Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Workplace Relations Commission

Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, inspectors do a fantastic job. They are an absolutely vital part of the industrial relations machinery. I am sure the Minister of State will not disagree with me that in an ideal world we would not need labour inspectors. However, we do not live in an ideal world, so we do need them. They perform a vital function.

Just by way of illustration of what they do and how important they are, in the period 2015 to 2020, WRC inspectors found breaches in employment law in 48%, almost half, of inspections carried out in the meat industry.

The reason this is so important is that in some sectors, there are workers who may not know what their rights are, who may not speak English as their first language, who may be afraid of their employer or who may have an employer who does not follow the regulations, though most employers do. Most employers are decent and want to do the right thing and most employers are reasonable to their employees. However, in 48% of inspections the Workplace Relations Commission's inspectors found that there were breaches of employment law.

In that period, they also recovered €184,000 on behalf of these workers. These are not high earners. It is not a big, high-earning sector. This sector is marked by low wages and precarious work and €184,000 was recovered by the inspectors on behalf of these workers. In 92 inspections in the horse racing and equine sector, 340 contraventions were found. That happened over a two-year period as part of a special project the inspectors undertook. It is not just about the money the inspectors recover but the fact that when they go to a workplace they are in a position to inform those workers about their rights. We could debate all day about why workers need more rights at work, because they absolutely do, but these workers can get information on even the minimum entitlements they have from the WRC inspectors.

I remind the Minister of State that as far back as 2006 I was involved in the negotiations for the Towards 2016 national wage agreement, as part of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. It was agreed at that stage that there was a need to increase the number of labour inspectors from 31 to 90. We are nowhere near that figure now. We have more people at work and some would argue there are more unscrupulous employers acting at the moment, which underlines the very real need for these inspectors. For the workers whose workplaces they inspect and for whom they find breaches and rectify them, they are worth their weight in gold. It beggars belief that we have to have this conversation.

I know the Minister of State values the work of the WRC inspectors and that he will tell me so when he has a chance to speak. We all value them but we need more of them. Even with the reduced and limited numbers they have at the moment, they were still able to find breaches of employment law in 48% of inspections in one sector. To me, that means we need more of them because if we had more we could do more for those workers, uncover more and make their workplaces not just decent places to work but safer places to work as well. That has to be considered because it is a very important factor.

I thank Deputy O'Reilly and thank the Minister of State for being here to deal with this important matter.

The Ceann Comhairle will be glad to hear that I am in agreement with the Deputy on this issue. We have found some common ground and we both recognise the great and important work these inspectors, and the WRC in general, are doing. They are there to make sure employees are secure in their employment and that their conditions are being met satisfactorily. That is why we value the work of the WRC and its inspectors. We are absolutely committed to increasing their numbers.

To give some context, the WRC is an independent statutory body under the aegis of my Department, which was established on 1 October 2015 under the Workplace Relations Act 2015. The WRC’s core services include: the inspection of employment rights compliance; the provision of information; adjudicating on complaints under employment protection, equality and industrial relations legislation; and the provision of mediation, conciliation, facilitation and advisory services. This is all very important work, which Deputy O'Reilly has just gone through as well.

The WRC’s inspectors are appointed by the director general with the consent of the Minister, and they exercise such powers as are conferred upon them by the Workplace Relations Act 2015. Inspectors visit places of employment and carry out investigations on behalf of the WRC in order to ensure compliance with equality and employment related legislation. These inspections arise in response to complaints of alleged non-compliance with relevant employment rights legislation, as part of compliance campaigns which focus on specific sectors or specific pieces of legislation, or from routine inspections, announced and unannounced, which act as an overall control measure. Often their work is targeted at certain key areas, which is why one might see high findings in certain sectors.

The WRC inspectorate is staffed by civil servants of my Department. WRC inspectors are ranked at executive officer, EO, and higher executive officer, HEO, level. As of 19 March 2021, there are a total of 53 WRC labour inspectors, 48 of whom are at EO level and five at HEO level. My Department is committed to ensuring adequate resourcing is provided to the WRC. For 2021, the WRC has been allocated €12,566,000 in respect of pay and €2,613,000 in respect of non-pay. This is an increase of €1 million since 2019. We have managed to make sure that increase was matched in 2019, 2020 and 2021. As the Deputy said, commitments were made as far back as 2008 and 2009 to increase the funding for WRC inspectors, which were under a different title at that time. That is what we had intended to do and we will continue to work to do that.

The national Return to Work Safely Protocol was published on 9 May 2020 in response to the Covid pandemic. The protocol supported employers and employees in putting measures in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace when restrictions eased. Again, this recognised the work of the inspectors. WRC inspectors carried out on-site inspections in support of the protocol and combined this work with their primary statutory employment related work. In 2020, the inspectorate division of the WRC carried out over 7,000 inspections in many different areas and has recovered €1,700,000 in unpaid wages. That is only one part of their work, the other being conditions and so on. This work continues in 2021.

We will engage with the new chairman of the WRC and with the director general on a regular basis to make sure we can complement the WRC's work and provide the number of people it needs. An appointments process for new inspectors is ongoing at the moment through the Public Appointments Service and in conjunction with the director general. We hope to beef up the numbers because we are committed to doing so. As the Deputy pointed out, it is very important that we do this.

It is all very well to describe who the inspectors are and what they do. By dint of my former employment, I know well who they are and I know very well what they do. There are 53 of them, which is 37 short of the 90 that were recommended back in 2006. At that time, the parties to the agreement, that is, the social partners, the employers, the employers' representatives, the workers' representatives and the Government, agreed that 90 was the figure that was needed. We are at 53 now. We have more people working and living on the island now and working conditions have arguably deteriorated in line with the reduction in trade union density. Notwithstanding that, there are new phenomena in the workplace such as Deliveroo riders. That type of work was not work when I was younger and was not work even back in 2006 when it was deemed necessary to increase the number of inspectors to 90. When are we going to get to 90? That would only bring us up to the number that was required in 2006. It is now 2021 and I would argue - and I do not think anyone would correct me - that we need more inspectors now than we could possibly have needed back in 2006. There was agreement on this issue in 2006. It was put into the national wage agreement at the time that 90 was the minimum number of inspectors needed. The Minister of State and I agree that they do great work and that they are worth their weight in gold. We also agree that they are a very necessary part of the functioning of the industrial relations machinery of the State, but can we not agree that we need more of them? Can we not agree that the minimum number of inspectors must be what was required in 2006, which was 90?

I am glad to be able to confirm for the Deputy that the recruitment process for inspectors is under way. I am sure she is aware of that. That is why the extra funding was provided, in order that we could reach those numbers. Through the Public Appointments Service, a recruitment campaign is in train in conjunction with the WRC for an increase in the numbers of both EO and HEO inspectors. I was not in the Department at the time but it is my understanding that, after the need was identified in 2006 or 2007, the budget discussion for 2009 was focused on increasing the numbers and allocating extra money.

We all know what happened to the public finances in the years after that and it is only recently that we have restored the public finances to a sound position. We can now rightfully allocate increased resources to the Workplace Relations Commission to carry out its essential work and hire extra inspectors. The process is under way. The chairman of the WRC, David Begg, who was appointed recently, and its director general, Liam Kelly, are very committed to doing this. The Department and I are working with them to increase resources, as they have requested, and match their need. A recruitment campaign is under way and I have no doubt, given the number of applicants and the interviews that are taking place, that we will be able to increase the number of WRC inspectors. We will build on that with next year’s allocation. That is what we are here to do.

Covid-19 Pandemic

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing us raise this matter in the Topical Issue debate. The right to worship is an issue of tremendous sensitivity and importance to tens of thousands of people. We have mixed messages coming from the Cabinet. The Garda press office cannot say which or whether. The Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, informed the House that no priest would be summoned or fined. The opposite has happened. I hope the Government will take a leaf from Scotland's book. This weeks, the Supreme Courts of Scotland stood down a similar measure stating it was a breach of rights under European law. We have always been great Europeans in this country as is our Government. We should observe that decision because if the measure in Scotland breaches the rights of people in Scotland, it also breaches our rights. I appeal to the Cabinet to address this issue, especially for Holy Week and ceremonies. Funerals cannot be restricted to ten people in cases of big families. This limit is causing great difficulties for priests, undertakers and everybody else. This Cabinet will go down in history as the most anti-Christian Cabinet since we got our freedom back, thanks to our gallant leaders in Tipperary and elsewhere who fought for our independence. To think now that people are bring persecuted for going to Mass or attending public worship.

A parish priest contacted me today to say he saw a note on a window indicating that nine people could go into a chipper or takeaway, yet there is nobody inside a church. That is shameful and pitiful. I hope I get a good response.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle. I add my voice to this call. It is fundamentally wrong to deny people in Ireland the right to attend Mass, a service or public worship, depending on their religion. This Government needs to be fair with people and show some compassion. People are finding the pandemic very tough and challenging and this is a very dark time for many. Why not give them the solace of attending their churches with the comfort and support that people get from that? I commend Canon White, the Catholic priest who took the case in Scotland where worship was found to be legal. It appears the State here does not know whether public worship is legal or illegal. That shows us straightaway that it is on shaky ground and very unsure of itself. The Garda press office was unable to confirm whether public worship is a relevant event under the appropriate legislation. We are in a very serious situation. It was wrong to ban public worship and unfair on people and I am asking the Government to show some compassion, particularly as Holy Week approaches.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving us the opportunity to speak on this Topical Issue matter. Next week is one of great importance in the church calendar as it is Holy Week with its associated celebrations. It is upsetting for people to think they cannot go into their churches in a very careful manner. When they were allowed to open, the churches were safe. Large number of volunteers and members of the clergy made serious efforts to ensure people could attend in safe numbers. I guarantee that nobody contracted Covid-19 inside a church. A funny thing about this country is that schools are allowed to open but churches are not. I got a picture last week showing an aeroplane full of people arriving in Ireland and an image of an empty church alongside it.

Only ten people are allowed to attend a funeral. This is totally wrong. We know we are in a pandemic. This is a very difficult time for people, particularly when people pass away. We are one of three countries in the world that has kept church doors closed. It is a shameful act and it is time for the Government to step back and not to be so anti-church at this time. Easter week is a time for people to celebrate with the Lord. I would appreciate if the Government took our concerns and those of the people into account here.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing this Topical Issue debate. Is this Government anti-religion? I am entitled to have my religion, just as everybody else is entitled to their religion. We are entitled to worship. This Government does not know whether it is legal to allow us to worship. We are the only country in Europe in this position. A case was taken in Scotland, yet the legal team in this State could not answer a question today as to whether this is warranted. More than 130 Deputies were in this room today voting on legislation and Bills. There are churches in this country bigger than this facility, yet the Government only allows ten people into them. At funerals, when people are at their most vulnerable as their loved ones are buried, only ten people may be present. That is very difficult. I am from a family of 11. Who would I have to leave at home, God forbid, if something was to happen in our house? I have a family of six myself. The Government must allow people to worship as we always did and no longer be the only European country that does not stand up. Let Ireland stand up. The people of Ireland are now standing up and it is about time the Government answered them.

I thank Deputies Mattie McGrath, Nolan, Michael Collins and O'Donoghue for raising this important matter. This is not the first time I have responded to the Deputies on this particular issue, which we also discussed a number of weeks ago.

As the Deputies are aware, the current public health restrictions at level 5 will remain in place until 5 April 2021, when a further review will be conducted. This decision took account of a variety of factors, including the views of the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, on the current epidemiology of Covid-19 and the need to take decisive action.

The Government remains united in its resolve to tackle the spread of Covid-19. The disease prevention and control strategy we have adopted seeks to prevent the virus spreading among our population to the greatest extent possible. Based on the current epidemiological situation and the public health restrictions that are in place, it will be necessary to celebrate Easter online at home this year. This is for the protection of our friends, families and wider communities.

The basic public health advice and regulatory measures aimed at blocking the transmission of Covid-19 from person to person remain vital. From the beginning of the pandemic, we have emphasised the many simple measures that can be taken to do this. They include keeping our distance, washing our hands, wearing a face covering, where required, and avoiding crowds.

The Covid-19 resilience and recovery plan continues to provide an appropriate mechanism to guide decision-making, and it will continue to be supplemented by more detailed sectoral guidance on measures that apply at each level of the framework. We continue to see good progress but this needs to be sustained.

Speaking on a personal basis, I assure the Deputies that I am extremely conscious of the burdens that have been placed on all members of society as a result of the restrictions that have been imposed. Many people have been unable to live their lives in the way they normally would or participate in the usual rhythms of their communities. As Deputy Nolan said, for many people, being able to go to their local church during the season of Lent, Holy Week and Easter and attend Mass with their family and friends would be a major source of comfort and solace at a very difficult time for our country and, indeed, the world. Unfortunately, as Members now know, the environment within which Covid-19 spreads most easily is indoors where a group of people are gathered. At this moment in time, when we are doing our utmost to break the transmission cycle of the virus, this means we must, regrettably, make every effort to reduce such gatherings.

I acknowledge the work the Catholic Church and other faiths have done to put in place comprehensive guidelines to protect their communities, in compliance with HSE public health advice. I hope we will be able to move back from level 5 in the near future. Consistent with level 5 restrictions, however, religious services have moved online at this time. Places of worship are open for private prayer and I remind Deputy Collins that they are not closed. There are exceptions for funerals, at which ten mourners may be in attendance, and weddings, at which six guests may attend. Importantly, under the current public health regulations, ministers of religion are also permitted to travel to perform a service online, minister to the sick and conduct a funeral or wedding ceremony.

Since March 2020 we have learned to live in a world with this virus. We succeeded in doing this thanks to the collective efforts of all of us to adhere to the guidelines, and we can do so again. I will take on board everything said this evening by the four Deputies and bring it back to the Minister, Deputy Donnelly.

I am shocked and disappointed with the reply that the churches will not be open for Easter. The Minister, Deputy Donnelly, said in the House that penal provisions were not affecting the priests. Fr. Hughes proved otherwise. Is it that we are flouting European law and the judge in Scotland was wrong? He accepted the case and said that European rights in Scotland were being denied. We can do what we like in Europe. Shame, shame, shame on the Government. It is so sad that this could happen in such a way. That was such a response to read out this evening. It is unchristian and uncaring. It is shocking to think that people of all faiths would be denied services at Easter. It is beyond belief. I salute Declan Ganley. The Government lawyers could not answer his case, and they got two weeks to do so. How clever of the judge to put it back for two weeks until after Easter. Imagine in a court case they could not answer questions as to whether it was legal. The Garda Commissioner cannot answer and neither can the press officer. The Minister of State came in this evening and spouted out that diatribe to us. It is shocking.

I am very disappointed. Our 1916 Proclamation refers to religious and civil liberty. Where is this country going? This is a basic human right. I hope we will be proved right as they were in Scotland. People of faith are being denied access to churches and to Mass and services. It is about attending the sacraments. It is not just about people going into a church on their own and praying. We have to remember the churches handled everything very well. Every safety measure was put in place. There was no evidence of any clusters. Why ban public worship? It is very unfair and cruel. It needs to be urgently reviewed because it involves human rights. It is unnecessary to do such a thing and deny people access to Mass and religious services, particularly at a time such as this during a pandemic. We know our churches are huge buildings that are well ventilated. Today in this very hall we have full attendance of Deputies. As was pointed out by my colleague, Deputy O'Donoghue, we have churches that are the size of this venue in terms of square metres but people of faith are being denied and cruelly treated.

I am very disappointed with the response of the Minister of State. This was an opportunity for the Government to show it respected people for the careful manner in which churches were opened. Clergy and volunteers had carried it out but unfortunately the Government has turned its back on them once again. It is incredible to say the least. As I said earlier, and the Minister of State did not address this in her speech, I have no issue with schools being open because it is important that they are but if schools can be reopen and classrooms can be filled why does a church remain closed?

How is it that people can fly into this country and that planes are full? I do not know how many thousands came into Dublin recently. There are planes full of people. The Government has no issue whatsoever with this but it shuts the doors of the churches and will not let people attend Mass or services. The clergy want to go ahead with services and people want to attend services but the Government has refused this. As I said, I have great sympathy for people who have lost loved ones and their heartache. It is hard enough to lose loved ones but to think most of the family have to stay at home or stand outside in the rain while there is a service going on in a church that might take between 500 and 700 people is an outrageous and a completely incorrect decision. It is anti-church.

I would hate to pull the Minister of State on one of her own comments. She said the churches are open online. I have spoken to people from Granagh, Ballingarry, Croom and Patrickswell, and I can keep naming places, who have told me their Internet service breaks down every day because of the failure of the roll-out of broadband. The churches are not open online. They are not there. Last week, a funeral was interrupted four or five times. People were trying to listen to a mass for a loved one but they could not do it. There has been full attendance here today. The distance is 2 m. Work out the square metres and open up our churches and let them be run faithfully as they were. There were no incidents in a church. There are ten in a church for a funeral and six for a wedding. For God's sake, it does not make sense. The Minister of State contradicted herself. The Internet is not there for people in rural areas. The numbers of people who go to Mass in small rural communities are small anyway. There might only be 20 or 25 people.

Yet again, I thank the Deputies for raising this matter this evening. I do not want to stand here and not show empathy or understanding to what the Deputies have raised. I understand absolutely about the Internet. This is what some people in my constituency also experience. In all fairness, the Deputies' points are very well made. It is not that we are turning our back on the church. What has happened is that we have decided to put public health first. This is the most Christian thing we could possibly do. This is what the Government has done. It has put public health first for the betterment of everybody. There is dialogue and the Taoiseach has met the heads of the church and I hope this conversation continues with regard to when we come out of level 5. The Deputies are right that the churches conducted themselves in a really responsible way. This is important and it needs to be acknowledged. They had plenty of support and ushers to ensure distance was kept and to ensure people could be protected as best they could. Unfortunately, we have found ourselves where we are. The Deputies have put forward their case and I will bring it to the Minister, Deputy Donnelly. At this moment in time, the Government has put public health for the entire community throughout the island first.

Covid-19 Pandemic

I very much appreciate this Topical Issue being selected as it is very important. I will preface my comments on the digital green certificate development by saying in no way am I attempting to ignore public health advice. In fact, this measure, as designed by the Commission, is being introduced so that we can deal with it when the Covid vaccination programme reaches a particular point in time. I want to make this absolutely clear to the Minister of State and to my colleagues in the House.

I am sure the Minister of State can appreciate the gravity of the situation when it comes to certain sectors of our society. The most acute and possibly first affected by Covid-19 was the airline sector and then our tourism sector as a result. It is a profoundly important sector in our economy. In 2018 alone, it provided more than 140,000 people with employment and contributed more than €10 billion to the economy in terms of airlines and airports. I am sure it was more in 2019. On and off campus in the Dublin region it provides for more than 200,000 jobs. The importance of the sector and its recovery and ability to recover must be borne in mind.

This evening, the European Parliament committee voted on the digital green certificate, as proposed by the European Commission, with regard to fast-tracking the hearing process and the parliamentary scrutiny process before it goes back to the European Commission for further discussion and debate on the technical merits or demerits of the particular programme. It is being treated as a priority by the European Commission. My request of the Government this evening is that Ireland would carefully assess the proposal, as I would expect the Government to do, and develop its own means of adopting it as quickly as it possibly can so that, as I said here yesterday, when Ireland reaches a point where more than 80% of the population have been vaccinated, as the Government has indicated we will reach at the end of June or early July, we are ready to make a decision as to whether our airlines, pilots, cabin crew and ground crew can return to work. We all want them to do so when it is safe. My request to the Government this evening is to consider carefully the digital green certificate. I also ask it to consider carefully the effect it will have on hundreds of thousands of people and their families to hear that the Government is making a plan that includes them.

It is the same position I adopted yesterday and the same statement I have made on a number of occasions in this House. It is difficult for the Government to justify making a plan only to have to change it a few weeks or even a few days later, and I appreciate that. However, if we are planning for two or three months from now, it is a much easier proposition to make. There is far more understanding in the public sphere and among those pilots, cabin crew, ground crew, chefs, bartenders, waiters and everyone else who relies, to a certain extent, upon the aviation sector. That is why I would like to see the Government take this seriously and to adopt the digital green certificate once it is has gone through parliamentary scrutiny at the European Parliament and has been agreed by the Commission.

Again, I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for being present to take this matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly.

I thank Deputy Alan Farrell for raising this important issue. On 17 March 2021, the European Commission published its proposal for a regulation to introduce a digital green certificate. The aim of the proposal is to facilitate free movement in the EU through a common framework for the issuance, verification and acceptance of certificates relating to vaccination, testing and recovery. Currently, the epidemiological situation in Ireland and across Europe remains very fragile, with case numbers increasing in many EU countries. I acknowledge the Deputy addressed this in his presentation. This is a planning exercise. The Government's focus now is on avoiding unnecessary international travel, keeping the numbers of new infections low, accelerating the vaccination programme and reopening our economy and society when it is safe to do so. We are working hard on encouraging citizens to stay the course with restrictive measures pending the roll-out of vaccination programmes.

I acknowledge the value of international travel in the re-establishment of economic activities that rely highly on transport, such as travel and tourism. I am keen to ensure that every effort should be made to achieve alignment across the EU in preparing for the reopening of travel for non-essential purposes, as soon as it is safe to do so.

The Government has taken proactive actions to mitigate the risk of importing variants of concern into Ireland by introducing a range of measures, including a mandatory passenger locator form, Covid-19 testing and home quarantine requirements for arriving passengers. Mandatory hotel quarantine has been introduced as an additional element of the public health measures to combat Covid-19, in particular to address the dangers posed by variants of concern. The Government is continually giving consideration to travel policy, informed by the epidemiological situation internationally and by public health advice.

This proposal builds on previous technical work carried out in the Health Security Committee and the eHealth Network, both of which the Department of Health has engaged with throughout the pandemic. The Department is engaging constructively in the ongoing technical discussions at EU level, in collaboration with relevant Departments, to ensure we can achieve alignment in regard to a safe return to international travel.

There are issues with the proposed regulation which are being considered at both national and EU level, including scientific and ethical concerns. There are also reservations about the additional obligations this will place on the health sector, which has been under immense pressure for over a year. The current focus is on the development of the core systems that support the roll-out of vaccines, and this will remain a priority. As such, careful consideration is being given to the proposal and its many policy, infrastructural and operational implications across a number of sectors in Ireland and in the EU.

The Government has worked strenuously with its EU colleagues throughout this pandemic to ensure co-ordination and alignment, where possible. We are committed to continuing this positive and effective partnership in considering this proposal further.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. I am encouraged by the positive way in which she and the Department have taken this issue. I completely accept there are certain concerns in regard to the digital green certificate concept and I certainly understand, as the Commission has said, that being vaccinated will not be a precondition for travel. In fact, all EU citizens have a fundamental right to free movement within the EU and this applies regardless of whether they are vaccinated or not. The same principle applies to the rights of non-EU nationals staying or residing in EU member states, who have the right to travel to other EU member states.

The digital green certificate will make it easier to exercise that right through testing and recovery certificates. I completely understand and accept this. Again, I would like to state I am not, by any means, attempting to suggest that we should be returning to the air tomorrow. Of course, we should not do that because it is not safe to do so, and only those who have essential reasons to do so should return to the air. However, in a number of weeks or months, we will be in that position. I believe this certificate is a good way of providing certainty and clarity to users, to pilots and to everybody on board an aeroplane and in airports by giving the certainty that the vast majority of people in Ireland have been vaccinated. There is the high probability, of course, that our fellow Europeans will also be vaccinated as well.

Of course, I should say this sort of certificate is not a first. My colleague in the European Parliament, Colm Markey, MEP, stated this evening that in the 1960s and 1970s, there were smallpox certificates and, prior to that, there were yellow fever certificates, so these are not new developments. However, I am encouraged by what I have heard this evening and I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for her response. As I have said, it is imperative that we are prepared for the return of our hospitality and tourism sectors, and the digital green certificate is an excellent way of achieving that goal.

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to demonstrate that the Department is fully committed to advancing consideration of the proposal. We will continue our engagement on the proposal and we will consider it in the context of the Government's travel policy. We will endeavour to ensure that every effort is made to achieve alignment across the EU, where possible, in preparing for a reopening of travel for non-essential purposes as soon as it is safe to do so.

It is imperative for us that any such framework has a sound scientific and ethical grounding to ensure that the sacrifices made by everyone throughout the pandemic are not undermined. Therefore, we will continue to give careful consideration to the proposal and its impact across a number of sectors in Ireland and the EU. The Government has worked strenuously with its EU colleagues throughout this pandemic to ensure co-ordination and alignment, where possible, and we are committed to continuing the positive and effective partnership in considering this proposal further.

Wage Subsidy Scheme

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this important topic. The group of workers who are directly affected are some 2,600 workers throughout the country who suffer from a mild physical or mental disability and who, due to a Government initiative, have been allowed to join the workforce. The reason they have been able to participate in the workforce is because the Government supports the employer through the payment of their wages. This is known as the wage subsidy scheme, WSS, as opposed to the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, with which we are all familiar since the advent of the pandemic.

All of those people are working for the minimum wage. When the scheme was introduced, the rate of payment was about €5.30 per hour and, at the time it was introduced, the payment represented about 70% of the minimum wage. Because the minimum wage has increased progressively over the years, this payment has remained frozen and, as a result, it now represents only 50%.

Although I am talking about 2,600 people, my main focus has to be the group who have been employed up to now by a company called Rehab Logistics in the Raheen industrial estate in Limerick city. The company is in the process of making 37 people redundant and 30 of them are beneficiaries of the wage subsidy scheme. I have had detailed conversations with representatives of Rehab Logistics and they have informed me that because the WSS did not rise in tandem with the minimum wage increases, the operation in Raheen has racked up fairly large losses.

However, the group might be amenable to keeping those people on in their jobs if that situation were rectified.

A number of issues must be taken into account here. First, we have the worst record in the civilised world for employing people with mental or physical disabilities in the main labour force. Second, the EU public procurement directive of 2014, which allows countries to siphon off part of public contracts specifically to employ disabled people, has never been used in this country. Most public bodies, including my own county council in Limerick, do not even know of its existence. Third, for the people I am representing here tonight, their job is their life. Many of them have aged and infirm parents. I have heard heart-rending pleas from those parents not to take away the lives of their offspring. Despite their disability or handicap, these people feel immensely proud and privileged to be part of the workforce. We must also take into account the fact that there is a very specific and clear commitment in the programme for Government not only to improve the opportunities for people with a disability to become part of the workforce but also to retain those who have managed to achieve that status. The supreme irony here is that if they cease to be part of the workforce they will be entitled to receive social welfare in the form of the disability allowance, which according to my calculations will cost the State more. In that situation, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth will also have to intervene to help them in various ways and that will add further costs for the taxpayer. It will cost the taxpayer more to put these people on the scrapheap than to keep them in gainful employment. That is reprehensible.

If the Minister, for some reason, is not disposed to increase the rates from €5.30 per hour under the WSS, I suggest the Government should look carefully at the potential for a disability CE scheme here. I understand there is spare capacity in that area. Perhaps these people could be accommodated in that way so they can continue to live their lives.

I thank Deputy O'Dea for raising this issue and for giving me the opportunity, on behalf of the Department, to outline the position. The Deputy's question relates specifically to Raheen in Limerick but is also concerned with the WSS in general so I will try to address both the national and local aspects of this.

The WSS is an employment support to private sector employers, the aim of which is to encourage employers to employ people with disabilities and so increase the number of people with disabilities obtaining and sustaining employment in the open labour market. This is something that we really want to achieve as a Government, as Deputy O'Dea has just outlined. The scheme provides financial incentives to hire people with a disability for between 21 and 39 subsidised hours per week under a contract of employment. Expenditure on the WSS in 2021 is expected to be almost €26 million. Just under 1,600 employers receive subsidies under the scheme in respect of some 2,600 workers. It is a demand-led scheme and it is open to any employer to come forward and avail of the scheme.

The WSS is different from sheltered employment or occupational activity arranged for therapeutic reasons. The majority of employers who avail of the scheme employ workers in commercial activities and in roles that are open to all workers, not just to people with disabilities. The basic rate of subsidy is €5.30 per hour giving a total annual subsidy available of €10,748 per annum based on a 39-hour week. Where an employer has 23 or more WSS employees, a top-up is applied and the payment rate increases to €7.95 per hour for each employee. The subsidy rate is not linked to the statutory minimum wage. It is a contribution paid to the employer, subject to certain conditions, against the cost incurred where a productivity shortfall arises from a disability. There are different strands in that space. The contract of employment offered must be for a minimum of six months and the employee is subject to and has the same rights, in accordance with the conditions of employment, as any other employee. Included in these conditions is the requirement that the employee must be paid the going rate for the job which must be at least the statutory minimum wage.

I am aware of the redundancies recently announced at the facility at Raheen in Limerick referred to by Deputy O'Dea. I extend my sympathy and that of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, to the workers in the Rehab Logistics facility who are facing redundancy. I fully appreciate how difficult the situation is for those involved and for their families. Deputy O'Dea and others have raised their plight and the Departments of Social Protection and Enterprise, Trade and Employment are working to try to find a solution. We are happy to engage in conversations with others to try to assist in any way we can.

The Department of Social Protection is already paying a subsidy of almost 78% of the wages of 35 employees of this particular company. A further position is subsidised under strand 3. This is in addition to significant funding provided by the HSE. Between January and December 2020, the Department paid a total of over €2.3 million in subsidies to the Rehab Group across its various locations, including Limerick. The payments made to the Rehab Group account for 13.5% of the overall payments made by the WSS in 2020. The Department is trying to provide an important service in conjunction with the Rehab Group.

At a local level, dedicated staff in the Department have been assigned to work directly with the employees affected by the redundancies at Raheen in Limerick to ensure they receive their proper entitlements and appropriate supports. The Departments of Social Protection and Enterprise, Trade and Employment are examining the situation to see what more can be done. Deputy O'Dea has made some suggestions in that regard tonight which I will feed back into the system. The Department of Health is also involved in the context of supporting day-care arrangements that may be required by some, but not all, of the workers.

There is a commitment in the programme for Government to fine-tune and expand targeted employment schemes such as the WSS to help more people with disabilities to stay in the workforce. With this in mind, the Department of Social Protection will be carrying out a review of the WSS this year. That work has commenced already. Again, I am happy to engage with Deputy O'Dea on some of the solutions he has put forward this evening and to discuss them with the Minister for Social Protection and the Tánaiste.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I spoke briefly to the Minister for Social Protection earlier and she undertook to consider my suggestion that, at a very minimum, a CE scheme for the disabled should be established here. This is not a political matter as far as I am concerned. I am raising this in a non-adversarial, apolitical way. Most of the people who are losing their jobs in Rehab Logistics are not even in my constituency. The factory is located in my constituency but most of the staff are from parts of County Limerick that I do not represent, as well as from Cork, Clare and Tipperary. I have a personal interest in this because I know those people. I have gotten to know them and their families over the years. They are beautiful people to whom life has dealt a very bad hand. In most cases they were born with a mental or physical disability and that has affected how they live their lives. Their lives have been greatly enhanced as a result of being elevated to a position where they can participate in the economic life of their own country and it makes no sense whatsoever to deprive them of that opportunity, particularly when it will not cost the State a single penny. In fact, it will probably cost the State to put them on the scrapheap. Many of the people in question are now in middle age and I do not envisage them getting work again. Some of their parents and carers are infirm and elderly and are literally pleading with their local representatives to do something to save their employment so they can continue to have something to get up for in the morning.

Before concluding, I must say I am aware that SIPTU has taken the Rehab Group to the WRC twice in the last few weeks. I abhor and deplore the attitude that Rehab is taking in this particular case. It is not the function of the Rehab Group to turn its back on these people, to try to walk away from them and to give them reduced redundancy payments, which it is attempting to do at the moment. The job and function of the Rehab Group is to look after and enhance the lives of those unfortunate people.

I understand why Deputy O'Dea has brought this to the floor of the House and I know it is not a political issue for him at all. Deputy O'Dea and other Deputies and Senators from the area have raised this matter directly with Ministers because they genuinely care.

This employment opportunity has been very beneficial for those who avail of the scheme and the support. To be clear, the approach to this is not in any way a cost saving exercise from the Department or the Government.

The design of the wage subsidy scheme and what it is there to achieve in this regard is to encourage the employment of people who have a disability into employment in a commercial enterprise. It is not designed as a business or enterprise support. To fit into the design of the scheme it therefore must be an incentive to encourage employment. It is not to support the business. The business has to be able to stand alone on its own two feet as a commercial operation. That is part of the issue here.

This does not mean that we cannot try to find other solutions. The Deputy suggested one scheme but the wage subsidy scheme and the community employment scheme are other solutions. The Deputy will be aware, and I can inform the House, that our Department and the various arms and agencies of Government have been engaged directly with the unions, the employees and their families along with the Rehab Group to try to work our way through this to find any solution. We would be very happy to do that and it is something we would like to do. Deputy O'Dea is aware of that. He spoke directly on this issue with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, as have I. We will go through it. The Department officials and the Intreo offices locally have engaged and would like to be able to find solutions either to try to keep these jobs or to find new jobs, and certainly to work with all involved to do that. This is what we are committed to doing. The request to link the wage subsidy scheme to the minimum wage is not the real issue here. I am aware that it has been put forward as a genuine attempt to find a solution but that is not the space we are in. We will try to work with the Deputy to find other solutions also.

Gabhaim buíochas leis na Teachtaí ar fad as a gcomhoibriú i rith na seachtaine.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
The Dáil adjourned at 8.52 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 31 March 2021.