The Minister's officials gave me a briefing on the legislation at which we discussed whether the current minimum wage would be affected by the proposed reduction in the rate. In fairness to the officials, they stressed that it was their understanding that the measure will affect new entrants rather than existing workers. While I accept they made this statement in good faith, the amendment tabled by my colleague, Deputy William Penrose, is necessary because only limited protection is available in practice for very low paid workers.
Who are the people who work on the minimum wage? They are mostly women who are primarily employed as part-time and occasional workers. I do not believe many Members, other than employers, fully understand what it is like to be an employee on the minimum wage. According to the officials, approximately 52,000 workers or 3.4% of the labour force are on the minimum wage. They are largely women and young people of both sexes. They are often women who work weekends in hotels doing functions in the weeks before Christmas. Many of them have been working functions in all the hotels with which Members are familiar for decades. I ask the Minister to think about this.
Many of the women in question are parenting on their own or have husbands who are not working. I refer specifically to those of them who come from Dublin city. If they have a contract, it is often with the company which provides the service rather than with the hotel for which they work. First they must try to have their names included in a list and if they are so fortunate, they must make themselves available should the hotel in which they normally work hold a function. If the functions start next year and run into the new year, what protection will such workers have? How many of them will go to a Rights Commissioner? The contracting companies are structured in a way that offers the minimum obligation to these workers. That is what this is about. It is an whole area of employment contracting activity that has been refined. People are probably most familiar with it in connection with Michael O'Leary but he is not a minimum wage employer. People are aware that in his businesses very often people are not directly employed by the big nameplate but by a contracting company. They may be paid onshore in Ireland or, in some instances, offshore. However, there are no contracts in the minimum wage businesses. Consider a person who does not get a full month's work, for example, a woman doing banquets and functions in a hotel who gets a telephone call a month later. How can this woman refer to the previous rate at which she was employed? It simply does not happen.
In the shop trade in Dublin there is a very good union which organises shop workers and does a great deal of good work with very good employers. They have been the backbone of employment in the city centre for 100 years or more. However, yet again, shops are changing. I do not know how many Members understand the way big shops are organised now. They are made up mainly of concessions with branded products being sold in each concession. The original group of workers used to work an apprenticeship in shop work and then, if they wished, had employment for life and could move up the ranks and become buyers, managers and so on. That set-up is now gone and within the big stores there are boutiques and concessions where, once again, contracts for labour do not exist and other than in the specialty of men's clothes vast numbers of employees are women, in particular, lone parents. If such a woman has the opportunity to take work in a local shopping centre in or outside Dublin or in any big town, all her hours are contracted and she must be available to work any number of hours she is called to do. The Minister of State and Deputy Penrose are both lawyers and will know this well. It is very difficult to be in that situation. I wish the Minister of State would tell me how in such a situation it is possible for the worker to go to a Rights Commissioner. In effect, there may be a verbal agreement with the employer offering the possibility of 18 hours per week or, if not, whatever hours are available. The result might be 12 hours per week. That is the way it happens — people are called up. It is not quite casual work but the power rests with the employer.
In many Centra-type and garage-type employments certain employers bring in workers from abroad. People will be familiar with this situation. The employers buy a house in a constituency like mine to house people and may even employ a person from the workers' village or home town to be the housekeeper, buying food en masse for the household. Such contracts are negotiated overseas. One will see people from one area, perhaps India, perhaps China, doing all the shop work in 24-7 type shops and garage outlets. What protection do they have? I cannot see they have any because generally speaking the employers who do this, housing the employees and providing a certain amount of food structure and purchasing capacity, will take people who come here for three to six months. Their work may be renewed. The room for exploitation in this situation is very great.
I return to Fianna Fáil and, in particular, the Green Party. Many green voters were young people, who, with women, are most at risk from the measure being introduced. That is the reality. I cannot see that acceptance of this amendment would undermine the structure in any way. At most, it would apply to 52,000 people who are currently on the minimum wage. However, there may be another factor at play — this is what we do not know about the Fianna Fáil plan. It may be the party's plan that labour contracts which were negotiated based on the minimum wage, with €1.50, €2 or €3 added as agreed by a certain number of employers and unions, can now be renegotiated. Deputy Penrose's amendment would give such workers some level of protection. They would at least be able to go to the appropriate forum and make a case that their wage agreement should not be reduced arbitrarily. This is a very reasonable amendment. I would be very shocked if the Green Party does not accept even this very limited and sensible amendment proposed by the Labour Party that would ensure that workers keep their minimum rights. People will remember that.
As Deputy Penrose noted, the briefing by the officials and the Minister of State's speech both state that the measure will not affect existing workers on the minimum wage. The Deputy identified that this is not actually written into the legislation, rather it is an assurance by the Minister and the officials. However, employers could drive a coach and four through that intention with ease.
Bear in mind this is a Government that was not able to increase in the 2010 tax year the taxation of bonuses to a current year basis. Any tax lawyer is able to do as much. I do not believe the Irish courts would be bound by a decision of the United Kingdom courts in which I understand a related legal case was taken. In regard to NAMA and other court actions that have been taken, as far as I can make out our judges have been very conscious of the financial emergency the State faces. The Minister of State made a pathetic defence today, stating he cannot tax the bonuses in question here and now. I do not believe that to be the case in tax law. For example, in the case of a teacher who marks leaving certificate papers, a university lecturer or other person who marks college papers or a lawyer or a doctor who is paid a fee the year after he or she supplied the service, the fees received are generally taxed at the current year's tax rates, especially if the person is in employment as opposed to being self-employed. The Minister of State spoke of a UK High Court judgment being binding in Ireland, in the context of a national emergency where, under the Constitution, judges can take a view of such an emergency and of where public interest overrides practice. At the same time the Minister of State asked us to believe, on his assurances, without anything being written into the legislation such as the Labour Party amendment would supply, that employers will not find a way to break, change or end contracts. The 52,000 people in question are mainly women. This Bill to reduce the minimum wage is about doing down women and young people. It is outrageous that the Green Party would go along with it and fail to accept a reasonable Labour Party amendment. The Minister of State should explain the situation.
I could discuss other employments in which the minimum wage applies. I will not even get into the issue of domestic house workers who, by and large and be they Irish or foreign, do not have contracts. They may have implied contracts, but they generally do not have active contracts that could be challenged before a Rights Commissioner. One sees the odd test case, but that is it. Even then, voluntary organisations or the Bar's pro bono scheme are required to test those cases, since individuals on the minimum wage are not empowered or do not have the resources to pursue them. This legislation has ethical and moral dimensions that the Government has failed to address.
Under subsections 13(a)(4)(d)(i) and (ii), the proposed order on the minimum wage can be changed to have regard to the likely effect that it will have on levels of employment and unemployment and the cost of living. The reference used to be to inflation. The change in wording to “cost of living” implies that deflation and decreases in the cost of living are to be included. This subsection takes the legs out from under whatever protection the officials believe the 52,000 workers currently on the minimum wage have. Deputy Penrose’s amendment seeks to provide a small floor of protection. Lawyers might be arguing his proposed section versus subsection (ii). Despite the fact the Green Party gave the green light to the reduction in the minimum wage, it is astonishing that the party would not at least try to enforce the protection for women and young people on the minimum wage from those employers who will be unscrupulous in exploiting this provision.