Government now needs to act and to spell out its view of the future direction of the Irish economy. I agree with the view put forward by Mr. Keith Sisson of the industrial relations research unit of Warwick University in a paper that he produced in 2002 when this directive was being framed. The paper was entitled, "The information and consultation directive: unnecessary ‘regulation' or an opportunity to promote partnership?". In an extremely interesting, well-thought out and well-researched paper, he put forward a clear set of presentations, making a compelling case for the most structured, formalised and far-reaching sharing of information and consultation possible between partners in every enterprise. At individual level he states:
Both the dignity of the individual and the opportunity for personal development are involved — work, after all, is one of the biggest single influences on people's life experience. In ACAS's words [ACAS is a British agency] "whatever the size or type of organisation, people need to talk to each other; they need to exchange views and ideas, issue and receive instructions, discuss problems and consider developments".
Hence, this is good for the individual. He summarises the business case as follows:
Having to explain their positions, take criticism and admit errors is something that few managers find easy; a right to representation also changes the power relationship with employees. Yet the considerable benefits of having effective information and consultation arrangements far outweigh any disadvantages. Having to explain policies to employees obliges managers to allow time for a fuller consultation of the proposals than would otherwise be the case, helping to ensure that the wrong decisions are not rushed into. Moreover, effective information and consultation is a critical tool in obtain the input of employees — the scrutinising of proposals by employees can lead to alternative and better decisions. Typically, their knowledge and experience of the details of operations on the ground, the problems and pitfalls and how they might be dealt with, is often far superior to that of management. These details, after all, are their job.
Hence, there is a business case for consultation and provision of information. Mr. Sisson also puts forward a case for the good of information consultation for society in general. He states:
The UK Government also stands to benefit a great deal from effective information and consultation arrangements, with the prospects of achieving several of its key policy objectives being considerably enhanced. For example, such arrangements could go a long way towards reducing the soaring costs of the employment tribunal system — remedying the lack of adequate workplace procedures for handling disciplinary cases, which is one of the biggest reasons behind the resort to litigation. Similarly, it might be expected that such arrangements would give a much-needed boost to improving the UK's training record and achieving a better work-life balance, both of which the Government has committed itself to.
These are all commitments to which our Government could sign up and which could give our society a boost. Hence, there is a compelling case to embrace this wholeheartedly. It is surprising that the employers' approach to it, as represented by IBEC, has been relatively grudging and that the Government's response in framing this proposed legislation is considerably weaker than it might have been. The information and consultation directive is one which benefits all sectors of the economy and all individual players within it.
Clearly, Members will require some considerable time to address the specifics of the Bill on Committee Stage. The Minister of State has indicated that he has been open to accommodating suggestions from the Opposition and elsewhere. I have read the Seanad debate in some detail and have noted that not all the suggestions came from Opposition Members. If one considers the Minister of State's Second Stage contribution in this House, he described most of the amendments that he accepted as minor and, unfortunately, that has been the case. When this House gets into the nitty-gritty details of the legislation on Committee Stage, I hope the Minister of State will have an open mind in respect of the Opposition's suggestions.
It is stated continually that if one strengthens workers' rights, one is somehow placing a burden of red tape on industry or small employers. While a case can be made that this is sometimes true, it cannot be made in this instance. The requirements for consultation and information constitute a win-win situation for all parties in the partnership of the workplace. As I have stated, if information is shared in an open way and criticism received to and from both employers and workers, if there is open dialogue as to how the enterprise is faring, whether its stakeholders are pulling their weight and what must be done, inevitably this will lead to a better solution for all.
Interestingly, some contributions in the Seanad from employers such as Senators White and Quinn, who have long experience of being employers, lauded the notion of dialogue on a structured, open and consistent basis as one of the key elements to a successful enterprise. Their sensible comments should be heeded in that respect.
An opportunity still exists to fashion this Bill into a new pillar of partnership, in order to signal the direction which the House intends the economy to take to all the players in the labour market. We are at an important juncture within our industrial relations framework, with what some describe as full employment, although employment black spots still exist. Moreover, an enormous new workforce of eager migrant workers is available. Members must ensure and this House must make clear that workplace gains achieved through the trade union movement and through decades of negotiation will be protected in the future. I refer to gains in respect of health and safety, hours of work, fair and proper remuneration, negotiated sectoral deals within various sectors of the economy and premium rates for overtime employment. This legislation will become one element in framing the type and shape of labour market desired by Members and, ultimately, in forging the type and shape of economy and society that we will leave to the next generation.
We want both our economy and its stakeholders to prosper without any element of exploitation. For that to happen, as legislators, Members have a clear and unanswerable responsibility to frame the strongest, most robust and best legislation possible.