That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to provide for banded hour contracts, the right for a worker to request increased hours and a corresponding obligation on an employer to consider such a request, to permit refusal only on objectively justified grounds and an obligation on employers to provide information to workers on the overall working hours available in the employment.
This Bill seeks to provide that a worker or his or her trade union representative, or a representative acting on his or her behalf, is entitled, after six months of continuous employment with his or her employer, to make a request in writing of the employer to be moved to an increased weekly band of hours, as set out in the legislation. Under the existing legislation, Protection of Employees (Part-Time Work) Act, there is no obligation on an employer to consider such a request.
The Bill provides that the employer must comply or set out that it is not economically feasible. The employer must demonstrate that the business is experiencing severe financial difficulties such that there would be a substantial risk that the workers would be made redundant if the hours were granted, the sustainability of the business would be adversely affected or the business could not sustain the increased level of hours. In the event that a worker disagrees with the employer's refusal on the grounds set out in the legislation, the complaints procedure would be through the Workplace Relations Commission. The Bill also includes an obligation on the employer to inform all employees on the overall availability of working hours by displaying this information in a prominent position in the place of employment.
People may ask why this legislation is necessary. The Mandate trade union has successfully negotiated banded hours contracts with a number of large employers. These employers have engaged constructively with the State's industrial relations mechanisms. However, some extremely profitable employers will not do so. Mandate's "Decency for Dunnes Stores Workers" campaign and the accompanying dispute sets out in stark terms why this legislation is necessary. As Dunnes Stores and other employers take a very different approach to the rights of their employees, we, as legislators, have an obligation to provide alternative ways to facilitate the relationship between employers and their staff or the trade unions that represent the employees. We are looking for a level of equilibrium whereby decent employers can function within society and also whereby workers can seek to have their hours increased in a very gentle fashion over time. Under this legislation it would take about two and a half years for a worker to have his or her working hours increased to the maximum amount.
A survey published by the Mandate trade union earlier this year found that three quarters of Dunnes Stores staff were on part-time contracts and yet 98% wanted increased hours. This is not about flexibility around the edges of a functioning business. This is a business built on a system of low-hours contracts. It is simply unjustifiable for employers to keep the bulk of their staff on part-time flexible contracts as it pushes these people into poverty and into a position where they cannot plan for their families. It creates undue hardship as mothers struggle to deal with child care arrangements and families cannot be sure of what they will earn from one end of the month to the other.
Anyone who has run a business will say that the Dunnes Stores model has nothing to do with seasonal staffing needs and everything to do with leverage over employees, in other words being able to say to an employee, "Shape up or we'll cut your hours. Change your behaviour, attitude and everything about you or we'll change your hours." It is exploitation, pure and simple. The model undermines good businesses because it gives a competitive advantage to those who exploit. Decent terms and conditions result in good business because they create a productive workforce and allow that workforce to spend and engage in the real economy.
As legislators, we have a responsibility to the wider economy and of course society to intervene in such practices. It is beyond time for the Labour Party to take an active role in ensuring that basic employment rights are upheld. It is important to note that the recently introduced industrial relations legislation merely restates what was there before while offering some level of compliance by the State with recent judgments of the European Court of Human Rights on collective bargaining. The Labour Party has not championed the rights of workers during its recent term in office. I hope, as the general election approaches, it might rectify this.