I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I want to start by thanking the many associations and federations of retired workers that have campaigned in respect of and raised over many years the general issue that this Bill seeks to address. It is a tribute to them that the Bill is before the Dáil. I want also to thank the staff of the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers, OPLA, who worked with us on the legislation over a number of years.
In 2018, I met a delegation of retired workers outside the Dáil on a miserable, wet and cold day. They were well-organised and passionate about their cause. They carried a real grievance about their treatment since retirement. They were retired ESB workers. Later, we met with retired workers from RTÉ, Eir, Bord na Móna, the Civil Service and myriad other State and semi-State companies. Despite the differences in their particular workplaces, a common theme was the feeling of having been abandoned once they retired. They were protesting against changes that had profound and negative consequences on their pensions. These included cuts in payments, the severing of the link with their working colleagues and other changes of which they were not notified, not consulted upon and the results of which they could not even question or seek any redress on.
These workers built this State and its infrastructure. Often, they built their trade unions and won the pay and conditions enjoyed by the members of the current workforce in their workplaces. Yet, once they retired, these workers became invisible and unrepresented. They are often seen as the collateral damage in deals done without any thought for the consequences for them or the impact on their living standards. They have no redress and no right to arbitration or representation once a period of six months has passed since they retired. As one worker said, they are treated like bees. If they are not worker bees, they do not seem to count. For all the platitudes that are used about how important older people are, the reality is that they are poorly served and cared for by the State they have built. We are told about the demographic time bomb and we are warned about the burden of people living longer. The language used is telling - if you are not a worker bee and are unable to be economically productive, you are seen as a burden, regardless of the contribution you have made in your working life.
In this debate, we are surrounded by many of the bigger arguments such as the fight for the right to retire at 65 or 66 years of age, the demand for greater contributions from young workers towards their pensions, etc. At the same time, these young workers will be subject to phenomenal reductions in their benefits when they retire. There are also arguments around the onslaught on defined benefit schemes and the demands from the pension industry, and so on. I have views on these issues which are probably very different from those of the Ministers and other Deputies in the House. For now, I will simply state that I reject much of the hysteria relating to this debate. There are options and alternatives available that could see us defend the right to retire at the age of 65 on liveable pensions with access to good public services and healthcare.
Regardless of the views of those in this House on these wider issues, however, nothing in the great pension debate can justify not giving retired workers a say or a right to consultation on changes to their pensions when they have retired. In many cases, they have paid their contributions to these schemes for decades, they have effectively concluded a social contract on the benefits they will receive when they retire and the contributions from their former employers are part of their wages. After all, pensions are deferred wages. Yet, six months after these workers have retired, they are effectively denied having any say in what happens to their pension schemes and their pensions. It is true that they can approach the Pensions Authority or the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman of Ireland, but only in very limited circumstances. Overall, retired workers who have approached these bodies have found that they do not represent them and do not alter or challenge the cuts, changes and attacks on the schemes of which they are members. Workers have said that it feels more like a box-ticking exercise.
That is why the right to real consultation and the right to take cases to the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, are central to this Bill. The right of these workers to have the organisations that they have built up represent them in retirement is what this Bill is all about. They are under no illusions that the Bill will stop future attacks on, or changes being made to, their schemes. Their central demand is their absolute right to be consulted on any proposed changes and to be heard. It is a case of nothing about us without us.
The other major element of the Bill is an attempt to address the inequality to which retired workers are subject in the context of their ability to play a role on the board of trustees of their schemes. Elected positions are often available on these boards but retired workers face huge disadvantages in seeking election, not least because it is unlikely that they will be known in the workplace following retirement and they may not have access to many of those voting. The Bill seeks to reverse this, and reserve a position for nominated pensioner candidates in cases where there are two or more elected positions available.
We understand this is not a perfect proposal, and indeed, will not address many of the problems faced by retired workers in this area. For example, the board of trustees of ESB has an extraordinary method of selecting trustee members for election, with potential candidates being screened by the company. This has resulted in a most serious injustice being inflicted upon retired workers. It has seen perfectly competent and knowledgeable candidates being prevented from standing for election by the company. Unfortunately, this Bill will not force ESB or other companies to address the issue. However, we hope that on Committee Stage we can begin to explore the issue. Indeed, I call on ESB to stop this blatant discrimination against retired workers who were instrumental in building the company.
Finally, I wish to address the Government amendment. I know, from bitter experience, the danger of the Government kicking the can down the road, but in this case, the amendment is really quite extraordinary. At the outset, I stated that retired workers have campaigned on this issue for more than a decade. If the Minister for Social Protection or any member of the Government had come to the gates of the Dáil yesterday to meet them, they would know that many of them are in their 70s and 80s. With the amendment, the Government is pretending that it is not opposing the Bill while delaying its progress by a year. What is it going to do in that year? I expect that it will consult with trade unions, employers, business groups and industrial relation bodies. I expect that it even intends to consult the UN and NATO. It will not consult the group that this Bill is all about, however. There is no mention of consulting retired workers. It is deeply ironic and insulting that the Government response to this Bill, which is about the need to consult retired workers on their pension schemes, is an amendment that will result in those retired workers and their representative groups being ignored entirely. The Government is proposing a consultation process that will compound the insult these workers have suffered over the years.
Let me give the Government the message the workers gave to me. If it thinks that its proposal will be accepted by them, it is wrong. As soon as Covid restrictions are lifted, Government Deputies will not see dozens of the workers and their representative groups at the gates of the Dáil; they will see thousands of retired workers, in unity at the gates, demanding justice and the right to a voice and to representation. They may not be worker bees, but they can sting. Retired workers are not retired voters.