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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 17 Dec 2020

Vol. 1002 No. 7

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Employment Rights

Louise O'Reilly


90. Deputy Louise O'Reilly asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if his attention has been drawn to the fact that provisional liquidators have been appointed to a group (details supplied); and if he will engage with the workers and their trade union to ensure that, regardless of what happens, the company will honour the workers' collective agreement. [44124/20]

Before the hostilities break out, as they inevitably will, I want to take this opportunity to wish the Minister, the Ministers of State and their families and the staff in the Department a very happy Christmas and a safe and - fingers crossed - healthy new year. I know how hard everybody has been working and I am sure they are all, like myself and all of us on this side of the House, very much looking forward to a bit of a break.

My question is reasonably simple. It relates to the appointment of liquidators to the Arcadia Group, which includes shops and brands such as Topshop, Wallis and Topman. As the Minister knows, I am looking for him to engage with the workers and their trade union to ensure the collective agreements of these workers, regardless of what happens. I will not describe the collective agreements as "enjoyed" by these workers because I do not believe anyone will enjoy what is about to happen. As the Minister knows, these people are at work now and extremely busy. However, their jobs are hanging in the balance.

Joint provisional liquidators have been appointed by the High Court to four Irish operating companies that are part of the UK fashion group Arcadia. As the matter is before the courts and not a matter for Government, it is sub judice and I am limited in what I can say.

I extend my sympathies to the workers who are in danger of losing their jobs. I fully appreciate how difficult the situation is for those involved, especially at this time of the year.

It is important to say that a provisional liquidator does not take steps to wind up a company but rather preserves and secures the company's assets pending appointment of an official liquidator. Therefore, the employees of Arcadia remain as employees and continue to have employment rights and contractual rights, which they can exercise.

I understand that it is hoped to secure the sale of the Irish operations as part of an overall sale of the group and that the Irish stores will continue to trade through Christmas to maximise the value of stock.

The Government hopes a suitable and sustainable buyer can be found, and that any potential job losses can be avoided or mitigated.

Section 12 of the Protection of Employment Act 1977 makes it mandatory on employers to notify the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment of a proposed collective redundancy. To date, we have received no such notification in regard to Arcadia.

Redundancy is a matter for the employer in the first instance but the State will guarantee the employment rights and entitlements of the workers in Arcadia; it should be borne in mind that a collective agreement such as the one the Deputy mentioned is contingent on the employer's ability to pay.

The Companies Act 2014 provides safeguards to ensure that a liquidation complies with the law. In the event of the appointment of an official liquidator, workers also have rights as creditors under company law and they can execute these through the courts. They, or their representatives, can go to court on any question arising in the winding up of a company. The Government will work in a co-ordinated way to assist anyone who loses his or her job. A wide range of measures including welfare entitlements, job search assistance and upskilling opportunities can be made available. We will be happy to engage with the trade union representing the workers in Arcadia.

I thank the Tánaiste for his response. There are 491 jobs in the balance at the moment. That is 491 people with families, bills to pay, etc. I appreciate what the Tánaiste is saying regarding the appointment of the provisional liquidator. However, these people are in work today. They are looking at their collective agreement. They are looking at what happened to the workers in Debenhams. They are wondering if their collective agreement is worth the paper it is written on. For the avoidance of any doubt, a collective agreement is always about give and take. These workers have already given in terms of what they will get back and now they are looking at their jobs hanging in the balance. I welcome the fact that the Tánaiste will meet them. I will inform their trade union so that those arrangements can be made. I understand a good many of these workers work in the Blanchardstown centre and would be constituents of the Tánaiste. I am sure they will be in touch with me. Will he join me in sending solidarity and support to those workers? They are working now over the Christmas period. It is extremely busy and they do not know if their jobs will be safe and secure. I would like to hear from the Tánaiste what he can do to be proactive. I fully respect that some matters are before the court but in terms of being proactive, what can he do to secure the almost 500 jobs for those workers?

The Deputy is absolutely right. Many of these workers live in my constituency and have been in contact with me already. There are 500 of them across the country. The first objective will be to save as many jobs as we possibly can save. The second will be to ensure that their rights and entitlements are guaranteed but with support and solidarity must come honesty. That means saying that, as people would understand, legal rights and entitlements are set out in law. A collective agreement is contingent on the ability of the employer to pay. I have often said previously that I believe the Debenhams workers were very badly treated by their employer, in the way they were laid off in particular, but they were also badly treated by some people who took up their cause. I do not mean their trade union. I mean political forces that led them to believe that there is a big pot of money somewhere here in Ireland or in the UK to which they can get access. We know now from the independent report of the chairman of the Labour Court, which came out this week, that that was not the case. Some months ago there was a deal on the table - two weeks redundancy per year of service, an extra €1 million and some of the stores, and the jobs, being saved - and that opportunity was lost. That is a real shame. I hope that when the Arcadia workers see some of those people riding over the hill coming to help them that they run them because they did not help them. The best thing they can do is to take the advice of their trade union leadership, and the Government will do everything we can to help them.

I do not want to get into a slagging match about that but I am someone with a fair amount of industrial relations experience. I am not in the habit or in the practice of interfering in industrial disputes but I see a very clear role for the Government in this regard. I have spoken at length with representatives from Mandate. It is not good enough for the Tánaiste to simply say that he hopes an alternative buyer is found and that the jobs will be saved. We are talking about 500 jobs. He has a responsibility, as the Minister with responsibility for jobs, to intervene in this case. As he said, the first steps have to be to save the jobs. In that regard, is there anything the Tánaiste can do? I am trying to be positive. I am not in the business or the practice of giving workers false hope. I did not do that when I was a union organiser. I do not do it now as a TD. The Tánaiste appears to be a bit passive on this issue. He stands back, shrugs his shoulders and says that the nature of retail is changing. People are being driven to shop online because they do not have money in their back pocket. That is a fact. These jobs are important and I wanted to hear from the Tánaiste what he is prepared to do, in his role as Minster with responsibility for jobs, to save these jobs and to ensure these workers have a secure future.

What the workers will get is what they deserve, which is solidarity, support and total honesty. They may not get that from others. We will do the best we can to secure as many of the 500 jobs as possible and keep as many of the stores open as possible. We will engage with the union and, to the extent that we can, with the liquidator on that. As a Government we will ensure that the legal entitlements and rights of the workers are honoured but we will be honest in saying that they have the same set of rights as every other worker. There cannot be special or extra rights for some workers over others. All we can honour is what is set out in the law.

Retail is changing. People who have money in their pocket are now spending it online. For the first time in Ireland, more money is spent online than physically. The pandemic has accelerated a change that was happening anyway. That means we will need fewer people working in the shop in retail but we will need more in other areas such as distribution, for example, and warehousing. That is why we are willing to provide training and educational opportunities to ensure people can retrain for new jobs because there will be jobs in other sectors.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Louise O'Reilly


91. Deputy Louise O'Reilly asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if his attention has been drawn to the Organisation of Working Time (Amendment) (Carryover of Annual Leave) (Covid-19) Bill 2020 which was introduced on 26 November 2020, which seeks to allow workers to carry over untaken annual leave which they could not take due to the impact of Covid-19; if his attention has been drawn to the fact that similar legislation has been passed for workers in the UK and Northern Ireland; and if he will support similar legislation here. [44125/20]

Again, this is a fairly straightforward question. It is to ask if the Tánaiste is aware of the Organisation of Working Time (Amendment) (Carryover of Annual Leave) (Covid-19) Bill 2020 introduced in November. It seeks to allow workers carry over untaken annual leave and to give them a legal right to be able to do that. This is leave accrued as a result of Covid-19. I am aware that in some instances leave can be cashed in and they can take the money but after the year those on the front line in particular have had, I believe this capacity to carry over their annual leave and take it at a time when we can be freer would be very beneficial.

I want to once again express the gratitude of the House to all of the front-line and essential workers who continued to provide services throughout the pandemic.

The Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 sets out an employee’s entitlement to annual leave and the terms and conditions around the taking of that leave. Under section 20 of the Act, the times at which annual leave is taken is ultimately determined by the employer. This is subject to the leave being granted within the leave year to which it relates or, with the consent of the employee, within the six months after the end of that leave year. The Act also allows for further flexibilities to be agreed at sectoral, or company level, when it suits both employees and employers.

If an employer does not allow an employee to take his or her annual leave and does not allow them to carry it into the first six months of the following year, then that employer is breaking the law.

An employee’s entitlement to annual leave was introduced as a health and safety measure as part of the European working time directive, which was transposed into Irish law. While there have been fewer opportunities for travel and recreation activities this year, it is still very important that employees avail of annual leave to take a break, avoid burnout and maintain an appropriate work-life balance, even if that means that they cannot travel abroad or out of their county. This is even more true for staff who have been engaged in work related to the pandemic and have been through an extremely stressful and challenging year.

To date, my Department has not received any representations that would suggest that the carryover of annual leave is a particularly pressing issue at this time. I have sought the views of union and business representative on this matter, via the Labour Employer Economic Forum and their responses to date do not suggest that this is a significant problem but we will keep it under review.

With regard to emergency workers, I have received assurances from both the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the HSE that public sector and front-line workers are being encouraged to take their annual leave throughout the pandemic so that they can get a rest and are not being asked not to take their annual leave.

If an employee believes they have been denied their right to take annual leave they may refer a complaint to the Workplace Relations Commission.

They may indeed refer a complaint to the Workplace Relations Commission but they need a rest now and as the Tánaiste knows, it can take months, if not years, to get those complaints resolved. The purpose of the legislation is to reflect these extraordinary times we are in and while I respect the conversations he has had with employers and others with regard to them saying it is not a significant problem at this time, my understanding is that it is a problem and one that can be fixed.

Many people may not be in a position to take their leave and want to carry it over. As the Minister and members of the Government have said, we are not out of the woods yet. This could go on for many months, and indeed past the first six months of 2021. We should give people the entitlement to have the benefit of that rest and to carry that leave forward, not just into 2021 but into 2022. The intention of this legislation is to reflect the extraordinary nature of the times that we are in. It does not just refer to front-line medical and other workers but to those workers who we now all regard as essential, who may not have been regarded as essential previously, such as supply chain workers and people in meat processing factories, and who kept us fed and supplied throughout the pandemic. I think giving them the legal right to carry forward their annual leave is important.

We will keep this under review and if we find cases of people who are being refused their annual leave, we will take legislative action if we need to. It is important to say that people can carry over their annual leave for six months into the next year and that we are encouraging people to take their annual leave, because people need a break and to rest. Even if they cannot travel abroad or outside of their county, they should still take that leave, break and rest. People in the public service are being encouraged to do that and I am told by the authorities that they are not being refused annual leave. We do not want people choosing to bank their annual leave and then taking two or three months in a block next year or the year after, because it could undermine the delivery of public services if large numbers of people chose not to take their leave this year and took a significant amount of leave next year.

There is no suggestion that public services would be undermined. People have an entitlement to take their annual leave. If the Tánaiste reads the legislation, it provides for cases where leave cannot be taken, not cases where workers are banking their leave. I note that the Minister's first port of call is to blame the workers themselves for not taking their annual leave or to suggest somehow that they are trying to game the system. They have an entitlement to benefit. Rest and recreation are extremely important. Notwithstanding the fact that they cannot go outside of their county or go abroad, people need to have a rest from work, but where that cannot be taken or they cannot avail of that rest, it is only fair that they be given the legal right. We have the Organisation of Working Time Act because we cannot just rely on the goodwill of employers. Legal entitlements have to be laid down for workers to ensure that they can get the benefit of their annual leave. In that regard, it is important that those workers would have the capacity to carry it forward, not just for the first six months but for the entirety of 2021 and into 2022, in a scenario where they cannot take their annual leave. It is not that they are, as the Minister has suggested, trying to game the system or bank their annual leave so that they can have three months off in a block and crash public services.

That is a misrepresentation of what I said. If there are examples of people who cannot take their leave, where they are being refused leave by their employer, whether it is a public service employer or private sector employer, we want to know about it, because an employer in those circumstances is breaking the law. People are entitled to their annual leave and can carry it forward for at least six months into the second year. That is already the law. If people want to take their leave and are being refused that leave, that is a serious matter and we want to know about it. It can be adjudicated at the Workplace Relations Commission, and if it requires strengthening the law, I am open to doing that. So far, from the representations coming to us from our engagement with unions and employers, we are not seeing a significant number of cases where people want to take their leave and are being refused it.

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

Catherine Murphy


92. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he will introduce an enterprise and trade support scheme similar to and-or the equivalent of the Covid-19 restrictions support scheme for businesses that are not subject to business rates and-or conduct trading activities from a business premises located in a region subject to restrictions in view of the fact that the Covid pandemic unemployment payment and the employment wage subsidy scheme are not particularly appropriate to certain business models within the tourism and live entertainment sectors. [43719/20]

Will the Tánaiste consider the introduction of a trade support scheme equivalent to the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, for businesses that are not subject to commercial rates and do not operate from a business premises, in view of the fact that the pandemic unemployment payment and wage subsidy scheme are not especially appropriate to certain business models in the tourism and live entertainment sectors?

The Covid-19 restrictions support scheme was introduced to provide targeted compensation to those businesses adversely affected by the imposition of public health restrictions. It has advantages over the restart and restart plus grants as the amounts payable under the scheme can be varied depending on the length of time that restrictions are in place. The level of payment also reflects the turnover of the affected businesses under normal trading conditions. At present, businesses without a fixed premises cannot avail of the CRSS. For such firms, their fixed costs will likely be lower as a proportion of their total expenses than businesses with fixed premises. However, these business can avail of the employment wage subsidy scheme to help to meet payroll costs and other interventions such as warehousing of tax liabilities and VAT reduction.

In the recent budget, the Government allocated significant additional resources to Departments to provide help to different sectors. Nearly €400 million was provided to the Department of Transport and €222 million was provided to the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. These additional moneys will go towards supporting businesses, including those not in receipt of the CRSS, such as the €30 million scheme for private bus operators, a €55 million scheme for strategic tourism businesses, and a €50 million scheme for the live entertainment sector. There have also been special packages for taxi drivers and wet pubs. These are in addition to financial assistance provided by Enterprise Ireland, InterTradeIreland and local enterprise offices. I recognise the issues raised by the Deputy and I have received representations on it. My officials are working with the Department of Finance to identify the type and number of businesses that fall outside the scope of the CRSS and are not covered by other sectoral schemes, and to report back to me with proposals on how we could amend CRSS or develop a new scheme for those companies that have fallen between stools.

It is welcome that it is under consideration. Fáilte Ireland has a €10 million fund called the Ireland-based inbound agents business continuity scheme but it is complex. The information that is required is substantial and not accessible to many small businesses. The entertainment and tourism sector will be terribly important for our recovery. We need to make sure that they are able to pick up, to a degree, where they left off, so that they can recover quickly. Online travel agents, production companies, event planners and associated businesses are all excluded from this grant. The running costs do not cease. I understand that there is a cost of a business premises but, for example, a small tour bus operator will have insurance costs and probably leases on buses, depreciation costs, insurance costs and so on. Tour companies that earned a commission had to return it because people could not go ahead with their holidays. There is a significant disadvantage for this sector.

It is important to bear in mind that any and all firms can qualify for the employment wage subsidy scheme. That is designed to help with the cost of the payroll and keeping staff on. The CRSS is designed to help with fixed, non-employment-related costs of keeping a company going. Those non-payroll costs tend to relate to the cost of running a premises. I mentioned sectoral schemes for taxi drivers, wet pubs and private bus operators. There is €50 million for strategic tourism businesses and €50 million for the live events sector. Those will be rolled out in January. I appreciate that even with those across-the-board and sectoral schemes, there will be a number of orphan companies that might be able to avail of the wage subsidy scheme but cannot avail of any other schemes. That is the kind of work that we are now doing with the Department of Finance, with a plan to have proposals in January to have either a modification of CRSS or a new scheme for those companies, recognising the fact that they fall between those stools.

I am not sure if the Tánaiste is aware of domestic destination management companies, which link golf courses, hotels and taxis. They do all the booking. Essentially, they do not have to operate from a business premises. They are key to the reason people will come here on holidays because all of their requirements are pre-booked. Somebody does that. This is the type of company that is falling through this crack. There is no question of them being able to avail of, for example, the €480 per month that some companies can get and they cannot operate because of the necessary restrictions that have been imposed in relation to the pandemic. This is an example of the type of company I am speaking about.

A company like that qualifies for the employment wage subsidy scheme and so it would receive money towards its payroll costs. The question in regard to a company like that is what its non-payroll costs are. In other words, what are the fixed costs not related to payroll that it has to cover? That is the kind of issue we are trying to explore at the moment. Without a premises, a business's fixed costs should be relatively low. Even still, a company like that might be able to quality for the new strategic tourism business scheme. There is €55 million available under that scheme, which will be launched soon by the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin. Again, I appreciate the fundamental point the Deputy is making, which is correct, namely, there are going to be companies that fall between schemes and we will need to design a scheme to do something for them. That is what we intend to do.

Corporate Governance

Louise O'Reilly


93. Deputy Louise O'Reilly asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he will report on the interactions he has had with the Director of Corporate Enforcement regarding the Companies (Corporate Enforcement Authority) Bill 2018. [44126/20]

Question No. 93 is in the name of Deputy O'Reilly and Deputy Quinlivan has been nominated.

The Companies (Corporate Enforcement Authority) Bill 2018 is important legislation. We met a couple of months ago and we discussed it briefly. If it is delivered, it could have a real impact on the issue of so-called white collar crime, or more aptly, economic crime. I look forward to the Bill coming before the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment in the new year. A fully functioning and fit-for-purpose Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, ODCE, will play a key role as the Bill seeks to establish a corporate authority on a commission structure. Can the Tánaiste advise of the interaction he has had with that office in relation to this legislation?

As the ODCE falls under my delegated functions, I will take the question. I understand the Tánaiste is due to meet the Director of Corporate Enforcement in the new year. However, I met him shortly after my appointment and we had a constructive engagement primarily around the establishment of the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement.

The Companies (Corporate Enforcement Authority) Bill 2018 is my legislative priority for this session. The legislation has been in development since the Government adopted a package of measures to enhance Ireland's corporate, economic and regulatory framework in October 2017. The package included the action to establish the ODCE as an independent company law compliance and enforcement agency.

The general scheme of the Companies (Corporate Enforcement Authority) Bill 2018 was published on 4 December 2018. My Department worked with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel on the drafting of the Bill and the director was consulted on the draft legislation on an ongoing basis. Pre-legislative scrutiny on the general scheme of the Bill had not concluded at the time of the dissolution of the last Dáil and is under way again. I understand the director recently provided a submission on the legislation to the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, at its request. I also understand it is the committee's intention to invite the Tánaiste to appear before it on 20 January next.

I thank the Minister of State for the reply and his comments. I am delighted he has met the director of the ODCE. I am pleased that it was a constructive meeting. I take this opportunity to advise the Minister of State that I have invited the Tánaiste and the director to attend the first possible meeting of the joint committee in January. I hope that will happen. We want to meet the director first and we will then meet the Tánaiste, as Minister, in the next available opportunity, hopefully in January. Those invitations went out today.

The Hamilton review has welcomed the effort to enhance the autonomy of the ODCE and has made a number of recommendations regarding enhanced powers, enhancement of the Ethics Act and, in particular, amendments to the criminal justice legislation with respect to search warrants. In his discussions with the ODCE, did the Minister of State express concerns regarding the recommendations of the report? Crucially, the creation of a stand-alone authority will allow greater ability to hire staff and expertise rather than being dependent on the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment for such recruitment matters. Has a decision been made with regard to the level of funding that the autonomous authority will receive?

The policy approach underpinning the general scheme is the establishment of a statutory agency that is appropriately resourced, is accountable and has a clear mandate. It is clear that white-collar crime is a menace on society and has huge consequences for the economy. It is important that we have a fit-for-purpose authority established as quickly as possible. It is regrettable that during the course of the last Dáil the committee, of which I was a member for a number of months, could not, for reasons known to it, undertake pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. In January, the committee will have an opportunity to meet the director, the Tánaiste and me to finalise the general scheme of the Bill, to undertake pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill and to plough on and ensure this legislation is enacted without any further delay. It is important legislation. I welcome Deputy Quinlivan's commitment to it and I look forward to working with him, the Tánaiste and the committee to ensure the Bill is enacted without any further delay.

I would like to put on the record my thanks for the work done by the former Chairman of the committee, Deputy Butler, now Minister of State at the Department of Health, to try to progress this Bill. There were a number of legal and other reasons that did not happen. Hopefully, it will happen next year.

We are in broad agreement on the need for structural change to the ODCE. We all agree on the need to tackle white-collar crime. White-collar economic crime is something citizens have been more exposed to during the Covid-19 pandemic. Since March of this year trade and commerce has been, in the main, conducted via electronic means. I am concerned that if we establish the authority and give it the necessary statutory power, but we fail to enhance support to the related Garda divisions and other agencies or authorities involved in tackling economic crime, the impact of this change could be negligible. The establishment of the authority is an important part of the work in tackling white-collar crime but it is not the only part. We need a suite of measures, some of which are alluded to in the Hamilton report. I hope that the Tánaiste, the Minister of State and other relevant Ministers will seek to expedite the recommendations contained in the Hamilton report.

We are on the same page on this matter. We can work together to progress the legislation in a timely fashion. The Deputy is correct that the establishment of this authority on its own will not be the panacea to white-collar crime and that this is a matter that crosses many Departments. The Deputy referenced the Hamilton report launched by the Department of Justice earlier this year and the aspirations contained therein. It is important that we take the first step, which is the establishment of the authority. It is long overdue. That does not mean the reforms will stop there. We will continue to build on that, evolve and ensure our legislative responses are fit for purpose. I have no doubt we will do that.

The Deputy asked about funding. The funding for the ODCE in 2021 is over €6 million, which is a 20% increase on the allocation for 2018. This is an acknowledgement of the fact that in establishing the authority it must be adequately resourced so it can be fit for purpose.