Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Workplace Safety

Louise O'Reilly

Question:

27. Deputy Louise O'Reilly asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if his attention has been drawn to the fact that many content moderators for social media platforms are being subject to serious psychological damage and injury due to being exposed to explicit content during the course of their work; and if his Department will engage with workers and social media platforms to address this situation as the practice is causing post-traumatic stress disorder, amongst other psychological damage, to many workers exposed to such explicit content. [34902/20]

My question is a straightforward one. It relates to people working as content moderators for social media platforms. I want to ask if the Ministers are aware of this new form of work and the fact that the people engaged in it are subject to serious psychological damage and injury due to being exposed to explicit content during the course of their everyday work, and if the Tánaiste will engage with those workers, and, indeed, with their employers, to address this situation because in some instances, as we now know, this is causing post-traumatic stress disorder, among other psychological damage, to many of those workers exposed to this type of content.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important question.

Content moderators working for social media platforms play an important role in preventing the wider distribution of explicit content on these platforms.

Social media content moderators should be treated by an employer in the same way as any other worker exposed to a potential harm. The employer must ensure that the employee has been provided with the appropriate training before taking on the role. The employer must also ensure that procedures are in place to identify workplace risks, with supports in place to avoid employees being affected by a workplace psycho-social hazard or stressor.

In the first instance, every employer is legally obliged to carry out a risk assessment with a particular focus on work that may be hazardous to the worker and prepare a safety statement. A written safety statement should set out how an employer will protect the safety and health of all employees and include an assessment of the risks involved. Proper risk assessment along with mitigation measures, is the foundation for all workplace health and safety.

The Health and Safety Authority, HSA, has an extensive range of advisory and guidance material available to all employers to assist them in putting in place measures to identify and manage specific psycho-social hazards. Promoting positive mental health within the workplace is good for the employees, but it is also a factor in improving overall business performance.

Any content moderator working for a social media platform, with a concern for his or her health and safety arising from the manner in which his or her work is organised, should contact the HSA in confidence. On foot of the Deputy's question, I made inquiries with the authority and I am informed that it has not received any queries relating to content.

In addition, An Garda Síochána investigates the posting and circulation on social media platforms of certain acts and images of an explicit nature, which if found to be unlawful, can lead to prosecution. My colleague, the Minister of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, is responsible for media policy, including online safety legislation, and is currently advancing a regulatory framework that will deal with online safety.

To expand a little on the kind of work that these people are engaged in, they are responsible for assessing user-generated content submitted to these online platforms. They have to look at videos and other content that users of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms upload to see if it complies with the standards. I am not talking about the funny videos with headings such as, "I did not go to work because a cat fell on my head and then a dog with shoes tried to do me justice." I am talking about videos of very serious extreme violence, sexual abuse or child abuse, and videos of people being beheaded. These people are subject to absolute trauma day in, day out and it is having a significant impact on their health.

I ask that this new form of work would be recognised as such. I do not think that the Tánaiste intends to be unfair to them, but it is not fair to say they can go to the HSA or, indeed, to the Garda. This is a workplace issue. It is one that perhaps legislation and legislators need to catch up with because it is very much a new form of work and a new type of occupation.

I am familiar with the work. It must be very difficult work to do to have to sit for hours on end watching explicit, violent or deeply offensive content. Some of it can be done by artificial intelligence but we know that that is not good enough. That is why one needs a human being to do much of that work. Somebody needs to do it. If they do not do that job the content gets online and perhaps is seen by children or others, and perhaps incites violence, terrorism or any of those things to which the Deputy referred. It is very important work, therefore, that people agree to do.

It is absolutely essential that their employer, whether it is their direct employer or indirectly through an agency or third party, looks out for their mental health and well-being. I am certainly open to any suggestions or proposals that anyone may have to make sure that that is the case.

Facebook is the largest of these platforms, and the one where most of the violence, and, indeed, disturbing content, is shared. The content moderators in Dublin have been outsourced. This is despite the fact that their work is essential. It is deemed essential by Facebook. It has to carry on and as the Tánaiste stated, artificial intelligence will only do so much. It will not do the job of these people.

Facebook has outsourced its responsibility in some respects. According to an article in The Sunday Business Post, a worker said that he could not even tell his family what he was doing. There is a huge amount of secrecy around this and a huge amount of what I would consider skating up to the very edge of what is acceptable industrial relations practices.

The workers and many of their representatives believe Facebook is aware that the jobs that it is asking these people to do are causing them this level of psychological damage up to and including post-traumatic stress disorder and that is why the company has outsourced it. There is a job here for us, not only to talk about it but to engage with those workers because this is a new form of work. This is not the type of work that was done when I was younger or, indeed, when the Minister was younger. This is very new. We need to inform ourselves. I ask that the Tánaiste makes time to meet these workers or their representatives to hear at first hand what they are going through.

I certainly would be happy to do that. As I say, it must be extraordinarily difficult work to do but it is work that somebody has to do to protect the rest of us. It is important that those staff who agree to do that job have their well-being protected.

I meet representatives of Facebook and other digital platforms maybe once a year. I will certainly make it part of the agenda or if there is a union representative for those workers, I would be happy to arrange for a meeting for them as well.

Job Losses

Denis Naughten

Question:

28. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment further to Parliamentary Question No. 61 of 15 October 2020, the steps he is taking to replace the job losses in Ballinasloe, County Galway; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35059/20]

Last August, Aptar announced the closure of its operation in Ballinasloe with the loss of 115 jobs. To put it in perspective, this is the equivalent of 1,380 jobs going overnight in the city of Galway. There has not been the same level of focus on the town of Ballinasloe as there would be with a similar scale of job losses in Galway city and we need a proactive approach to be taken by Government led by the Tánaiste.

I thank the Deputy for his interest in this issue. He raised it with me previously, as have Deputy Fitzmaurice and Senators Dolan and Murphy.

I was disappointed to learn of the decision by Aptar to close its facility in Ballinasloe. My primary concern, as I said previously, is for the workers and families who have been impacted by this decision in losing their jobs at a very difficult time. The Government is doing what it can to help them transition and find new employment opportunities.

Now that the decision has been taken to close the facility, IDA Ireland is working closely with the company to market the plant to potential investors. IDA Ireland has introduced a number of companies that are interested in the Ballinasloe facility to the Aptar management team and has arranged visits to the site. These discussions are ongoing. In the meantime, IDA Ireland continues to market the site to both IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland clients.

IDA Ireland is in regular contact with the company and I understand it spoke with management on Friday last, 6 November, to discuss the wind-down of the facility. I am told that 19 staff remain employed at the site and that at least 60 former staff have found similar employment in the region. The IDA Ireland regional team has connected employees of Aptar with the local Intreo office as well as the local enterprise office, LEO, regional skills forum west, and the Galway and Roscommon Education and Training Board, ETB.

While the announcement of job losses at Aptar is very disappointing, I assure the Deputy that the Government and its agencies are working to create employment opportunities in the west and across all of our regions.

Just this week, I was happy to announce the creation of 200 new highly skilled jobs in Galway, which will be created by an IDA Ireland client company, Diligent.  However, I note the Deputy is keen to attract new investment to Ballinasloe in particular. While the period ahead may prove challenging, securing new foreign direct investment for our regions is a priority for the Government.

I thank the Tánaiste for his reply. It is positive that 60 of the staff have found employment but the difficulty is that they are finding it not in Ballinasloe but elsewhere. I would like the Tánaiste to chair a meeting of all of the State agencies, along with the two local authorities in counties Galway and Roscommon, to implement a co-ordinated strategy specifically for the town of Ballinasloe. Previously, when there were significant job losses in various locations, the Tánaiste's predecessors did that on the ground in the affected community. I accept that is not physically possible because of Covid-19 but I ask that he bring all of the players around the table remotely to look at the opportunities available to Ballinasloe. The town has significant resources and infrastructure that are not available in other towns but it always seems to be one decision short of securing critical investment.

It is important to note that 21,000 people are now employed in IDA Ireland supported firms in the entirety of County Galway. That is a substantial increase on 2010 when there were only just over 11,000 people so employed. The increase in the figure, from just over 11,000 people in 2010 to 21,000 people now, is huge. I appreciate that the vast majority of that employment is probably in Galway city and the area around it, rather than in the east or west of the county. In the past, it was customary to establish task forces when there were major job losses. We have now moved to a different approach, which is having a regional enterprise plan steering committee for the west region. I intend to meet the steering committee in the coming weeks and we will definitely ensure Ballinasloe is on the agenda.

I accept that the steering committees have been set up but there is a steering committee in the mid-west. When Molex Ireland closed in Shannon, the then Minister, Deputy Humphreys, went to Shannon and brought all of the players around the table. I am asking the Tánaiste to do the same because the one thing that Ballinasloe has going for it is the infrastructure. It has industrial land available and in State ownership, through the HSE, at St. Brigid's Hospital. It has water, waste water and fibre capacity. It is 15 minutes away from the new technological university in Athlone. There are major opportunities to secure foreign direct investment into a campus which is 15 minutes from the dead centre of this country. Ballinasloe is close to Athlone, a town with serious infrastructural challenges, yet it seems we cannot secure investment in Ballinasloe. The Tánaiste needs to take a leadership role on this to ensure we secure major investment.

As the Deputy says, Ballinasloe is very well located and has access to a lot of the key infrastructure that is needed. It is a good site. I had intended to do something like that at the time but we ran into other difficulties around Covid, as the Deputy mentioned. I am happy to commit to pulling together the agencies and having a particular focus on Ballinasloe over the next couple of weeks. That was in the work plan anyway but I appreciate the reminder and I will follow up on it. I do not know if it will produce any results but it is definitely worth a try. We are determined to ensure we find a replacement employer and secure a significant investment in Ballinasloe as soon as possible, if not in the next couple of years.

Employment Rights

Louise O'Reilly

Question:

29. Deputy Louise O'Reilly asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if legislation will be brought forward to ensure workers have a legal right to remote working following on from the publication of guidance for working remotely by his Department. [34903/20]

This is another fairly straightforward question. It follows on from the publication of the guidance for working remotely. Will the Tánaiste consider bringing forward legislation to ensure workers have a legal right to remote working? At the very start of the pandemic, I got a phone call from a constituent who told me that on the day the restrictions were announced, five laptops were brought into her workplace for the senior managers. The managers went home and the workers were left in the workplace. That case was resolved but it should not happen like that. A person should have a legal right to work from home or remotely, where it is appropriate.

Under the current level 5 of the plan for living with Covid, people are asked to stay at home. If people can work from home, they should do so. They should only enter their workplace if they are providing an essential service for which their physical presence is required. While we all look forward to the day when we are free to return to our workplaces, the Government wants remote working to become part of the new normal. This is reflected in the programme for Government, which contains commitments aimed at facilitating remote work across Ireland. In July, my Department launched a consultation on remote working.  We are using the insights garnered from this to refine the current remote working guidance and we will publish a remote working strategy before the end of the year. However, we must seek to strike a balance as the closure of so many workplaces has had a real impact on footfall in our towns and cities. We need to recognise that, depending on the job or role, remote working arrangements may not be ideal for all employers or employees.

A right to request remote working exists in several countries, including the United Kingdom, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Finland.  While the exact mechanics of the schemes vary, the basic concept is that a person who meets the legal definition of "employee" has the right to request remote working arrangements.  The employer is not obliged to grant the request but is required to give it fair consideration and provide a reasonable explanation if they choose to reject it. Certain eligibility requirements may also be provided for, such as a minimum length of service or limit on the frequency of such requests.

Currently, there is nothing in legislation that prevents an employee requesting the right to work remotely but I still think legislation is needed.  I intend to initiate a discussion on the concept of a right to request remote working with the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, and employer bodies at the next meeting of the LEEF sub-group on employment, which I chair. I will be interested to hear their views on what we can do to further facilitate remote working in a way that works for businesses and staff.

Maybe I misunderstood the Tánaiste. He said he wanted to initiate a conversation on the right to request remote working but we all have that right at the moment, although probably not in this job, admittedly. However, in most other jobs, bar those where the employee's physical presence is required, people can request it. The boss can just say "No", however. Studies show that productivity has gone up but we also know that some employers are either nervous or unwilling to progress remote working. I have previously said to the Tánaiste that remote working needs to be recognised as a specific form of new work, just like shift work. Shift work is recognised with shift patterns and premiums for working outside of normal hours. Remote work is a separate form of work. I think the Tánaiste said he was worried at the beginning of the pandemic that people would not take to remote working. They have really taken to it. I take the Tánaiste's point about the need for people to be out and about and the impact remote working will have. I believe the vast majority of people will opt for a blended option where they will be in town sometimes. We should also be having a conversation about hubs in our towns and villages to ensure people can work from home but also be in their town and out and about spending money. That would be good all around.

It is true that anyone can request of his or her employer the option of working at home but it is not a legal right in the sense that I mean it. At the moment, people can request term time or flexible hours, which is kind of what I have in mind in setting out a legal framework whereby people could request remote working of their employer and the employer would have to consider it properly and give reasons. Presumably the employee would then be able to take the matter further if he or she were not happy with the response. That is the kind of right we are talking and thinking about. From the research we have done on people who are in jobs where there is remote working, roughly 10% to 15% are dying to get back to the office. That may be for all sorts of reasons. It could be related to personality or because the person is living in a crowded apartment. About 15% are keen to stay at home and work from home all the time. A good 70% want blended working and that is the way of the future. I would like to create a legal framework around it so that employees have some legal basis and legal backing when they request remote working. That does not mean we can force employers to do it. Nobody is looking for that but we need a framework which gives employees some backing if they make such a request.

I ask the Tánaiste to start by doing a very simple thing. We very rarely hear senior politicians or NPHET requesting employers to allow their employees to work from home.

We hear a lot that employees should all work from home where possible but there should also be an onus on employers to provide this facility. We could spend all evening getting into why people's homes or apartments are overcrowded but the Tánaiste is correct that plenty of people cannot work from home. This is where some good work could be done with regard to hubs that would be based in villages and towns. In my area in Balbriggan, a place he knows well, there is a place on the main street and it would be fantastic to have a facility and have people in the town spending money on their lunch break. This can work as an idea for blended working. I welcome the fact that he is committed to doing this and we in Sinn Féin will commit to working with him to ensure this is done speedily. We need to place a little bit more emphasis on the obligations of the employer to provide this. This cannot just be a one-way street in giving people the right to ask. There has to be some sort of persuasive element for an employer.

On the enterprise hubs, hot desks, digital hubs or whatever people wish to call them, we have a budget for this in the Department and also in the Department of Rural and Community Development. When I was able to get around, I saw a number of them up and running in various parts of the country, including flagship hubs such as Ludgate in Skibbereen. There is also a very good one in Edgeworthstown, County Longford, in an old bank that had closed and become a symbol of the town's decline. It was then transformed into an enterprise hub where people can work. As the Deputy said, it means people being able to work not necessarily at home but in their local town or village, having lunch on the main street and bringing huge benefits to the town or village. We really want to see more of this. It is very much part of what we are now funding in the budget and it will be a feature of the national economic plan when it is ready.

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

Michael Fitzmaurice

Question:

30. Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if grant aid will be provided to livestock marts to update equipment and assist with online costs; and, if so, if the grant scheme will be changed in order that marts with a turnover of €5 million will be eligible to access funding in view of the fact that profit is minimal. [34560/20]

The start-up grant earlier this year was welcome but businesses with a turnover of more than €5 million could not apply. I realise that when the Tánaiste took over the portfolio he increased it to €25 million. If marts sold 100 cattle a week they would go over the €5 million mark. When they reopened, some of them were not aware that it had increased to €25 million and that they could apply for funding after they reopened. Some of these marts have put in a fair amount of online infrastructure. Will the Minister re-examine this?

I thank the Deputy for his recent submission to me on this matter. He highlighted some clear challenges that have emerged relating to the imposition of level 5 Covid–19 restrictions, including the prohibition on buyers from accessing sales rings at livestock marts.

My colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, and his Department continue to work closely with stakeholders to protect agrifood supply chains, despite the stricter controls in place. Nevertheless, the core responsibility of Government is to protect lives and public health while also supporting the broader requirements of the economy and society. Regretfully, we are in level 5 Covid-19 restrictions and it is not possible to make exemptions for any section of the economy affected by them. This position was reiterated by the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, during Question Time last week and by the Taoiseach.

Regarding the operation of online marts, I understand that Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine officials have been in contact with system providers and have been assured all necessary steps are being taken to avoid a repeat of the recent broadband connectivity issues experienced. They are monitoring the situation closely to ensure the smooth operation of future sales.

I understand the value of adequate broadband throughout the country and it is vital to the future of work and flexible and remote working. Work on the national broadband plan continues as quickly as possible. The Deputy raised the issue of broadband with me last week on Leaders' Questions, and a specific issue regarding stand-offs in relation to poles. I mentioned this to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, but the Deputy may wish to raise it with him directly.

There is no specific programme available to grant aid livestock marts to update equipment but I am happy to discuss any proposal the Deputy may have. I understand that marts have availed of the restart grant plus scheme, for which the turnover cap was €25 million, increased from €5 million in the previous scheme, as he acknowledged.

I welcome the Tánaiste's reply. The reason I am speaking to the Department is that as well as being agricultural marts employ people and they are enterprises. They are very important, particularly in rural areas. Given the outlay many of them had this year, all I ask is that the Tánaiste re-examines providing an incentive or some type of funding that they may be able to access through the Department.

I thank the Deputy. Certainly I am happy to examine any proposal in this regard. It is probably more something for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine than for my Department but I am always open to suggestion. It can be difficult to have a scheme that is for a particular business or enterprise and then not face requests to do the same for other businesses. I am certainly happy to hear more from the Deputy about this.

I acknowledge the Tánaiste has spoken about the submission that has been made and, in fairness to the officials, they spoke to me about this. In the coming weeks there should be an opportunity to show NPHET and the various Departments the flaws or problems in places. We need to concentrate on this to allow a certain number of farmers being able to safely work within a mart. It is our job to prove this to the people to whom we need to prove it but I ask the Tánaiste to be open minded when we look for it again.

I thank the Deputy. I am very sympathetic to the cases being made to allow marts to reopen with restrictions. I recall that during the first phase of the pandemic, we did exactly that at a certain point and it worked reasonably well. I know that buying and selling livestock online is not the same. It is the same as buying anything online, but in particular looking at a live animal online is not just the same. I have heard of situations where farmers have been trying to join the mart online and have suffered from bad broadband or even cases where farmers have got together around a laptop and were probably closer to each other than they would have been had they been at the mart. We also need to be practical about these things. At the same time, one thing the Government is very clear about is that if we start to unravel the restrictions now, they will unravel and we really want to get another few weeks at level 5 to reduce the numbers to a very low level before we consider easing any restrictions. Like all businesses, marts can avail of the employment wage subsidy scheme to help pay staff, low-cost loans and the new Covid restrictions support scheme weekly grant that can be received when they are closed.