Workplace Relations Bill 2014: Second Stage

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

This Bill is the culmination of a huge amount of work that has occurred in my Department and across the number of agencies that are involved in this new structure. It is a great example of public service reform, one of the developments that many people have sought to deliver, to examine systems that perhaps are not performing to the standard that they should and reform them to bring something that would be best in class. That is what we are on the road to do. It is a tribute to many people who have worked tirelessly to bring this to the point where it is and I pay tribute to all of those involved.

The system that was in place when we started this process and when I came into office first had become far too complex, far too hard to use and too legalistic. It resulted in long delays for people. It was frustrating for people within the system to work. Essentially, many committed people were trapped in a process that was letting them down. There was a universal desire for a change to be made but that did not mean that the road of change would be easy. Clearly, integrating multiple different systems, even at the ICT level, is challenging but in every way it is challenging and I refer to the processes, the forms and the approach. It has involved considerable work to get this right. While I get the opportunity to present this Bill a huge amount of work has gone on. The Bill is the tip of the iceberg one sees over the surface of the water but much of the underpinning of it is attributable to many people who have made it work.

What we have produced here, and I hope this is what it proves to be in practice, is something where the obligations of both sides in the workplace are easily understood. It fosters a compliance culture in the workplace whereby people recognise that performing to high standards, delivering to the best of those standards and meeting legal obligations is part of running a good business and working in a good enterprise. It builds on our strong voluntarist tradition that has been a great stand-by to us in terms of managing industrial relations over a long period. It will allow complaints, and complaints arrive even in the best of systems, to be dealt with at the earliest and most effective point in the process. It will also ensure that where there are those who will not meet their obligations, there is effective enforcement and that the enforcement can deliver to the people who have been the victims of wrong practices. A good deal of work must be put in to make those different steps in the chain be effective.

That is the backdrop to this legislation. It is legislation that will remove the deficiencies we saw, which cause complexities for practitioners and users of the service. They included multiple points of entry to the system, forum shopping, long delays in scheduling hearings and issuing decisions. Key to addressing those is what we are doing in this Bill, which will see the existing five State bodies replaced by two. The Labour Relations Commission, the National Employment Rights Authority, the Equality Tribunal, the first instance functions of the Employment Appeals Tribunal, EAT, and the first instance functions of the Labour Court will be replaced by the new workplace relations commission, WRC, and the appellate functions of the EAT will be transferred to a new expanded Labour Court. We will have a much simpler structure in place.

My objective is to deliver a world-class workplace relations service providing an integrated industrial relations, adjudication and enforcement service which is simple to use, independent, effective, impartial, cost-effective and provides for workable means of redress and enforcement, within a reasonable period of time. From an industrial relations point of view, Ireland operates a voluntarist system of collective bargaining comprising non-intervention by the State in disputes but the State does provide dispute settling institutions and frameworks for local level and sectoral wage settling. I am satisfied that the State's industrial relations machinery has worked very successfully and effectively over the years and it is for this reason that it has not been necessary to make any significant changes in this Bill in terms of the manner in which this system operates. The functions of the WRC will comprise all those currently undertaken by the Labour Relations Commission, including industrial relations conciliation, advisory services, information and research. These services, as currently operated by the Labour Relations Commission, have made a magnificent contribution to the industrial relations environment and will be incorporated into the WRC without change. We are privileged to have such an amount of experience and knowledge in managing extremely difficult industrial relations situations and we have seen many of them even during my term in office. Even the most intractable have been capable of being managed by the sort of experience and commitment we have in those services.

During the preparatory stage of this legislation we have had quite extensive consultation. We had extensive public consultation exercises and published two policy papers, which have helped to improve, redesign and deliver the best we can make in terms of this legislation. There was a strong consensus right across the system that reform was timely and necessary. That was very encouraging and it helped to deliver this Bill. We have had many meetings with interested parties, representatives of both sides, the employees, employers, equality interests, including IBEC and ICTU, to get their input into the process. Like any consultation exercise, not everyone will be happy with every aspect, but we have tried to understand the spirit of people's comment and make sure that we have incorporated those as best we can into the legislation that has been developed.

In advance of the legislation, officials in my Department have been working on the process, technology, staffing and administrative matters required to underpin the reform programme and make it easier for users to do business. This goes back to January 2012, although it is not that everything has been waiting for this Bill but this is a very important final piece in the building structure. There has been a single reception and registration of complaints on behalf of the five workplace relations bodies by a single portal, known as the workplace relations customer services. It was complemented by a single complaints form; there had been 30 separate forms but now there is only one and it became an e-complaint form from September 2013. Complaints are now acknowledged and the respondent is notified within three working days. People who have a complaint made against them will know that within three working days. In the worst of cases it had been taking up to 80 days in the past. This gives the employers, who usually are those complained of, the opportunity to engage at an early stage with a view to resolving the issue. The earlier people understand the challenge that is made, the quicker a solution can be got if there is goodwill.

The post-registration functions associated with complaints management, including the scheduling of adjudication hearings, are from this month being managed by another shared services unit. We have also established an early resolution service, which has enabled complaints and disputes to be dealt with as close to the workplace as possible. There is no point in having every complaint simply swept along to a hearing if it can be managed at an earlier point. As soon as possible after receipt, registration and validation, this early resolution service is available and mediation is also available which builds on the experience of the Equality Tribunal, which had a track record in operating mediation, and we have incorporated that learning into the Bill.

In terms of savings, people will always look at not only the improved service we are delivering but whether savings are possible. I am glad to say that there will be fewer staff numbers required to deliver the new service.

It is estimated that annual savings due to staff reductions and efficiencies will amount to approximately €2 million. The main drivers of the reduction in staff costs will be the centralisation of administration and case management services and the automation of business processes.

Before I outline in detail the main provisions in the Bill, I will outline the key measures that will be provided for in the legislation. The services of the Equality Tribunal, National Employment Rights Authority, NERA, Labour Relations Commission, LRC, and the first instance functions of the Employment Appeals Tribunal, EAT, will come together under the remit of the WRC. It will be the first port of call. The appellate functions of the EAT will be amalgamated into a single reconfigured Labour Court, which will be the appellate body for all matters. The Bill will establish the Office of Director General of the WRC, the appointment of the director general by the Minister on specified terms of appointment, and the statutory powers and functions of the director general. It will establish the WRC board with responsibility for strategy and annual work programme. It will transfer the existing functions provided by the LRC, including conciliation, workplace mediation and advisory services, to the WRC. It will provide for workplace relations information and advisory services. To encourage the compliance culture we need, it is crucial that we understand not only the information, but also the body of decisions that the courts have made over the period, which is a very important source of information and understanding.

The Bill will provide a statutory basis for the use of innovative measures such as compliance notices and fixed charge notices to enhance the compliance functions of the WRC. These are tried and tested approaches that speed up and encourage a compliance culture rather than the "gotcha" culture of finally catching and prosecuting people. It has been shown in other areas that this builds a compliance culture and it is correct to bring it into such legislation. The Bill will introduce the sharing of employment related and other specified information between the WRC, Labour Court and other official agencies in the context of promoting compliance with employment legislation. It is important that a body of decision precedent is built up as it is an important element of delivering a quality service. The Bill provides for the appointment of additional members to the Labour Court to facilitate the increased workload of the court in the new system. It provides for a more transparent system of appointment of adjudicators of the WRC and chairmen, vice chairmen and ordinary members to the Labour Court. It will standardise certain procedural matters such as limitation periods, the length of the period within which a first instance adjudicator's decision may be appealed, etc., across the full range of employment rights legislation. Thus all pieces will work to the same standard. It will ensure better enforcement of employment rights awards and better compliance and enforcement measures for employment rights.

The Bill consists of seven Parts comprising 82 sections and 6 Schedules. For the convenience of Deputies, a detailed explanatory memorandum has been published and it provides a synopsis of the provisions. Part 1 comprises sections 1 to 7 of the Bill. Sections 1 to 5 contain the Short Title, collective citation, commencement provisions, interpretation and measures relating to the service of documents. Section 6 outlines the penalties which will apply when a person is found guilty of an offence under this Bill. Section 7 refers to Schedule 2 which details the provisions repealed by this Bill and makes transitional arrangements for complaints or disputes referred to a rights commissioner before the commencement of Part 4.

Part 2 comprises sections 8 to 24 and makes provision for the establishment of the WRC. The LRC, NERA, Equality Tribunal and the first instance functions of the EAT would be replaced by the new WRC and the appeals functions of the EAT would be incorporated into the Labour Court. Sections 8 and 9 make provision for the establishment day of the new WRC. Section 10 sets out general functions of the WRC that are additional to other functions conferred on it by specific sections by the Act. The WRC will be tasked with taking positive steps to ensure high standards of compliance with employment legislation and equally high standards in the conduct of industrial relations generally and with the provision of the necessary services to facilitate the speedy resolution of industrial relations disputes at as early a stage as possible. Simultaneously, the WRC will have responsibility for providing the means whereby complaints under employment rights legislation can be investigated, resolved by early intervention or adjudicated, as appropriate, by competent personnel. Where the WRC suspects continued non-compliance with employment legislation on the part of workers or employers, it may resort to prosecution of the parties in question. The functions of the WRC will comprise all those currently undertaken by the LRC, including industrial relations conciliation, advisory services, information and research. The WRC adjudication service will continue the dispute resolution role of the rights commissioners as provided for in the Industrial Relations Act 1969 as well as employment rights adjudication functions.

Sections 11 to 15 make provision for the appointment, resignation or removal from office and functions of the director general of the WRC. The director general of the WRC will be appointed by the Minister following the holding of an open competition by the Public Appointments Service other than in the case of the first appointee to the office of director general. The Accounting Officer for the commission will be the Secretary General of the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. Section 16 makes provision, on standard lines, that the director general is accountable to committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas, other than the Committee of Public Accounts. Section 19 provides that the commission shall have a statutory basis, in consultation with the Minister, for the preparation and publication of codes of practice for the improvement generally of workplace relations. Section 20 provides for the regular production of a strategy statement by the board of the WRC to be approved by the Minister and laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. Section 21 provides that the board shall prepare an annual work programme in consultation with the director general for submission to the Minister. Section 22 requires, on standard lines, the director general of the commission to make an annual report to the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. Section 24 provides for the appointment of a qualified and experienced lawyer to act as registrar to the commission.

Part 3 comprises sections 25 to 35 and makes provision for the compliance procedures that will be introduced under the new workplace relations structures. The functions undertaken by NERA to date in promoting a culture of compliance with employment legislation will be continued by the compliance service of the new WRC. However, new mechanisms such as compliance notices and fixed charge penalties will supplement the existing statutory powers of labour or NERA inspectors. Sections 25 and 26 restate and consolidate in one location the powers of inspectors which are at present provided for under a range of individual enactments.

Section 27 makes provision for the use of compliance notices to promote higher levels of compliance with employment legislation. Such notices may issue when an inspector forms an opinion that a scheduled contravention of employment law, which the employer concerned fails or refuses to rectify, has occurred. The compliance notice will set out the steps the employer concerned must take to effect compliance. An employer may appeal against all or any aspect of the notice to the Labour Court. The Labour Court, following a hearing upon appeal, shall affirm the compliance notice, withdraw the compliance notice or withdraw the compliance notice and require the employer to whom the notice applies to comply with such directions as may be given by the Labour Court. This section also makes provision for an appeal of the Labour Court decision to the Circuit Court. Failure to comply with a compliance notice may result in the Circuit Court, following a hearing, issuing a binding order. Failure to comply with such an order of the Circuit Court would be a prosecutable offence. This will give a more effective route to prosecution and enforcement.

Section 28 is intended to remove any doubt about the admissibility of the written report of an inspector in any proceedings under employment legislation to which the employer whose records are the subject of the report is a party. Section 30 will allow the WRC and its inspectors and adjudication officers to share certain employment-related information with other statutory enforcement authorities and with the Labour Court. Section 31 enables the WRC and other statutory enforcement authorities to advise each other of suspected offences under their respective remits which come to the notice of any of them. Section 32 is designed to safeguard the wages and other statutory entitlements of employees who are working under public construction or other public contracts, while also ensuring competitive tendering and value for money in public expenditure. Section 33 provides for the development of co-operation agreements between the WRC, the Labour Court and other specified official bodies.

Section 34 is intended to provide a statutory basis for administrative co-operation and the exchange of information between employment law compliance authorities of other states and the compliance section of the WRC. Section 35 provides for the use of fixed payment notices in respect of a specified range of acts of non-compliance on the part of employers. The use of this mechanism is intended to encourage compliance and reduce the need to rely on expensive and time-consuming prosecution procedures for the scheduled acts of non-compliance.

Part 4 comprises sections 36 to 51, inclusive, and makes provision for the new dispute resolution and adjudication structures. Sections 36 and 37 provide for the appointment of case resolution officers to the WRC. The WRC will offer an early resolution service in certain cases where complaints are lodged, generally in less complex disputes. Sections 38 and 39 provide for the appointment of mediation officers to the Workplace Relations Commission and the provision of a mediation service to facilitate the resolution of employment rights disputes where possible at an early stage and without recourse to adjudication. It is envisaged that mediation - unlike the early resolution service - will be offered to the parties in the more complex disputes, such as cases under the Employment Equality Acts and the Unfair Dismissal Acts requiring face-to-face mediation.

Participating in early resolution or mediation is entirely voluntary. Parties availing of the early resolution or mediation service will neither lose the right to have their issues in dispute dealt with by means of inspection or a hearing, as appropriate to their case, nor be disadvantaged in relation to their waiting time for inspection or a hearing. Should early resolution or mediation yield a compromise or settlement between the parties or a withdrawal of the complaint, the outcome will be confidential to the parties. Likewise, if the early resolution or mediation process is unsuccessful, anything divulged by the parties in the process cannot be used subsequently in the adjudication or inspection process.

Section 40 makes provision for the appointment of adjudicators to the Workplace Relations Commission. All first instance cases will be heard by the WRC in a fair and transparent manner in accordance with the law and the principles of natural justice. To hit this high standard, adjudicators must be suitably skilled and trained for the role.

On the establishment of the WRC, the current cohort of equality officers and rights commissioners will be appointed as WRC adjudicators. They will be supplemented by a panel of external adjudicators, comprising experienced industrial relations and HR practitioners and employment lawyers with appropriate skills and experience appointed by the Minister. The Public Appointments Service has agreed to undertake the selection process for WRC adjudicators and advertisements for the competition were published on 26 September 2014. Those selected for appointment on the panel of external adjudicators will then have to complete an accredited training programme and pass the associated examination.

Section 41 provides for standardised time limits of six months, extendable to 12 months for reasonable cause. All first instance complaints requiring adjudication will be heard by WRC adjudication officers. The adjudication officer will convene a hearing where both parties are given the opportunity to be heard and to decide the matter. Parties will be free to represent themselves or choose their own representation. All appeals will lie to the Labour Court, except in the case of complaints under the Equal Status Acts where the appeal will lie to the Circuit Court. Adjudication officers will be required to conduct cases in accordance with the principles of constitutional and natural justice. This obligation will include affording parties the right to cross-examine.

Section 41(11) has been subject to adverse comment in that it is alleged that it gives an adjudication officer the power to refuse a lawyer or other representative of a party access to proceedings. This is not my intention and I propose to introduce a Committee Stage amendment to clarify this matter.

Section 42 empowers an adjudication officer to dismiss a complaint in circumstances where he or she forms the opinion that it is frivolous or vexatious. Such a decision can be appealed to the Labour Court.

Sections 43 and 45 provide for a streamlined and more effective enforcement procedure for complainants whose complaints have been upheld at first instance by an adjudication officer of the WRC or upon appeal by the Labour Court. The current system of enforcement of employment rights awards is cumbersome, expensive and not fit for purpose. In my view, the difficulty experienced by successful complainants in enforcing awards made by those bodies in their favour is unsatisfactory. Enforcement proceedings generally involve recourse to the civil courts and possibly the relevant sheriff's office, often without a successful outcome.

One of the central planks of my reform is to establish a new and robust enforcement regime which will provide successful complainants with an accessible and inexpensive means to enforce the award of the WRC adjudication service or of the Labour Court, as the case may be. For this reason, I make provision in the Bill for a new mechanism for enforcing awards of the WRC adjudicators and Labour Court determinations. The general scheme of the Bill, as approved by the Government in July 2012, provided for an improved and more robust system of enforcement of compensation awards under employment legislation via the District Court. The scheme provided that non-compliance with an order of the WRC or the Labour Court, as the case may be, would be an offence prosecutable summarily in the District Court. The enforcement provisions in the Bill, within sections 43 and 45, as published, do not currently make provision for an offence in such circumstances; however, this issue is the subject of further discussion between my Department, the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and the Office of the Attorney General and I hope to table an amendment for consideration on Committee Stage which will satisfactorily address this issue. I am confident that the introduction of these new measures will provide for more appropriate, efficient and effective enforcement of employment law.

Section 44 provides that either party to a first instance hearing will have the right to appeal the decision of a WRC adjudication officer to the Labour Court. The Labour Court will act as a court of final appeal for all adjudication decisions of the WRC. Appeals to the Labour Court will be de novo hearings held in public. The Labour Court will have the power to establish its own procedures in relation to specified matters. A consistent time limit of 42 days from the date of the first decision will apply to all appeal applications across all legislation.

Section 47 provides that the only route of appeal that parties will have from a decision of the Labour Court will be on a point of law to the High Court. This provision does not impact on the supervisory role of the superior courts which may be exercised by way of judicial review. Section 49 provides that the director general of the WRC and the Labour Court may strike out cases for want of prosecution where the director general or the Labour Court is satisfied that the complainant or appellant has not pursued the complaint or appeal within the period of one year. Section 51 makes provision for the necessary consequential amendments to other employment enactments as a result of the new structures introduced by this Bill. Details of the amendments to individual employment enactments are provided for in Schedule 6 of the Bill.

Part 5, comprising of sections 52 to 60, inclusive, makes provision for a range of technical and transitional issues consequential on the dissolution of the Labour Relations Commission, LRC. Section 55 provides for the transfer of all functions from the LRC to the Workplace Relations Commission. The functions which are currently vested in the Labour Relations Commission, including the industrial relations conciliation, advisory, training and research services, will transfer to the Workplace Relations Commission.

Part 6, comprising sections 61 to 66, inclusive, makes provision for a range of technical and transitional issues consequential on the dissolution of the Employment Appeals Tribunal, EAT. The tribunal will continue to function for a limited period after the establishment of the WRC to dispose of all legacy first instance complaints and appeals referred to it prior to the establishment date of the WRC, including cases which a division of the EAT had commenced hearing. The decision to extend the period of operation of the EAT beyond the establishment of the new framework is predicated on the assumption that complainants and respondents in matters referred to the EAT prior to the establishment of the WRC would have a legitimate expectation of having the case disposed of before a tripartite tribunal, sitting in public and operating with the degree of procedural formality currently applied by the EAT.

Section 64 provides for the transfer of functions from the Employment Appeals Tribunal to the Labour Court. This does not include the first instance functions which the tribunal currently carries out under the Unfair Dismissals Acts, Redundancy Payments Acts and the Minimum Notice and Terms of Employment Acts which will transfer to the WRC.

Part 7 comprises sections 69 to 82, inclusive. Section 69 enables the Minister to provide by regulation for the levying of fees and charges on the users of services to be provided by the Commission or the Labour Court.

I have decided not to introduce charges on parties for access to the WRC services for many reasons, chief among which is the belief that so-called forum shopping will not be a feature in the new system. I am proposing, however, the introduction of a fee in one particular instance, namely, where a party who failed to appear at a first instance hearing of the WRC without good cause wishes to appeal the decision to the Labour Court, in which case that party will have to pay a fee of €300 when lodging their appeal. If the Labour Court determines that the party in question had good cause for failing to attend the first instance hearing, the fee will be refunded.

Sections 73, 75 and 77 provide for appointment to the positions of chairman, deputy chairman and ordinary members of the Labour Court. The Labour Court has three divisions and nine members, a chairman, two deputy chairs and six ordinary members, and it sits in divisions of three. The Bill will provide that the expanded Labour Court will have four divisions but restructured for greater efficiency to allow the court deal with double the appeals with only one additional division. The Bill provides that the appointments of chairman and deputy chairman to the court by the Minister shall in future be through the Public Appointments Service. The new arrangements will not apply to the persons who, immediately before the enactment of the Bill, stood appointed as chairman and deputy chair, and the present incumbents will continue to serve in these positions for the unexpired period of their respective terms of appointment.

Regarding the appointment of ordinary members, the Minister was obliged to appoint a person nominated by either an organisation representative of trade unions or a trade union representative of employers. The change proposed will require those bodies to put forward three names of candidates for appointment in respect of each vacancy for an ordinary member. The Minister will then choose one person from the panel for appointment.

I apologise for interrupting the Minister but he is slightly over time. Is it agreed that we will allow the Minister to continue? Agreed.

I apologise for that. Section 76 provides for the making of regulations by the Minister, after consultation with the chairman, whereby certain functions of the Labour Court may be performed by the chairman or a deputy chairman sitting alone. In particular, such regulations may provide that certain specified preliminary applications or procedural matters can be dealt with by the chairman or a deputy chairman sitting alone.

Section 78 provides for the consequential amendments to the Unfair Dismissals Acts as a result of the new adjudication structures being introduced by the Bill. I propose to introduce an amendment on Committee Stage to make it clear that all referrals under the Unfair Dismissals Acts made after the commencement of Part 4 will be subject to Part 4, that is, these referrals will be dealt with by the WRC rather than the EAT.

I will comment briefly on the six Schedules to the Bill. Schedule 1 contains a list of the relevant employment Acts, the provisions of Acts of the Oireachtas and statutory instruments that are included in the definition of "employment enactments". Schedule 2 contains a list of the provisions within individual Acts of the Oireachtas that will be repealed upon the commencement of the Bill. Schedule 3 sets out details of the corporate structure of the new WRC, including the appointment of a statutory board to the WRC. Schedule 4 sets out details of the list of contraventions of employment enactments for the purpose of compliance notices. Schedule 5 sets out details of the individual employment enactments under which a person will be able to present a complaint or refer a dispute to the WRC. Schedule 6 sets out the consequential amendments it will be necessary to make to other employment enactments as a result of the new structures.

My Department is in discussion with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel on a number of issues where the Bill does not fully reflect the policy as set out in the heads approved by Government. There are also more minor drafting points and consequential amendments to other employment Acts under discussion which I propose to address with amendments on Committee Stage. As a result, I will bring forward a number of Government amendments on Committee Stage. I know I will get considerable co-operation from the committee and its Chairman, who is present.

The key issues which I propose to address by way of amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage include powers of inspectors in section 66, to ensure they have appropriate powers to carry out their duties, subject to the constitutional rights of employers and employees. On adjudication, I propose to put forward amendments to the provisions governing the Unfair Dismissals Acts, Redundancy Payment Acts and Minimum Notice and Terms of Employment Acts to clarify that such cases referred after the commencement of Part 4 will be subject to Part 4. Under enforcement, as I mentioned, I propose to introduce amendments to the enforcement provisions in sections 43 and 45 to provide that non-compliance would be an offence, prosecutable summarily in the District Court. Schedules 2 and 6 do not yet fully provide for the consequential amendments and repeals required to other enactments which come within the definition of "employment legislation" and the amendments will reflect the change. The Office of the Parliamentary Counsel will continue to review and re-draft the Schedules, in consultation with the Department. Amendments to sections 73 and 77 are to ensure appropriate provisions are included in the Bill on the appointment and re-appointment of deputy chairmen andmembers of the Labour Court.

I look forward to the contributions of Deputies. The Bill will be significant, modernising legislation. It is a good example of public service reform which will deliver better value for money to the users of the scheme. The system will be easier to use, will be better, will encourage compliance and early settlement and will have a more effective system of enforcement. I commend the Bill to the House.

I apologise on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Dara Calleary, who cannot be present, and who asked me to contribute to the Bill on his behalf. Fianna Fáil welcomes the Government’s decision to reform the State’s existing employment rights and industrial relations structures, a process which was commenced by my colleague, Deputy Calleary, in the previous Government. Ireland has a stellar reputation internationally in the area of workplace relations. One of the reasons we remain a location that is highly favoured by foreign direct investment is that, compared with our competitors, the number of industrial disputes in Ireland is notably lower. We must, however, remain vigilant in the face of increasing competition internationally. We must ensure our employees and employers are provided with the proper workplace mechanisms to ensure disputes which will inevitably arise will be addressed in an effective manner. We must remain ahead of the game when it comes to improving our structures within the State. We believe the Bill will be a first step in guaranteeing the structures needed for the coming years.

It has been put forward that the current system for resolving individual disputes related to the workplace is wasteful, both in terms of State resources and those of users. It has also been said that there has been significant frustration for employers, employees and professionals representing them in how the current mechanism is structured. We in Fianna Fáil support the Government’s objective to deliver a world-class workplace relations service which is simple to use, independent, effective, impartial, cost-effective and provides for workable means of redress and enforcement, within a reasonable period. A cost-effective system which delivers for employer and employee alike would result in significant benefits for the economy overall. The system that developed over the past 60 years, while serving a purpose as the structures developed, may indeed have become unwieldy, complex, inconsistent, slow and, in some cases, expensive for users. We support a streamlining of those structures to deliver a better service to those who find themselves having to rely on the mechanisms of the State to broker a compromise.

The Bill before the House marks a new departure in the sense that it provides a statutory basis for a new structure which will see the existing five State bodies replaced by two. That makes sense in the context of reduced budgets for all State agencies, but also in terms of simplifying the bodies dealing with an area which needs less complication and more effectiveness. We welcome that the Labour Relations Commission, LRC, the National Employment Rights Authority, NERA, the Equality Tribunal, the first instance functions of the Employment Appeals Tribunal, EAT, and the first instance functions of the Labour Court will be replaced by the new Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, and the appellate functions of the EAT will be transferred to a new expanded Labour Court.

We welcome that the Bill seeks to create a modern, user-friendly, world-class employment workplace relations system that will provide significant benefits for its users and society as a whole. The focus must be on resolving workplace disputes as quickly and inexpensively as possible. The State must also commit to providing the necessary resources to ensure the new structures work and work well. It is notable how all institutions, agencies and bodies in the State struggle to provide the services they are required to provide on an increasingly reduced budget. Many State institutions are struggling. Whether it is the National Library, the Courts Service or any hospital in the country, the message is clear. They can take no further reductions in budget to do their job. In that regard, I urge the Government to ensure that with a streamlined mechanism for workplace relations, the reduction in bodies will not result in a higher proportion of cuts to the budgets required to deliver the new services.

I acknowledge the key measures that are contained in the Bill. The fact that the services of the Equality Tribunal, the National Employment Rights Authority, NERA, the Labour Relations Commission and the first instance functions of the Employment Appeals Tribunal, EAT, are to come together under the remit of the workplace relations commission, WRC, is a sensible move. The same can be said of moving the appellate functions of the Employment Appeals Tribunal to be amalgamated into a reconfigured Labour Court. What we on this side of the House would like to see clarification on, however, is how the officers of the respective bodies are to be integrated and the Minister might outline this in his response. I also assume there will be some savings made through the streamlining of services, the sharing of services and the reduction in facilities costs. Again, this is something on which I would welcome clarification from the Minister.

The current scenario where disputes or complaints are addressed by means of a rights commissioner, the Employment Appeals Tribunal, an equality officer, the Labour Court or NERA inspection, depending on the legislation involved, is far too complex and not conducive to an effective mechanism for resolution. This Bill, replacing the existing complex system of five different bodies with a straightforward, two-tier system for employment rights and industrial relations disputes, must be welcomed. It makes sense for the workplace relations commission to deal with all cases in the first instance and subsequently for the Labour Court to deal with all cases on appeal.

We also welcome the creation of the position of director general of the workplace relations commission, ensuring a single point of leadership rather than the four that exist in NERA, the Labour Relations Commission, the Employment Appeals Tribunal and the Equality Tribunal. I would, however, ask the Minister to clarify why he has decided that the staffing of the workplace relations commission will in future come from officials from the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. This is an interesting move but one which could prove controversial if the independence of the workplace relations commission is undermined through supposed political interference. I would welcome hearing the Minister's rationale for this move.

This Bill will be judged either as a success or a failure not on whether the structures look well on paper or even on how much money the streamlining of services will save. It will be judged as a success only if it provides the citizens and companies of Ireland with a more effective and cost-effective service in finding resolutions to disputes, vindicating the rights of workers and employers and securing Ireland as a great place to invest and do business into the future. Employees in Ireland are entitled to receive certain basic employment rights and those rights often need to be guarded. We hope that the Bill will make those rights easier to guard then previously.

I reaffirm my party's support for the Bill. We hope to offer constructive criticism as the Bill goes through the Oireachtas and we look forward to the Minister's response.

I apologise on behalf of Deputy Peadar Tóibín who could not attend today as he has a funeral in his constituency.

It is important to state from the outset that it is a shared objective of the Members of this House to reform the current industrial relations structures. From Sinn Féin's perspective, we have stated from the start of the Minister's consultations with stakeholders that we will support progressive proposals aimed at strengthening workers' rights, streamlining and simplifying employment rights bodies and procedures, ensuring satisfactory resolutions of workplace disputes and the robust and fair enforcement and compliance with employment rights legislation. As the Minister has acknowledged, promoting and supporting harmonious relationships in the workplace is an important element in achieving lasting economic growth and creating and sustaining jobs. It is our strong view that the best way to achieve this is through mutual recognition, respect and the creation of a level playing field.

Aiming for lasting economic growth built on a foundation of sustainable jobs means the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues must confront issues such as trade union recognition, compliance with and enforcement of existing employment legislation, underemployment, excessively low pay and the myriad issues facing vulnerable workers such as informal insolvencies, blacklisting and the rogue actions of subcontractors who are forcing workers into registering as sole traders. Reforming employment rights structures is a good move but it will mean little at the end of the day if fundamental flaws in employment rights are not dealt with. On most of the issues mentioned the Minister's silence has been deafening.

Some 129,700 workers in this State are underemployed and some 300,000 workers, or one in five, are earning less than the living wage of €11.45 an hour. To put this meagre salary into context, a worker on a living wage earns just 14% of the Minister's current salary. One in ten working families is in receipt of a family income supplement payment. Of course, low pay is not just the preserve of the private sector as nearly one in ten recipients of family income supplement payments are public servants. We should not forget that hundreds of JobBridge participants work in Government Departments each year never to be offered a full-time position, despite the critically important work that they do. Some 120,000 workers are living in poverty - those working in hospitality are most at risk and, not surprisingly, those working in the financial sector are least so.

Prior to the local and European elections we were promised a low pay commission but the necessary legislation remains languishing on the C list of the Government's legislative programme despite the fact the Government had the summer to draft what must be a straightforward piece of legislation. In addition to establishing the commission on a statutory basis and progressing the legislative process, the Minister said consideration is being given to establishing the commission on an interim administrative basis to carry out its functions as early as possible. When will we see progress on this and why is there a delay in publishing the draft heads of the bill? The challenges facing workers in a deeply competitive employment market mean we believe it is critical that, in enhancing workers' rights, the issues of trade union recognition and the right to collective bargaining be addressed. This is perhaps a debate for another day but underpinning all employment rights legislation must be a commitment by the Government that such rights will be defended and upheld.

Sinn Féin's workers' rights spokesperson, Senator David Cullinane, raised a number of areas of concern in his submission on behalf of the party to the Government consultation process on the proposed changes to the industrial relations structures. We welcome the Minister's decision to constructively engage with our submission and in a number of instances he has heeded our concerns. We hope that on Committee Stage of the legislation amendments tabled by Opposition Deputies will be given the same consideration.

The right to take a case, have it heard and adjudicated upon fairly by an independent third party and the right to an appeal must be the cornerstone of the broad area of employment rights. We welcome proposals to reform the structures of the employment rights bodies and the delivery of a more efficient, fair, simple and user-friendly system is also to be welcomed. It is also good that employees attending the various services of the WRC, be it the early resolution service, the mediation service or attending before the commission, will be entitled to trade union representation at all times.

Concerns were raised by many trade unions and others in their submissions regarding the role of the registrar as set out by the Minister at the start of the process. In effect, he or she will act as a filtering mechanism deciding which cases should or should not proceed. We note that the Minister likened the role of the registrar to that of the legal advisor to the Equality Tribunal and we note too the case law the Minister quoted in responses to parliamentary questions. Of course, a small number of cases will fall before they begin for technical reasons but transparency regarding these decisions by the registrar will be critically important.

An adjudicating officer may dismiss a complaint on the opinion that it is frivolous or vexatious and anxiety is always heightened when officialdom uses this language - too often we are not aware of how such charges are measured. We welcome the Minister's decision to provide for an appeals process to the Labour Court where an adjudicator dismisses a case in these circumstances. Again, in the Minister's initial proposals he indicated his intention to remove the right to an appeal - a measure we absolutely opposed in our submission. The right to an appeal must be an absolute entitlement, an integral part of due process, and we are not alone in this view.

Concern was raised regarding the Minister's proposed introduction of fees for access to WRC services. He also sought a reduction in the time limit for making complaints - he wishes the limit to be six months. We recommended a time limit of years and the right to seek to extend the date where there is reasonable cause. While the legislation enables the Minister, through regulations, to levy fees and charges on users of the WRC and the Labour Court, it appears the Minister only intends to do so where a party fails, without good cause, to appear at the first instance hearing of the WRC and then wishes to appeal the decision to the Labour Court. When lodging the appeal the party will have to pay a fee of €300 which will be refunded if the Labour Court determines good cause.

It would appear that while the Minister may not intend to introduce fees for accessing the Workplace Relations Commission at this time, the legislation enables him or a future Minister to do so at any time. It is worth noting that in their submissions to the Government’s workplace relations blueprint review, employer representative groups such as the American Chamber of Commerce and ISME sought the introduction of fees when making an initial complaint. The legislation imposes a time limit of six months within which to make a complaint, beginning on the date of the contravention to which the complaint relates, which is clearly not sufficient.

Deputy Tóibín asked the Minister in a parliamentary question last month to set out the checks and balances that have been put in place to ensure equality rights will not be eroded as a result of the subsuming of the Equality Tribunal into the WRC. There are a number of concerns regarding the upholding of equality legislation within the legislation as it is presented. Equality officers in the Equality Tribunal will transfer to the Workplace Relations Commission to become part of a wider pool of adjudicators. It does not appear that specialist adjudicators trained in the complex area of equality law will be assigned to equality or equal status cases. It appears the legislation does not specifically outline how equal status cases will be dealt with. When complaints are lodged with the Equality Tribunal currently, its officers apply the legislation to the case to determine the issues and how the case should proceed. Concern has been raised that the commission's adjudication process may require complaints to lodge a more legally robust case in the first instance, and this enhanced requirement may act as a barrier to future cases.

Enforcement and compliance remain two key areas of concerns pre and post the consultative process. We raised concerns in our submission regarding the proposed compliance notices, fixed charge notices and Labour Court orders to enforce compliance by employers to reduce the need to resort to prosecution. While employers who are generally compliant with employment rights law should not be unfairly punished for unintentional breaches, a balance must be struck where serious or consistent breaches occur. Deputy Tóibín asked the Minister last month what further action will be taken in the event an employer pays in full and in time a fixed payment notice but does not discharge in part or in full the outstanding award to a current or former employee to whom the notice relates. As is often the case, the Minister did not answer the question. We are no clearer as to what happens in such a circumstance. Almost all workers and employment rights bodies were unanimous in their opinion that a hefty fine and the imposition of a fixed charge notice should not rule out the possibility of prosecution. As the Minister noted, if the person on whom the notice is served pays the charge, the matter will not proceed to court. Arguably the monetary figure provided for in the legislation could result in an employer hedging his or her bets, coughing up the cash for a fixed payment notice, avoiding prosecution and having more money in his or her pocket where the notice amounts to less than the outstanding award.

It does not appear the Minister has struck a balance in these provisions. It is important to state why enforcement is necessary in the first place; it is because employers regularly breach employment law. It is that simple. I hope the Minister will engage constructively with Opposition Deputies on Committee and Report Stages of the legislation and will consider amendments put forward.

The next speaker is Deputy Joan Collins who is sharing time with Deputies Richard Boyd Barrett and Finian McGrath.

Like many people I welcome the fact we are discussing the Workplace Relations Bill and the Workplace Relations Commission. We should include in our discussion the context of what is happening in communities. According to the 2014 OECD employment outlook report, Ireland has the second highest percentage of low paid jobs after the US. Portugal has the lowest percentage. Yesterday was world day for decent work and the Mandate union announced a dramatic reduction in the quality of employment in recent years. Since 2008 it has seen a 60% increase in involuntary part-time working, which is where workers want more hours but do not have access to them.

Mandate will be in the Labour Court on 29 October and it hopes the employer in the case will turn up. This is indicative of workers' rights at present. Frequently companies and employers do not attend the State mechanism for dealing with workers' and employers' rights. To my mind, employers have too many rights. We have seen very disturbing incidents recently, such as the Paris Bakery workers who were left high and dry for weeks on end without any income from social welfare. The company moved out and tried to take all the machinery with it. The workers tried continually to go to the Labour Court and use State machinery to resolve the issue. Eventually it was resolved with intervention, but outside of the State mechanism.

We also had the Greyhound workers, who were locked out from 17 June. In the process involving the Labour Court and the Labour Relations Commission, the employer did not recognise the recommendations given and contrived to lock out 78 workers. Those men were on the streets outside the workplace for three months. It was only resolved with court intervention, through the solicitors for SIPTU and Greyhound who came to an arrangement for the workers either to take voluntary redundancy or return to work, as 24 of them did under worse conditions than those from which they were locked out. This highlights the necessity to examine working conditions and pay and how the industry operates and cut across the race to the bottom. I do not know whether the Bill has the robustness to deal with some of the issues raised in the dispute.

We have another situation with 17 workers at Kishoge community college in Lucan. The contractor was paid €95,000 but only €35,000 has been paid to the workers. Issues arise with regard to relevant contract tax and the workers having to be self-employed subcontractors. The money trickling down to the brickies means they are being paid only €5 an hour, which they can prove with their bank accounts and what they receive in their wages. The company was able to lock out the workers on 1 September. The workers have no recourse and their union is trying to get into the Labour Court to resolve the issue and get them back to work. In the meantime, other workers are being brought in to do the work. Scab labour is being brought in, as happened at Greyhound. It is very difficult for workers on a picket line to see their work being done by people earning less money than they should be.

These projects were supposed to be about putting money back into the economy. I spoke to the workers in Lucan on Monday and they told me all the equipment and parts, including the concrete and machinery, are being brought down from the North, so there is no benefit to the local economy from these public contracts. We know the pension fund is being raided for the projects, with €770 million being taken from it two weeks ago. A total of €2 billion has been taken from the pension fund for these projects, which are supposed to be for the benefit of the economy. If the workers in the industries are not paid enough money to earn a living, how is it of benefit to the economy? It will do no good whatsoever.

The Minister for Education and Skills stated during Question Time today that she will meet the Minister of State, Deputy Nash, to examine the Lucan workers' registered employment agreement and see whether the issue can be resolved. It must move much more quickly than this because the workers have not been paid since 1 September. This is a very difficult situation for men who want to work. Some of them had to leave this country a short time ago to go to Australia and have returned home hoping to get decent work in the local economy. They have been left stranded for the past five weeks.

The legislation needs to be much more robust. How can an employer going through with a process with a union and workers' representation unilaterally move to lock out these workers and sack them? I do not believe this legislation is robust enough to deal with that.

The previous Deputy spoke about the fixed-payment notices. There is a time limit on the process of going through the Circuit Court. However, the other aspects of labour law need to be brought in - the minimum wage commission. All those areas need to be strengthened to protect workers from rogue employers. Most employers will go through the process, but there are a series of rogue employers who unilaterally do not even recognise the Labour Court or the structures within the State.

This is a public school being paid for by the pension fund being raided, which is the people's money. The 70 workers still outside the gate need the matter to be resolved and need an intervention by the Government to be able to resolve the issue. JJ Rhatigan & Company claims it has subcontracted the work and does not employ brickies. It does not employ brickies, but it employs a subcontractor to employ brickies who work on an RCT rate.

These are the issues that need to be dealt with through the Workplace Relations Bill.

Obviously it is positive to be discussing any measure that will improve workplace relations and streamline the Labour Court and the Employment Appeals Tribunal, and the whole area of workers' rights and conciliation in cases of dispute. However, I am not sure that what the Minister is proposing here will achieve that aim. I am not against - I would be broadly for - streamlining the system, making it more accessible, speeding it up because of course there have been major delays, and allowing people to understand clearly how to access the industrial relations and the employment rights machinery of the State. From that point of view, the aims are reasonably laudable but there is probably a big gap between the aims and the means by which the Minister is proposing to deliver on those aims.

I wish to take up from where Deputy Joan Collins left off. It is not just about the machinery we have to vindicate the rights of people; it is also about identifying the rights of people. The context of this is that workers' rights in terms of the legal protection workers have are completely inadequate. The pitch is tipped very much in favour of employers as we discovered in some of the recent disputes and disputes going back over a number of years in which workers have been shafted by rogue employers with very little recourse or great difficulty getting recourse.

One dispute, which I have to encounter literally day because the venue of the dispute is right next door to my constituency office and which I have raised with the Minister on a number of occasions, is the Connolly Shoes dispute. Those workers are still picketing four years later. It is extraordinary. When they were eventually able to access the Employment Appeals Tribunal, Labour Court and the whole lot, their case was completely vindicated and the employer was shown to be in the wrong. He had not paid them moneys owed and had unfairly dismissed them. All of this was established and he has just completely refused to engage and refuses to pay them.

When the representatives of the workers have pursued the money through the courts and so on, he has hidden the money behind shelf companies he owns. Suddenly workers who thought they were working for Connolly Shoes discovered they were not working for Connolly Shoes but working for some other outfit, which happens to be owned by exactly the same guy, but apparently has no assets. So he has a range of different companies, some of which have the money insulated from any recourse for the workers to get hold of the money that the industrial relations machinery has determined they are owed. Everybody is throwing their hands up, claiming there is nothing they can do. It has taken four years and it looks as if they may have just about got there now. It is extraordinary to have workers picketing and in dispute for four years after essentially being turfed out by a rogue employer who refuses to pay them their entitlements.

These are real problems. We had something similar with the Vita Cortex dispute and the occupation that took place in Cork. We have a number of these instances where our laws allow rogue employers to hide from their responsibilities and obligations to their workers by essentially playing fast and loose with company law which allows them to do that. We need to do something about that.

The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation has to address this. I do not claim it is an easy matter, but if a series of companies have the same directors and owners, and one of those companies has been found to be abusing the rights of those workers and has an obligation to pay them, there must be some way to prevent that person from hiding their assets with other companies. That just has to stop, as must hiding money offshore, as Deputy Joan Collins mentioned. There seems to be no political will on the part of the Government to make it stop. I want the Government to outline what it will do on that front.

What happened in the Greyhound dispute - we are now seeing it with JJ Rhatigan - is just not acceptable. Something needs to be done where employers decide they want something and if they do not get it they can just lock workers out. There was much hoo-ha and criticism by certain quarters about workers who were blockading the Greyhound depot. However, not mentioned enough in those discussions was that those workers arrived at work at 7 o'clock one morning and without any warning, discussion, consultation or negotiation there was a guy outside with a new contract with a 30% pay cut. He said, "Sign this or get lost." The workers said they would not accept that and were told, "Sorry, you're out. We have a bus-load of scabs we're going to bring in to do your job." Those workers were then forced to go through eight or nine weeks of a dispute in order to force him even into negotiation. Laws need to be changed to make it impossible for employers to treat workers in that way.

Debate adjourned.