I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am sharing time with a number of other Deputies.
James Connolly once famously said that the cause of labour is the cause of Ireland and the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour. He recognised that a republic is only a republic in name if it does not vindicate the rights of citizens. Central to this tenet is the vindication of the rights of people in the workplace. Sinn Féin believes in strong, robust, fair and effective employment rights. We believe in the right of workers to organise, join a trade union and be represented by a trade union. We support the right of workers to bargain collectively. We see this as inextricably linked to trade union recognition.
The current voluntary system has worked for some but has failed many. Some unscrupulous employers refuse to recognise trade unions and engage in campaigns of bullying, harassment and intimidation. This cannot be said of all employers; the vast majority are decent. However, for those who are not, we must ensure that appropriate laws are in place. Those who are unscrupulous operate as they do because they can and because the current system allows them to. Decent employers should have no truck with such tactics and neither should any Government interested in the rights of workers. A voluntary system of trade union recognition allows unscrupulous employers a hiding place. If an employer has nothing to hide, then it has nothing to fear.
During the infamous Ryanair dispute of 2007, Mr. Justice Geoghegan stated:
As a matter of law Ryanair is perfectly entitled not to deal with trade unions nor can a law be passed compelling them to do so. There is an obvious danger however in a non-unionised company that employees may be exploited and may have to submit to what most reasonable people would consider to be grossly unfair terms and conditions of employment.
How right he was.
This Bill does not confer the right to trade union recognition. It does confer the right for trade union members to associate with and meet trade union officials in the workplace. The general secretary of Mandate, John Douglas, recently remarked that being a member of a trade union in Ireland was like being a member of a golf club but not being allowed to play golf.
Employers who value their employees have nothing to fear from strengthened labour laws. Those who seek to bully and routinely to ignore industrial relations laws and trade unions do so to protect their interests over those of their employees.
A successful economy is one that values those who contribute to it. A successful employment rights infrastructure is one that operates on the basis of equality and a level playing field between worker and employer. There is no level playing field if workers cannot be fairly and properly represented by their trade union. In far too many sectors, the odds are stacked in favour of the employer. This has resulted in instances of abuse and exploitation. The best way to avoid industrial disputes is to have genuine engagement and respect for all sides. The most effective way to avoid workplace conflict is to resolve disputes at the earliest possible opportunity. What better place than the shop floor or place of employment? The right of trade union representatives to engage with trade union members in the workplace should not be feared by anyone, including Government; rather, it should be embraced. It is a right afforded to workers in many countries that are competitive and that lead the way in workers' rights.
The Bill mirrors the Australian and New Zealand model. The model works effectively and is supported by employer groups and trade unions in those countries. It is seen, rightly, as an opportunity to avoid conflict in the workplace and as a way to promote harmonious relationships between employee and employer.
Far too often, we hear examples of employers granting the right to trade union access in the workplace only to withdraw it when it suits. It is a right conferred when everything is going well but used as a punitive measure when conflict arises. This à la carte approach to workers' rights cannot and must not be tolerated. It is telling that instances of abuse and intolerance and breaches of employment law are highest in sectors where low pay, precarious work and if-and-when contracts are the norm. This is the case in the hospitality, retail and construction sectors.
The secretary general of Mandate, John Douglas, said last week that in companies like Dunnes Stores workers are often called into disciplinary meetings with highly trained human resource managers.