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 of ex 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.