I require the House's approval as the Minister of State is anxious at the outset to make a one minute statement and to update the House on the current situation but I can only do this with the House's approval. Is that agreed? Agreed. Members have one minute each. I ask Members to observe the one minute rule as I will not allow any slippage. The Minister of State has one minute to give an initial speech and four minutes at a later stage.
Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Deputies for raising the matter and wish to take the opportunity to respond. I know that when this Topical Issue was put down, the position was somewhat different. We were in the midst of an ongoing strike involving pickets and high levels of stress for workers with significant impacts on the public and the company with many other traders suffering from collateral damage. We need to be mindful of this. Today as we debate this topic, we must do so in a very calm atmosphere. Last Friday, the parties voluntarily agreed to take part in talks under the auspices of the Labour Court. They should be given time to resolve this dispute with the help of the industrial relations institutions of the State. It must be remembered that this is a difficult industrial relations dispute. The company has not changed anyone's contract unilaterally. All sides have been attempting to resolve the differences over an extended period and have used our industrial relations machinery throughout. There is nothing to be gained by vilifying the company or the union and such approaches are very unhelpful.
The Minister of State has appealed for calm so I will start by calmly saluting the thousands of men and women working for Tesco around the country who stood up to intimidation and a campaign of misinformation and took strike action in pursuance of justice in their workplace. I will calmly ask the Minister of State whether he has ever seen a more outrageous campaign of union busting than was witnessed at Tesco with Project Black - threatening to rip up the contracts of the longest serving workers without consent; banning union officials from the premises, union notices from notice boards and union meetings from company premises; threatening strikers that the Department of Social Protection will be contacted to have family income supplement cut off; stopping union subscriptions at check off; and threatening workers that they would lose either their jobs or their hours should they dare to defy the company and go out on strike. Has there ever been a more outrageous campaign of union busting?
Solidarity was reborn last week and hit Tesco with a vengeance. When Tesco management announced its intention to cut workers' pay and rip up the contracts of people who had worked for it, for three decades in some cases, forcing them out on strike, it assumed it could isolate a small group of workers within the workforce but it seriously underestimated two things. The first is the workers within Tesco - the young and part-time workers who showed massive solidarity and understood that they were next in the firing line. They also underestimated ordinary people. The Irish Times reports that picketed stores lost sales of 80% but even non-picketed stores lost sales of 30%. This shows the balance of forces in society, that things can be turned around, that the employers and the establishment which have had it their way for a very long time should take note and that the Government should take note of where the sympathies of the public lie in respect of bus workers and the ASTI where the Government is attempting similar union busting tactics.
We are not neutral in this dispute. We are on the side of the Tesco workers, wish them victory and think a victory for them is a victory for all workers. There are those who would like to think that the union, solidarity, strike action and pickets being respected are things that belong in the past - in the epoch of Connolly and Larkin. It is predominantly young workers and female workers who have shown that this is not the case. What used to be called Larkinism proved very effective for the Tesco workers. There is a lesson there for everybody - the teachers, nurses and Bus Éireann workers - that standing strong and standing together will win public support and can win industrial disputes. There is also a lesson where we had an opportunity last week to strengthen trade union rights and Fianna Fáil, which went on some picket lines posing as supporters of the workers, came in here to vote against it. There is a reason for Project Black and the attacks on the unions. It is because there is a way for workers to defend their interests.
Ar an chéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom tréaslú leis an cheardchumann, Mandate, agus oibrithe Tesco don chur chuige atá tógtha acu agus iad ag seasamh suas dá gcuid ceart agus ag iarraidh a gcoinníolacha agus a gcuid pá a chosaint. Tá sé sin fíor-thábhachtach. Tréaslaím leo agus seasaim leo. I express my solidarity with the Tesco workers and the trade union that has organised them. There has been a false equivalence in this discussion in terms of balance in trying to compare the position of the management and company, which have put extraordinary pressure and used vindictive and sneaky tactics against the workers in trying to undermine this strike, and the situation in which the workers find themselves. It is worth repeating the point made by Deputy Paul Murphy about the legislation debated here last week. Unfortunately, the Government and Fianna Fáil seemed to cast doubt on the need for legislation to ensure that trade union officials could have access to their members. This is a company that has negotiated in the past with trade unions and yet efforts were made to keep union officials out.
I pay tribute to the determination of the Tesco workers to face down what was a deliberate attempt at union busting by one of the most profitable companies in the country. Through their determined action, their willingness to escalate the dispute and moves toward escalating the dispute, they have shown that people power and workers' power work. That lesson is critically needed given the similar orchestrated attempt to attack workers and trade unions in our public transport system. Again, the public is being treated to a diet of frankly disingenuous nonsense about the viability of the company when what is happening is that subsidies for public transport are being undermined and private operators are being cosseted and promoted by the National Transport Authority with the assistance of the Government to undermine workers' pay and conditions in Bus Éireann and the public transport system generally. They should use the same tactics to win their battle as the Tesco workers used.
Some 1,500 employees at 16 Tesco stores are already on strike and a further 500 based in six more stores were due to join the industrial action from Monday. The core issue here is the unilateral decision of the company to rewrite or totally undermine the validity of existing contracts. Contracts, such as those under dispute, may need to be modernised but the key question is why this updating should always result in preferential treatment for the company at the expense of the ordinary worker. There is something particularly grasping and covetous about the manner in which Tesco has approached this matter. Under the guise of reasonable engagement, it has sought to crush and frighten workers into abandoning the satisfaction of their rights. Let us not forget that last April, Tesco Ireland reported total revenue of €2.5 billion over the year to the end of February as it saw the first quarter like-for-like sales increase since 2012.
This puts the perfectly fair and legitimate demands of the workers for contract protection in perspective.
I compliment the workers and, indeed, the management in Clonmel and in Tipperary town.
The Tesco dispute, like the Bus Éireann dispute, and the Dublin Bus and Luas disputes in recent months, highlights one cast-iron fact about this Government - it does not have a clue about industrial relations. It is not only that it does not have a feel for it but it just does not understand it. The reason is that in the eyes of this Government, the worker is a dispensable player in the economic game. I believe companies are emboldened by this stance from Government. As a result, we see Tesco, a company which boasts about its market share, its growth and its profits, attack the terms and conditions of its most experienced employees, the backbone of the company. The company knows it has a Government that, at best, is benign to such behaviour and, at worst, encourages it.
We have 21 Deputies speaking on this issue today - that is, 13% of the Dáil - and yet no one from the Government back benches or the Independents support the wish to support the Tesco workers. The public certainly supports them. Turnover is down 80% in picketed stores.
I express my solidarity with and support for the Tesco workers and the union that took up this issue and also for the thousands of customers who did not pass the picket lines and did not shop in Tesco stores. The latter was an important act of solidarity that brought it to a conclusion, or to a stage where they will go into talks on Friday.
The key point I want to make today is on the issue of access for workers to the trade union movement. Unless legislation is brought in to allow union representatives to go on the shop floor, talk to their members and represent them on the shop floor, this will continue. Tesco has been a reasonably good shop for unions to work with. However, it is looking at all the other shops that have worse pay and conditions and saying that it could have a bite of that cherry as well. Collective bargaining and access to unions is the important outcome that has to come from this.
Fianna Fáil finds the treatment of the Tesco workers deeply concerning. It is shocking to read that the management has signalled its intention to unilaterally change existing employment contracts without any agreement from the workers. It flies in the face of established industrial relations practice ensuring that workers in this country should have decent employment conditions.
It is my party's view that all sides should engage in the State's industrial relations machinery and come together to try to work this out. We welcome the fact that the two sides to the dispute got together on Friday evening last at the Workplace Relations Commission and that talks are to continue under the auspices of ICTU and IBEC to try to come together to find a negotiation.
It is hypocritical of Sinn Féin to come in here on an important issue to try to criticise my party when we read, Sunday after Sunday, how it treats its own employees and workers who, by the way, are not unionised.
The Deputy's time has expired.
Shame on Sinn Féin for trying to gag its own staff and coming in here and lecturing my party.
I call Deputy Broughan.
It is a walking, talking hypocrite when it comes to protecting workers when one sees how it treats its own. It is a disgrace.
Deputy Broughan has one minute.
It is sad that Deputy Niall Collins and his colleagues voted against the Industrial Relations (Right to Access) (Amendment) Bill 2016.
Deputy Broughan, without interruption.
It had nothing to do with the Tesco dispute.
The Deputy, without interruption.
These past few weeks we have seen abuse by an enormous economic power, the Tesco organisation. It was said that in Britain £1 in £8 went through its coffers. It is a massive economic entity with a sales turnover of many countries. It is despicable that the workers, who built up this company in this country before 1996 with Quinnsworth and other companies, should now be subjected to pay cuts of 20% and to a serious loss of conditions. I commend the Mandate trade union. I salute the workers up the road in Baggot Street and in all the other branches who bravely stood up for their rights, and this House should do the same.
I thank Deputy Broughan for observing the time.
As the Minister of State will be aware, there are negotiations going on at present between union representatives and Tesco management. Hopefully, a more sensible approach will be taken by Tesco, and not the confrontational one which was previously taken which triggered almost two weeks of protests by workers.
The support shown by the public who, in significant numbers, did not pass the pickets and supported the workers over the strike is heartening and commendable. The resolve of the workers who I met at Clearwater, Finglas, and Drumcondra is one to be applauded, as is the support given by the public and the business community.
The Government has failed to stand up for workers' rights and has allowed a profitable company, Tesco, attempt to bully workers and tear up hard-fought agreements and contracts. This inaction by the Government is only facilitating a race to the bottom and attempts by Sinn Féin and others to improve workers' rights have been thwarted by the Government and Fianna Fáil.
Go raibh maith agat, a Theachta.
For example, Industrial Relations (Right to Access) (Amendment) Bill 2016 was opposed by both of them last week in the Dáil.
It is important that this debate is happening today and that Members of the House from all parties have an opportunity to state clearly that what Tesco is doing is wrong. There are no two ways about that. It is utterly unacceptable for a multi-billion euro profitable company to be behaving in this aggressive and provocative manner.
None of us in any walk of life would stand for our contract of employment being torn up. That is exactly what Tesco is proposing to do with a very small number of its employees - 250 pre-1996 staff. It is simply not acceptable and it is important that Members come out and state that clearly. The public has made its views clearly known on this. Tesco needs to take note of what is being said here today and of what has been said. The company's profits have been affected to the tune of 80% as a result of the industrial action. This is not the progressive modern way forward for big companies. The company should listen to what the public is saying and reach an agreement through the normal channels.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate today. It is wrong what some of my colleagues are saying. They are trying to misrepresent what the legislation last week would have delivered. The fact of the matter is that 12,500 of the 14,500 workers at the Tesco store are members of Mandate trade union.
The cuts imposed by management on a very small percentage of the workers is regrettable, considering that when these workers were changing over in 1996 from their previous employment to Tesco, they were guaranteed that their contracts would not change.
I was proud to stand with the workers at the store in Longford. What amazed me was, even though it was a single digit percentage of the workers who were affected at the store, 100% of the workers came out, supported and stood with their colleagues in solidarity. The Government needs to address this issue going forward.
It is the first time I have seen a dispute where all people wanted was to keep their jobs. They were not looking for anything extra - any extra money or extra terms or conditions. They were merely looking to keep doing the same job they have been doing for 30 years. Many have dedicated a life service to the company.
It is also highly regrettable the approach taken by the employer, in terms of propaganda, table-top literature in canteens, posters on corridors and turning staff member against staff member, with what was misleading information. Some of the figures for redundancy packages available being circulated were way out of kilter with what was on the table. It is regrettable that such an approach was taken by the employer in such a divisive way.
On the terms and conditions, it is extremely concerning that the company sought to do it without the industrial relations machinery of the State being involved. It is important to set a precedent that no such action be taken again by Tesco or any other employment.
There is a small number of employees engaged in what is termed Project Black. Project Purple, I believe, is the next wave, which will increase it to 30,000 workers, if the particular logjam is removed at this stage.
Go raibh maith agat.
It is regrettable that some parties in the House use this as an opportunity to table opportunistic legislation to try to exploit this situation which benefits nobody.
I hope that this dispute is resolved for the staff who have worked in Tesco for over 31 years. These are the staff who have carried out all their duties, as requested by the Tesco management, whether or not it was part of their contract. These are the staff who have worked shifts, at request, late at night and bank holidays, and all at short notice.
We then had Tesco management coming out and saying that the staff were inflexible. How untrue is that when we know the flexibility the staff have shown and their commitment to the company for the past 30 years?
The issues relate to staff employed pre-1996. Those staff are losing possibly up to €200 a week which is not fair. They went on strike to protect their job and their conditions. It is very important that the staff are supported and that the management of Tesco take heed of that, engage with the staff and work out an amenable outcome for the staff.
The national significance of this dispute cannot be ignored. Contracts for Tesco workers or for any workers cannot be changed unilaterally. That is contrary to established industrial relations practice of ensuring full consultation and agreement before changes are made to contracts. Every Member of this House must stand in solidarity with these workers who have been loyal employees for over 20 years. Particularly striking is the fact that 70% of the Tesco workforce is female. As Fianna Fáil spokesperson on equality, I find it outrageous that hard-working women such as those are being treated in such a deeply unjust and unfair manner.
I stand in solidarity also with those in Newbridge and in nearby Naas who have voted to go out and support these workers who have been with the company for over 20 years. I have seen letters they have received from the company and I am appalled by some of the language used, and indeed in notices that were put on notice boards in Tesco this morning. My party wants to see fair pay for decent workers for a job well done.
Tesco is one of the most profitable retailers in the Republic of Ireland. It employs 14,500 staff nationwide in 139 stores. It generated €1.2 billion of sales for the first six months of 2016. It is completely unacceptable for Tesco management to change the existing employment contracts of staff unilaterally without their agreement.
There are just under 300 workers on the pre-1996 contracts. They will see their wages drop by 15%. Seventy per cent of the Tesco workforce is female and, by and large, they are not particularly well paid. I visited the workers picketing outside Artane Castle last week. Those workers on pre-1996 contracts were joined by their colleagues who feared they would be targeted next if this protest failed. It was a freezing cold day and it was very regrettable that they were forced to take this action.
The attitude of Tesco management is very worrying in Ireland of 2017. This dispute has national implications in that established industrial relations practices must be adhered to and defended.
I also question the need for full page advertisements in the national press. Tesco management would have been much better off giving that money to charity.
In concluding the contributions, it is notable that the House is united on this issue. The workers who are being directly affected are the foundation of Tesco's business in Ireland. As Deputy Broughan said, they are the people who worked in Quinnsworth, the company that Tesco swooped in and bought many years ago. The attempts by management to divide the pre-1996 and post-1996 workers failed, and it is a fantastic endorsement of the solidarity of the entire workforce in Tesco that it did fail.
We must send a message to Tesco by using the existing industrial relations machinery that this is not acceptable to any company. The Minister of State should send a similar message to the management of Bus Éireann, the management of Hastings Garage and to any management planning on assaulting the terms and conditions of loyal employees, many of them in middle age. The notion that only a few workers are affected by this is true but many more left Tesco under severe pressure over the course of the past 12 months because they were given no option but to leave. Effectively, they were managed out the door at a difficult stage in their lives. I welcome the fact this House is united in sending a strong message to Tesco that this will not do in Ireland in 2017.
I thank all the Deputies for observing the one minute rule.
I want to put on the record of the House that I have no direct role in the resolution of this dispute or similar disputes. However, I do ensure that the Labour Court and the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, are equipped and resourced to handle industrial relations disputes that arise. I believe they continue to serve the country very well. They have settled many difficult disputes in the past, as Members of the House are aware.
As the House is well aware, this dispute at Tesco relates to proposed changes to pre-1996 employee contracts for around 230 of the 14,500 staff employed at Tesco. In situations such as this one, I would always advise and encourage parties to use the offices of the WRC and the Labour Court. We can all welcome the fact that the parties have continued to do so on this occasion.
There was an extensive process of engagement and negotiation which culminated in August 2016 in the WRC making its own proposals for resolution of the issues at the request of the parties. Those proposals were accepted by Tesco but rejected by the union side as they were not acceptable to their members.
The matter was then referred to the Labour Court. In November, the Labour Court recommended that the parties should engage in a locally based process over a period of eight weeks in an attempt to allow settlement at local store level. The court recommended that the process should be guided generally by the content of the WRC proposals. If that did not succeed, the Labour Court recommended that the WRC proposals should then be accepted as the means of national resolution of the issues. Tesco accepted the Labour Court recommendation. The union side rejected the Labour Court recommendation and did not engage in this local process.
After balloting its members, Mandate served strike notice on Tesco and industrial action commenced on Tuesday, 14 February at eight stores. Union ballots for action continued up to Friday last, 24 February. It is reported that Mandate had balloted members in 45 stores, with 22 voting in favour and 23 voting against strike action. Tesco indicated at the time that all of its 148 stores would continue to remain open despite the industrial action going ahead.
The Labour Court, having previously issued its recommendation, which included a number of processes that still have not occurred, initiated contact last week with IBEC and ICTU and invited those parties to a general discussion relating to the dispute.
Last Friday, 24 February, the parties voluntarily agreed to take part in talks under the auspices of the Labour Court and they should be given time to resolve this dispute with the help of the industrial relations institutions of the State. I hope the Deputies can join me in encouraging all sides to make every effort to reach a resolution, by agreement, between the company management and the workers represented by their trade union.
As I said earlier, it must be remembered that this is a difficult industrial relations dispute; the company has not changed anyone’s contract unilaterally. The parties in this dispute are availing of the services of the State. They both jointly agreed to engage with the Labour Court last Friday. Mandate has suspended industrial action and the company has agreed to make no changes to contracts pending the outcome of talks. That is a positive sign from both sides and this move by the parties should be respected.
Our industrial relations institutions have been heavily involved in this dispute and relevant officials are continuing their involvement to assist the parties to resolve the dispute. All sides must now be encouraged to make every effort to reach a resolution by agreement between the company management and the workers represented by their trade unions. Both sides should now be given the time to resolve this dispute with the help of the Labour Court. That is extremely important as they are now talking even as we are debating the issue in the Dáil.
There will be another round of supplementary questions. Deputies have one minute each. I call Deputy Mick Barry.
Tesco gambled that workers would go out on strike but that the public would not support them. They must have been shocked to find that in the stores that were being picketed, the turnover was down by up to 80%. Even in some of the stores that did not have pickets, turnover was down by as much as 30%. They underestimated the ordinary people in this country and the spirit of solidarity.
The Government may be about to take a gamble. I refer to another group of workers who have no option but to fight, the bus workers. The Tesco workers were respected throughout the land. Bus Éireann workers are no less respected. If the Minister takes a gamble on the bus workers not getting public support, like Tesco, the reality will be that they will get support. The Government would underestimate that at its peril.
I do not understand what is so wrong with holding parties to account for the way they voted on legislation that is entirely relevant to this particular issue.
There are reports today about the committee on water charges and some speculation that we may see refunds to those who have paid and the end of water charges.
This is a sign people power works and we will wait and see. This is another example of people power working. Earlier, I spoke about the imbalance between the company and the unions, but this can be redressed through people power. I commend the unions and the people who respected the strike and joined them in solidarity on the pickets.
The note references there have been no unilateral changes to conditions or contracts. This was certainly anticipated, which is wrong. There should be no unilateral changes to contracts at Bus Éireann, Iarnród Éireann or any of these companies and nor should there be any unilateral changes to terms and conditions there.
The contagion of people power and workers' power is spreading in a very positive way. We saw this with the Tesco workers able to face down this bullying highly profitable multinational, which called the workers' bluff and have come off the worst and I am very glad of that. As Deputy Barry said, the Government should take on board this lesson for what is coming down the line with the Bus Éireann, because just like with Tesco we are getting a false picture of what is happening. Bus Éireann is effectively trying to rip up the terms and conditions of bus workers and the Government is trying to slash public service routes to benefit private for-profit bus companies, giving them more subsidies for the free travel pass than Bus Éireann receives and slashing public service subsidies year after year, so the Government should take a lesson from the Tesco workers.
As I pointed out earlier, the people supported the Tesco workers in the same way they supported the Clerys workers, Dublin Bus workers and now the Bus Éireann workers. We need to stop the race to the bottom in the area of employment contracts. The one positive step the Government can make generally for workers is to implement the recommendations of the Duffy-Cahill report. It does not require a commission or a working group because the work is already done. The heavy lifting was done by the previous Government. If the Government wants to do one thing to help vulnerable workers, then please stop letting the Duffy-Cahill report gather dust and implement its recommendations. Nobody wins in a race to the bottom but the biggest losers are the workers and their families. One of our aims should be to become the best small country in the world in which to work, but we still have a long way to go. I welcome the fact talks are under way and I hope for a speedy resolution.
In recent years, Ireland has become a leader in the developed world for low paid work. The survey on income and living conditions, SILC, report backs this up, finding 105,000 people in Ireland are the working poor, who are in employment but unable to escape poverty. The Minister of State is standing over this. Things must change. It is no accident that Tesco at this point in time decided to tear up legally binding contracts. It is obvious it was all part of its Project Black and its plan to go after post-1996 and other workers. We must introduce legislation that is robust enough to be able to protect these workers with proper collective bargaining and access to the workplace, as contained in the Bill before the House last week. When I stood with the workers on the picket line I knew they had balloted for industrial action in hotels and pubs because their union did not have the right to access them in the workplace. This is the key issue we must examine. I do not expect this Government to do this, but I hope that future Governments will do so and introduce laws that really protect workers and stop the race to the bottom.
In his final reply, will the Minister of State address what exactly is he and his colleagues in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, which looks after labour law, going to do in the next short period of time? To my mind, the lack of legislation from the Department since it took over stewardship of this area is very concerning. There are people in the workplace who are hugely vulnerable because they are in precarious employment. There is a race to the bottom, which is what we all say if we are speaking about Tesco workers and Bus Éireann workers and the move to agency staff. Running down people's standard of employment and their rates of pay is a huge concern, which all political parties, including that of the Minister of State, share. What will the Minister of State and the Department do with regard to offering legislation to try to address this, because we do not see anything coming from the Department?
The areas with many low paid and casual workers including the retail sector. What steps, if any, has the Department, or other Departments involved, taken to insist on minimum standards and minimum conditions? During the tenure of the previous Government, we had a controversy about sectoral standards and agreements and it still seems very confusing. People speak about a race to the bottom. There is no question that cheaper food prices with the entry into the market of companies such as Lidl and Aldi have had a huge impact on the retail sector. We need urgent action. Very misleading information was placed on the Department of Social Protection's website on the entitlement of workers to the family income supplement. It is extraordinary that people who are working in this sector must rely on social welfare payments. It was a very bad mistake by the Department and the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar.
It was notable in listening to the Minister of State's contribution this evening that at no point did he condemn Tesco's actions, even though everybody else in the House is of this view as is the public. It would have been welcome if the Minister of State had condemned Tesco's attempt to welch on its contract with its employees. It is regrettable the Minister of State did not do so because we have a climate that is now very much established in this country whereby there is a relentless attempt by some of the bigger employers to drive down pay and conditions. While there has been a growth in employment we know there has also been a growth in the amount of social support required for workers because pay levels are so low in this country. We need to be very clear. The public has a very strong view that what Tesco did was wrong. Members of the House are stating this and it would be really helpful if the Government was prepared to state its position on this type of predatory action because we need to make it very clear it is not acceptable in modern Ireland.
What we have seen in recent years is a race to the bottom. Workers' rights have been and are being eroded. It is no wonder many people voted for Brexit because of the lack of workers' rights in Britain. The European Union was supposed to be a guarantor of workers' rights but it has not proved to be the great guarantor. People have had enough and they are standing up, whether Bus Éireann workers, nurses or teachers. Tesco misjudged this and it misjudged the resolve of the workers to go out and strike, make their mark and fight this multinational. I do not accept the position of the Minister of State of non-interference and that he is standing by the Labour Court and the Workplace Relations Commission. Surely the Government has an opinion on what companies do, and it should stand up for people and should state what the company is doing is wrong and that it should not be driving down wages and tearing up contracts. There is an onus on the Government or anyone to state this.
It was remarkable that Tesco had to back down. The reason it had to do so was because of the genuine public support for the rights of the workers. The Irish people acknowledge that every worker is entitled to a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. What a multinational multi-million euro company was trying to inflict on its workers was morally wrong. Collectively, we have to stand up in the Dáil and state this and we are doing so. We need the right balance between the rights of workers and the rights of employers to generate and create jobs, but what was going on here was wrong and the Government should state it was wrong.
I reiterate the points I made earlier. There has been a campaign of misinformation about the workers. There is much information in the public domain and in the workplace which is wrong and misleading and very unfair to the workers. In many cases, these workers have given a lifetime of service to the company. As has been stated, in many cases they date back to the old Quinnsworth.
They have spent their life working for the company, which now treats them in this way. Project black involves 700 workers but project purple involves 30,000 workers. The Minister has stated that the Government cannot get involved because it respects the industrial relations workplace machinery but, in the context of the Bus Éireann dispute, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, is like a broken record. He keeps saying he cannot and will not get involved but what is the point if that is the approach?
There is no doubt but that the way Tesco management has treated 300 staff is inappropriate and wrong. These workers are from all over Ireland and many are from my constituency and have come to my clinics to discuss the dispute in recent months. It is unfair for a company like Tesco, which takes in such incredible profits per annum, to go after a small number of staff for €100 per week. These are the staff who built up the company and have been completely flexible with it, despite the misinformation given by the company that they have been inflexible.
What is happening is fundamentally wrong. We have to support the staff and their families, who have been isolated, given a hard time and treated unfairly. It is time they were treated appropriately and that Tesco backs away.
No business, small or big, can operate without a good working relationship with staff. I spoke about the Workplace Relations Bill last week and I believe the Minister and Government have to wake up and get involved in stopping big business from crushing workers and not supporting them. I acknowledge the charity boxes Tesco has in their stores and I also acknowledge the wonderful walk organised by the manager in Clonmel recently for a sick child. The staff and people who shop there contribute towards these things but we have to have the correct balance. There once was Quinnsworth but I understand Tesco does not even bank its money in Ireland so it has to treat workers with respect. The Competition Authority needs to do something but many other agencies are useless. These practices are creeping into the equine industry too, where there is a race to the bottom and wages are being driven down without proper supports for staff. Small businesses such as shopkeepers have to and do obey the rules and work well with their staff. They must be supported and we must put some manners on giants such as Tesco.
We are talking about 250 people in a workforce of 14,500. I applaud all the Tesco workforce who voted in support of their companions who work alongside them and are fighting to hold onto their current terms and conditions. Everybody sees the unfairness of what Tesco is trying to do. The power of protest has been demonstrated by the drop of 80% in sales in the picketed Tesco stores in the course of the 11-day dispute, while the drop has been more than 30% in others.
The balance between workers' rights and employers is important and it is good that the strike is not happening while talks are ongoing. We need to plead with Tesco to show fairness to the workers whom they are subjecting to this mistreatment.
It is clear to everybody that Tesco management has behaved in an unjust and unfair manner and I congratulate the workers and their unions for taking a stand, not just for themselves but for the future staff of this company and similar companies in the retail sector. The dispute needs to be resolved once and for all and I welcome the fact that some talks took place last Friday. I understand that IBEC and ICTU will now engage in intensive discussions through the Labour Court. This action has huge public support, something I witnessed in Artane Castle last week when shoppers refused to pass the picket and motorists honked their horns. This level of public support was underestimated by Tesco management and no amount of spinning, in the form of full-page advertisements in the national press, can change the reality of the dispute from the perspective of the public. The Government can no longer remain neutral.
Over the past number of years there have been a number of incidents, Clerys being one, and now there is Tesco. There are issues with Bus Éireann, Hastings Garage and elsewhere where workers and their rights are being trampled on and they are being treated as a commodity, even though they are the foundation of every business. Deputy Brendan Ryan asked a number of questions and called on the Government to proceed with the Duffy-Cahill report. The report was commissioned in light of what happened at Clerys and the Dáil said "Never again" but the report which might stop it from happening again has not been acted on. The Government needs to work on that urgently.
We also need movement on zero hours and the Labour Court process needs to send out a message that workers are important. They are people and not some sort of commodity. The biggest catastrophe to happen to Tesco in recent years happened because of the activities of management in the UK, not because of the workers in Ireland who work night and day to support their families and the company. We should stand up for them because, by standing up for them, we stand up for every worker in this Republic.
I thank all speakers for debating this in a calm atmosphere. Last Friday the parties voluntarily agreed to take part in talks under the auspices of the Labour Court and they should be given the time to resolve the dispute with the help of the industrial relations institutions of the State.
As I said earlier, it must be remembered that this is a difficult industrial relations dispute. The company has not changed anyone's contract unilaterally. All sides have been attempting to resolve the differences over an extended period and have used the industrial relations machinery throughout. There is nothing to be gained by vilifying either the company or the union and such approaches are unhelpful. The parties to this dispute are availing of the mechanisms of the State and they both jointly agreed to engage with the Labour Court last Friday. Mandate has suspended industrial action and the company has agreed to make no changes to contracts pending the outcome of talks. This is a positive sign from both sides and this move by the parties should be respected by all Deputies.
Our industrial relations institutions have been heavily involved in this dispute. Where employer and employee representatives come together and enter into voluntary agreements to resolve differences it creates buy-in from both sides and is a win-win situation.
Deputies Collins and Calleary talked about legislation and work is progressing in the developing of a policy response to zero-hour and low-hour contracts. The Department is currently engaged with the ICTU and IBEC to secure broad agreement to the proposals that have been finalised. The work is being progressed as quickly as possible and is nearing conclusion. We expect proposals to be brought to Government in the first quarter of 2017. Work is also ongoing in respect of the Duffy-Cahill hours.
I call on Members to join me in encouraging all sides to make every effort to reach a resolution by agreement between the company management and the workers, represented by their trade unions, with the help of the State's industrial relations machinery.
Tell Tesco that it cannot tear up contracts.