I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this important legislation which outlines some fundamental reforms of industrial relations and employment law. I have concerns about the resources allocated to the National Employment Rights Authority, NERA, and the inspection-enforcement area. A few months ago, the Minister told me there were only 100 inspectors to police a workforce of almost 2 million citizens. This situation merited an attempt to streamline and standardise the system of dispute resolution, but there is a concern that it has been motivated more by cost savings than by having better industrial relations machinery.
Undoubtedly, the Bill involves a widescale and major reform of employment rights dispute resolution. I hope the reform will lead to improvements in upholding workers' rights and their access to justice. As I have done in recent months, many astonishing cases of workers being treated badly have been raised in the House. Addressing these injustices urgently is a necessity.
I welcome the creation of a specific section of the Minister's Department with responsibility for collective bargaining and small business. I hope there will be a similar commitment on the part of the Government, which is at most in its final year in office, to progressing the legislation on collective bargaining. The Minister might remember that it is nearly 16 years since I introduced the Trade Union Recognition Bill on behalf of ICTU and, in particular, SIPTU. Sixteen years later and the House still has not addressed this important part of people's lives. I hope the collective bargaining Bill will progress. The Minister might recall the background to my Bill, namely, the disgraceful treatment by Ryanair of many of its workers in the mid to late 1990s.
I have some concerns about the Workplace Relations Bill, especially that this major amalgamation may be driven more by cost savings than by improving the situation for workers hoping to have employment or industrial relations issues resolved. I am also concerned about the loss of the tripartite structure for cases currently falling within the remit of the Employment Appeals Tribunal and how that may affect the resolution of these disputes. I am similarly concerned about the qualification requirements for adjudication officers and the potential loss of expertise in not ensuring a significant number of these officers come from the legal profession.
In terms of enforcement, I welcome the strengthened provisions for upholding decisions of adjudication officers of the newly formed Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, and the enforcement of compliance notices and fixed charge notices. I am concerned, however, about the move to have the majority of decisions enforced through the District Court, which is already a busy system dealing with numerous issues and areas of law. For example, the implementation of traffic safety laws in the District Court has proven difficult and led to a backlog. There is a concern, therefore, that the same could happen in the case of appeals under this Bill.
The Minister stated he would introduce amendments on Committee Stage. I often wonder why a Department must introduce amendments to a Bill that has been in gestation for two and a half years. This Bill saw widespread consultation, but one imagines the Minister would enter the House with the Bill ready to go onto the Statute Book.
While I welcome the Minister's decision not to impose fees for accessing the WRC, I note that section 69 allows him to set fees for a second stage to the appeals procedure. Separately, there will be a cost involved in having recourse to the District Court system for the enforcement of awards. This could dissuade some parties, particularly workers, from taking that route. SIPTU has suggested that the Labour Court should be expanded to extend its scope to cover the enforcement of awards, thereby incurring no cost for workers. I agree with this view. Given the Labour Court's expertise, it would be better placed to enforce the WRC's awards.
The decision to have a new WRC as the body of first instance for employment related complaints and disputes as well as having inspection and enforcement powers is a good step forward overall with the development of the so-called one-stop-shop system. The amalgamation of the appellate features of the Employment Appeals Tribunal and the Labour Court into the new expanded Labour Court is welcome. The basics of Part 2 are to be welcomed. I note the functions of the WRC as outlined in section 10, and I welcome the establishment of the office of director general under sections 11 to 18, inclusive.
I welcome the appointment of a registrar whom I understand will be the legal adviser to the WRC and the director general. I question the decision to make the board of the WRC, the structure of which is outlined in Schedule 3, a non-executive board that reports directly to the Minister and the Department. This could undermine the board's independence and could be especially difficult when, for example, the industrial relations arms of the new WRC are dealing with disputes concerning public bodies or publicly funded employers.
The Bill provides for the standardisation of time limits for the institution of proceedings under Part 4, which deals with complaints and disputes. Section 41 provides for a time limit of six months for referring a complaint or dispute to an adjudication officer. This important feature should promote certainty for parties engaging with the new system. It will also be easier to understand than the current system, which has multiple fora and differing time limits for taking actions under various employment legislative provisions. I welcome the scope for the time limit to be extended to one year in certain circumstances where the failure to present the complaint or refer the dispute was due to what is called "reasonable cause" under section 41(7). I also welcome the standard time limits in place for compliance notices under section 27 and fixed payment notices under section 35 of 42 days within which an appeal can be lodged against a compliance notice and 42 days within which the amount indicated under a fixed payment notice must be paid.
I have an interest in the enforcement provisions contained in Part 3, which represent a key area. I was involved in campaigning for the establishment of NERA. I do not agree with IBEC's view that the inspectorate function currently exercised by NERA should not be included in the new WRC, as there will be an important pooling of resources and information between all aspects of the newly created umbrella body. Another key issue of concern is the cut in the number of inspectors, which has come to my attention several times. The Minister indicated to me last January that there were approximately 100 inspectors. My experience has been that there is a need to increase this number, but one of the Minister's stated aims in his introductory speech was to save on staffing costs.
A potentially significant measure in Part 3 is section 32, which provides for the disclosure of certain information in respect of public construction and other public contracts. The explanatory memorandum reads: "This section 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." A number of Deputies, including Deputy Boyd Barrett, have referred to the Greyhound workers' plight. I was concerned about the issue, whereby workers were forced into accepting savage pay cuts by a company with a headquarters outside the State that was providing a key public service. The Minister will remember how, when he and I were members of Dublin City Council, I led a campaign to keep waste management within the remit of the public sector. I believed we would end up with the type of situation that has developed in the Dublin region and in which Greyhound has played a disgraceful role. There seems to be no identifiable reason for the cuts to its workers' pay other than increasing its profits. The fact this dispute occurred in a firm providing a service that should more properly have remained a State service is another disappointing feature of this Government's and the previous Government's lack of commitment to public services. As Deputy Boyd Barrett and others have stated, the Greyhound situation illustrates grave deficiencies in the protection of workers' rights.
Separately, as the Minister is aware, I have raised many times, including publically in this Chamber just before the summer recess, the issue of serious potential breaches of workers’ rights on some sites operating under the school building programme. This matter is evolving as Members speak and the situation has escalated in particular at the site at Kishoge Community College, Lucan in recent days. I believe the Acting Chairman, Deputy Troy, also raised this matter one morning during Leaders' Questions. As the Minister is aware, the key concern at this site and others is the use of the subcontracting system to erode workers’ rights and effectively reduce the price paid for construction services. According to media reports, some workers were effectively being paid half the minimum wage for carrying out highly-skilled jobs like blocklaying, bricklaying or whatever. I have referred this matter to the Minister’s colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Nash, who I hope will revert with a substantive plan to address this problem. In addition, this matter was raised repeatedly with the former Minister, Deputy Quinn, for more than two years, as well as with the present Minister, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan, as the sites in question are construction projects under the school building programme.
I have obtained figures from the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, which show that between 40,000 to 45,000 workers have been registered under the relevant contracts tax, RCT, system in each of the past three years. It is hard to understand why that system has been tolerated by the Revenue Commissioners, given that it appears to be open to grave abuse. A number of trade unionists representing building workers have campaigned strongly to address this because the nub of the issue, as the Minister is aware, is that people who wish to be PAYE workers and who wish to be absolutely fully compliant are forced, against their will in a sham arrangement, to behave as though they are self-employed. The vast majority of such RCT workers are registered as being within the construction sector even though the RCT system also applies to the meat processing and forestry sectors. For example, the Minister, Deputy Noonan, has informed me that in 2012, 42,420 of the 44,178 RCT workers were registered under the construction sector category. Similarly, in 2013, 44,674 of the 46,431 RCT workers were registered as being in construction.
I also note that a private company, Contractors Administration Services, CAS, has been engaged to inspect the sites in question. Workers have rightly complained that public bodies would be better suited to this task. I understand this company specialises in auditing and accounting functions for building sites. This function might be well-suited, with requisite skilled staff, to the National Employment Rights Authority, NERA, which perhaps could best carry out such a function. Perhaps this new section 32 therefore will have implications for the ongoing situation at these public construction sites. It is vitally important that any potential illegalities or breaches of employment law are addressed. However, the separate issue of the contractors on these sites relying on legal provisions of the RCT system effectively to opt out of having proper pay and conditions for construction workers must be tackled by the Government. I refer to the greatly diminished public capital programme and hope that next Wednesday, the House will be presented with an expanded public capital programme, as it has been cut repeatedly since 2008. However, while I commend the former Minister, Deputy Quinn, on his role in setting out a programme of school building, it has been highly remiss of the Government that on such sites, shenanigans are allowed to go on, one major contractor of which it is alleged being JJ Rhattigan & Company.
I understand the arguments made in relation to the RCT system. However, the recent experience of workers on these sites under the publicly-funded school building programme highlights the difficulties within the RCT system. It indicates that cost saving has meant that workers effectively are forced to become self-employed and thereby lose most of the protections and entitlements available to employees under employment law. Consequently, the Bill being debated today cannot protect these workers. Equally, by virtue of being self-employed, they will not have recourse to any of the revised and streamlined machinery under discussion. I urge the Minister to work with his colleagues, the Minister of State, Deputy Nash, and the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan, to urgently resolve this issue in the interests of workers’ rights and ensuring the proper use of public funding. In addition, I urge the Minister to work closely with Revenue to ensure the evolution of a system that is fair to those workers while expediting the public capital programme.
I am supportive of the provisions in the Bill regarding mediation, under section 39, to deal with disputes where this is agreeable to the parties concerned. I note there is a move more generally in the context of all legal disputes to have recourse to mediation in the first instance. The Minister will be aware that our local Northside Community Law Centre is now called Community Law & Mediation, which symbolises the welcome move towards mediation in legal matters. It is important to have this reflected in the Workplace Relations Bill. Importantly, however, mediation is not being included to substitute the right of either party to have the complaint or dispute resolved in another manner under the legislation, as is provided for in section 39(1)(b).
I welcome the general thrust of the provisions of the Bill. I hope the concerns that other Deputies and I have raised will be examined on Committee Stage. While I did tell the Minister that he should come in with a finished Bill, I expect him to listen to the committee as well. What is unusual about this Bill is the Minister has told Members of his intention to table various amendments. He could have made them before he came in and then other amendments that I and my colleagues might suggest on the Select Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation could be added later. I acknowledge the Minister has committed to introducing those amendments. Hopefully, this is an historic day in respect of the State's industrial machinery. I wish the Minister well in the manner in which the machinery in its entirety is being modernised. In particular, I hope it will not simply be grounds of cost that will influence this process and that adequate resources will be made available, especially to NERA, to ensure that our workforce - which fortunately again is approaching 2 million people - and in particular those low-paid workers in vulnerable situations to whom my colleagues, Deputies Clare Daly and Wallace referred, will be monitored carefully and protected.