Topical Issue Debate

Employment Rights

While there is much fanfair about job creation and the CSO figures, I raise this issue because people are facing the loss of permanent jobs that have good conditions, including holiday pay, entitlements, pension rights and everything that goes with those. This involves 530 employees in Xtra-vision, 1,000 workers in Tesco who were told that they had contracts that could be ripped up, and workers who were contracted to work for the ESB as meter readers for the past 50 years. That contract was sent out to tender and following that tendering process the contract was won and the workers who had a contract with the ESB were told that they can work for the companies that won the contract for half their pay.

Seemingly, Xtra-vision had Xtra-vision-HMV and in 2013 it set up another company, Xtra-vision-Entertainment. We saw that happen with Clerys and with other companies such as Connolly's Shoes, Paris Bakery and La Senza, where the workers had to lock themselves into a branch of the chain to get their proper payments. Xtra-vision has done the same thing and left its workers high and dry. The workers were told last November that they would get redundancy payments last week but on Tuesday we were told that the whole company is winding up and liquidators - some 166 - were sent in to wind down the company. Those workers were left with nothing; they were given no holiday or redundancy pay. They have mortgages to pay and families to feed and they have been given nothing. The State in terms of the taxpayer will have to pick up this bill. The 1,000 workers in Tesco have decent contracts and they are supported by the Mandate union. Were it not for the fact that this union is strong in Tesco, those workers would be facing dire consequences. They have been told they will be lose their overtime, morning pay allowance, shift allowance, etc.

John Douglas from Mandate, who appeared before an Oireachtas committee in 2013, said that unless directors are held responsible for what they do in regard to workers' rights, this will continue. We have seen that it has continued. What will the Minister do about directors who come into the country, set up shelf companies and use them to strip the assets of the company and then tell the workers they are not entitled to anything? The collective bargaining legislation is not strong enough when it comes to defending workers' rights. We on this side of the House called for such legislation to provide that unions should have a right of access to their members. We have been told by the workers that on notice boards in Tesco the notices from the union have been taken down and that the union can only talk to its members in the car parks.

This has to stop. It is a shame that this Government has done nothing about this over the past five years when there were plenty of opportunities to do so. We have seen too much of that happening, and it is still going on.

It must be said that any situation where people are losing their jobs is something that is not welcome. We have worked very hard to minimise the number of job losses and I am glad to say that we have got job losses here to the lowest ever number in the history of both IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland.

These are good jobs.

We have managed to reduce job loss levels but that is not to say that any job loss is very difficult for the families involved, and my sympathy is with the families involved in this situation.

It is also a reminder to us that we are working in a very difficult environment where changes in the economic environment impact on companies. We all know that patterns of usage in the video rental area have changed dramatically, and this company has gone into liquidation as has happened. It has the protection of the State and I can assure the Deputy that we will make all the resources of the State available to support the people who have been displaced from their jobs.

In a situation such as this, where a redundancy is concerned, there is a body of Irish employment legislation where there are significant protections afforded to employees whose employers are insolvent in the event that the employer defaults on payments of wages and other entitlements. These rights are mainly contained in the Protection of Employees (Employers' Insolvency) Act 1984 and the Redundancy Payments Act, which are administered by my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection.

The purpose of the insolvency payments regime, which operates under the Protection of Employees (Employers' Insolvency) Act 1984, is to protect certain outstanding pay-related entitlements due to employees in the event of insolvency of their employer. In situations such as Xtra-vision, where a liquidator has been appointed, in the event that the employer is unable to pay the employees their statutory redundancy and other entitlements, a claim may be made on the Department of Social Protection.

In the first instance, the staff of Xtra-vision who have lost their jobs as a result of the closure should contact the liquidator to ensure they receive their statutory redundancy and wage-related payments. The person legally appointed to wind up the company certifies the employees' redundancy and insolvency claims from the records available and sends the claims to the redundancy payments section of the Department of Social Protection. The Workplace Relations Commission customer service and information unit was made available to provide information to the concerned staff.

As regards the position in Tesco, it should be noted that the terms of a contract are a matter for agreement between the parties to the contract. Section 3 of the Terms of Employment (Information) Act 1994 sets out what terms in an employment contract must be put in writing. Section 5 of the Act further provides that when a change is made or occurs in any part of the contract furnished by an employer, the employer shall notify the employee in writing of the nature and date of the change as soon as may be. It is our understanding that Tesco is engaging with trade unions about proposed changes to the contracts in question, including the issue of compensation for affected employees. The State's industrial relations machinery is available to assist, if required.

Anyone with concerns regarding employment rights can contact the Workplace Relations Commission customer service and information unit, which provides information on employment equality and industrial relations legislation. It can be contacted at lo-call 1890 80 80 90 or via its website www.workplacerelations.ie.

I am sure the bosses are quaking in their boots after hearing that reply from the Minister. He made a point about sympathy. Workers do not want tea and sympathy, they want their jobs. They want to be able to pay their mortgages. They want to be able to pay for food to be put on the table over the coming weeks. Xtra-vision gave no prior notice except to a small group of workers and it then reneged on that deal last Tuesday.

I spoke to a young woman who has already had a mortgage payment taken from her wages. She got paid for the work she did the week before last. She worked three days last week and did not get paid for them, is owed holiday pay and expected a redundancy payment from Xtra-vision. This company has set up a shelf company to allow it to renege on its responsibilities to its workers. That is happening all the time, and this Government has done nothing to protect those workers from that activity. These are rogue employers who, like Clerys, set up other shelf companies and then tell their workers that they have no rights and that they should apply for statutory redundancy.

I would like to know how much the insolvency fund has paid out in the past five years to workers who have been subjected to these conditions by their bosses.

The Minister made a point about legislation. The fact is that the collective bargaining legislation is not and was never going to be strong enough to take on rogue employers. Tesco is a profitable multinational company. Last week it called workers in and told them it would change their contracts. Only because there is a strong union involved, namely, Mandate, will the workers be protected in any way. However, they must go through a process. If the union had not been there, I have no doubt those workers would have been left high and dry. The Government has not lived up to its responsibility to bring in much stronger collective bargaining. As John Douglas stated when he appeared before the relevant Oireachtas committee, directors who do such things should be barred from being directors of other companies in the future. The situation will continue unless the new Government, which I hope will be a progressive Government of the left, is serious about tackling such issues. Will the Minister fast-track the process for Xtra-vision workers who are waiting for their statutory redundancies?

First, I totally reject the Deputy's complaints about the Government's record on worker protection. We twice increased the national minimum wage. We introduced protection for temporary agency workers. We restored the employment regulation orders, EROs and the registered employment agreements, REAs. We introduced collective bargaining legislation.

The employers are still able to get away with it.

The Minister should be allowed to conclude.

We have been very balanced in our approach and we have presided over a situation where 135,000 extra people are back at work. They are workers with decent pay. Contrary to what the Deputy said, 90% of all those jobs are full-time positions. In the past two years, all the jobs created are full time. Involuntary part-time working is declining rapidly in this country. The pay and conditions of those workers are very good. A total of 75% of the jobs are IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland jobs in strong sectors, such as financial services, with good conditions.

The jobs to which I refer are full-time jobs.

Will Deputy Joan Collins please allow the Minister to conclude?

In those cases where sectors are poorly organised, we have reinstated REAs and EROs to protect those workers. We have increased the national minimum wage twice. Deputies such as Deputy Joan Collins pretend that those are jobs created by schemes. The truth is that 94% of the jobs created in the past four years are jobs that are completely independently created.

I came in to talk about Xtra-vision.

Deputy Joan Collins should please not interrupt.

A total of 60,000 jobs are in export-oriented companies which have won new markets for this country and created opportunities for Irish workers. I take my hat off to the businesses and workers of this country that have responded to the challenges. I admit that there are sectors which still face challenges. The video distribution sector has had real problems. Occasionally, one has sectors that get into difficulties and workers become redundant but protections are in place - both in employment law and in the insolvency and redundancy funds - to meet their needs. We will respond as best we can to the needs of all of those workers in Xtra-vision to make sure they can avail of the opportunities that are emerging to find new jobs.

I remind the Deputy that she represents a constituency in Dublin. Today, unemployment in the city fell to a level well below 8%. Unemployment has nearly halved in recent years. A total of 64,000 people are back at work in Dublin because of the work of the Government. The challenge now is to keep the recovery going. We will have balanced employment protection and a balanced enterprise policy to grow our base and to grow opportunities for people so that they can put their lives back on track.

The next Topical Issue is in the names of Deputies Mick Wallace and Clare Daly. I presume they are sharing time. They have two minutes each.

Before the Minister, Deputy Bruton, leaves the Chamber, I wish to inform him that, unfortunately, unemployment in Wexford is still at 22%. That is worth his attention.

The Deputy should check the latest figures. I think the Deputy is wrong.

Foster Care

During the ongoing controversy around this case, at least one manager with no experience and no professional qualifications relating to child abuse was appointed to the area. There was transparency in respect of the appointments process and the job was not advertised. It was an in-house promotion. That is a contributory factor in the case.

The dysfunctionality of the HSE in general is a contributory factor. I do not think the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, would deny that. It is symptomatic of a broader malaise within the organisation. Someone must be held to account. A few investigations were carried out into this matter but they were either in-house or involved former members of the HSE who had gone into the private sector. The abuse was investigated in the 1990s but the matter was mishandled and the girl concerned ended up spending an extra 12 years in the place to which this matter refers. I wonder whether someone will be held to account for what happened.

The incestuous nature of how the HSE works reminds me of some other organisations in the country. The contribution of the director general, Tony O'Brien, to the Committee of Public Accounts today is worrying. He confirmed that Ann remains in full-time, seven-day residential care with a voluntary provider and makes regular visits home to her mother. It appears he is being economical with the truth. He answered a question that was not asked in order to mislead in respect of the situation somewhat. Ann was making visits on and off to her home right up to the age of 15-----

I must call on Deputy Clare Daly to make her contribution.

-----but that is not clear from the director general's statement today.

We do not have time to go into the range of issues surrounding this case but it is a fact that more than one vulnerable adult was left in a situation where she was appallingly abused and exploited because of the mishandling of the situation by the HSE. I am very pleased that the Ministers have decided to have a commission of investigation. From the very beginning we believed that two things were necessary: first, that those responsible for this injustice would be held to account; and, second, that the issues would be publicly and independently aired. That is an absolute necessity given the litany of inquiries which have taken place on the issue, which did not deliver anything. Deputy Wallace is correct. Rather than trying to address matters, the position adopted by the HSE, which is still in evidence today, was to shore up, lawyer-up and cover up and be incredibly economical with the truth. That is what it smacks of to me.

Grace remaining in the foster home for 13 years after the initial allegations of abuse were investigated is horrifically unique. It is a fact that the information was in the hands of the HSE. In 1996 a decision was made by the social workers on the ground to remove that young woman. That is a fact which is backed up. We know that subsequently the foster father contacted the then Minister for Health, Deputy Noonan, and petitioned to have what he called his "beloved daughter" kept with the family. We do not know what happened after that. The Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, informed us that the Minister for Health at that time, Deputy Noonan, and the Minister of State, Austin Currie, were not in any way responsible for that situation but the fact is that a documented case conference decision to remove that young woman from the foster home before August was subsequently reversed in October 1996 and the young woman, Grace, remained there up until 2009. People need to know who made that decision and who will pay the price for it.

I know we are very restricted when it comes to the time allocated for the Topical Issue debate but I genuinely thank the two Deputies opposite for raising the issue as it is something that has preoccupied me for quite a considerable time.

I welcome the opportunity to address the allegations of abuse in a foster home in the south east which are a matter of grave concern to me and to the Government. Every person who uses disability services is entitled to expect and receive care of the highest standard and to live in dignity and safety. Our aim must always be to ensure that people maximise their potential and live rich and fulfilling lives. They and their families trust us to care for them with kindness, compassion and respect. While it is clear that real issues have been raised about the protection of vulnerable people in the south east, it has also been very difficult to establish the facts with certainty. The matters relating to the south east were raised by the Committee of Public Accounts in 2015 in the context of the procurement process for reports into these matters and the extended period of time during which it has not been possible to publish them.

In response to the concerns raised and the ongoing delay in publishing reports commissioned by the HSE, I appointed Conor Dignam, SC, to undertake a review into these matters, taking account of the ongoing Garda investigation. This review remains in train and Mr. Dignam will report back at the end of April. I have received assurances from the HSE that the person at the centre of the Conal Devine inquiry, who we are now calling Grace, was removed from the foster family in 2009. I understand that Grace is in full-time residential care with a voluntary service provider. Matters are complicated by the fact that there is an ongoing Garda investigation and the HSE has been precluded from publishing the Devine and Resilience Ireland reports into the matter pending completion of that investigation. While this may be frustrating, it is important that we do not prejudge the outcome. Instead, we must remain focused on the questions that, in my opinion, remain unanswered.

In view of the seriousness of the issues raised and the need to establish the facts, the Government has today approved the establishment of a statutory commission of investigation. This is subject to the agreement of terms of reference and the approval of the Oireachtas. I am in no doubt that the work undertaken by Mr. Dignam, SC, will make a key contribution to informing the drafting of the terms of reference for a commission of investigation. Additional resources have been allocated to Mr. Dignam to allow him to accelerate the completion of his report. The Minister, Deputy Varadkar, and I have requested copies of the Devine report and the Resilience Ireland report from the HSE under section 40C of the Health Act 2004. This is an important development as we believe direct access to these reports will assist our understanding of the relevant facts surrounding these disturbing allegations. It will also assist in bringing forward detailed proposals for the establishment of the commission of investigation. I hope that early in the life of the new Dáil, we will approve the establishment of the statutory commission of investigation and that it will also be approved by our colleagues in the Seanad. I again thank Deputies Clare Daly and Mick Wallace.

As the Minister of State knows, Deputy Clare Daly and I contacted her almost a year ago about this and we did not jump all over it. It needs to be acknowledged that there is something seriously amiss with how the HSE operates. This is only one issue. We have been told other things over a period that makes us very concerned about the behaviour of certain members of the HSE in the south-east region. There seems to be a culture of dragging matters out, delaying, issuing denials and then bringing in the legal people. Those to whom I refer seemed to be concerned with minimising liability and a damage limitation process. The ethos is poor and it is not good enough. Something has to change.

That is the key point. One of the whistleblowers at the centre of this case has made the point that, sadly, it is not the only such case. In his opinion, it represents dozens of others in the same region over a 20 to 30 year time span. It is fair to say there is a systemic problem in the HSE. It is very much the old attitude that when the church or State is threatened, the response is to say nothing, admit nothing, call in the lawyers and see what happens. That mentality has traditionally done untold damage to citizens and vulnerable people in Ireland. It is not good enough for service users. It costs the State a huge amount of money later on, not only in the emotional damage to citizens but in the financial cost to the taxpayer. The modus operandi appears to be that when a mistake is made, even if it is innocent, it is not investigated properly. The response is that the HSE investigates itself and the people who are doing the investigating are former HSE staff under new guises of Tusla or one of the other independent companies that operate in this area. It is really the HSE investigating itself. That is why we have had the problem and that is why people have remained there. Some people who are currently employed by the HSE are responsible for that and have to be dealt with. I hope we all return to address this matter in the next Dáil because it is a matter of urgency. I am glad the commission has been decided upon but we need to look at its terms of reference.

I will conclude by thanking Deputies Clare Daly and Mick Wallace because they were involved and it is important that they did not use the issue to ingratiate themselves. It should be acknowledged that they pursued the issue in a very professional and dogged way. As it is such a delicate and sensitive area, whistleblowers need to feel as if they have the space and security to bring serious concerns, firstly, to their employers and, secondly, to whomever they think can pursue the issue. The terms of reference of the commission of investigation will be crucial. As far as I can see - I may be wrong - Conor Dignam's report and the two reports that have already been concluded should feed into the terms of reference. It is essential that there is a political input because, as politicians, we are responsible to every citizen in the country, not only to those who go out and elect us. We have equal responsibility to those who do not. I hope what we are doing will allow us to have a very clear overview of what happened, how and why it happened and, after that, to establish what process to put in place to ensure that people are never again left in this vulnerable position.