That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to permit access to the Workplace Relations Commission and Labour Court to members of the Defence Forces and their representative associations; to amend the definition of "worker" in the Industrial Relations Act 1990; to remove restrictions on representative associations associating with trade unions or members of the Defence Forces having trade union membership; and for these and other purposes to amend the Industrial Relations Act 1990 and the Defence (Amendment) Act 1990; and to provide for related matters.
This Bill was inspired by the success of the Garda Representative Association and the AGSI in winning the case brought on their behalf to the European Committee of Social Rights. There, despite opposition from the Government, after two years of a battle, the right of the Garda organisations to enjoy more of the bargaining rights enjoyed by trade unions, short of the right to strike, were upheld. The Government has indicated its acceptance of the Garda ruling and that legislation to give effect to it is due.
However, in the aftermath of that ruling, I immediately submitted an oral parliamentary question asking whether similar rights would be bestowed on the armed forces and their organisation, PDFORRA, or would they be forced also to take their fight to the European Committee of Social Rights in the teeth of Government opposition. Unfortunately, that is the case. It is emblematic of the fact that of all public sector workers, the armed forces stand out as the most abused and exploited.
Further questions I have posed highlight, for example, that many armed forces personnel are prevented from taking their full annual leave entitlements. In 2015 alone, the denial of annual leave added up to €30 million in wage equivalent. There have been court rulings on disputes relating to conditions of work in favour of members of the Defence Forces that have not been acted on. They suffer unique discrimination in terms of pension entitlements. We saw the inaction over the hazardous working conditions in the Air Corps paint shop. The hours can be horrendous. Let me read out a posting from the Facebook page of Wives and Partners of the Defence Forces, which is a new campaign group which has organised a number of protest actions to highlight the situation. Troops were drafted in as part of the search for the body parts of the late Ms Patricia O'Connor in the Wicklow mountains last week, and this is what the post stated:
We left at 4.30am this morning to go to the Wicklow mountains to assist in the search. At 6pm we were given 25 sandwiches and cold soup to be shared between 35 troops. No other food throughout the day. We won't get home until 9pm this evening and have to go back out at the same time tomorrow morning to resume the search. Not only do we not get extra pay for this but the Defence Forces won't even feed us properly which is degrading and insulting.
We have no illusions about the Workplace Relations Commission and the various statutory industrial relations bodies but from the point of view of giving PDFORRA a proper platform to air in the public gaze the issues relating to pay and working conditions, the Workplace Relations Commission would be a significant step up from having to deal with the senior management in the Department of Defence. Our Bill provides for this but, furthermore, provides for allowing individual members of the Defence Forces to pursue grievances and disputes to the Rights Commissioner or the Equality Tribunal, if there is a discrimination dimension to the grievance.
Frankly, the fact that armed forces personnel tend to be more working class in their composition than, say, the gardaí is in large measure a reason for the official contempt in which they are held. A number of parties, including Fianna Fáil, have indicated a willingness to extend the rights enshrined in this Bill to the armed forces and I see no reason this Bill should not progress to Committee Stage. If it reaches Committee Stage, it is our intention at that Stage to introduce an amendment extending the right to strike and to have that debate.