Industrial Relations (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill 2011: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The events of the past few weeks and the appalling treatment of the Vita Cortex, La Senza and Lagan Brick workers and last year the Jane Norman workers, who were treated in a similarly appalling manner, for whom nothing whatsoever was done and who are still owed approximately one month's wages, highlights the inadequacies of the Industrial Relations (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill 2011. It seems to respond to troika demands for so-called labour market restructuring which, to my mind, encourages a race to the bottom in terms of wages and conditions for ordinary workers. It responds to the ideological prejudice of a Government which continuously trots out words like "competitiveness" and "flexibility" as if they were an end in themselves rather than seeing as a priority the rights and entitlements of ordinary workers such as those I mentioned who are being trampled on, in particular in the current climate of recession and austerity in which certain employers seem to take the opportunity to walk all over the rights of workers and get away with things they would not otherwise get away with.

Where are the protections in this Bill to ensure the disgraceful scenes we saw in La Senza or which we are seeing in Vita Cortex and Lagan Brick are not repeated? That reflects the deeper misguided thrust of this legislation. Of course, I welcome the fact that at some level this legislation is about retaining the JLCs and the REAs after they were struck down by the courts. However, it seems clear the Government is under pressure from its own ideological position, from employers' organisations and from the troika to use this opportunity to weaken the protections that existed in the JLC and the ERO systems. Specifically, it is taking the question of Sunday premiums, overtime rates and so on out of the remit of the JLCs. This will be replaced with a code of practice which will almost certainly lead to a watering down of the rights and entitlements workers should have to Sunday premiums and proper overtime rates. In so far as it seeks to bring in derogations for employers from EROs and JLCs, the emphasis is on the employer side rather than on the rights of workers to the protections the EROs and JLCs have provided in terms of pay and conditions.

It is worrying that in setting wages the emphasis is again on competitiveness and taking into account comparable jurisdictions whatever they might be. It is very important to note in this regard that much of the rhetoric on the Government side surrounding its approach to this legislation is about the need for competitiveness thus implying that wage rates are particularly high in this country and that the group of workers these agreements cover have rights and protections which are somehow uncompetitivevis-à-vis our European counterparts. Nothing could be further from the truth. When one takes into account the purchasing power of wages covered by the agreements, one finds that in the hospitality sector, for example, workers in this country have the third lowest level of pay in the EU 15. These are already low paid workers in comparison with their European counterparts and this legislation seeks to give opportunities to employers to diminish the rights of workers in terms of pay and conditions in these areas. That is problematic.

The Government justifies all of this with talk of jobs. Who could disagree with the urgent need to create jobs? There is no evidence whatsoever that reducing the wages of workers who are already low paid does anything other than damage demand in the economy and consequently further depresses the economy and leads to greater levels of unemployment. It is noteworthy that many of our European counterparts, against the backdrop of the current crisis, have protected or even raised minimum wages because they understand that putting decent pay into the pockets of low paid workers sustains demand in the economy. However, this Bill will do further damage.

The fundamental problem is that instead of addressing the core reason we have mass unemployment, which is the decision to bail out banks and to rob ourselves of the investment funds necessary to invest back into the economy to create stimulus and to put people back to work doing important things such as developing industry and so on, we are handing those funds back to bondholders and workers and employers are left scraping for the crumbs which are left in a depressed economy.

The emphasis in this legislation is on the employer side but workers and many employers will suffer if this is the emphasis the Government seeks to take rather than addressing the real root problems of unemployment while at the same time protecting the rights of low paid workers.

I welcome the Bill and the alternative Bills put forward by Deputy Tóibín of Sinn Féin and Deputy Willie O'Dea of Fianna Fáil. It is strange that an alternative Bill was not put forward by People Before Profit. It is easy to criticise what has been put forward. I look forward to the amendments which will be tabled by Deputy Boyd Barrett's colleagues. To educate him a little further, from what I understand there are 27 members in the EU and not 15, which the Deputy mentioned.

I welcome the Bill which is the first substantial one since the 1946 Act. One must remember that in 1946, pubs did not open on a Sunday. One of the sectors covered in this Bill is the catering and hospitality trade. At that time, most employment was in the agriculture sector. Currently, approximately 200,000 people are employed in the agriculture sector but at the time of the 1946 Act, farming was a very labour intensive industry. The circumstances now are totally different from those when the 1946 Act was brought forward.

I welcome the contributions made by all Members. I look forward to the amendments that will be tabled on Committee Stage. The Minister has also indicated that he will be bringing forward a number of amendments on Committee Stage. I welcome the speed with which the Minister reacted to the High Court decision back in July by bringing this Bill forward rapidly so that we can now deal with it.

In his speech, the Minister referred to flexibility on a number of occasions. I know that Deputy Boyd Barrett has a problem with the word "flexibility" but we are in different circumstances now. Flexibility in the workforce is a key to the future. New industries are rapidly coming forward and consequently we need a much more flexible workforce. As a result, we need legislation that can also be flexible, taking into consideration the various circumstances in which workers find themselves.

Competitiveness is another key aspect in this context. I am pleased that we have become much more competitive in the last couple of years, particularly in certain sectors. In future, low-paid workers will end up in sectors such as tourism, which in the past was part of the JLCs in the hospitality sector. I know about this sector from my own family background, which was in catering. My brother is involved in the pub trade. It must be recognised that we are now operating seven days a week, rather than five days a week as heretofore. As a consequence, workers are willing to engage in working flexible hours. They also understand the necessity not to be bound by previous JLCs.

The proposed Bill looks after both employers and employers. Employers will get one shot at being allowed to reduce or remove JLCs through this legislation and they cannot come back for five years. I have a slight problem with that, so I will talk to the Minister about tabling an amendment to remove the five-year period. It should be up the Labour Court to decide whether an employer can avail of circumstances to change this matter. The Mandate union should make a submission to the Joint Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education as quickly as possible. I urge it to do so.

Much of the workforce is currently involved in casual labour. One third of those in receipt of unemployment benefit have some work, but we should encourage more unemployed people to re-enter the workforce through casual work. We must adapt social payments so that those who want to work two or three hours a week, or can only get casual jobs, will not be punished as a result.

I am pleased to say a few words about this Bill. One element of politics I particularly dislike is the clear attempt to define politicians as being on the left or the right. It assumes that to be concerned about the lowest paid and most vulnerable in society one is left wing, and that if one is right wing it is all about big business and profits. I do not subscribe to that type of politics. While business start-ups are a vital requirement for economic recovery, particularly in the tourism, service and manufacturing sectors, workers in these areas need basic protection and rights.

In the Jobs Initiative the Government took a decision to reverse the minimum wage cut enacted by the previous Government. In addition it is introducing initiatives to help job creation and improve labour cost competitiveness by easing the cost to employers of taking on new employees. This was done by halving the lower rate of PRSI until the end of 2013 on jobs that pay up to €356 per week. We have helped employers to take on such workers in these instances.

The programme for Government gave a commitment to introduce legislation to reform the joint labour committee and registered employment agreement systems. This was also committed to in the EU-IMF deal. The plan is to reduce the possible negative impacts on job creation and competitiveness of existing arrangements. Historically, the purpose of the joint labour committees was to regulate employment conditions and set minimum pay rates for employees in certain sectors. The JLCs were established by a statutory order of the Labour Court under the Industrial Relations Act 1946, with an independent body made up equally of employer and worker representatives appointed by the Labour Court, with the chair appointed by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.

This Bill includes a number of provisions. The JLCs will have the power to set a basic adult rate and two additional higher rates. Companies may seek exemption from paying the ERO and REA rates due to financial difficulties. JLCs will no longer set Sunday premium rates. When setting rates, JLCs will have to take into account factors such as competitiveness, as well as employment and unemployment rates. Other reforms which do not need legislative change include reducing the number of JLCs from 16 to 13 and standardising benefits such as overtime through a nationally agreed protocol or code of practice.

The issues raised in section 5 determine what policies and principles must be taken into account by the Labour Court when considering whether to register an agreement. The principles of promoting harmonious relations and the desirability of avoiding industrial unrest are vital to the smooth running of our economy, and avoiding a perception by those considering inward investment that Ireland is a difficult place to do business. The last things we need are television pictures of industrial disharmony.

No one needs to be reminded about the crisis that exists in this country as regards joblessness. While the Government has a strong record on job creation, unfortunately job losses have also been too high. The protection of jobs is crucial to economic recovery. The sectors covered by JLCs have been particularly prone to job losses in recent years.

As the Minister, Deputy Bruton has highlighted, flexibility, competitiveness and productivity are key to getting our country working. In this respect, the Labour Court will be required to take into account the desirability of agreeing fair and sustainable rates of remuneration, taking cognisance of employment and unemployment levels in the sector, while maintaining competitiveness at the same time. This means that any settlement should not impact negatively on the basic premise of keeping this country open for business and being competitive.

Central to this is the provision that employers facing financial difficulty may apply to the Labour Court seeking temporary exemptions from their requirements to pay rates of remuneration in the agreement. That should give some comfort to employers, especially as the exemption can continue for 24 months. The fact that the exemption cannot be sought by the same employer for the same workers, as sought in the previous five years, is a comfort to employees in that they will not be exploited. Such an exemption may have a knock-on effect on other companies within the same sector where competitive advantage may be accrued. The Labour Court will have to take this into account in its decision.

While accepting that the national wage agreement has reduced the significance of the JLCs there is, however, a need to have a method of setting pay and conditions for up to 250,000 of the most vulnerable people affected by JLCs. The proposed reform of the JLC and REA systems will reinstate protection for workers employed in the sectors concerned subsequent to the judgment of the High Court in July 2011. At the same time, compliance requirements will be simplified in a number of ways, including through reduced numbers of JLCs, reduced book-keeping requirements for employers, and the non-setting of Sunday premium rates.

This legislation is comprehensive and affects a large number of vulnerable workers. It is right and proper that all workers are protected and, equally, that as a country we retain our competitiveness and jobs. I am confident that the Bill will achieve this.

It is important to remind our colleagues on the Independent benches of three points. The first point is that not all employers are evil, as they continually infer and suggest. All those working in the private sector are employed by people whose objective is make a profit, but in so doing they create the revenue and ability for others to earn a wage, thus enabling them to look after their families and homes. If it were not for the profit motive and the willingness of people to set up businesses, attract inward investment and better themselves, the plight of the country, while bad at the moment, would be so much worse.

The second point, which it is important to emphasise, is that this Government does not see competitiveness or any other such measures as goals in themselves. The reason they are pursued is for the specific objective of getting people back to work.

The proof is that in recent years, as Irish workers have regained their competitiveness, which had been lost over a period, Ireland's trade surplus has grown. This has brought more investment and tax revenue into our country, creating more jobs. Without the willingness of people to work, we would be lost and unable to do that.

The third point worth emphasising is the continued rhetoric from Members that if we were not bailing out the banks, we would not have this problem. While the idea is attractive, it is incorrect. The size of the budget deficit for this year between what we take in taxation and what we spend, excluding any of the costs of supporting our banking system, remains at €13 billion. Until the gap is bridged, it will be impossible for the State to regain our full economic sovereignty and decide, independently, what we want to do with the fruits of taxpayers' money and efforts. That goal is vital for the Government to achieve.

It is important to acknowledge the context of this legislation. Previous speakers have made reference to the High Court decision that led to the striking down of the framework in place before this Bill was introduced. In reading this Bill, it is important to quote from the judgment to emphasise the need for this legislation. This legislation is not retaining what existed in the past but refounding and recreating it. Paragraph 1 of the judgment states that what was there beforehand was "unreasonable and constitutes an unlawful and disproportionate interference with the property rights of the first and second named plaintiffs as guaranteed by the Constitution". Paragraph 34 of the ruling says that "those rates and conditions must be determined and based upon principles and policies laid down by the Oireachtas and not as determined by a delegated body acting in the absence of stated principles and policies". It states that the framework that had been in place beforehand had been acting in the absence of clear policies and principles from the State. The judgment states: "this Court is satisfied that the plaintiffs have established that such pay rates and conditions of employment have in effect been determined in an arbitrary and unfair manner."

For structures that were so vital or played such a role in protecting the conditions and workrates of employees who could be in a vulnerable position and to have the court make such a harsh ruling on the viability of those structures is a matter the Government must act upon. The choice the Government had was not to retain what had been in place before or to recreate it in a more sustainable and robust fashion. The reason the choice was made is, contrary to what some may claim, because we are very clear on the need to do all we can to create more jobs in our economy but this cannot be at the expense of recognising and understanding that the rights of people in jobs need to be protected. That is why the system is being refounded.

Within the Bill, three sections in particular relate to the objectives of the Government in looking to refound the system. Section 10 makes clear that guidance will be required from the Labour Court to review and recreate JLCs in future. This is an important point in the context of what the judgment states about the lack of guidance in the past. Section 11 refers to the need for JLCs and EROs to be more cognisant and aware of the direction set by the Minister and the Department and the need for an awareness of the principles and priorities of the particular industry or sector at any given point. The Bill lays out the rights of the employees, which is critical, but also acknowledges that cognisance must be taken of the viability of the company and industry within which the JLC and ERO is operating.

Section 13, which other speakers have commented on, is also important. It concerns the derogation procedures for dealing with the decisions of JLCs being suspended. This section examines the procedure where the majority of workers are willing to support this course of action and where the majority of workers are not willing to support it. It lays out the framework and procedure within which this will happen and how it can be resolved in an orderly fashion. All of this is driven by the fact that the Government recognises that, while it is vital to create new jobs, we need to ensure that the rights of employees, particularly those within industries specified in the JLCs names and parameters, are recognised and looked after.

I conclude by emphasising two of the points made in respect of the Government's record on the rights of employees and people working in industries in which they could be vulnerable. This is the Government that increased the level of the minimum wage, which the previous Government cut. Deputy Boyd Barrett praised other Governments across Europe for doing this but this step was taken by our Government and it is one people said we could not or would not take. It was taken as part of the jobs initiative.

The second point concerns the steps identified by the Minister in reducing the number of JLCs, which is overdue. I am glad to see it happen. A previous speaker identified the earlier item of legislation that set up this measure. This reflected the fact that the economy in the 1940s was in a different place to where it is now. I am certain we will ensure we have the right number of JLCs in the future and that they cover the right geographic areas in order to ensure that employees and employers are not put at a disadvantage on the basis of where they live. We must also ensure they cover areas relevant to the development of economy. These are all matters that can ensure the structure created by this Bill plays an important role in ensuring the rights of employees are looked after while also recognising that employers have rights. Having both sectors work closely together offers the only hope for our economy and society to continue to recover.

I propose to share time with Deputy McConalogue. I welcome the Bill, which gives us the opportunity to make a contribution on this matter. What we expected to be included in the Bill is very different from what is before us. We all accept there is a need for a Bill to deal with the High Court ruling last year when the JLC system was found to be unconstitutional. The Bill contains serious deficiencies, which will undermine JLCs and EROs, leaving workers vulnerable and with little protection.

Fianna Fáil, under Seán Lemass, introduced the JLC system in 1946. JLCs are independent bodies that determine minimum rates of pay and conditions of work for workers in certain sectors. Each JLC includes a representative of workers or employees in the sector concerned. It was far-reaching legislation at the time. The pay and conditions agreed by representatives on the JLCs were given force of law in EROs and employers are liable to be prosecuted in civil courts for breaches of an ERO. This provision was found to be unconstitutional. The Duffy Walsh report is a fine document and contains 19 recommendations. The report estimates that between 150,000 and 205,000 workers are covered by JLCs in 2009, amounting to 15% of private sector employees. These are mainly in the catering and hotel industry, which is variable employment with a seven-day working week. Hotels and pubs are open seven days a week and their catering operations must sometimes operate on a 24 hour, seven-day basis. There was a strong need for implementation of rights and regulations for people working in this sector.

Many Members of the Oireachtas and business people have expressed the view that wages in this sector are too high, rates are inflexible and that it is difficult to get people to work on Saturdays, Sundays or after hours unless they are paid way above the norm. Listening to these opinions, one would think that reducing the wages of the lower paid would create substantial amounts of new employment. This is not the case. Pay levels of lower paid workers did not have much to do with the problems business people up and down the country are now facing. The lack of consumer spending is one of the major issues. People are not spending as they did during the Celtic tiger era. Government increases in VAT, septic tank charges, household charges, rising oil prices, both due to VAT and increases imposed by oil companies, have all affected consumer spending.

Deputy Sherlock, who is Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, might take an interest in the recent substantial increases in the oil sector. There has been a dramatic increase in oil prices in the past year and I do not believe it is justified. I worked in the oil business for 14 or 15 years and I have a fair idea how it operates. When crude oil prices go up prices are increased immediately by the companies but when they go down on the world market it takes a long time for the decrease to filter through to the petrol and diesel pumps. Oil prices are causing a major problem for people at present. I am sure we will see less consumer spending this year as a result of these factors.

Labour costs in Ireland are not as high as many people claim. EU data from, I think, 2008 pointed out that Irish labour costs were 6% below the EU average. They have certainly reduced since then because of the changes that have come about. The Sunday premium appears to have gone, although the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation might dispute this. We have heard contributors to this debate claim that payments to Sunday workers are destroying the economy. That is not the case. The hotel sector, of its own accord, changed the employment regulation order, ERO, governing the sector to reduce the standard work premium from time and a half to time and a third. This came about, not because of legislation but following dialogue among the interested parties. It was a good change. Hotels were under pressure, workers recognised the situation and there was a major change in Sunday payment rates. The majority of Sunday work is paid at time and a third. That was a welcome change.

Many people are now rostered for seven days and work for a flat rate on Sundays, Saturdays and every other day. This change also came about following dialogue and discussion. The criticism that Sunday or Saturday night pay levels were devastating employment in certain sectors is not valid, and has not been for some years. These major changes should be recognised.

When this debate took place in Britain in the early 1990s the same suggestions were made, largely by employers' groups. The Sunday premium was abolished in Britain in 1993. When I consulted data on this recently, I discovered that experts in the field of employment are agreed that the change created very few, if any, jobs.

I am surprised the Labour Party has accepted the dismantling of the Sunday premium, given that the people who benefit from it are at the bottom of the pay levels and it was not a big payment in any event. The Labour Party did not hold the line on this issue. I also note from press releases that the trade union movement has given a guarded welcome to the Minister's proposed changes. This is a big change from the trade unions' initial criticism of the Minister when he first mooted the proposal. Many Members on the Government side of the House were critical when the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation floated a possible change when he came into Government. The Taoiseach said he was citing a personal agenda and the change would not happen. It has happened, the rights of the lower paid are undermined and they will find things very difficult.

If an employer decides not to honour an agreement, how will the agreement be implemented? I would like the Minister of State to spell out this in his reply. The National Employment Rights Authority, NERA, will have its hands tied behind its back. Some people were not very happy with NERA in the past. Members on all sides of the House have been critical of the NERA and of the high-handed way it operated. It appears it will now have very little involvement in employment rights, because of the changes being brought about by the Minister.

I am disappointed the Minister did not accept more of the 19 recommendations of the report by Kevin Duffy and Frank Walsh. The Duffy Walsh report was excellent and would have shown the way forward for payments to the less well off for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, the Minister has decided to ignore almost 80% of the report. I am concerned at the level of power he has taken to himself. This aspect of the Bill must be teased out on Committee Stage. The Minister will have too much power in this area and I would be concerned about decisions he might take in the future.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill, which is important in terms of how relationships between business and employees are structured and dealt with. The Bill deserves much time and attention.

The delay in introducing the Bill to the Dáil is regrettable, particularly as the High Court declared the Joint Labour Committees, JLC, to be unconstitutional on 7 July 2011. The High Court ruled that the Act under which minimum pay and conditions are set by employment regulation orders proposed by Joint Labour Committees for approval by the Labour Court was unconstitutional. This judgment followed a legal challenge by fast food outlets. Mr. Justice Kevin Feeney upheld the claims of the fast food outlets that the measures had been put in place in the absence of any policy guidelines from the Oireachtas and breached employers' property rights and their rights to fair procedure.

While that action related to catering workers, its outcome had an impact on almost 200,000 workers whose minimum pay and conditions were set under the JLC system. All employment regulation orders stopped having statutory effect from that date and, therefore, could not be enforced. Following that ruling, IBEC sent a bulletin to member companies stating employees would continue to have the same rates of pay and conditions of employment unless and until they agreed otherwise. This was effectively leading to a two-tier system in which people working side by side in the same job had different pay and conditions.

In response to the bulletin, which caused much concern and alarm among the employees whose pay and conditions were set under JLCs, Fianna Fáil introduced an industrial relations Bill in July 2011. The Government stated at that time it would introduce an alternative immediately after the summer and would, as a consequence, vote against the Fianna Fáil Bill. However, we have not seen the alternative until now, January. In the meantime, the workers have been in limbo waiting to see what will fall into place.

The Bill Fianna Fáil introduced was emergency legislation to deal with the impact of the High Court case. It provided for the amendment of the Industrial Relations Acts of 1946 and 1990 so the statutory mechanism in place for the fixing of remuneration by an employment regulation order would be consistent with the requirements of the Constitution. The Bill would have decriminalised failure on the part of an employer to comply with an employment regulation order, as recommended by the Duffy Walsh report, and would have replaced it with a civil enforcement mechanism. If the Bill had been enacted, it would have enabled the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to make new employment regulation orders in respect of all such workers and a new statutory mechanism that would have taken into account and rectified the failings in the Acts of 1946 and 1990, as identified by the High Court in its ruling. The Government could and should have accepted the Fianna Fáil Bill. It could have amended it subsequently, if necessary, instead of leaving the problem drag on, as it did, and workers wondering what would happen as a result.

The Bill before the House raises some important questions. As Deputy Browne stated, one must question why so few of the recommendations in the Duffy Walsh report have been incorporated into it. Why has the Minister of State's party, the Labour Party, abandoned some of its earlier objections? This legislation is deficient in many respects. As I stated, it is substantially different from that envisaged in the Duffy Walsh review of JLCs. There will be substantially fewer protections for workers under it. Nevertheless, rowing back on many of the concerns expressed by Labour Party Deputies after the High Court ruling, the Minister of State has welcomed the Bill and embraced the approach of the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton.

The Bill raises issues concerning the impact on the Labour Court. Workers already face massive waiting times. The average waiting time in the Employment Appeals Tribunal is 74 weeks in Dublin, which has risen from 58 in 2010. The waiting time is 76 weeks outside Dublin, which period has risen from 55 weeks in 2010. The number of claims to employment appeals tribunals is 7,424. The Labour Court waiting time averages between eight and ten weeks in Dublin and is a minimum of six months outside Dublin. The redress scheme is very complicated and difficult for people to engage with. NERA only examines an issue if it considers it reasonable to do so.

Another question raised concerned how existing JLC contracts could be deemed constitutional. How can the Government say workers will have their existing guarantees honoured when the High Court has said the legislation was unconstitutional in the first instance? How can the Government guarantee enforcement? An employer who was forced to pay under the old JLC terms could, of course, have challenged the ruling. What, according to the Minister of State, will the outcome be in such a scenario?

The Bill changes the right to Sunday premium pay. The Labour Party seems to have changed its approach to this despite its earlier assertion that it wanted to protect Sunday premium pay. In the Bill, we see it can be dealt with in different ways.

The importance of the JLCs is key in protecting workers. We must balance the need to protect workers' conditions with the need to ensure business is promoted. There is no doubt that hotels, restaurants and many businesses in operation for seven days per week find it very difficult at present. It is welcome that JLCs must take into account prevailing conditions and the circumstances of particular businesses.

As a result of the recession, we have created a new poor. Many workers on lower wages are finding it more difficult than anyone else to make ends meet. We must ensure, through the JLCs and the setting of pay terms and conditions, that it pays for people to work and that their conditions are manageable such that they continue in employment. The Government needs to be cognisant of this. The JLCs are an important aspect.

It is unfortunate that the Government has delayed for so long in bringing this Bill before the House and that it is not taking more cognisance of proposed amendments.

I welcome warmly the publication and Second Reading of this extremely important Government Bill. I respectfully disagree with the criticism by the last speaker. Many of his points were quite good and reasonable but his notion that there was an inordinate delay, for which he claimed the Government is culpable, does not stand up. When the High Court decision was handed down last July, there was a very robust and immediate response on behalf of the Minister giving an undertaking that this Bill would be brought before the House. The Bill is not without complexity. It arises from a decision in the High Court striking down earlier legislation as unconstitutional. It is not a Bill that could have been cooked up in a couple of days or weeks.

As I pointed out to Deputy O'Dea when he introduced his Bill in July, it would have been foolhardy of the Government to proceed in the manner suggested by Fianna Fáil, in good faith, at that stage. It was not a case of the introduction of emergency legislation in the manner suggested in that the Bill introduced by Fianna Fáil, including Deputy O'Dea, was essentially a rerun of that brought forward by the previous Government in 2009, perhaps with some modifications. That Bill would not have solved the problem or addressed the very serious issue that arises. It would have been found wanting and would have risked further challenges. It certainly would not have been the robust and very carefully drafted legislation now before the House.

I would not be critical at all of the Government over what has been described as a delay. The Government, Attorney General and others must take the time to consider the details of the legislation, determine the principles and policies that should be contained in it and engage in discussion and analysis on this issue with all political parties and interested organisations, be they employers or trade unions. There is nothing wrong with that. It is the way the system tends to work when it is working well, and it is right that it should do so.

It was interesting to listen to Deputy McConalogue, who criticised the Bill for having, as he saw it, departed quite considerably from the Duffy Walsh report. His party colleague, Deputy O'Dea, on the other hand, said in the House yesterday that he felt it had moved considerably back in the direction of the Duffy Walsh report. Deputy O'Dea took the view that this was a Bill the Minister, Deputy Bruton, was perhaps uncomfortable with but that he had to go ahead with because of the Labour Party, or something along those lines. I do not believe that is true. There is a high measure of debate, discussion and agreement as well as some of the compromise which undoubtedly took place in recent months. The Bill is being brought forward with the full agreement of all in the Government and it reflects the careful study, analysis and preparation that has gone into it.

I strongly agree with the point made by Deputy O'Dea yesterday that although we often hear the clarion cry in regard to pay as if the only thing that needed to be done in this economy was to reduce pay, particularly the pay of low paid workers, that argument does not stand up. There are many difficulties and challenges in this economy but the issue of reducing pay is not at the top of the list of what needs to be done, if it is on the list at all. We know labour costs in the economy have fallen dramatically in the past two years. If we are looking at where we need to point the finger or make changes in the economy and the labour market, it is certainly not in the area of seeking to reduce the pay of already low paid workers. Deputy O'Dea made that point very well and I agree with him.

The Bill is great achievement on the part of the Government and I strongly welcome it. Let us pause for a moment to consider what is happening. Deputy Tóibín asked whether the Bill is progressive. It is restoring a mechanism for the setting of pay rates which was struck down by the High Court. The entire infrastructure was essentially struck down for stark constitutional reasons and it has now been reconstructed, brick by brick, by the Government and put back in place. If one wants to ask whether that is progressive, it depends on the perspective from which one is approaching it. I regard it as very progressive.

Deputy Tóibín and others argued it was ideological or infused with ideology. I do not mind this debate about ideology, and I believe there is such a thing as ideology. However, if one wants to query what ideology is at the heart of protective rights for workers, the Bill is introducing a new mechanism which was never there before so workers can enforce their rights directly through the Rights Commissioner and on up to an enforcement mechanism in the Circuit Court. This is a new entitlement given to workers, protecting the system that is in place, which is essentially overseen by the JLCs and the Labour Court, and in many ways strengthening the procedure for the making of employment regulation orders and registered employment agreements. If there is some ideology lying behind all of that, it is certainly not a right wing ideology. I do not suggest it is ideologically driven one way or the other but, in so far as anybody is trying in this House to suggest the Bill is motivated by right wing ideology, it is simply a nonsense.

The Sinn Féin Members and others, including Deputy Clare Daly, to whom I listened earlier, have in recent weeks been almost foraging around in the Bill to see if they can find something to object to or that confirms their suspicions that this is a Government hell-bent on destroying workers' rights. Of course this is not the case. There is almost a sense of disappointment that comes across their faces when they read this legislation and see it is not the sky falling in or the undermining of workers' rights. It is the opposite. It is concerned with the restoration of a wage setting mechanism, the introduction of new enforcement mechanisms and the making available and extending to workers of what is their right, namely, that in particular those who are vulnerable and low paid should have in place and available to them a system that stands the constitutional test at the most rigorous level. That is what we, as legislators, should be doing and what we are doing in the Bill. While I am sorry Deputy Tóibín cannot find something in it of substance to rail against, the reason he cannot do so is because it is not there.

The Bill is a considerable achievement. To paraphrase the saying, "They said it couldn't be done", they said it wouldn't be done. In fact, it has been done, and the Bill has been brought before the House in a very reasonable period of time. I acknowledge it incorporates some compromise. It is not so much that there are things in the Bill I would prefer not to see, rather there are a number of things I would prefer to see in the Bill that did not make it. It is no secret that the removal of the Sunday premium from the Bill, among one or two areas, is, quite reasonably, a disappointment for some. However, it has been replaced by the necessity to introduce a code of practice to which the Labour Court and others must have regard. Again, this is a strong piece of protective legislation and people should see it that way.

I am broad shouldered enough, as I am sure others are, to be able to take criticism from the Opposition in regard to Government policy and to defend Government policy as and when we see fit. God knows, there are things on which the Opposition could find it relatively easy to have a go at the Government. However, when the Opposition has a go at everything and sees a problem in every corner, its credibility in criticising the Government, when perhaps it is more justified, is out the window. The Opposition Members should welcome and support this legislation. If they want to improve upon it, by all means they should seek to amend it but they should welcome it because the Government has done what it said it would do.

The most important thing that had to be done in the Bill was to reintroduce the principles and policies, as has been done at section 5, which inserts a new section to section 27 of the 1946 Act. That 1946 Act was very interesting legislation, as I know from having read through the original debate. It was introduced just after the war by Mr. Seán Lemass, the Minister for Industry and Commerce, and was the legislation which set up the Labour Court. The Labour Court has proven itself to be a progressive body, one that has representatives from both sides of industry - employers and trade unions - with an independent chair. From time to time, like all adjudicative bodies, it comes in for criticism but it has stood the test of time, in particular in the area of collective rights. We sometimes make a distinction between collective rights and individual worker's rights. The Labour Court has performed extremely well in this regard down through the decades, having been set up by the 1946 Act.

It was also the 1946 Act that set up the wage setting mechanism that was struck down by the High Court last July. At the time of the original Act, the country had just come out of the war and, when one looks at the legislation in the context of the time, it was very progressive in regard to protecting workers in the 1940s despite being introduced many decades before the raft of new legislation to protect workers that came in from the 1970s onwards.

While it is almost not worthy of comment, it is extraordinary when I hear colleagues opposite wondering what the Labour Party is doing or where was the Labour Party. If one did a word search on their speeches, one would find much mention of the Labour Party, for some reason. As this is particularly so in regard to Sinn Féin, I do not know whether there is an instruction to get at the Labour Party at every opportunity. We do not particularly mind because we are doing the job we are required to do. As a party, we have an extremely proud record in this area, as far back as the 1970s. It is true that much of the legislation was motivated by our membership of the EEC but there is the early anti-discrimination and equality legislation, right up to the 1990s when the equality legislation was ultimately passed by the Government which took over in 1997. However, all the work in that seminal piece of legislation was done by Mervyn Taylor. I do not say the Labour Party is the only party that has a strong record in this area - so have Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Ministers.

The suggestion, however, is that we are in some kind of a bunker inside the Government, not influencing it, not standing up for workers' rights and ensuring that legislation reflects those rights. We put it into black and white. It is laughable when people question where we were and what we were doing. We have done an enormous amount of work, as have our Fine Gael colleagues, in respect of this legislation and other Bills to protect workers, their rights, their earnings and their standards of living. I do not claim any such monopoly for my party but the criticism that we are not interested in, or are semi-detached from, the issue is really hard to take. It is not even remotely in accordance with the facts.

I mentioned the principles and policies in the legislation, which are extensive. They are balanced and important in terms of giving the JLCs and, ultimately, the Labour Court, a steer on the criteria they should adopt when establishing these orders. They are not unreasonable and if, on Committee Stage, Members wish to bring forward suggestions to tweak them that can be done. None occurs to me, in particular, because in my view these are a well-balanced set of principles and policies. The important point is they are far more extensive and comprehensive and therefore ultimately more reliable and defensible, constitutionally, than the material which was introduced in a Bill last year. In this instance I do not criticise Fianna Fáil for introducing a Bill. I will be honest enough to admit that if we were in Opposition that is what we would have done. However, the legislation in question would have been found wanting had it been adopted by this House. We were right to wait and get it right, which is what we have done.

In section 7 of the Bill there is much to praise in terms of what has been done, and in the detail as set out. For example, section 7 deals with where the court may, on its own initiative or on the written application to it of an interested party, undertake a review of a trade or a business. This is sometimes characterised as, "Oh, if there's going to be a review they're going to pull the whole thing down". Steady on. A review is a review. How can anybody object in any credible way to a review process being put into the legislation? There is a provision whereby an order or agreement can be cancelled in certain circumstances but those circumstances are clearly delineated. It is not easy to have an order or an agreement cancelled under this legislation. There are many safeguards and the Bill bears close reading in terms of the balanced way in which it is put together.

There has been some concern among colleagues on the opposite side of the House about circumstances where it might emerge, after an agreement or an order has been made, that either the trade union has become less than substantially representative of its members or the union of employers is no longer substantially representative. In those circumstances, the cancellation of an agreement is not done on a whim. Again, a procedure is set out, the Labour Court takes charge of it, hearings are organised, both sides of the argument are heard and a careful opportunity is afforded to both sides to attend and make their argument before the Labour Court. The suggestion is that the order or agreement will be pulled or cancelled, and that will be the end of it. That is simply not in accordance with what is contained in the legislation.

I turn briefly to the enforcement mechanism. This is found in section 8 in respect of the registered employment agreements and is found later in the Bill in similar terms in respect of the EROs. This is a very progressive addition to our legal environment in respect of JLCs and EROs. I ask the Opposition to look at it and see what it states. It is a new area of protection for workers. If the Government was set on a course to be minimalist, to pull back on protection and, as Deputy O'Dea stated, set on a course to jettison the entire system, why would we introduce a new system of enforcement? That is completely inconsistent with the argument that we are trying to dump this protection or stop it happening.

It is the same with the exemption. I ask Members to look at the derogation provisions, as they are called. Again, major safeguards have been included, in terms of consultation with both sides and the opportunity for people to come before the court. Rigorous, testing and demanding circumstances must apply before the Labour Court can give a derogation. It is not easy to get a derogation under this legislation. I defy anybody to make a credible argument that it is easy to secure a derogation under the rules that are included here. Far from it. I ask colleagues to look carefully, as I am sure they will, at the provisions and safeguards put into the Bill and at the centrality of the Labour Court. This is far from being a provision that takes from workers' rights. It protects and, in some cases, expands and strengthens the rights workers have under this regime.

I note that Deputy Calleary was looking for a chorus of Labour Party Deputies and was disappointed they were not present. I am sorry I am not a chorus line and that on this occasion I am not surrounded by others. At least we can put together a choir rather than a group of soloists, but that is for another day.

I try not to take too much exception to what is said in the back and forth that goes on in the House. However, I will refer briefly to the issue of trade unions and the Labour Party because this is a matter that comes up and is spoken about, often out of the corner of people's mouths. It is the notion that the Labour Party, or its Deputies, are in some kind of stranglehold with trade unions. That is complete nonsense. We are proud of our connections with trade unions. I am very proud of them. When I look at a piece of legislation I listen to people. I worked as a barrister in the courts and tribunals for both employers and employees, probably more often for employers. I hold very dearly the connection the Labour Party has with trade unions but do not regard my party as being controlled in some way by them, or as being some sort of a spokesperson for them. Far from it, in my experience. I decide whether I agree with them and so does my party. We are not the mouthpiece for the trade unions.

I would not criticise Deputy Calleary, for example, for taking the same view as Chambers Ireland, an organisation for which he worked, as he was entitled to, for eight years. He may have the same views as Chambers Ireland but do I come to the Chamber and suggest that he is asked by that organisation to speak for it? No - he is well able to make his own points just as we are able to make ours and set out our own analysis, without direction from anybody.

Deputy White mentioned the review process as being something very positive in the legislation. I would hope that would be the case. However, we know there is a review of community employment schemes taking place at present that is causing a great deal of stress and anxiety to people on another level. Many of them do not have an opportunity to buy into it directly so I hope their experience of the review process will be positive.

I acknowledge the Oireachtas Library and Research Service for the work it has done on this legislation. Looking through it, starting at the end, I was struck by some of the reactions to this Bill. IBEC claims the Bill is misguided and unnecessary. While it welcomes the abolition of Sunday premiums as an improvement over the last regime, it argues "the entire joint labour committee, JLC, system should have been consigned to history." It also argues employees are already protected by over 40 items of employment legislation and that the Government's proposals are arbitrary and unnecessary.

SIPTU is disappointed the premium for working on Sundays has not been included in the proposed changes to the JLC wage-setting mechanism. However, its vice president notes low-paid workers covered by the Bill's provisions will be able to achieve a Sunday premium through a code of practice to be developed by the JLCs.

Mandate's general secretary acknowledges the progress embodied in the draft but that much work is required to turn it into legislation the trade union movement can fully support, particularly with regard to Sunday premiums and the inability-to-pay clause introduced for employers. Mandate is, however, pleased a replacement system will be put in place for low-paid workers.

The Irish Hotels Federation is disappointed with the Government's intention to reintroduce the JLC system. It argues it is an outdated and regressive employment framework which is neither appropriate nor fit for purpose in a modern competitive economy. Instead, it says the Government should have seen fit to abolish JLCs which place unfair and inequitable wages costs on tourism businesses already facing severe costs pressures. It also sees it as an impediment to job creation.

The Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association, ISME, believes the legislation is unnecessary, will negatively impact on cost competitiveness in certain sectors and will ultimately push struggling companies over the edge. It has commented that "the reintroduction of these outdated arrangements will heap further pressure on businesses that are just about staying afloat. Companies … will be prevented from competing in a cost effective manner, stopping companies from trading successfully."

Chambers Ireland welcomes the reduction of JLCs from 13 to six and the eradication of Sunday premiums while protecting workers' entitlements under section 14 of the Organisation of Working Time Act. It feels it is a step towards more reasonable wage costs for businesses, the majority of which are domestic economy focused.

UNITE has stated the Bill "is seeking to dismantle the very structures built up to protect those who are on the lowest rates of pay" and "is a manifesto for change that could have been drawn up as a wish list for business groups and those seeking to take more profit out of the pockets of working people".

Where is the truth in all these diverging views? On 24 May 2011, the Government published the report of the independent review of employment regulation orders and registered employment agreement wage-setting mechanisms. It found the existing JLC and registered employment agreements, REA, systems require radical overhaul so as to make them fairer and more responsive to changing economic circumstances and labour market conditions. For whom are they meant to be fairer?

This Bill is part of a commitment made in the programme for national recovery to provide more comprehensive measures to strengthen the legal framework for employment regulation orders, EROs, and REAs. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, claims the Government's controversial reforms of wage-setting mechanisms are fair and will protect vulnerable workers while allowing for the creation of employment. He also claims the measures will radically overhaul the joint labour committee and registered employment agreement systems so as to make them fairer, more competitive and more flexible so as to increase job creation. These changes, he believes, will also reinstate a robust system of protection for workers in sectors covered by such arrangements and similar changes in Britain have led to employment growth.

Under the Government action plan, the number of JLCs will be reduced from 13 to six. They will in future have the power to set only a basic adult rate and the discretion to set two higher increments to reflect longer periods of service. Previously such committees set more than 300 different wage rates.

JLCs will no longer set Sunday premium rates but the position of Sunday working will, however, still be recognised, mainly through options set out in the Organisation of Working Time Act, including the provision of time off in lieu. A new statutory code of practice on Sunday working will be drawn up by the Labour Relations Commission which will provide guidance for workers and employers.

Under the reforms, companies will be able to derogate from EROs in cases of financial difficulty, which I believe may cause problems. In setting rates, JLCs will in future have to take into account factors such as unemployment rates, competitiveness and wage trends here and in our major trading partners. That sets off alarm bells as to how workers will be protected.

While I would like to believe workers will be protected by this legislation, the reality may be different. I was fortunate in my job as a teacher that it was a collaborative work environment; the Department of Education and Skills and the school's board of management were not the worst of employers. This was mainly because it was not a profit-driven enterprise.

That is not true, however, in many other worker-employer relationships in which workers are poorly treated and standards abandoned. Those in lower income groups, many of which already have many pressures through extra charges and costs, are particularly affected by poor working conditions. The less well-off pay disproportionately for the costs of the mistakes of others during the boom. While the poor get poorer, those others continue with their high lifestyles. We continue to pay the banks' bondholders, that anonymous group of speculators and gamblers by taking from vulnerable people. More burdens are placed on the less well-off. The new poor are middle-class 30 to 39 year olds who bought into high mortgages but now face negative equity. Some of them are still working; others have lost their jobs. Where is the protection for them?

Yesterday, the issue of forced migrant workers was a Topical Issue matter while I attended a briefing in the Leinster House AV room before Christmas on migrant workers who had been trafficked to Ireland. Their stories were horrific. It was hard to believe what happened to them could happen in Ireland. They worked in appalling conditions with horrendous hours and non-existent pay. Some of these cases have been before the courts where the migrant workers have won compensation. However, in some cases, compensation has yet to be paid. There is need for legislation to protect workers in these positions. Community employment schemes have vulnerable people working on them whose rights also need to be protected.

Tomorrow the House will debate the Protection of Employees (Temporary Agency Work) Bill which will provide for equality in respect of basic working and employment conditions such as annual leave, work time, rest breaks, public holidays and pay. Our workers must be treated fairly with basic working, employment and pay conditions because we are seeing an increase in inequalities in our society. Deputy Alex White said he saw the Bill as a great achievement. He spoke about ideology. For me, ideology is based on principles of social justice and fairness which must be applied to those who are vulnerable and most in need of protection.

I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this particularly important Bill. I note the points raised by other Members, all of which have been valid. It behoves us, however, to recognise we live in very difficult times and it will not be easier for the foreseeable future.

We have to do our best to ensure the interests of both employee and employer are recognised and dealt with in a fair and equitable fashion to make sure obstacles that create problems for either side are addressed fairly and, in turn, obstacles to the creation and retention of jobs are ameliorated. That is hugely important at all times but, at this time, it is more important than ever. I do not want to rehash history but the 1980s recession was not as bad as the current one and it did not affect as many people because that generation had been through previous recessions. They had survived because they had mental capacity and stoicism to deal with it. That is not necessarily the case now and one has to recognise the awful scenarios affecting individual households throughout the country. As Deputy O'Sullivan said, the middle classes find themselves in an appalling position having bought houses on the basis of advice that if they did not buy, they might never own a house.

We have a choice now. We can try to accommodate in so far as we can the interests of employers and employees with the objective of retaining the maximum number of people in employment while ensuring we expand and take from the live register as many people as possible in the shortest period. The prophets of doom visit us on a regular basis and they say there will be no growth or revival. Some of us predicted the downturn would happen four years ago and it is nothing new to us. We watched it unfold and pointed out that this would happen because we recognised the difficulties facing us. The issue is whether we retain old standards, precepts and conditions or whether we adapt. Unfortunately, we have to adapt to current circumstances.

During the Celtic tiger era, reference was regularly made to the smart economy. The daft economy is also important because it is balanced like a balanced diet. That means we have various employment strata - low, middle and higher. Each has an equally important role to play and every worker has a critical role to play in the rejuvenation of our economy. I always had the view that, no matter what the job was, if the person felt that he or she fulfilled a purpose and it was better than being unemployed, we were on the right track. One only has to turn on the radio or television or read scribes in various journals to become as negative as one can be because there is an ongoing diatribe of negativity, which is depressing to many people. Many people are unemployed, in mortgage arrears or in other economic difficulties and they have faced this diatribe of negativity on a daily basis, morning, noon and night, to such an extent that they have become depressed. People are being affected by this constant negative debate and that should be recognised. There comes a time when we have to shoulder the burden and do what has to be done. I do not point fingers at other Members but this is crucially important for us as a people and as an economy.

I hope this legislation focuses attention on important issues that matter to people. I began by referring to difficulties and hardship. In the 1930s, Franklin D Roosevelt, the US President, adopted a policy of having fireside chats. My late mother lived there at the time like many other Irish people. The Irish continued to go there legally and illegally. The president recognised the trauma people were experiencing at the time, what they thought when they got out of the morning and the forlorn situation that unfolded before them and he recognised that hopelessness was the last thing they wanted. He began these fireside chats to reassure and calm people and to give them hope. He offered a helping hand, a shoulder to lean on or a sympathetic ear and it was hugely important.

Ironically, during that recession, the US tried everything using various initiatives, including the New Deal and the Hoover plan, which all failed. Eventually the tide turned. It will turn for Ireland and when it does so, it will be dramatic. The only difference between now and the 1980s is that property prices then were low and it was possible for everybody to access the housing market and that had a bearing on those at work. Everybody who was employed at the time had the opportunity to house himself out of his own resources through the local authority loan system and so on and that was positive. However, we have not reached the bottom of the property price plunge yet. A few years ago, we were reassured every morning that there would be a soft landing. That did not transpire and that is why it is important to reassure employees who may have genuine reasons to feel under threat or under pressure while, at the same time, recognising the difficulties of employers who cannot keep the doors open.

This is being addressed but I will not go through the history of court cases, etc., in this area. The legislation is necessary and we must adapt to the emerging circumstances. Hopefully, it will do the job intended and meet the requirements of employers and employees. We cannot go back to where we were. During the Celtic tiger era, everything was off the wall. There were no rules and we began to live as if there was no need to provide for tomorrow at all. This was particularly appalling for our older generation who knew the generation coming behind us was experiencing this for the first time. Their confidence has been eroded and their outlook on life has been changed. There is a tendency towards despair but there should be none. We have to do we have to do and address each issue as it emerges. It is up to ourselves. Either we have the resources and the will to do this or we do not.

If we fold our tents and walk away, we simply do not address the situation. I hope this legislation will at least ensure there is a possibility of retaining the jobs we have, albeit with less remuneration - no doubt that is a fact of life. Is it better to have no job than to try to hold on to one? All of us in this House have had a fairly substantial reduction in income in the past couple of years but there are those who would say that our income was higher, and, of course, it was. We all know persons who were on a considerably higher income than the income of any Member of this House three, four or five years ago and who are now in a desparate position. We deal with them on a daily basis, applying for social welfare assistance, jobseeker's allowance etc. We know the trauma that they must go through when they apply. They must wait interminably in anticipation and sometimes their hopes are dashed. I recently received a reply to a parliamentary question where an application for jobseeker's allowance was refused on the basis that the person had a history of self-employment. Of course, he had a history of self-employment. He was self-employed for 25 years. He was never unemployed in his life. Unfortunately, circumstances dictated that he was on his uppers. That is what we must respond to. We must try to create some measure of hope for those in such a position.

I started off by mentioning the United States and the Depression in the 1930s. There will be those in this House who would say we should not speak of depression. We have a depression. We have a serious economic situation. There is no good in saying that we should abolish all of that, refuse to pay any of the money that we borrowed and identify a new means of living like there was no tomorrow. We were doing that during the course of the Celtic tiger. That is what happened to us. There was to be no tomorrow and we would never have to pay it back. That was an appallingly sad situation.

I pay tribute to the trade union movement. They recognise the situation and know that they must do what must be done to try as best they can to get to a position where we can climb out of the economic morass we are in. I will not name any particular person, but suffice it to say we all know who they are and we have watched their progress and leadership, and that is to be recognised and applauded.

By the same token, I pay tribute to employers who have taken the same route. We all know a considerable number of people who have been small employers for a long number of years but who go out of their way to try to cater for their employees. They are rising to the challenge as well, and have always done so. We must recognise their input, particularly at this time.

I will finish off on one issue which may not seem to have an affinity with industrial relations. One of the issues we have debated in this House over the past couple of years is the question of upward-only rent reviews. This refers mostly to the commercial sector. There was a choice. I do not know who came up with the idea in the first place. I believe it is unconstitutional. I believe upward-only rent reviews are a means of undermining the independence and sovereignty of the State and I cannot understand why they were ever allowed. Many who were employed in premises that were the subject of upward-only rent reviews are now unemployed because their employer could not afford to meet the cost of upward-only rent reviews.

We all know persons who have been in this position. It is not possible - the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Government are correct - to retrospectively address these issues but in the first place, I cannot understand how anybody ever allowed a position to develop whereby legally binding agreements were entered into which were unsustainable. They could not be discharged and they could be upheld unless the integrity, sustainability and soverignty of the State was undermined. Of course, it was fine if there was only one or two of them, but these were wholesale - all over the place.

We need to recognise that, whether we like it or not, such a practice that became popular during the Celtic tiger days is costing the country jobs, forcing people out of employment and forcing employers to honour upward-only rent reviews. It is incredible. The banking, legal and property sectors demanded it. I think it is unconstitutional. That should never have been allowed.

There are many issues that we could refer to in the course of this debate that go far outside the industrial relations element that is the core of the issue. From our experience over the past couple of years of all of the representations we have received on both sides on this issue, it behoves us to recognise that we have a role to play and that we must adjust and adapt to a new and emerging situation which is difficult for many. It is not that we are immune to the difficulties faced by the people of the country, both at employee and employer levels. It is a fact of life that we know the position and must do something about it. It may not seem at any particular time to be overly accommodating to one side or the other, but one way or the other, we must adapt. That is the theme of what I had to say.

Is Deputy Joan Collins proposing to share time?

Yes, with Deputy Wallace.

While recognising some concessions to the concerns of the unions, this is still a regressive piece of legislation because it weakens the rights of low-paid workers.

Earlier I heard a Deputy state that the 1940s legislation was progressive. Unfortunately, this was an opportunity to strengthen the rights of low-paid workers, the most vulnerable workers in society about whom we have been speaking continuously over the past six months.

It makes serious concessions to employers in two areas about which I am concerned. The removal of premiums for Sunday working is being replaced by a code of practice to be developed, and that weakens the conditions. In the debate over the past months, many Deputies pointed out how important Sunday is to the family, to link in with families, enjoy sports and bring children to events such as football, basketball, hurling, camogie, running or whatever they are involved in. It is an important day for the family and should be recognised as that in people being able to have a day off, and if one does work, one should get some sort of premium for it. This was an opportunity. I will be tabling amendments to the Bill, as we were challenged earlier in this regard, to try to strengthen that.

There are small businesses that are under a great deal of pressure and find it difficult to pay workers at all. In that regard, Deputies should be supporting those like ourselves calling for a wealth tax that would take enough money into the economy to be able to create and maintain jobs to get people back into the restaurants and the local shops.

The other aspect I am seriously concerned about is the inability to pay clause. I remind Labour TDs, even though they do not like being reminded by many matters, that the then Department of Labour, in 1981, when there was a Commission of Inquiry on Industrial Relations, was very critical of the inability to pay proposition, stating "any proposal which would allow for a fallback position weakens the principle in such a serious way as to make a nonsense of the entire concept".

The Bill requires the Labour Court to take account of the implications for the long term of sustainability of the business when granting exemptions. Employers will be able to plead inability to pay and the need for business sustainability when seeking a derogation from the REA rates. This is a serious issue because if the employers are competing with parts of Europe which have low rates of pay there will be a further race to the bottom.

The logic of these proposals suggests that wages in countries at the periphery of the EU, such as Greece and Ireland, are too high and that our competitiveness suffers as a result. Part of the IMF-EU recipe is cutting wages. This argument is not supported by the facts. The World Economic Forum 2010 report placed Ireland in 29th place for competitiveness, a marginal improvement on our previous 30th place. According to the report the main factors inhibiting competitiveness are our small market size, poor infrastructure and macroeconomic instability. Labour costs were not identified as a problem.

Unemployment is not caused by high wages either in general or in the specific sectors covered by JLCs. The job crisis is the result of the collapse of the construction industry and other sectors associated with the property bubble, the lack of credit in our zombie banking system and increased savings rates. After five austerity budgets in a row, domestic demand has collapsed by 25%. EUROSTAT figures for comparative wages show that hourly labour costs in the hospitality sector in 2008 were 11.4% below the EU 15 average and the wholesale and retail sectors were 11% lower. The most recent figures indicate wages in these sectors are falling further behind in Ireland.

When I last spoke in support of the United Left Alliance Private Members' motion, I referred to a survey of 850 catering businesses conducted by the National Employment Rights Authority prior to July's High Court case. Approximately 76% of these businesses were in breach of employment regulations and, among workers, 53% earned less than the minimum wage, 85% did not receive overtime pay or premiums for Sundays, 48% did not receive bank holiday payments and 84% did not have written contracts or terms of employment. This was at a time when the JLCs were in operation. The Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland reports that one third of the complaints it receives come from the hotel and restaurant sectors.

Exploitation and abuse are rampant in these sectors and the protections for these workers need to be strengthened rather than weakened. The last thing we need is legislation that further weakens workers' legal rights. Labour Party Deputies can dress this Bill up however they want but they are nonetheless voting in favour of aggressive legislation which weakens trade unions and workers' rights and strengthens employers, many of whom have been revealed to be brutal and ruthless exploiters. I urge the Government to pass the Employment Law Compliance Bill 2008, which was agreed as part of Towards 2016 on foot of the Gama and Irish Ferries scandals. That Bill should be used to protect low paid and vulnerable workers.

It has been pointed out on numerous occasions that we live in difficult times. However, if we are to implement legislation that impacts on low paid workers we should also discuss reductions in our own wages and conditions. We should lead by example to show these workers that we can put our money where our mouths are.

This Bill can be approached from a number of perspectives. The fact that I employ more than 50 people in the catering industry perhaps allows me to speak about it from a particular perspective. The legislation is geared towards giving employers a better deal and reducing protections for workers by creating greater flexibility. At yesterday's meeting, however, the troika said on a couple of occasions that the Irish labour market was more flexible than the norm in Europe. A number of speakers referred to competitiveness which, of course, is important.

As I do not want to be described as a hypocrite, I admit that it can be difficult for restaurants to pay a serious additional amount for Sunday work. Sunday is not the best day of the week for restaurants. If restaurants had to pay much over the odds on Sundays many of them would find it difficult to open that day. I also accept that people in the catering industry work unsociable hours not only on Sundays, which is not the only family time, but also at night time when the majority of workers are at home with their families. They work unsociable hours every day of the week. Many restaurants open for lunch but more money comes in at night-time than during the day.

I do not accept the notion that €8.65 per hour is a high wage. We often compare ourselves to Europe but if I was working in the catering industry on minimum wage I would prefer to work in Italy for €6 than earn €9 in Ireland given the huge difference in the cost of living. This is an expensive country in which to live and anybody would find it challenging to survive on €8.65 per hour.

Earlier today I calculated the costs incurred by my wine bars and restaurants. As a rule one tries to keep labour costs at 30%. Some people reach 25% but others have to deal with 35%. However, other factors are having a more dramatic impact on restaurant costs. Energy was never cheap but prices have increased by 15% in the past 12 months. Raw materials like vegetables and, especially, meat are additional expenses. Beef prices have increased by 50%, which is good for the farmers but not as good for those who must purchase it. I do not begrudge farmers but these costs present additional difficulties to businesses. One small restaurant I own pays commercial water rates of €3,000 per year, a service charge of €2,500 and commercial rates of €5,400. Rates increased by 5% in 2008 and 2009, although they have remained static since then. They are draconian and out of proportion to the reality that businesses face. One can negotiate rent but one cannot negotiate rates. It is a pity the Government has not been able to act on them because they make a huge difference to a significant number of businesses. There was a VAT change last summer and I can tell the Minister of State it was a huge boost to us in the industry. It does make a big difference. Whether these measures will actually create jobs is a different matter. The VAT measures helped to bring some stability to an industry that was finding life very difficult, but I do not think it actually created jobs. I do not think we will get more jobs out of this until the people coming in the door have more money in their pockets. The people who are most inclined to spend are generally those on lower to middle incomes, and they are the people who are suffering most in the present climate. There is a dramatic change in how much money they spend when they do come in. In one particular restaurant, the average spend has fallen from €30 per head to €17. That is hard to credit in a three-year period, and it makes a massive difference. Overheads do not change dramatically but there is a big difference in turnover. It is a difficult industry. If the Government were to raise the minimum wage to €10 per hour tomorrow, I would not object to it, because asking someone to live on €8.65 per hour in this country is unfair.

To speak more directly about the Bill, on the issue of compliance, there is probably a need for tighter regulation of how things are done. I was shocked, looking at the NERA inspection report, to see the breakdown of NERA's provisional inspection figures for the period January to June 2011. For example, in the catering industry, of the units inspected, only 26% were compliant. This is a bit frightening. Any restaurant that is trying to do things the way they should be done will find it hard to compete with someone who does not follow the rules. There should be a much better structure to ensure compliance.

How will it all work out with the lessening of the JLCs? I do have a fear that the rights of workers will be undermined by this Bill. Maybe I am wrong; maybe the Government can safeguard the rights of workers. To be honest, I am not 100% certain how everything will work out, and I will not pretend I have read the whole Bill, but I ask the Government to ensure, given the climate we are living in and the effect austerity is having on those who are least well off in our society, that these people are not being taken advantage of. Some employers will treat them as they should be treated, but not all will. The Government has a responsibility to ensure they do.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Derek Keating.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, which is yet another part of the jigsaw that this proactive coalition Government is putting together to create competitive and sustainable employment in this country. I would like to recognise the huge contribution of the Minister of State, Deputy Perry; it is refreshing to see a businessman who is flexing his muscles on legislation.

This Bill promotes harmonious relationships between employers and workers, which is important. As any person in business realises, having a content and happy workforce means greater productivity, which is the whole aim of business. The ultimate aim is to deal with the challenges and opportunities that the current economy and labour market conditions present to us. The Bill also deals with registered employment agreements, REAs.

The amendment of section 27 of the 1946 Act contains many parts. One which stands out is that the parties to an agreement must be substantially representative of both the workers and the employer. This is important because there are always rumblings that certain unions or representatives are not quite as inclusive or representative as they feel they are. This sets down in legislation that the people purporting to represent workers or employers need to be expressly involved and to be truly representative. The amendment to section 27 also sets out consideration of whether it is appropriate to register an agreement. It states that the court shall have regard to a number of factors. The first, as I stated earlier, is that the parties involved are representative; this is important. It also sets out core principles, including the fact that agreements will be binding on both workers and employers. It promotes harmonious relations between workers and employers and, if used properly, should facilitate the avoidance of industrial unrest.

These agreements will also be viewed in terms of their potential impact on employment levels in various sectors. What will be considered here is the desirability of maintaining fair and sustainable rates of remuneration for the sectors in question. This is where the real work is to be done. Obviously, most employers want to get work done at a reasonable price that keeps them competitive; and, of course, employees will want what they regard as fair pay. The task at hand is to strike a balance. Previous Governments have shirked their responsibility in this regard by essentially buying each agreement. They were not really agreements; they were in fact purchases. They purchased industrial stability at the cost, as we all see now, of making our economy uncompetitive. This Bill arises from the Government's obligation to address this legacy, and hopefully we will become a better country for it. The hard-learned lessons from the negligence of the past will also have to be taken into account in maintaining our competitiveness. When considering levels of employment in each sector, is important that we do not allow one sector to run out of control, as happened in the building industry. When this happens, it causes a lot of pain for a long time afterwards.

The Bill also states that levels of wages in comparative sectors must be recognised. Although we would all love to pay ourselves loads, if we become uncompetitive we will not have any work to do. The Bill also sets out procedures to be used when one or the other party wants to vary an agreement and both parties are not agreeable to doing this. Initially, the case goes to the Labour Relations Commission for investigation; if agreement is not reached there, it goes to the courts for their recommendation. The aim of the legislation is to avoid protracted employment disputes which will affect a lot of people. It puts the Minister in a position in which he can make a decision on the court's outcome.

Another important aspect of this new legislation is the provision that where an REA is in place, the employer may apply for a court exemption. This may, on the face of it, sound as though employers are just looking for a way to pay workers less. However, this is not the aim. The provision is fairly tightly regulated; exemptions will apply for periods of not less than three months and not greater than two years. This applies to situations in which a company needs to get through a difficult period, when it may need to break such agreements in order to ensure it can keep all of its employees or keep the company in existence. A company seeking to do this must have a current tax clearance certificate, which is important because it shows that the business is up to scratch and the employer is honourable. It is also incumbent on the employer to notify the workers concerned about the financial difficulties and to be open about them. This is the only reason for which it should be applied. Hopefully, this can be spelled out to the employees in a fashion that is agreeable to all. In fairness, long-term sustainability is what we should be seeking.

Putting this in legislation is important because any break that can be given to businesses whereby they will be able to stay in business is vital. I have set up a small business and in many small businesses these issues can be thrashed out across the table with one's employees. However, this is not always possible in the case of large companies where the employer does not have time to do it and personal relationships have not been built up over time. In essence, we are trying to bring the strengths of small businesses to larger businesses. Hopefully, building this co-operation with each other will lead this country to become a flexible and very good place for people to work. We will not always be living in bad times. People seem to think that we will never get out of the current devastating situation, but that is not true. We will get out of it.

I must reply to some of the suggestions made by Deputies earlier in the debate, and I will do so wearing my employer's hat, an employer in a business that is, thankfully, working quite successfully. Some of the Members suggested a wealth tax. I do not understand this. The objective of a business is to make money and in many cases, such as mine, it is reinvested in the business. That is good for the economy and for the workers. After listening to some Members' contributions I believe they do not understand business. They do not understand the ups and downs and the fact that in small businesses one works with one's employees. "With" is a very important word in this case. If one works with one's employees and if they understand that one is as concerned about their welfare as with the position of the business, everybody will get on and the business will succeed.

Members mentioned the World Economic Forum. That is a world away from small businesses that are trying to survive. One cannot ignore wages either. They are an intrinsic part of every business. To say that wages must be parked and never touched is wrong. An employer reviews the wages every year and if he or she can, will increase them. In difficult times, however, the main focus is on keeping the business going successfully. I do not agree with the claim that this Bill weakens workers' rights. It is not meant to do that.

I really take exception to the term "ruthless employers". I have never regarded myself as a ruthless employer, and I have no time for people who are. This Bill is not for ruthless employers but for the ordinary decent employer who wants to develop his business and work with his workforce in a progressive fashion. That is the spirit of this legislation. The Members who criticise it tend to criticise everything, and it is very easy to criticise everything. I urge them to look constructively at the legislation.

Another Deputy was correct to point out that beef prices have increased by 50%. I am a farmer too and I am glad he does not begrudge the farmers. However, it should be borne in mind that food price inflation will happen. Food prices have fought inflation back for 20 years. There has not been an increase in the price of milk, beef or grain for almost 20 years. That has kept inflation down, but now prices are rebounding like a spring. That will be a fact of life, but that is a matter for another day.

This legislation is progressive. I am delighted it has been brought forward in such a fashion. This country will emerge from the current difficulties. I see it happening at present as we are seeing a rebound in the countryside. It is a breath of fresh air to welcome legislation that will protect employees and encourage employers to further develop their businesses.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this legislation. The Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, has introduced this Bill as a result of the High Court judgment, to protect workers who were previously covered by JLCs. I welcome this reform of the Industrial Relations Act. I congratulate the unions who have involved themselves in making constructive submissions, unlike People Before Profit, who see employers and entrepreneurs as tyrants who act like "Fagin" from Dickens's time.

The purpose of this new legislation is to allow the Minister and this House to protect both workers and employers. Companies will be able to get derogations from agreements in cases of financial difficulty, but for this to occur the Labour Court must be satisfied that specific criteria have been met. I welcome that it will only be granted for a limited period in cases of proven economic difficulty and following consultation with employees. We need a strong partnership between employers and their workers. Many people are aware of this. I have always supported the view that a respected employee is a productive employee and should be rewarded as such.

We are living in difficult times. Our country is trying to recover from the disgraceful and disastrous management of our economy by the previous administration of Fianna Fáil and the Green Party. Fine Gael and Labour Party Ministers are struggling to protect jobs while seeking to regain our financial independence from the troika. The ordinary citizen knows this and, unlike some other countries, we do not have riots or lightning strikes - the type of activity I sometimes believe Deputy Boyd Barrett is seeking.

Last week, I had an opportunity to speak in the Dáil on the manner in which the La Senza workers in my constituency were treated by their employers, who are based in London. I did not consider myself a lefty or a radical because I set out to support these workers. More than 100 women were affected by the manner in which this company closed shop without notice and left their staff high and dry without salary, overtime and, indeed, their entitlement to redundancy.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Bruton's, comments that from the beginning of this process, following the court case which found against the State, he was determined to strike a balance between protecting vulnerable workers and providing reforms that will make the system more competitive and flexible to allow for the creation of jobs, our economic recovery and the restoration of our fiscal independence.

It should be put on record again that this country was at risk of total collapse. This Government is pro-worker and pro-union. It is the worker who will bring about our national recovery. Having mentioned the La Senza workers, I welcome the Minister's intervention in requesting the Labour Relations Commission to prepare a code of practice that will be given formal status by means of a ministerial order. This code will give guidance to all employers and employees in the sector that is covered by employment regulation orders, EROs, and will include such additional amounts as are reasonable for Sunday working. I also welcome the Minister's view that this code of practice will substantially reform the work employers must carry out with regard to record keeping and compliance.

We need strong industrial relations legislation to protect both the employee and the employer. In cases where employees consider that their wages have been improperly reduced, they have a right to go to a rights commissioner under the Payment of Wages Act or they can go to the civil courts under breach of contract legislation. However, everybody knows how costly it is to go to the civil courts and how long it takes to get through those courts. We also know that the employers, backed in many cases by the Irish Business and Employers Confederation, IBEC, can mount a very powerful and costly challenge to an employee, which the employee generally cannot withstand. It is regrettable that IBEC has disputed this legislation and said it is unnecessary. Again, if one recalls how people are treated by some employers, it is interesting to note that low paid workers who are covered by the provisions in the Bill will be able to achieve premium rates through a code of practice to be developed by the Labour Court. I welcome this.

However, I am concerned about when a dispute arises and there are difficulties relating to an employer pleading inability to pay.

It will take weeks, if not months, to resolve the dispute and the meantime the worker will often be left waiting in the sidelines. For this reason, I ask the Minister to ensure that when the legislation is passed mechanisms will be made available to address employee concerns immediately in order that workers are not required to take action on their own and outside the law.

I welcome the introduction of a new code of practice which employers will be required to take into consideration by providing for overtime rates, pensions and sick pay, matters that were not covered by joint labour committees in the past. It is heartening that the major trade unions in the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, namely, SIPTU and Mandate, have welcomed the legislation. Following the High Court decision to overturn the JLC system for regulating wages and terms and conditions for low paid workers, the Government, in coalition with trade unions, has shown through this legislation that we can still protect vulnerable workers and their conditions of employment.

Many of those who are expressing an interest in the Bill, notably employees, trade unions and employers, have differed in their views on Sunday premiums. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, and Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, are working hard to ensure employees are protected while at the same time allowing the Government to proceed with its plan to create an economic environment which improves our chances of recovering from the disaster we inherited.

Although I am in favour of the Bill, I do not support jobs at all costs. Last week, I noted that we do not want employers dragging employees back to the conditions in which people worked in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Minister, through this legislation, has made an effort to protect vulnerable businesses while creating an environment in which this issue can be addressed once and for all in a manner that meets the needs of society in 2012. Our economy is in crisis. We hear on a weekly basis of the difficulties companies are experiencing as they try to maintain commercial viability.

The rules governing pay for Sunday working, which will affect many people employed in tourism, hotels, restaurants, shops and sport, constitute a fair and just approach to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The evidence shows that the Minister has listened to the trade unions. He is a man of his word who has shown that the Government is committed to protecting employers and employees.

Following the reduction in the VAT rate for the tourism sector, hotels and restaurants, this legislation marks a further step towards the recovery of the State's finances. It is estimated that well in excess of 150,000 workers are working in the catering, hotel, hairdressing, cleaning, security, sporting and commercial areas. Their terms and conditions, as set down in employment regulation orders, are legally binding.

I believe this legislation will be constitutionally sound and acceptable to all workers as the alternative is unacceptable. The purpose of the Bill is to enable people to have and hold a job. It recognises and accommodates the sacrifice made by those who work on Sundays. I am concerned, however, that the Labour Relations Commission will be inundated with requests and low paid workers will be denied their rights because of the waiting list to access the commission's service. Perhaps the Minister will examine this issue. I wholeheartedly support the Bill.

I acknowledge the presence of the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, and thank the Technical Group for facilitating me by providing time to allow me to speak on this important Bill. I am pleased the legislation is receiving the time and attention it deserves. Considerable work has gone into it and its provisions merit significant debate.

The workers affected by the legislation are among the lowest paid and most vulnerable members of the workforce. Employment regulation orders cover hotel workers, restaurant staff, agricultural workers, cleaners and those employed in catering, hairdressing, retail and security. Registered employment agreements cover the construction industry and electrical contractors. These orders and agreements cover rates of pay and working conditions. The workers concerned must frequently work anti-social hours, including Sundays. Even though I am a young man, I remember that a time when anyone driving from County Kerry to Athlone would have found only two places to buy petrol on a Sunday. This may be hard to believe but it was not many years ago. Nowadays, every outlet is open on Sunday. We all remember a time when one was fortunate if one could buy a newspaper on a Sunday because shops only opened for a couple of hours as opposed to all day and night. Times have changed and the Government must achieve a balancing act as it tries to protect lower paid workers while also creating an environment in which people will create jobs and become valuable employers.

The proposed legislation was drafted as a result of the High Court decision in John Grace Fried Chicken and othersv The Catering Joint Labour Committee and others. It found that certain provisions of the Industrial Relations Acts were unconstitutional. The Bill satisfies a number of conditions in the EU-IMF programme of financial support for Ireland. It aims to reform the joint labour committee, JLC, system to better reflect the current economic climate and provides new criteria for the creation of employment regulation orders, EROs, and registered employment agreements, REAs. It also introduces the condition that the EROs and REAs will only have legal effect upon ministerial orders and Oireachtas review.

The Labour Court can temporarily exempt employers from the terms of REAs and EROs if certain conditions are met, for example, there must be a risk of lay-off and the exemption cannot have a distortive effect on competition. The proposed exemption is a cause of concern because while it is clearly necessary, we must ensure it is not misused or used in an unscrupulous manner.

The joint labour committees will have the capacity to set a basic adult rate and two other minimum rates. These will take into account factors such as length of service and skills. A review of each JLC will take place every five years. New criteria for the creation and variation of EROs will take into account factors such as the legitimate interests of the employer and employees, competitiveness, sustainability, levels of employment in the sector, conditions in comparable sectors and the minimum wage. While the JLCs will not set a Sunday premium rate, protections will remain under the Organisation of Working Time Act 1977. In addition, a code of practice is to be drafted to provide guidance to employers and employees on the issue of Sunday working. The Bill proposes a new procedure whereby the terms of an agreement may be varied by the Labour Court and recommends less onerous record keeping requirements for employers.

I propose to address first the good points of the legislation. Clearly, the Government had to act following the High Court judgment because the workers covered by employment regulation orders and registered employment agreements would otherwise have been left without protection. The Bill is important from the point of view that it will apply to 200,000 workers. Moreover, it provides for oversight of the process by the Oireachtas and allows greater flexibility for employers facing financial difficulties to obtain temporary exemptions from employment regulation orders in certain circumstances. Such derogations will be granted in cases of proven economic difficulty following consultation with the employees concerned.

On the negative aspects of the legislation, perhaps it should be more specific about Sunday premiums. We must await the code of practice before learning what provisions will apply in this area. Workers should be adequately compensated for working on Sundays as it is unsociable to do so. Given the current state of the economy, employers need to be able to be competitive and more flexible if jobs are to be created in the sectors in question. There is a danger that further constitutional challenges could be taken against the legislation and some employers' groups have already threatened to do so. The inability to pay clause available to employers may become a cause of concern if employers use it as a means of circumventing the provisions of the legislation. I also note that the Restaurants Association of Ireland is outraged by the Government's decision to reintroduce the joint labour committee wage setting system.

Ireland's €8.65 per hour minimum wage is one of the highest in Europe, according to the association. It said the minimum wage is €9.10 per hour in France, €7.06 in the UK and €4.01 in Spain.

The Irish Hotels Federation was also critical of the retention of the JLCs which it described as an outdated and regressive employment framework. Mr. Tim Fenn, chief executive of the body, queried the constitutionality of the proposed reforms and described the JLCs as an impediment to job creation. The Construction Industry Federation also expressed its disappointment, saying the proposals did not go far enough to meet competitiveness challenges in the sector.

The Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association said the proposed reforms would push struggling companies over the edge. The ISME chief executive officer, Mr. Mark Fielding, said the core issue of general pay had not been sufficiently addressed.

IBEC also slammed the Government's Industrial Relations (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill 2011 and said that the plans by the Government to reintroduce the JLC wage setting system, as set out in the Bill, were misguided and unnecessary. Reacting to the publication of the Bill by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, IBEC director, Mr. Brendan McGinty, said:

While some of the proposals, such as the abolition of Sunday premiums, are an improvement over the last regime, the entire JLC system should have been consigned to history.

The High Court decision of last summer did not provoke the crisis some predicted. Employers have respected the fact that existing employees have contractual rights to established JLC rates, unless and until they freely agree otherwise. Any attempt to reinstate the JLC system will be fraught with constitutional uncertainty and will be open to further legal challenge.

Ireland has the second highest national minimum wage in the EU, and all employees are protected by over 40 pieces of employment legislation. The move to bring in new legislation means that workers in some sectors that can least afford it will have higher sectoral minimum wages and other benefits not available to other private sector workers. The government proposals are arbitrary and unnecessary.

Having said that, it is very important the message we send from this House is that small business people are the backbone of Ireland's business. These people created one to four jobs. These businesses, along with agriculture, were the backbone of Ireland's business over the years. Unfortunately, we have seen many small shops and small businesses close. I am not one bit slow about saying there were 27 shops and six pubs in the village in which I grew up. Today there are two shops and two pubs. That is reflected in every town and small village in the country. All of those people created a job for themselves and, if they had additional work, they hired help and those people were very glad to have work.

I have heard colleagues, who I respect very much, talk about unscrupulous employers. There are cases in the media at the moment and none of us is happy about the situation in which workers find themselves. In the main, those who employ other people respect them. Everybody is pulling together. The business person who is creating the job must make money to keep a person in the job. If he or she is not making money, the door closes. The Government and the Opposition must ensure mechanisms are put in place which will protect the worker, in particular the lower paid worker, and ensure no worker is blackguarded in his or her place of work.

The hotel sector has grown enormously over the years. There are families in Ireland which are steeped in the hotel business. In Killarney town, generations of families have worked very hard in the hospitality sector and they have grown their businesses and borrowed vast amounts of money. They are not like some of the fly-by-nights who ran away; these are respectable people who borrowed money, improved their hotels, put in leisure complexes and enhanced their businesses greatly. They have increased enormously the number of people working with them. I will not say working for them because these are family hotels. There is a big difference between working for somebody and working with somebody. I am one of those for whom nobody has ever worked. People have worked with me and that is the way business should be, how one grows a business, gets the trust of one's employee, gets an employee to be as worried about one's business as one is so that he or she is as interested in keeping one's door open as one is. That is what is important.

The hotel industry has raised the bar for people who visit our country. They have excellent facilities and the best of restaurants. I refer to the Restaurants Association of Ireland and the great improvements which have taken place in places such as Dingle, Kenmare, Kinsale and other places. The country is dotted with great businesses that have built up reputations which are very important to them. Under no circumstances would those people like to be classified in this House as unscrupulous employers. They are respectable people who are creating jobs and want to stay in business. We must be very clear that the proper message is sent from this House.

Whatever way Members vote on this Bill, we must remember that at the end of the day, it is about sustaining jobs, creating a protective environment for workers and ensuring that the message is sent that it is not a sin for employers to want to make a profit to ensure their businesses will be there the following year and for future generations.

Small businesses have had to reinvent themselves because of new regulations. Every day small business throughout the country are subject to all types of inspections and regulations, including accounting standards and hygiene regulations. This is all good but it places an additional burden on businesses which are already struggling and under severe financial pressure.

SIPTU's views on this matter are very important also. In July, when the Minister announced his intention to introduce legislation which, effectively, dismantled the EROs and REAs which set out the rates of pay and conditions for low paid workers, SIPTU, other trade unions and organisations representing low paid workers campaigned intensively to ensure that all workers previously covered by the wage setting mechanism would continue to be protected under the new provisions. They have managed to achieve this, although they were disappointed the Sunday premium was excluded from the provisions published. Workers will, however, be able to achieve a Sunday premium through a new code of practice to be developed by the JLCs. They said the Minister has also agreed to include the provisions to ensure employers pleading inability to pay the agreed JLC rates would have to satisfy the Labour Court that they are genuinely not able to do so. They will also have to satisfy the court that any exemptions granted will have to take into account any distortion effect in the relevant industry.

I note what the Mandate trade union said at the time: it acknowledged the progress embodied in the draft legislation. Mandate's general secretary, Mr. John Douglas, said this progress had been brought about by the hard work of many Oireachtas Members, the trade union movement and campaign groups such as the coalition to protect the low paid. Mr. Douglas argued, however, that much work was required to turn this Bill into legislation the trade union movement can fully support, particularly with regard to Sunday premiums and the ability-to-pay clause introduced for employers.

Since the High Court overturned the JLC system of regulating wages and other terms and conditions for low-paid workers, Mandate has been working with many others to ensure a replacement system was put in place. They are aware that much work needs to be done to continue the fight to protect low-paid workers.

I hope the spirit of the Bill will ensure that our competitive enterprises will be able to stay in business in the years ahead, and that workers' rights will be protected.

I wish to share time with Deputy Tony McLoughlin and Deputy Damien English.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the important debate which concerns industrial relations, employment law and workers' rights. The Bill is before the House because the joint labour committee structures, which were in place since 1946 and many felt were extremely outdated given our current economic circumstances, were urgently in need of reform. That situation was endorsed by the court case last year which found that the fundamental structures of JLCs and employment regulation orders, ERAs, that emanate from them, were fundamentally unsound and in urgent need of reform. At that time, much concern was expressed, quite rightly, by unions and employers in the business sector. The Bill before us will address this important area.

When introducing new legislation, it is important that, as far as practicable, it should be fair, balanced and do the job it is intended to do. This Bill is to reform employment regulation orders and registered employment agreements made by the joint labour committees. It will protect workers' interests. The JLCs can still set adult rates of pay, but they must now take into account factors such as competitiveness and unemployment which is currently in crisis. If we do not have competitiveness in our economy we will not be creating employment. We can see the challenges that lie before us with rising unemployment levels.

I come from Waterford in the south east where unemployment levels are way above the national average. It is of great concern to me as a Deputy from that constituency, as with Deputies on both sides of the House, that legislation we introduce here should not put employment creation prospects at risk in any way.

Sunday premium rates were previously set by the JLCs, but this will no longer be the case. A code of practice will be introduced and consultation will occur between employer and employee representative bodies. That is both correct and important. Any new premium rates to be set must reflect the flexibility now required in a modern economy. I attended a good news story this week in Waterford where a company called Eishtec will create over 280 new jobs in the coming six months. Eishtec has won international contracts against stiff competition. It is a service call centre which feels it can compete with international companies and win more contracts here in Ireland. To do so, however, it needs to be competitive and flexible. Much of Eishtec's work will be at off-peak times, at weekends and after hours. The company has a flexible workforce that is ready and willing to do such work and the more we see of that the better. We are beginning to realise that in the modern global economy we must adopt a flexible approach to work. That will allow us to become much more competitive, thus winning more international contracts.

Social partnership contributed many positive things to this economy, but there were negative aspects also because many deals were done behind closed doors. They were not done openly or in this House and we suffered for that in many ways through a loss of competitiveness. In addition we lost our ability to be flexible and win contracts.

I hope that in future we will see a real engagement by employers, unions and the Government to ensure we protect and sustain existing jobs as well as pitching for new ones. Today I saw an announcement that exports are up massively on last year's figures. They are at the highest rate ever, which must be welcomed. Last summer, the Government got much criticism when the jobs initiative was introduced to focus on the tourism and hospitality sectors. We saw the direct impact of that focus, however, by increasing jobs in those areas as well as having higher visitor numbers. That creates a whole new revenue stream of income for this country, which must be further encouraged.

Some areas in the construction sector have been affected by JLCs in the past, such as electricians' rates. Many contracts have been lost to companies outside this jurisdiction. For example, JLCs restricted companies that quoted for work, including fitting out shops at weekends. As a result we lost such contracts to Northern Ireland and British companies because we were not competitive in those areas. I certainly hope we will now become competitive as a result of this legislation. In that way, Irish companies will compete for contracts and win them, thus creating jobs here.

I commend the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, and the Minister of State, Deputy John Perry, for the many initiatives they have introduced to assist small businesses. However, banks in this country are still not giving credit to small businesses. Last week in Waterford, a small business employing ten people applied for a term loan from a bank. They were given the term loan after much negotiation and hardship, but the bank withdrew the overdraft to that company. That limited the access to credit the company so badly needs. Banks cannot continue to give with one hand and take away with the other.

There are over 200,000 small businesses which employ almost 700,000 people. They are the life-blood of this economy and must be supported in every possible way.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill and thank the Minister for his work on the legislation. The Minister and Minister of State have had a difficult job to balance the arguments on both sides, but the Bill achieves a compromise. I welcome a number of measures in the Bill, particularly in the area of Sunday working which has been a bone of contention both for employers and employees. Many employers complained that such rates were making Ireland uncompetitive, especially in the tourism sector, as countries like Spain, Germany and the United Kingdom do not pay premium rates on Sundays.

The Bill proposes that joint labour committees will no longer set Sunday premium rates or any other conditions of employment covered by universal standards provided for in existing legislation. I welcome the fact the position of Sunday working will still be recognised, mainly through options set out in the Organisation of Working Time Act. These include the provision of time off in lieu. However, a new statutory code of practice on Sunday working is to be drawn up by the Labour Relations Commission, which will provide guidance for workers and employers on compliance with the Organisation of Working Time Act.

Like many Deputies, I have been lobbied by organisations like the Restaurants Association of Ireland on the issue of Sunday working. While we must have regard to our competitive tourism and service sectors, it is only fair to protect those working in those sectors, most of whom are on the minimum wage. It is only right that due recognition be given to people who have to work on the day most others have off. However, we must strike a balance and exorbitant multiples of pay on Sunday, as proposed by JLCs in the past, have damaged the prospects of creating more jobs in restaurants and in the service sectors. The Minister has achieved the desired balance in the Bill's proposals. I acknowledge the comments by Chambers Ireland, which welcomed the move in saying that the new measures would result in a fairer and more competitive system.

There is frustration among many employers, some of whom are struggling to make a profit. These are pitched against our neighbours in the UK and especially those in Northern Ireland, where the wage levels at the lower end of the scale are substantially less than in Ireland. It is worth noting that we have the second highest national minimum wage in the EU and all employees are protected by over 40 items of the legislation. Many business people in my constituency of Sligo Leitrim North, a constituency that straddles the Border, struggle to compete with businesses supplying similar services and goods in Northern Ireland. Only for the currency difference and the weak euro, it would be much worse.

It may be said that it is a race to the bottom when it comes to wage restraint but there is a competitive issue to be considered and we must keep our eye on the ball. Otherwise, more jobs will be lost, especially in the Border region and in our tourism industry. The jobs initiative by this Government, reducing the VAT rate at the lower level, resulted in many services associated with the food, tourism and service sector being reduced. Increased tourist numbers over the past number of months shows me that this move worked and will secure more employment in the sector. In tandem with this, it is vital we maintain wage costs so that we can continue to provide value for money in these sectors.

While the Government has been criticised by the trade unions for going further than recommended by the Duffy Walsh review, the EU Commission supports this approach. The finding in the High Court that some sectoral wage setting arrangements were unconstitutional redoubles the urgency of reform in this area. I recently met a restaurant owner who offered the job to a person in receipt of a social protection payments. After taking a week to think about, the person told the restaurant owner that the difference in earnings compared to welfare payments was €50 and the loss of a number of benefits. Needless to say, the job was turned down. We need to strike a balance so that remuneration difference between working and not working is less than €100.

I welcome two further aspect of this proposal, such as the need to take into account international wage rates when agreeing terms and the fact that, for employers, the burden of compliance and record-keeping requirements in these sectors will be reduced. I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, which is very important. We have been talking about it for a long time. For years we knew this had to be reformed but it never happened. I had to laugh last night and today when I heard Deputies on the Opposition side giving out about the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, delaying for the past six months. We are more than ten years late in reforming this legislation but at last we are finally there.

This matter became much more urgent after the High Court case last July. The Duffy Walsh report was published around the same time and this made it a pressing issue. I thank the Minister for the urgency with which he dealt with the matter. Along with a number of colleagues on the Joint Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education, I am dealing with this Bill and it has been frustrating because we wanted to have the matter addressed. I acknowledge the contribution of Deputies O'Dea and Tóibín, who introduced Bills on this area. That legislation dealt with some of these same issues but not all of the issues addressed by the Minister's Bill. I acknowledge the efforts of those Deputies and the efforts of the committee to address this matter. Looking through the Bill and realising how long it can take, I accept that the Minister and the Ministers of State, Deputies Perry and Sherlock, did this as quickly as they could. The Bill covers most of the matters under review. There will be plenty of debate in the coming weeks and on Committee Stage during February and March. A number of groups want to present and make submissions on this legislation and I have no doubt that it will get a good hearing. We will get it right this time. A long time ago, when starting out in politics, I was told that sometimes one wants to rush things but it is better to get things right than rushed. It is only January but I think we have the right balance and common sense into an area that needs major reform. The main reason it needs reform is because we are missing out on job opportunities. People are missing out on having their first job, such as a part-time job in a local shop, which is often people's first job. This is the opportunity to find out how it works in the workforce.

This is an important Bill that will change how these agreements are reached. This is a major problem area for employers, particularly the red tape associated with this. In some cases, there were over 300 different rates of pay across different sectors, which is absolute madness. One of the reforms included in the legislation is that rates of pay will be limited to three. The red tape will be cut out for employers and this will help them to create jobs.

Most of the Opposition speakers have made clear that we must protect workers in vulnerable sectors or categories of workers on low wages. There is no doubt about that but one must also have the balance so that people are willing to create jobs in the first place. This legislation has balance. If anyone doubts the commitment of the Government to the low paid, one of its first acts when it came into government in March was to reverse the minimum wage cut. That cut was absolutely wrong. At the time, we were told by the then Government, which was mainly Fianna Fáil, along with the Green Party and a few other people hanging around, that this would create jobs. I had to laugh when I read Deputy Willie O'Dea's speech last night when he made it clear that there is no link between cutting wages at the lower end and creating jobs. Last year, his message was totally different. I am glad that the Opposition has come around to our view of this, that is wrong to cut the wages of those on low wages. I agree with IBEC on many things but it got this wrong. It is very hard for people to survive on low wages. If people are on the minimum wage, there is a cost to going to work. Cutting the minimum wage means that it is not worthwhile for people to go to work. Industry wanted the minimum wage reduced because it is used as a benchmark for other wage negotiations. These should be addressed separately and people should not pick on the minimum wage. We understand the necessity to have a proper minimum wage and we will not use this Bill to cut people's wages in a drastic way.

We need to bring some common sense to the wage agreements in various sectors over the past 60 years. Hopefully, we will get it right. It is important that we are more transparent in these agreements and in the Labour Court committees. This Bill gives the Minister of the day more power and more involvement in setting these agreements. Some will say that this is a scary thing but in my view it gives the House more powers. For too long, I watched politicians here trying to give away powers and blaming other people for every decision made. It is time that this House, through the Minister, the Government and committees, started to make more decisions, which it is supposed to do. Members should stop trying to hide behind every other sector and group. This Bill reintroduces relevant decision making to this House when it comes to setting terms of employment and wage rates. That is useful and will be of benefit as we go along.

The Minister has made it clear that he will take on board the views of others and amendments will be made. I look forward to examining the amendments on Committee Stage. The High Court recommendation and the Duffy Walsh report both said that we must be very clear in setting out the principles behind any agreement. Everyone must be involved in that debate in order to set out who has what powers. It was not clear over the years and the waters were muddied since then, probably because they were too many agreements, some of which were defunct. The other part of the Bill I welcome is that the Minister will deal with the unnecessary ones immediately.

Debate adjourned.