Protection of Employees (Collective Redundancies) Bill 2017: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to provide for protections for employees in collective redundancy situations in which the employer is insolvent and to provide for related matters.

As the Taoiseach is aware, I have proposed five Bills to enhance the rights of workers in the State. I have moved two of those on Second Stage during Private Members' time but both of them were rejected by the Taoiseach and his party. At some point in the future, I hope to move that this Bill be read a Second Time during Private Members' time and, for the sake of workers, I hope that it will be third time lucky and that the Taoiseach will support it.

We have lots of tea and sympathy for workers when they find themselves in difficult circumstances. On 12 June 2015, the 130-strong workforce of Clerys was sacked without notice and another 330 workers employed by the store's concession outlets were locked out of their jobs and left facing an equally uncertain future. At the time, those workers received an awful lot of tea and sympathy from the Taoiseach's side of the House and from the Taoiseach himself, but what they need is legislative solutions. We need to ensure that the type of tactical insolvency that we saw in Clerys does not happen again, which is what this Bill seeks to do. Clerys was bought by Natrium some time between midnight and 1.15 a.m. on that day and was declared insolvent that afternoon. The workers did not receive the statutory redundancy lump sum from the new owners and nor were they paid moneys owed in lieu of redundancy and holiday pay. In fact, many of them found out through social media that their jobs had been lost rather than hearing it from the company. The State was obliged to pay those debts under the insolvency payment scheme. A company that made tens of millions of euro was away on its toes and the workers and the State were left high and dry.

The problem, of course, was that none of this was illegal, but we can introduce legislation to prevent a similar situation happening again. It is our responsibility in this House to do just that and it is the Taoiseach's responsibility to ensure that there are sufficient protections in place to ensure that workers are not left high and dry. The Clerys workers were effectively locked out and the manner in which they were treated was appalling and unacceptable, which the Taoiseach has acknowledged. These people have families and dependants as well as mortgages, loans and bills to pay like everyone else. The Taoiseach is aware that we have been here before with Waterford Crystal, TalkTalk, La Senza, Lagan Brick and Vita Cortex. In many cases, workers have been frustrated, locked out of their jobs and denied their basic rights and redundancy entitlements. Public outrage ensued and the leaders of all the main parties in government and in opposition as well as Independents condemned the closures and stated that something needed to be done.

What has happened since? What legislation has the Government proposed in this area? The answer is "None". The then Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation commissioned a report into the closing of Clerys.

The report was written by Ms Nessa Cahill, BL, and Mr. Kevin Duffy, chairman of the Labour Court, who presented their findings on 26 April 2016. I have drafted a Bill to give legislative support to the main recommendations in the Cahill-Duffy report. It would provide protection for employees in collective redundancy cases where the employer is insolvent, give power to the High Court to return assets which have been improperly transferred and give preferential status to employees. It would also require a 30-day consultation period in cases where it is known that a company's liabilities are such that they will trigger redundancies.

The mandate given to Ms Cahill and Mr. Duffy was to focus on ways of ensuring that limited liability and corporate restructuring are not used to avoid a company's obligations to its employees. The phrase "a company's obligations to its employees" was used frequently in the report and it is these on which the Oireachtas must focus.

As I stated, this is the fifth Bill I have introduced in the area of workers' rights. I hope it will be supported by the Government. I note the Taoiseach offered support to the Clerys workers in the past and I hope he does not want a repeat of that case. We cannot have companies engaging in what are known as tactical insolvencies, whereby they break a company up into different components, sell off the parts that are profitable, walk away with the money and leave the operational parts intact and the State and workers having to shoulder all the liabilities. This is no way for workers to be treated or for companies to operate. If companies are allowed to operate in this fashion, some will do so and it is our job to address the issue.

I hope that on the third occasion that I move a Bill to enhance workers' rights, the Taoiseach and his party will see fit to support it.

Is the Bill opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.