Protection of Employees (Amendment) Bill 2012: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

How does one follow that contribution? Fáiltím roimh an deis seo an Bille seo a chur os comhair na Dála. Tá na mílte oibrithe faoi láthair faoi bhrú uafásach sa tír seo agus táimid ag iarraidh iad a chosaint tríd an Bhille seo a chur i bhfeidhm. I welcome the opportunity to use this Sinn Féin Private Members' time to bring forward this legislation. It is timely that the legislation is before the House today, May Day, which is most associated with celebrating the contribution workers have given to society, remembering the sacrifices they have made and recommitting ourselves to equality and social justice.

Despite the negative views of the Taoiseach today I am hopeful the Government will support our Bill. We remain committed to working with all the parties in this Dáil and hope they bring forward amendments which will improve the Bill as it goes through the Dáil. As the Minister is aware, there is a wall of redundancies hitting this State. For most people redundancies are a desperate situation. It means an initial fall in income. It also means that people's future income security crashes and the financial commitments they must meet cause great stress for those individuals. In addition, we have had an economic shock to the State where a large number of businesses are unwilling to fulfil their responsibilities to these workers, which means that thousands of workers are being exposed economically. In addition we have a State which is creaking under the pressure of the sheer volume of redundancies going through the process. Workers across the State have engaged in prolonged sit-ins and campaigns to secure the rights to which they are entitled.

Research by Vision-net has found that the number of companies becoming insolvent exceeds the number of businesses being created. We must remember that behind every company closure lie desperate individual circumstances. Many employers have struggled to continue in business through the most adverse economic circumstances, while many employees have accepted pay cuts and changes to rostering arrangements and business practices in an effort to keep their companies afloat. Although many business owners have done the right thing by their workers when their companies have closed, some companies have not given employees the minimum period of notice and have undermined the rights and just expectations of their workers. All parties in the House have endorsed motions in support of those who have lost jobs in a number of companies. The Labour Party, supported by Fine Gael, tabled a motion in the Seanad last September calling for redundancy rights to be upheld and condemning the disgraceful actions against workers in the TalkTalk company. Since then workers made redundant in La Senza, Vita Cortex, Game, Wilson Publishing and many other companies have engaged in disputes with their former employers.

Sinn Féin has introduced this Bill in response to a lack of action on this issue. Its provisions address some of the shortcomings in the current legislation pertaining to redundancy and are consistent with the need to protect the rights of workers and ensure employers meet their responsibilities. The Bill reflects the stated positions of all political parties and while it will not address every problem surrounding redundancy rights, it will resolve certain issues related to entitlements, periods of notice and timely resolution of payments.

The legislation seeks to extend the period of notification in collective redundancies from 30 days to 60 for companies with a workforce of between 20 and 99 employees and from 30 days to 90 for companies with a workforce of 100 or more employees. The 90 day notice period is consistent with the approach taken in the North and other jurisdictions in Europe. A 90 day notice period would also allow for negotiations to take place, enable workers to plan for their future and facilitate businesses in examining options for trading out of their current problems. The extension of the period of notice would not be an onerous imposition on employers and is standard in many other European Union countries.

The Bill also addresses the issue of access to the timely payment of redundancy entitlements. In February the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, claimed that a new computer system would expedite the processing of redundancy payments and reduce the average processing period to six weeks. While this is all very well, it highlights that payments of benefits to individuals who have been made redundant are not protected in the same way as payments to businesses are protected. Why should businesses be paid before individuals who have been made redundant? It is not good enough that 29,000 redundancy payment claims remain in the system.

The average waiting time for dealing with contested cases in the Employment Appeals Tribunal is between 70 and 80 weeks. The Bill seeks to address the issue of timely access to the tribunal and the Labour Court by introducing a maximum period of 60 days within which a case must be heard. In the event that a case is not heard within this period, the adjudicative body would be required to notify the Minister and provide reasons for the delay in hearing the case. The Minister would then issue a statement on the matter within 30 days of notification and publish further updates at intervals of 30 days until the matter had been rectified. A similar provision is made in respect of determinations by the Employment Appeals Tribunal or the Labour Court and would require that entitlements be paid to workers from the insolvency fund within 60 days. This provision seeks to improve the operations of the Labour Court and the Employment Appeals Tribunal, enhance their accountability to the Minister and ensure ministerial accountability to the people he or she serves.

While Sinn Féin recognises that the Minister has made proposals on employment rights bodies, the rights provided for in the Bill stand on their merits and would enhance his proposals. The setting of targets is positive for all concerned as it allows for the measurement of success in administration. The Bill also seeks to address the anomaly identified in debates on the Protection of Employees (Employers' Insolvency) Act 1984. In cases where a company ceases trading but does not enter insolvency workers are left in a legal limbo and cannot automatically access funding from the insolvency fund until their employer's business has been forced into bankruptcy by creditors. This can be a lengthy and costly process and, in some cases, creditors will not pursue insolvency because the business does not have visible assets. The Bill will give workers in companies which are insolvent in all but name an entitlement to apply for payment from the insolvency fund within 60 days of a company ceasing trading.

The provisions of the Bill are limited to addressing some of the experiences of and concerns raised by workers. Sinn Féin recognises that it does not address the totality of the issue of employee protection. We ask the Government to address the matter ofex gratia payments and ensure employers honour agreements made with workers in order that employees of organisations and companies such as Lagan Brick and Vita Cortex are not forced to take the actions on which they have embarked. It is incredible that individuals in the companies in question are still engaged in sit-ins almost halfway through 2012. All of us have a basic expectation that agreements will be honoured.

There is merit in examining the issue of lump sum payments and offering greater flexibility and alternative means of compensating workers who have been made redundant. In other European countries, including Germany, workers who are made redundant are given a weekly payment approximating to their wages for a fixed period. This approach which is complemented by training better prepares people to return to the workforce. Workers should be given a choice as to the type of arrangement for their redundancy payment, whether a weekly payment or a lump sum.

Expediting redundancy payments would also help workers who wish to participate in buy-outs of businesses because employees would have the capital required to engage in a buy-out before their company closed. I ask the Minister to consider all the options I have outlined and produce proposals on each of them.

Compliance with legislation and the determinations of the Employment Appeals Tribunal and the Labour Court must also be addressed because without enforcement, such determinations are useless. I ask the Minister to address this issue through regulation.

I am confident that enactment of the legislation would safeguard and enforce the rights and entitlements of workers. It would allow workers to return to employment and promote business start-ups. It would not impose an onerous cost on good employees but would tackle cases of abusive employers. The Bill reflects a growing consensus that the Oireachtas must address problems such as those that have arisen in TalkTalk, La Senza, Game, Vita Cortex and Lagan Brick.

As this is May Day, I extend greetings to workers, working families and the unemployed. It is pertinent that we are debating the Protection of Employees (Amendment) Bill on International Workers' Day. It is not a coincidence that Sinn Féin chose today to introduce the Bill because we are proud of our socialist politics and history of supporting workers in struggle, north, south, east and west. My party has never shied away from supporting workers who are struggling for justice anywhere in the world, whether in support of the Dunnes Stores strikers in Dublin in the 1980s, striking dockers in Liverpool or Ford workers in Belfast. Our politics are about providing solutions for the challenges that face workers in today's climate of austerity.

I commend Unite, MANDATE and SIPTU on their expressions of support for this Bill.

The purpose of this Bill is to enhance the rights of workers who are facing great difficulties in accessing their basic entitlements in the current climate. It will lengthen the notification period in collective redundancies from 30 to 60 days where companies have 20 to 99 employees, and from 30 to 90 days where companies have more than 100 employees. It puts in place a maximum period of 60 days after a worker applies to the Labour Court to have his or her case heard. It will also put in place a maximum period of 60 days after a determination of the Labour Court to have the worker's entitlements paid out under the insolvency fund. This Bill will ensure workers in companies that are insolvent in all but name are entitled to apply for payment under the insolvency fund after their company has ceased trading for more than 60 days.

The Minister is wrong to attack this Bill, as he did today. He claims the proposals are of limited value with regard to the period of notice. He should try saying that to those workers in TalkTalk and he should explain his misrepresentation. The absence of this legislation has created a nightmare for thousands of workers who have faced redundancy in recent years. Many of these workers have taken it upon themselves to take action to highlight their plight and demand this Government uphold their rights. I extend solidarity greetings to Vita Cortex workers in Cork who remain in occupation, the workers in Lagan Bricks, Game and La Senza and thousands who never make the headlines. I had the opportunity to meet the Game workers recently. The situation facing these workers and their families highlights the need for people to join trade unions. We might all have differences with the leadership of unions at different times, but they are the last line of defence for many families and their communities. I encourage people to join trade unions.

Today's economic recession is being used by the current Government and its allies in industry to introduce anti-worker practices. An example of this is the Connolly Shoes dispute in Dún Laoghaire, whereby €85,000 was awarded by the Labour Court to the staff, yet there are no means to force the company to pay. The company has simply changed the name above the door and continued to trade. The union is confident the courts will find in favour of the workers, yet the company will not have to pay one penny as it is the taxpayer who will pick up the tab for the €85,000. We are all aware of how tight money is in today's climate, and we hear from the captains of industry of the need to tighten our belts and cut back on public spending. However, in the absence of this Bill, it is the taxpayer who bails out these same companies every day. It is unjust, uneconomic and unacceptable that taxpayers' money has to be used like this.

I urge the Government parties to support this Bill, in particular the Labour Party, which receives much of its financial support from the trade unions. That party has an opportunity today to redeem itself and to strengthen the rights of workers who are faced with redundancy.

Ba mhaith liom tacaíocht a thabhairt don Bhille seo. Today is May Day, a day when workers, trade unionists and those who struggle for a better world for ordinary people remember the fights of the past, the victories, the losses, the revolutions and the counter-revolutions, the great men and the great women. It is a day we in Sinn Féin mark and a day that always causes me to pause and think of the great things that have been achieved by working people and the many things we have yet to wrestle from those who seek to hold us back from human progress in order that they can pursue profit and power.

Today those people are often referred to as the 1%. They are those who are €4.1 billion better off this year in Ireland, while others struggle to pay their bills and have less than €100 at the end of the month. They are backed up by the servile political elite. As Connolly, Ireland's greatest leader of working people, said, Ireland is nothing without its people. Its people are the working people who do not earn massive wages or dodge paying their fair share. Nothing speaks more to the need to protect our people than the situation we see throughout the country, where workers who lose their jobs are left with nothing to show for their service and often great loyalty to their place of employment. Many employers seek to take advantage in the bad times of the temporary docility of Irish workers, and cast out these workers with little more than a text message or an e-mail. They have awoken the Irish worker and this spirit of fighting back can be seen in the resolve of the workers at La Senza, Game, Lagan Brick and Vita Cortex. Their fight is the fight of workers throughout Ireland, who know that they could be next. The solidarity shown to these workers' sit-ins is undeniable evidence of this.

The State must act to prevent a situation where workers cannot get the redundancy they deserve from their former employers. Their mistreatment must not be continued further by the actions of a State which at this moment is telling them that they are not worth anything, their hard work is not appreciated and they should never feel secure. Our modest demand this evening is not asking the earth, but simply some redress for some workers who are not in a position to avail of their deserved redundancy from their former employers and who must turn to the State. This Bill will not address all the issues relating to workers' rights and redundancy but we believe it is an important Bill designed to protect and enhance the rights of some workers experiencing great difficulty at this time. The Labour Party proposed some similarly motivated measures last September in the Seanad. It was passed but nothing has come of it, in spite of tacit support from the Minister, Deputy Bruton.

Workers are being denied the entitlements they have won, and the State must act to make available redundancy payments to which they are entitled, as well as laying down requirements that they will not be left to fend for themselves for a protracted period while a decision is being made. This is a simple, modest Bill to help some workers who are being left in the lurch due to a failure to legislate to protect them in these changing times. I commend it to the House and I ask the Labour Party to consider its heritage, those oft mentioned Labour values, and vote for this motion to support workers on this international day of solidarity and re-dedication to the cause of progress and humanity.

A number of anomalies have been highlighted over recent years in regard to notice and redundancy as the recession has begun to make serious inroads into employment levels. There have been instances in my constituency where it required considerable pressure and outside intervention to ensure the workers who were being made redundant received their due entitlements. I have also had representations from workers who have been let go from smaller companies which have allegedly ceased to operate but whose owners have established themselves under a new name within a short period. In some of these cases, the workers who were let go found their former employers were refusing to pay them any redundancy money on the basis they allegedly could not afford to do so. They then placed the workers concerned in the same position as other creditors who were also making claims against companies that had nominally ceased to exist but whose owners were still in business.

Both of these issues need to be addressed: the claim of workers to be compensated for the loss of their jobs, and for suppliers and others to be paid for their goods and services. It certainly ought not be possible for people to avoid their legal and financial obligations by ceasing to trade under one name only to reappear overnight under a different name. There was also, of course, the La Senza case in which there was a deliberate and cynical attempt by those responsible for running the company in administration to take advantage of legal loopholes not only to avoid paying redundancy but also to avoid paying wages owed to the workers for the time they had worked under considerable stress, given the fact that they knew their jobs were more than likely gone. Only the fact that they were not prepared to take the way they were being treated lying down forced the company liquidators, KPMG, to come to some terms with them. I commend them for this. The fact that it was only the direct action of the workforce, with the widespread support of the general public, that brought about the improved offer illustrates the need for the law to be changed in order to address such cases and avoid a repeat. That is why I urge all sides of the House, including Government Deputies who spoke out on the La Senza issue and about similar cases, to support the Sinn Féin proposals.

There is an ongoing problem in the Vita Cortex plant in Cork where workers have been in occupation for the past four months. Again, the owners of the company are claiming an inability to pay, whereas the workers' representatives have pointed both to previous offers from Mr. Jack Ronan and the fact that NAMA had apparently offered to release sufficient funds to facilitate proper severance terms.

The point ought to be that the legislation should establish proper procedures rather than leaving us open to similar moves by employers to avoid paying proper redundancy terms. The only way to ensure this is to bring forward proper legislation, which is why I commend the Bill to the House.

Deputy Crowe, there are 15 minutes remaining.

May I speak for 15 minutes?

I suppose 15 minutes seems like a long time, but it is probably longer than the notice many employees received that they were to lose their jobs. I have talked to people who worked in Waterford Crystal, La Senza, TalkTalk, Lagan Brick, Vita Cortex, Game and Wilson Publishing and used this Chamber to publicise their cases. The Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, is one of the people who replied to my queries and tried to make sense of some of the decisions taken by the employers of these workers. All of the workers involved in these closures were angry and frustrated. In many cases, they had met their job targets and worked extremely hard. They had worked for profitable companies, the finances of which were, in some cases, exported abroad, yet they were told there was no money for redundancy payments. They asked us what we could do to help. As legislators, we raised these anomalies with the Minister and the Minister of State on a number of occasions and asked how some employers could get away with this sort of thing in today's world.

Other speakers have reminded the House that this is May Day. I think of the 1913 lock-out. What was it about? It was about workers trying to secure basic rights such as the right to join a trade union and have basic working conditions. Those workers were of a different generation and did different jobs and we like to think conditions have improved since, yet many of today's workers are in the same situation. Some were informed by telephone or email that they were being made redundant. Some heard it in the media, while others were informed by heavies. One young woman told me she had been surrounded by guys as she was opening the shop front and told the business was closed. That is how she was officially informed that she had lost her job. She was trying to keep the shop shutters down, thinking the men were about to rob her employer's business. She was trying to protect her employer's stock and premises. When she telephoned head office, she was told, "Yes, your job is gone." That is not acceptable and I do not believe anyone in the House would disagree with me. People listening at home do not want to see that type of society emerging. That is why Sinn Féin drafted this legislation.

The Minister and others have said it is a waste of time or does not go far enough. Perhaps the Minister is working on legislation. When I raised this issue on a previous occasion, I said this was not just an Irish issue. It is a European issue because many of the companies involved cross frontiers. We need a joint response from reasonable people in power in Europe or who work in the area of workers' rights. We need to come up with responses to this issue.

Sinn Féin was asked by people who had been made redundant if it could do something to improve the position. Some cases have been successfully resolved. Other people are still trying to secure their basic rights and redundancy payments. They said they did not want waffle but to see legislation. That is what we tried to do. There is an onus on all of us, as legislators, to come up with solutions to this issue. To rubbish our attempt or dismiss the Bill without an explanation is a retrograde step.

Will the Minister of State explain to those waiting more than 76 weeks for an Employment Appeals Tribunal hearing why there is no value in holding the Department or the Minister to account for that delay? Is that acceptable? I realise there are huge difficulties and that many are becoming unemployed, but if the waiting time is 76 weeks, clearly the tribunal needs more resources. People should not have to wait that length of time. Perhaps the Minister of State might tell workers who have been given four weeks notice of redundancy that a longer notification period would be of little value. Can someone explain this?

The purpose of the Bill is to enhance and enshrine the rights of workers by ensuring anyone who is made redundant could have his or her claim for entitlements dealt with quickly and processed without undue complications. Most Members of the House would share that aspiration.

It is important to remind ourselves that the significant profits made by companies during the so-called boom years were further boosted by the tax incentives and generous grants made available to encourage businesses and multinationals to establish a base of operations in Ireland. This should not be forgotten when we examine the fate of workers during these harsher times.

When people ask how companies can get away with what they do, they look to other things people seem to be getting away with. When people see houses being repossessed, they ask who got us into this mess and if they are being brought to book. When someone loses a job, the effect is felt by his or her children, in his or her relationships and by the security of his or her home. The Bill is about helping and supporting those who find themselves in that difficult position.

I am not talking about something that is abstract and that I have not experienced. Like many others in this House or listening at home, I was made redundant, but I did not get just five minutes notice. My employer followed due process. I was made redundant approximately 30 years ago. Surely the conditions and rights of workers should improve not disimprove with time, which is what seems to be happening. The evidence is clear given the frequency with which groups of workers come to the Visitors Gallery to give us their story. They go to all Members seeking answers on how this can happen when it did not happen in one's father's or grandfather's time. One could ask how we can allow this to happen. The purpose of the legislation is to improve the conditions of workers and their families. It is clear that the law is not adequate if hardworking staff can be sacked with immediate effect, have wages withheld and be offered no redundancy. That is the message we are sending from this side of the House.

If the Government does not accept the Bill we have introduced the challenge lies with it to do something. Other speakers have indicated that they hope the Labour Party or Fine Gael does this or that. I do not care who votes for the Bill but I do want to see a framework emerge from the discussion and that we will not go back but go forward in order that conditions for workers improve, not disimprove. Likewise, I wish to see wages improve, not disimprove. I realise we are in difficult times but I wish to see improvements in the situation of workers.

The most recent figures available indicate there is a backlog of approximately 29,000 statutory redundancy claims, yet the Government tells us that claims submitted after October 2011 will be resolved within six weeks. No deadline has been set to resolve the existing backlog and, to compound matters further, where cases are contested the average waiting period for claims to be heard by the Employment Appeals Tribunal, EAT, is 76 weeks in Dublin and 80 weeks elsewhere. One could ask whether that is acceptable for one to be in such a position. It is necessary to resolve the situation in order for redundancy packages to be made available. I accept there are difficulties and pressures but we must adapt and seek to invest extra resources in order to speed up the processing of claims. I look forward to the Minister's reply to the debate to hear what exactly will be done to resolve the current unacceptable and scandalous delay in processing claims by the State's statutory agencies.

The purpose of the Bill is to enhance and enshrine the rights of workers by ensuring anyone who is unfortunate enough to be made redundant can have the processing of his or her claim and entitlements done quickly and without undue complications. The Bill would also ensure that workers who have been made redundant by a company which has been declared insolvent can claim their entitlements under the insolvency fund.

It is important to remind ourselves that the significant profits made by companies during the so-called boom years were further boosted by the tax incentives and generous grants that were made available to multinationals. Companies have come to this country, used the available resources and supports and then treated their workers in the manner described. That is the big scandal in this regard. Many workers have met the targets of the company and worked long hours, which led to the accrual of big profits. Some of the companies in the retail sector that were mentioned closed just after Christmas. Their staff worked long hours and did hard work. During the Christmas period in particular there is a lot of pressure on staff. They saw the money coming into the stores they were running. Many of those made redundant were not just workers, they were involved in the management of the stores and knew the profits that were being made, yet they were met by the heavies on the door.

We must be clear that regardless of the difficulties business faces in these harsh economic times, there is simply no excuse for Irish workers to be treated in this way. If hard-working workers can be sacked with immediate effect, have wages withheld and be offered no redundancy it is clear that the law is not adequate. The challenge for the Government is to act and ensure there are no more cases such as La Senza, Vita Cortex or Lagan Brick. I have met with groups of workers from most of those companies. I presume the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, and other Members of the House have done likewise. Those workers are seeking answers. With all its faults, the Bill can contribute to the debate. I pay tribute to all those involved in framing the legislation.

It is significant that we are discussing the Bill on May Day. It is not insignificant that many years ago workers went on strike in this city to prove their rights. They would not be ground down. Many young people who have been through this process have emerged bitter and frustrated but they have also seen another side of the remains of the Celtic tiger. Clearly, they are not happy with the situation and not impressed with our lack of answers on how we can improve their situation. The downside of tonight's debate is that we will perhaps see others going through the motions in terms of what will be done. Timescales must be forthcoming from the Minister. We must be able to deliver. I do not wish to see another group of workers arrive in the House in a similar situation. Their presence would give rise to sympathy for the terrible effect on such and such a family and wonder as to how a particular family would be able to retain their house. We would say how terrible it is that they will have to wait 56 weeks and suggest we might reduce the wait to 50 weeks. The situation is unacceptable. Extra resources must be made available. Other aspects of the Bill must be examined to improve the lot of workers.

I wish to share time with Deputies Doyle, Keaveney, Jim Daly and McNamara.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I am proud to be present today because it is the first anniversary of the announcement by the then president of the Labour Party, Mr. Michael D. Higgins, of his candidacy for the office of President of Ireland. With your permission, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I will quote from his statement of that day:

The Labour Party is the oldest party in Ireland and was founded in the year before one of the greatest confrontations between labour and capital in the history of the Irish State, the great lock-out in Dublin of 1913.

He goes on to say:

What was then a poverty stricken and vulnerable movement of labour sought to organise against a version of capitalism that refused the most basic rights to workers, including the very right to organise. That confrontation required courage, tenacity, solidarity and, above all, a commitment to class and history beyond the short-term challenges. We should never forget that. To this day we are the beneficiaries of the struggle of the labour movement of 1913. Moreover, as their heirs we are required to make an analysis of our own difficult times to craft a strategy and to deliver our view of an alternative society with a sustainable and productive connection between economy and society in the institutions that can deliver it.

That man, thankfully, is now President of Ireland. I am proud to be here to say we are continuing, to the best of our ability, on his legacy and vision.

On the legislation, and that particular vision, given the day that is in it, I was glad to see the pupils of the Presentation primary school of Doneraile in the Gallery because we must have regard to their future. It is precisely in the vision set out by persons dating back to 1913, and through persons like President Michael D. Higgins, that such narrative continues. We do our best to ensure there is a future for those children.

The plight of employees in the current economic environment is foremost in the deliberations of Government as it seeks to stimulate the creation of jobs and a return to economic growth. Various high-profile cases that have been widely reported in the media highlight the precarious nature of employment in some sectors at present and the need to ensure vulnerable employees are treated fairly by employers and their complaints adequately adjudicated by the appropriate employment rights bodies of the State.

No doubt the proposed Bill under discussion here this evening is well intended. However, it is impractical in its scope and in terms of what it seeks to achieve. Ultimately, it could serve only to expose the taxpayer and employers to additional burdens while also, ironically, acting as a chill factor to the creation of vitally necessary new employment in the State. We need only go back to one of the original EU directives of 1998 in this area which notes the need "for balanced economic and social development" within the EU.

The Department of Social Protection has responsibility for the processing of claims under the redundancy payments scheme and the insolvency payments scheme. The insolvency payments scheme operates under the Protection of Employees (Employers' Insolvency) Act 1984 and is designed to protect certain outstanding pay-related entitlements due to employees in the event of the insolvency of their employer. Such entitlements include wages, holiday pay, sick pay, payment in lieu of minimum notice due under the Minimum Notice and Terms of Employment Act 1973 and certain pension contributions. The scheme comprises a one-off payment in respect of outstanding debts to employees in respect of their legitimate employment entitlements subject to certain limits.

The insolvency payments scheme and the redundancy payments scheme are two separate schemes, but they are both paid from the social insurance fund. In 2011, €18.5 million was paid from the insolvency payments scheme in respect of outstanding pay-related entitlements due to employees.

The Minister for Social Protection becomes a preferential creditor against the assets of an employer in respect of most amounts paid under the Protection of Employees (Employers' Insolvency) Act 1984 - the House will forgive me if this sounds technical, but I want to answer each of the points addressed in the Bill. The distribution of the assets to creditors, including the Minister, is subject to the legislation and rules governing the winding-up of companies. While an insolvent company, by definition, cannot meet its liabilities, the level of assets available for distribution can vary greatly. The Minister may receive a dividend or be paid in full if there are sufficient funds in the liquidation/receivership. All reimbursements made to the Minister by the liquidator from the assets of the company are returned to the social insurance fund.

Sinn Féin, in proposing this Bill, seeks to widen the scope of insolvency to effectively allow an employee to render a company insolvent, by amending a provision of the 1984 Act. The legislation currently in place provides for the recognition of companies becoming insolvent in circumstances such as where the employer has been adjudicated bankrupt; where the employer has filed a petition for, or has executed, a deed of arrangement within the meaning of section 4 of the Deeds of Arrangement Act 1887; where the employer has died and his or her estate, being insolvent, is being administered in accordance with the rules set out in Part I of the First Schedule to the Succession Act 1965; where the employer is a company, a winding up order is made or a resolution for voluntary winding up is passed with respect to it; where a receiver or manager of an undertaking is duly appointed, or possession is taken, by or on behalf of the holders of any debentures secured by any floating charge, of any property of the company comprised in or subject to the charge; and where the employer is of a class or description specified in regulations under section 4(2) of this Act which are for the time being in force and the circumstances specified in the regulations as regards employers of such class or description obtain in relation to him.

It is a 30-minute slot but if the Minister of State wants to let his colleagues in, he has three minutes left.

I beg the indulgence of my colleagues on this one. If they are amenable to allowing me, I want to address the points in the legislation.

I must take some time off the Minister of State's colleagues.

I appreciate that and thank my colleagues. I want to ensure we address the legislation before us.

The current legislation also ensures that insolvency payments are paid to employees in respect of unpaid debts, such as wages and holiday pay, from the social insurance fund and protects employees' entitlements in the event of an insolvency. Liquidation, the most common status pertaining to insolvency, is a permanent irreversible condition whereas the trading status of a company may change significantly depending on its circumstances. In the circumstances, it is not necessary to include a new category regarding the cessation of trading as part of the insolvency payments scheme.

On the proposed amendment of section 6 of the Protection of Employees (Employers' Insolvency) Act 1984, I am satisfied the current provisions, contained in section 7 of the Act, are sufficient for this purpose. The current legislation facilitates access to appeal to the Employment Appeals Tribunal and the proposed amendment of section 9 is not necessary, given the reform process underway in respect of the employment rights adjudication bodies of the State.

Sections 9 and 10 of the Protection of Employment Act 1977, as amended, make it mandatory on employers proposing a collective redundancy to engage in an information and consultation process with employees' representatives and to provide certain information relating to the proposed redundancies. An employer is prohibited from issuing any notice of redundancy during the mandatory minimum 30-day employee information and consultation period. The existing legislation provides for a range of sanctions to be applied against an employer where he or she fails to meet the information and consultation obligations under the Act, whereby failure to comply with section 9 on failure to consult or section 10 on failure to provide certain information, may result in a fine of up to €5,000. Section 12 of the Act makes it mandatory for an employer to notify the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation of his or her intention to create collective redundancies at least 30 days prior to the first dismissal taking effect.

As I have indicated, while the thrust behind the legislation may be well intended, ultimately, this Bill is impractical and crucially may expose the taxpayer and the wider economy to major unintended consequences. There are two main difficulties with the Bill. The 90-day consultation period for large companies is unrealistic and is inconsistent with the flexibility needed by companies to make decisions on restructuring and change. The one certainty is that by imposing a consultation period as long as 90 days, the rule will be honoured more in the breach than in the observance. Equally, it could involve a prolonged period of uncertainty for employees, some of whom may be discouraged from remaining with a particular employer in what would be an artificially extended period of doubt.

The proposed period of 90 days is significantly greater than in most other EU member states. Significantly, the UK's Department of Business, Innovation and Skills is also actively evaluating the relevance of the continued application of the 90-day provision in the context of its own economic circumstances.

The proposal surrounding the circumstances of a company ceasing trading and the granting of redundancy payments is overly simplistic and potentially lets the employer off the hook for what he or she should be rightfully paying by way of redundancy payments. The proposal has the potential to encourage abuse by employers and will expose the taxpayer to costs that he or she should not have to bear.

I ask the House to bear in mind those companies that are operating outside of this jurisdiction. It must be also recognised that several of the cases that have given rise to this Bill concern a small number of intractable scenarios where sudden wind-ups have occurred as the result of court orders, many of which have been extra-jurisdictional, typically in the UK, and no consultation or information period whatsoever - be it 30 days or 90 days - takes place. An extended notification period to employees in such difficult and atypical circumstances would be of limited use in seeking to improve the circumstances of affected employees. The existing 30 day information and consultation period and the 30 day notification period to the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation have served the State well for more than 30 years and neither employer nor employee representatives have ever sought their amendment. This is because, in the majority of normal collective redundancy situations, employers comply with the required information and consultation period, specifically that no dismissals take effect within a 30 day period.

In fact, in practice, the notice period provided in proposed collective redundancies very often exceeds the minimum statutory provision. A representative sample of redundancy notifications received by the Minister in 2012 shows that a majority of employees in collective redundancy situations already receive in excess of 30 days' notice that redundancies are planned for the company. More than 65% of the notifications provided for a minimum period of six weeks before the first redundancy was due to occur, while 50% provided for a minimum period of two months before the first redundancy was due to take place. Even in redundancy situations that did not provide for more than the minimum 30 day information and consultation period for some employees, the redundancies were often proposed on a phased basis, with many employees receiving longer notice of the planned redundancies.

Existing legislative provisions contained in the Protection of Employment Act 1977 allow for National Employment Rights Authority inspectors, as authorised officers of the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, to carry out inspections to establish whether the Act is being complied with. I would encourage any employees who believe their employer has not complied with the requirements of the legislation to make a complaint to the authority under the provisions of the Act.

The Government is strongly committed to the protection of employees and the enhancement of their employment rights. This commitment is most in evidence in the reform of the statutory workplace relations structures and processes initiated by the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton. He is committed to delivering a world class workplace relations service. His main aim is to provide a simple, independent, effective, impartial, cost effective and workable means of redress and enforcement within a reasonable period of time. Substantial progress has already been delivered in this regard. A key element of the next phase of reform will be the delivery of a just, fair and efficient adjudication service provided by independent, professional and impartial decision makers.

I am aware I have gone beyond my allocated time, so I will leave it at that.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the proposal by colleagues opposite and on the general area of employee protection. Members on all sides of the House are anxious to ensure the protection of employees is paramount in our employment relations law. That concern is not exclusive to any particular party or group, although we may have different approaches to it. The Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, has gone through the technical intricacies of the Bill and I will not attempt to match him in that regard. Instead, I will refer to a particular example that is relevant in the context of this discussion.

Last Friday I attended a dinner hosted by Arklow Chamber of Commerce which was sponsored by two companies, Arklow Shipping and Servier Industries Limited. The latter is a French biopharmaceutical company which has been established for some years in Arklow. It is a foundation whose president, Dr. Servier, is over 90 years of age and still runs the organisation. Several years ago the company, which has plants in locations throughout the world, lost a particular production line to Australia, whereupon the conclusion was reached that the problem was in regard to its cost base. Action was taken to address this to the extent that last week the company was able to offer a new incentive package of increments to all staff and an announcement that the particular product line has been reclaimed. What this shows is that for this specific company, the staff are king and the input and co-operation of the workforce is valued. It is a very successful model of operation, with all profits ploughed back into the company and no shareholders or high powered board of directors demanding a piece of the pie. The company has competed for more than 50 years on an international basis in what is a very competitive industry.

There is a lesson here to which we all should give our attention. Were more companies globally and in this State run according to that model, we would have much happier and healthier workplaces. I have been impressed down the years with the way in which Servier Industries Limited has recruited locally and engaged with institutes of technologies and colleges to ensure a continuing stream of workers, from the indigenous community where possible but not exclusively. Many of the issues raised in this Bill are set against the background of an adversarial model of employer-worker relations. It does not have to be that way, but there is no denying that disputes will inevitably arise. In that context, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, and others are working hard to improve the laws relating to the protection of employees. Some of the provisions in this Bill would have a negative impact in terms of employers contemplating taking on staff, even apart from the implications for industrial relations thereafter. We must be careful to ensure any proposed measures are considered in a steady and cautious manner. The rights commissioner hearings have been reduced in any case, and they have achieved the targets set. The Bill seeks to establish in law aspirations that are not necessarily required. The Government is working towards a model that will satisfy all concerns in regard to employee protections. I thank the Sinn Féin Members for bringing this legislation to the floor of the House for discussion.

I thank the proposers of the Bill for bringing it forward for consideration. There was some historic reference made to the lock-out of 1913. That great struggle between capital and labour took place not five years before the then president of Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith, asked the Labour Party to stand down on the basis that workers' rights in this country would have to wait their day. We have come a long in Irish history in less than 100 years when Sinn Féin is taking a stand in this House in regard to workers' rights. On 1 May, above all other days, I commend the party in this regard.

The Bill, however, has some technical defects that render much of it undesirable to bring into law. The proposed amendment to the Protection of Employees (Employers' Insolvency) Act 1984 could have the effect of allowing an employer to render a company insolvent when efforts could be made to restructure it and protect a portion of the employment where that can be provided for through dialogue. A further proposed amendment to section 6 of the 1984 Act introduces an ambiguity as to which Minister in particular is to be referred to. This could prove problematic in that a Minister could unwittingly act in excess of his or her jurisdiction, which might then cause harm to the welfare of an employee. According to today's press release from Sinn Féin, the Bill is intended to address the recent redundancy situation that arose largely from decisions by foreign courts to order sudden wind-ups of companies operating in this State as part of multinational groups. As many of these cases related to decisions of courts in fellow European Union member states, an appropriate solution might be sought in the context of EU legislation to address this issue on a pan-European basis. If I understood Deputy Seán Crowe correctly, he is in favour of such an approach, in which case I will certainly be happy to add my voice in calling on the Government to address that at a European level.

The main criticism of the historic industrial relations mechanisms in this country has had to do with the lack of expediency, as highlighted by other speakers. It is simply unacceptable in this economy that workers must wait up to three years for a recommendation or determination and even longer for a final resolution.

The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation has made significant progress in this area and stated his main aim is to provide an independent, effective, impartial, as well as a simple, cost effective and workable means to seek redress in respect of an enforcement order within a reasonable period of time. His initiatives include the single contact portal, the single complaint form and the early resolution service. Information on all aspects of employment rights and industrial relations is now available on the one website.

The Minister and his Department have also commenced work on a Bill on workers' relations which will wind down and amalgamate the plethora of third party procedures. The proposed streamlining is welcome, but I call on the Minister to include in the Bill further steps and measures that would provide for recommendations of the Labour Court having a more binding effect. It is my personal view that the Government ought to grant an exemption in the context of the cap on public sector recruitment to deal with speciality and resources issues, as referred to in the Bill.

I wish to comment on companies such as Vodafone which has moved its operations to the lower cost economy of Northern Ireland. I am sure the Deputy on the other side of the House will be delighted for his other constituency in the North regarding the job growth that will occur in that area. I do not see Deputy Gerry Adams here defending his constituents in Dundalk who are on their knees suffering as a consequence of Vodafone's decision to move operations to Newry. We must look at this issue because it is a disgrace that companies can continue to receive State contracts at local and national level while remaining very profitable. The French republic would ensure companies acted in a manner that would protect the interests of the French economy. It is important companies such as Vodafone sit up and listen to the concerns of the Dáil about the treatment of Irish workers. They are posting millions of euro in profits while moving to lower cost economies. We have a role in government to review if we should renew contracts with such organisations which are moving across the Border to Newry to pay significantly lower wages.

I admire the sentiment more than anyone else in this room about the motivation behind the Bill. The cause of workers' rights is an important one for the House, but I will be voting against the Bill as it is technically deficient in a number of areas, an aspect that has been acknowledged by the Opposition. More importantly, it has misidentified the root of the problem. There is no doubt that the Government has made significant progress on the issue of workers' rights, but more needs to be done. The Bill, as an Opposition speaker said, is not perfect, but it raises the profile of the debate. It is important that we identify with those workers who have been affected, mostly in multinational companies which have been put into liquidation outside the jurisdiction. If we can improve the lot of these workers, the debate will be important.

I look forward to the timely progress of the Minister's proposals to the Oireachtas. He would do well to listen to the sentiments expressed by every speaker with respect to maintaining high standards in the role of third party procedures. It is my firm belief that in that reform process many of the issues about the duration and timeframe outlined by the Deputy from Sinn Féin would come to an immediate and sudden end if the capacity of the Labour Court could be reviewed with regard to making firm legal determinations rather than recommendations based on a voluntary understanding between bodies. That is one of the root causes of the two to three year delays workers face when trying to secure a legal right.

I look forward to seeing the progress the Minister is making on this issue and adding to the process over the course of the year. HIs proposals must be brought before the House as soon as possible in order we can include them in the Statute Book to protect vulnerable workers in the economy.

I welcome the steps taken by the Government to date to improve the lot of workers. An aspect of the debate that not been acknowledged so far is the productive reform of employment rights and industrial relations bodies and the significant progress made in this regard. Prior to the introduction of the workplace relations customer service in January, it took up to eight months in some instances for employee complaints to be logged and the employer notified. This notification now takes place within five days of a complaint being logged by the employee. This is a long overdue and positive development for workers to ensure a greater sense of fairness and accountability. I regret that some of these aspects have not been acknowledged. While it is a worthy subject and we all support the sentiments expressed about workers' rights, we must be constructive and fair.

To strengthen further the sense of fairness and justice for workers, the reform undertaken by the Government since taking office has led to major improvements in waiting times for hearings with a rights commissioner. As alluded to, in 2010 it took an average of 142 days to have a hearing scheduled with the LRC. Waiting times to schedule a hearing with the rights commissioner are now a matter of weeks. These positive developments are welcomed by all those who have been forced to avail of their offices.

There have been further administrative improvements with regard to the associated paperwork. A single complaint form has been produced which replaces the previous array of more than 30 complaint forms. These and other improvements are to be welcomed by all sides of the House.

Dealing with the specifics of the Bill, it is important that we deal with requests for an extension of notification or consultation periods sensibly and practically. We must recognise the current period of notification has served the State and the workforce well in many cases in the past 30 years. It is not prudent or advisable to change legislation based on the experience of a minority of cases that, by and large, do not represent the norm, without taking collective note of the entire picture at any one time.

As legislators, our work must be informed by the people we represent. These are challenging times for society and the need to protect the vulnerable, including workers, is undisputed. Any attempt, however, to forcibly swing the pendulum in one direction or another must be made carefully, cognisant of the changing circumstances of all stakeholders.

Further proposals made in the Bill such as imposing a 60 day deadline for hearings are being addressed in the Minister's reforms of the statutory workplace relations, structures and processes. He is determined to put in place a world class workplace relations service. I have referred to this issue, while outlining the positive developments such as the vast improvements in waiting times for hearings with a rights commissioner.

I congratulate the proposers of the Bill and I am glad to speak to it. I agree with the remarks made from the opposite side of the House. I support the Minister of State's remarks on the issue of insolvency. That is a fundamental flaw in the Bill but it concerns just one section of the Bill. I strongly agree with Deputy Com Keaveney in his remarks about the powers of the Labour Court. Last Thursday I had a long debate with the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Employment about that matter because it was the subject of my first priority question to him. I regret to inform the House that he resolutely refused to have anything to do with changing them in the slightest way. Clearly, work remains to be done in that regard.

The two main proposals made in the Bill would serve to speed up hearings before employment rights bodies. I heard people talk about a period of weeks, but 52 or 75 weeks could still be defind as a matter of weeks. The latest figures available to me suggest that if someone wants to go to the Employment Appeals Tribunal, he or she will be waiting for a year and a half. That is a disgrace. If someone wants to go to the Labour Court and happens to live outside Dublin, it will take six months. If someone wants to go to a rights commissioner, again, he or she must wait at least six months. Such delays should not happen in these cases; they amount to a gross injustice. Therefore, I welcome any proposal, from wherever it comes, that might alleviate the situation.

I take the Government's point that it is preparing its own proposals in respect of this matter. The advance publicity in respect of those proposals has prompted me to harbour certain concerns about them. I am more concerned about the Government's proposals than I am about Sinn Féin's, even though I know the latter are not perfect either. It would do no harm, in the short term, if the Government were to accept the aspect of the Bill to which I refer. Anything that can be done to alleviate the type of grossly unjust delays that are occurring would be welcome. Members on this side of the House are not entitled to put forward proposals which involve a charge on the Exchequer. I am of the view it will take more than legislation to rectify the position in respect of this matter and that a substantial commitment of resources is going to be required.

The Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, focused entirely on the forthcoming proposals, which we eagerly await and which are supposed to be in place by the autumn. I hope they will be in place at that time. The Minister of State did not advert to the fact that the second principle aim of the Bill before the House, namely, that which relates to collective redundancies, will not be dealt with in the Government's proposals. The latter are administrative in nature and will deal with the system of making complaints. The issue of collective redundancies is above and beyond that.

I welcome the provisions in the Bill which relate to lengthening the period during which consultations and negotiations may take place in the event of collective redundancies. The Bill would bring the law in this country into line with that which obtains in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. However, I must sound a note of caution. Anybody who might seek to have the law here on the same footing as the law in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland should be careful. The 90 day period provided for in the United Kingdom in respect of undertakings with more than 100 employees is under attack from the Conservative-Liberal coalition. Various mutterings have been heard from Ministers and unnamed UK Government sources to the effect that this period is too long, that it hinders restructuring, etc. and that, in any event, it is not necessary in the digital age. I do not agree with such criticisms and I wish those who are making them would declare themselves publicly in order that a proper debate might take place.

The UK authorities are also contemplating increasing the period, from one year to two, for which a person must be employed in order to take an unfair dismissal case. They are also considering imposing a fee on those who bring cases before employment rights bodies. Even if we wanted to bring the law into line with that which obtains in the UK, I am sure we would not want to go down the road of imposing fees. When he introduced the legislation relating to joint labour committees, JLCs, the Minister, Deputy Bruton, stated that for competitive and many other reasons it would be very desirable if the law in this country were on a par with that in the United Kingdom. Strangely enough, he is now adopting a diametrically opposite position in respect of the Bill before the House. It has been posited, for example, that for all sorts of reasons the law in Ireland in respect of this matter cannot be in line with the law in the UK. I recall the Minister bemoaning how quickly the matter relating to TalkTalk in Waterford proceeded to finality. He has the opportunity to change the position in this regard by accepting the legislation. There are worse examples of the speed with which these matters are dealt. I understand Lagan Brick stopped operations within hours of the employees being informed of what was happening.

I am of the view we should look beyond the United Kingdom to other jurisdictions to see what we can do to improve employee rights without jeopardising foreign direct investment. While the matter dealt with in this Bill in the context of collective redundancies is important, it is only one small aspect of the general problem that exists. There is a much bigger picture of which we must be aware. The European Commission is conducting a detailed audit in respect of collective redundancies, the transfer of undertakings and information and consultation directives. When the Minister or whoever replies to this debate on the Government's behalf tomorrow, I would like to be informed with regard to the input Ireland is having into this audit. The outcome of the Commission's audit will ultimately be reflected in the laws of the State. However, that is a matter for the future. We are concerned with the present, especially in the context of the fact that redundancies are not going to cease.

The Bill contains provisions which will marginally improve the lot of workers in the event of collective redundancies taking place. The rights of workers are quite scant and they are certainly not that extensive in nature. We are concerned with vulnerable individuals who will be facing into redundancy and a loss of livelihood. Some of them will be being made unemployed after many years in work. They will also be obliged to deal with a loss of status in society and a catastrophic drop in their living standards. The Bill, limited though it may be, seeks to give them extra rights and to improve their situation to some extent. My advice to the Labour Party members of the Government would be to approach the relevant Minister or the Taoiseach and persuade them to allow the Bill to proceed on its course. This legislation is not going to do any harm and it has the capacity to do some good. Those in the Labour Party should not come before the House and refer to May Day, James Connolly and so forth and then vote down legislation which is designed to help workers who are at their most vulnerable. Those to whom I refer should certainly not vote against the Bill on the basis of some vague promise of jam tomorrow or in the dim and distant future.

Anything which assists extremely vulnerable workers at a time when they are facing into a personal and financial catastrophe should be both welcomed and taken on board by the Government. If the latter has more extensive and better proposals to introduce in the future - I do not care whether these originate with the EU or come from within the Department - then it can by all means introduce them. In the interim, however, it should grant the temporary alleviation envisaged in the Bill before the House.

I compliment Deputy Tóibín and his colleagues on bringing forward this Bill. I particularly compliment Deputy Crowe on his contribution, which I watched earlier on the monitor in my office.

The area to which the Bill relates is extraordinarily complex and I bear the scars of having served for 22 months as the Minister of State with responsibility for it. A great deal of progress was achieved during that time. Many Members referred to the reforms that are under way in the employment rights institutions at present and I compliment the Minister on his appointment of Ger Deering as the lead person in respect of this matter. Mr. Deering, who is head of the National Employment Rights Authority, NERA, will bring a great deal of innovation to this area. At the end of the process which Mr. Deering is co-ordinating and which began with the BearingPoint report, many of the difficulties to which Deputies on both sides of the House referred in respect of waiting times, dispute shopping and access points will be resolved.

I am struck by the fact the Dáil is in its summer session and that it was at the end of the corresponding session last year that the Minister, Deputy Bruton, brought forward his original proposals in respect of the Labour Relations Commission, LRC, JLC agreements, etc. At that time, the Labour backbenchers engaged in a May Day revolution. It is almost one year on but matters have not moved on. I accept that what is envisaged in the Bill would be quite slow in nature and I would have supported many of the original proposals brought forward by the Minister. In that context, there is a need to provide protection to the workers who have been affected in the meantime by the closures in Vita Cortex, Lagan Brick, Irish Cement, TalkTalk and La Senza.

It is important to state the companies to which I refer are in a minority. The majority of employers work within the law. In fact, the laws in this area, when properly implemented, offer extremely strong protections. At present, the majority of self-employed persons are probably not taking wages from their own businesses in an attempt to keep those businesses afloat and to retain people in employment. In discussing the role of dishonour that is headed by Vita Cortex, we must remember that the majority of employers are decent people who do their best for those who work with them. On the day that is in it, the House should send its best wishes to the workers at Vita Cortex and Lagan Brick who are still occupying their employers' premises as they seek to obtain their basic rights. Deputy Crowe referred to those individuals who, during the past year, have been present in the Visitors Gallery for various debates on workers' rights and other specific issues. We have not yet put in place the protections to avoid that small number of employers sullying the great cause of the majority of employers.

I was particularly struck by the TalkTalk closure. I know it was a minority case; the Minister referred to the fact that the issue of collective redundancy and one month's notice is rare. TalkTalk's business model completely depended on its employees and their skills. I visited TalkTalk several years ago when it received an excellence through people award, such was the quality of its employees' skills. Management in this UK company, however, turned its back at an hour's notice on those hundreds of employees in Waterford. The strength and quality of those workers is evident in the fact that some of them have established their own call centre businesses employing many people after they were made redundant.

When we have a gap in our employee protection legislation that allows such events as the TalkTalk closure occur while Ministers and officers of the State can only look on in wonder and disgust, Parliament has a duty to act. I know the difficulties around re-engineering the employment rights bodies and JLCs are significant with many stakeholders to be brought on board which the Minister is trying to do. We have identified a specific gap in the legislation which has been disgracefully exploited by foreign multinationals. If this were a gap in criminal law, we would act with emergency legislation very quickly. As it is employment law, the same urgency is not there even though the consequences for other workers when losing their jobs are as great.

The Bill is technically flawed with many difficulties. However, that is what Committee Stage is about – to debate every aspect of a Bill. If the Government had the courage to carry it on to Committee Stage and put forward amendments to deal with the technical flaws, then instead of sending good wishes to the Vita Cortex and Lagan Brick workers we could actually do something for them and avoid it happening again.

I call Deputy Tom Fleming who is sharing time with Deputy Healy.

I welcome this Bill before the House and commend Deputy Tóibín for this urgently needed initiative. In numerous sudden company closures in the past, employees in many cases were badly treated by employers with no prior notice when they were legally entitled to four weeks' notice and several more infringements of employee protection regulations. There is an onus on the Government to dramatically rework the current legislation, putting a greater onus on the employer in terms of communication and co-operation with employees regarding company closure and redundancy. The consultation periods proposed in the Bill are welcome.

Problems with existing employee protection legislation have been blatantly demonstrated over the past several years. Many of these problems are due to the fact that union membership has been decimated in the private sector with only one in four workers now unionised. I have called on the Government to rescind the decision in the second last budget to abolish the measure whereby union subscriptions were tax deductible. I am calling again for the Government to make this measure a priority. The measure's re-introduction would incentivise vulnerable workers to have union membership and, thereby, be properly and professionally represented. In contrast to this, the public sector has almost 100% union representation.

The Government should at least have the general thrust of this Bill referred to an all-party jobs committee to deliberate on it and arrive at improved legislation to protect vulnerable workers in the private sector. The average waiting period for claims to the employment appeals tribunal is up to 80 weeks. I brought this to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Bruton, in a previous debate a year ago and he promised these matters would be expedited. However, the backlog remains. The Minister needs to act immediately in dealing with the backlog. I would suggest he introduce a fast-track system whereby mediation could be involved.

Earlier, I heard the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, invoke the name of James Connolly. The Labour Party has nothing in common with James Connolly, the great trade unionist, socialist and republican who gave his life for the working classes. There is no doubt but that James Connolly would turn in his grave if he saw the savage attacks the Government, and the Labour Party in particular, has made against working people such as the dismantling of the social welfare system last week by the Minister for Social Protection – Minister for social destruction might be a better name – the sale of State assets and the targeting of the vulnerable coping classes, namely middle and low-income families. This is all happening while the super-rich get off scot free.

I support this Bill which is a reasonable and genuine attempt to support workers who find themselves in difficulty when laid off without notice. I commend Sinn Féin on bringing it forward. There may well be flaws in it but the legislative process is there to iron out these. Last week's social welfare Bill contained a significant number of amendments which effectively meant it was a new Bill by the time it passed Committee Stage. It is not unusual for Bills to be amended during their passage through the House.

The Bill aims to assist laid-off workers who have worked all their lives, paid their taxes and are entitled to a fair shake from the State. Currently, 29,000 redundancy claims are stuck in a queue while it takes 18 months for a case to get to the employment appeals tribunal and six months to the Labour Court. These are unacceptable delays. This Bill makes a reasonable and genuine effort to deal with those.

Debate adjourned.
The Dáil adjourned at 9.20 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 2 May 2012.