Agricultural Workers (Holidays and Wages) Bill, 1968: Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".

The main purpose of this Bill is to give agricultural workers legal entitlement to public holidays or to church holidays in lieu. This is done by providing that if a worker works on a public holiday he will get either a Church holiday in lieu or a double day's pay. There are at present six public holidays in the year, namely, St. Patrick's Day, Easter Monday, first Monday in June, the first Monday in August, Christmas Day and St. Stephen's Day. Under the Agricultural Workers (Holidays) Acts, 1950-61 agricultural workers are entitled to 12 holidays a year. The 1950 Act gave them six working days and this was extended to 12 by the 1961 Act. The proposals in this Bill will give them six public or Church holidays in addition to the 12 working days.

Many farmers, of course, traditionally give their workers a day off with pay on public or Church holidays or at the most do not require them to do more than a couple of hours work on such days. In some areas, however, workers are not always allowed these holidays and the tendency may be for employers to become more exacting in this respect, having regard particularly to the general scarcity and rising cost of labour. In the circumstances, I consider it desirable that the agricultural worker should have legal entitlement to six public holidays or Church holidays in lieu. The effect will be to put agricultural workers on a par with industrial workers who already have the benefit of similar legislation. I may say that the Agricultural Wages Board is in favour of this proposal.

There are three other matters dealt with in the Bill. The first of these is a provision to amend the Agricultural Workers (Weekly Half-Holidays) Act, 1952, the Act which entitles agricultural workers to a weekly half-holiday.

Section 6 of that Act provides that in order to be entitled to a half-holiday an agricultural worker must work 45 hours in the five days preceding the day on which the half-holiday is to be allowed. When that Act was passed the number of hours to which the minimum rate of wages related was 50 all the year round. Since 1965 the average has been 48 hours, 50 hours being worked during the summer months and 44 hours during the winter period—November to February. The shorter working week in winter time necessitates an amendment of the half-holiday provision. The amendment proposed takes the form of a general provision empowering the Minister to prescribe by Order, from time to time, the number of hours which a worker must work in any particular week to entitle him to a half-holiday in that week. This will enable the present situation to be tidied up and will avoid the necessity for new legislation in the event of further changes in the weekly hours of work to which the minimum rates of wages prescribed by the board relate.

The next matter covered in the Bill deals with the time allowed to the Agricultural Wages Area Committees to make recommendations to the board. At present, when the board intends to make an Order having the effect of altering the existing minimum rates of wages it must serve notice of its intention on the five Agricultural Wages Area Committees. The committees are given two months in which to make their recommendations to the board and the board is obliged to wait until either the committees have made their recommendations or the two months have expired before they can make the Order. The Bill proposes the reduction of the period to one month with the aim of speeding up the process.

The final matter provided for in the Bill relates to permits of exemption. Under the Agricultural Wages Acts the board is entitled to grant to agricultural workers incapacitated through infirmity of mind or body, permits exempting their employment from the provisions of the board's Orders relating to the payment of minimum rates of wages. The effect of such a permit is to enable an incapacitated worker to be employed at a rate less than the prescribed minimum rate. Experience has shown that a number of workers, particularly those receiving permits at an early age, recover sufficiently to be able, later on, to earn the full minimum rate. As things stand, there is no provision for the revocation of such permits and it is considered desirable that the board should have this authority.

During the passage of this Bill through the Dáil members of the Labour Party tabled two amendments which gave rise to a useful discussion. These amendments—one seeking to give the board power to fix minimum rates of sick pay and to determine what employment is to be treated as overtime employment and the other to enable a trade union official to institute proceedings for the recovery of moneys due to an agricultural worker—were withdrawn following an undertaking given by me that I would set up a committee to examine generally the objectives of the existing legislation in relation to the wages and hours of work of agricultural workers in the context of present day conditions. Circumstances have changed considerably since the establishment of the Agricultural Wages Board in 1936. The committee will, of course, examine the matters mentioned in those amendments, which seemed to me to raise questions of principle and to conflict to some extent at least with the basic concepts underlying the existing legislation.

I undertook, however, to have another look, before the Bill came before Seanad Éireann, at the suggestion to give the board power to determine what employment is to be treated as overtime employment. At the moment the statutory position is that the board relates its minimum rates to the weekly hours of work prevailing in contracts between workers and employers. The Act does not authorise the board to decide what the length of the working week, to which minimum rates would apply, should be.

I have given this matter careful consideration and feel that this proposal would involve a rather fundamental change in the functions of the board inasmuch as it would bring them into the sphere of establishing and deciding what conditions of employment should be. In the circumstances I think the question is one which could more appropriately be considered by the committee which is now in the process of being set up.

I, therefore, commend the Bill to the House in its present form.

We welcome this Bill because it is our belief that any improvement in the terms of employment of agricultural workers may help to stem the flow from this type of employment. The Minister, the House and everybody else are aware of the great scarcity of young men who are prepared to work on the land. the time has come when the Government must bring in some form of concessions to make this type of employment more attractive. Now that agricultural workers have a wage to which taxation applies, it would be highly desirable if the Minister for Finance could possibly give tax concessions to men working full-time on the land with farmers.

There is growing difficulty year after year for farmers in many parts of the country, especially if they happen to be near a town in which there is industrial employment, to find people to work for them. A farmer's work is very hard in spite of the fact that machinery has, to a great extent, taken much of the backache out of the work. Nevertheless, there is a reluctance on the part of many young men to embark on this way of life. While I welcome the provisions in this Bill, it does not go far enough. I realise that the Minister has difficulty in this regard because he must also bear in mind the reducing profit margin there is in agriculture.

The position with regard to dairy farmers is very difficult because it is practically impossible to get men who are prepared to come in on Sunday morning and again on Sunday evening to milk cows. In many of these cases the wages being paid are in excess of the wages laid down by the Agricultural Wages Board and this is something that the Minister and the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries must keep an eye to so that the return from this type of farming should at all times remain sufficient to enable the farmers to pay wages that are attractive enough to have the work done. The same applies to farmers who have large poultry units or pig fattening units.

If workers in industry had to do work of a comparable nature they would get what is known, I think, as "dirty money". Certainly, it is not very pleasant to work under these conditions, and again the wages in these categories are far in excess of those laid down by the board. The Minister and his Department have a grave obligation to ensure that the profit margin and the return from these ventures is sufficient to enable the farmers to pay wages that will attract workers to this type of employment.

The problem facing many dairy farmers in the creamery areas this year is that, on looking at and comparing the milk returns for last month and the month of April, 1968, there is a very definite reduction of almost 2d per gallon to the farmer. This does not help the farmer in the face of rising prices and rising wages and I ask the Minister to give some thought to the introduction, as soon as possible, of a two-tier milk price.

The Senator is now going out of order.

But surely, a Chathaoirleach, the ability of the farmer to pay wages is in order on this Bill?

The Chair wishes to assure the Senator that he has the sympathy of the Chair but this is not a full-scale discussion on the problems of agriculture. The Senator, to continue.

I do not wish to be irrelevant but, as I see it, the big problem in my own county—it is an intensive tillage area with, quite recently, a considerable amount of dairying introduced—is the inability of farmers to find people who are willing to milk cows and feed stock on Sundays. Even with the present wages as prescribed by the Agricultural Wages Board it is not possible to find people who will work on Sundays and it is not difficult to blame them. The majority of Irish farmers cannot afford to employ sufficient people to enable them to have a duty roster. Most farmers, in fact, employ only one man. If the farmer happens to be a widow with a young family she must either find somebody who is prepared to work seven days a week or get out of that type of farming altogether.

There is also great difficulty in finding people who are prepared to take on the less glamorous tasks such as the thinning of beet and other root crops. This is something that has been overlooked by the Department. Ten years ago or so it was possible to employ school children to do these tasks, and many families were glad of the extra money which the children could earn, but with the present emphasis on education and educational opportunities it is now impossible to get children who will do this type of work.

Because of the fact that the farmer's margin of profit has not been keeping abreast of the ever-increasing costs of production and rising rates year after year, fewer farmers are sowing those crops. The main reason why farmers are getting out of this type of husbandry is the difficulty they have in securing labour. Therefore, I appeal to the Minister to do something to attract young, active workers back into this field of agriculture. I am quite sure farm workers are getting away from this type of work because they have to work very hard, long hours and must work most of the year in inclement weather. I feel, therefore, they are entitled to a much higher rate of pay for doing this work than perhaps people working in factories who have not to be out working under those conditions.

This Bill has to do with the granting of certain public and Church holidays to farmers. I would ask the Senator to keep to the terms of the Bill.

Yes, I agree. It has been the practice down through the years, at least in my part of the country, for farmers to allow practically all of those people such Church holidays, although in some cases it is true they had to come in for perhaps an hour or two to give a hand. However, it is good that we should have this on the Statute Book so that those workers may not feel under an obligation to their employers if they are let off. It is always better to have these matters clear cut, as they are in this Bill.

Finally, there is just one other point I should like to mention to the Minister, although perhaps it is really a problem for the Agricultural Wages Board. It would appear it must be 20 years or more since the Agricultural Wages Board revised allowances which were given to those workers in lieu of meals. I think it is still 1s 10d for a lunch of any kind. Some of the meals are down to less than 1s. When the Minister was at it he should have tackled this problem once and for all in order to bring the entire system up to date. He is making an effort in this Bill to help farm workers but, as the statistics show, the number of people working on the land is getting fewer. Female farm workers have not been treated in a fair way or on a par with male agricultural workers over the years. It should be possible for farmers to claim a rate abatement allowance in respect of female agricultural workers. This may not be within the scope of this Bill, but nevertheless I feel it is relevant and is a problem which has faced many farmers throughout the country. That is all I wish to say at this stage. Any other points I have can be dealt with on Committee Stage.

The Labour Party support this Bill, which is designed mainly to give agricultural workers a legal right to six Church or public holidays in addition to the 12 given to them under the 1961 Act. On behalf of the Party I should like to record our thanks to the Minister, but I cannot refrain from asking him why he delayed discussing it until so late, seeing it was introduced as far back as October, 1968. We of the Labour Party welcome the Bill. We are anxious to secure its passage at the earliest possible moment, though it lacks certain matters which we would like to have included in order to make it a better Bill, more like that introduced by Deputy Tully and his Labour Party colleagues in the Dáil some years ago.

In the existing situation there would appear to be no possibility of amending the measure without running the risk of further and possibly considerable delay in its passage. Yet, there is much to be done if we are to produce an Act which will give justice to the agricultural workers. Some of the points we would like to cover by amendment are the standardisation of the method of calculating entitlement to and payment for holidays to prevent confusion leading to unnecessary disputes and the amendment of the Agricultural Wages Act, 1936, so as to empower the Agricultural Wages Board to designate overtime hours and overtime rates, to empower the board to prescribe minimum conditions of employment, which would permit the payment of wages to an adult worker engaged on a farm training course, as is done in the case of a young worker on an apprenticeship course. There is also the need for a review of the situation where in certain circumstances the chairman of the board constitutes a quorum in himself and can take action on his own in the matter of wage rates for agricultural workers.

The Labour Party would also wish to see a better method of deciding who is or who is not entitled to a certificate or a permit of exemption relating to minimum wages—this applies to persons incapacitated through infirmity of mind or body—so as to avoid any possibility of injustice. When the Bill was introduced last October the Labour Party prepared a long list of amendments but when the Bill was taken so late, and in the atmosphere of the pending dissolution, the Party decided, in order to facilitate its passage before that event, to table only two amendments, (1) to enable a trade union official to recover money due to a worker who is a member of a trade union, a provision in the Conditions of Employment Act, 1944, applying to industrial workers; (2) to give power to the Agricultural Wages Board when fixing a minimum rate to prescribe a differential rate for overtime and to determine what employment would be treated as overtime employment as well as to prescribe minimum rates for sick pay and holiday remuneration.

The Minister did not seem to be unsympathetic to the amendments and, at columns 1496 and 1511 of the Dáil Debates of 21st May, 1968, indicated he would give further consideration to them. Would the Minister say if he has done so and with what result? Does the Minister intend to put in amendments to meet the points raised in the two amendments moved by the Labour Party in the Dáil? I should also like to ask the Minister if he has yet set up a committee to secure the review of existing legislation affecting farm workers which he promised he would set up before the new Government is elected. He mentioned today that it is in the course of formation. If he has not already set up the committee would it be possible for him to do so, say, in the course of the next week? We would be very anxious to get this Bill through the House, even in its limited form, rather than risk having to wait for another protracted period.

This Bill sets out to improve conditions and rates of pay-so as to make life more tolerable for the workers on the farm. We all share in this objective. We feel encouraged by the Minister's promise to set up a committee which will inquire into rates of wages, hours, etc., as they affect agriculture and as they relate to modern conditions. The terms of reference are much too narrow. I would encourage the Minister to be realistic and to broaden the scope of the committee so that they may be able to make a really positive contribution to our agricultural manpower programme for the future. Changing wages and hours of work is just tinkering with the problem, when the Minister and his advisers are quite aware of the fact that any competent and skilled men working in Irish agriculture today are capable of commanding more than the rate laid down in the board's salary scale. Such a man is able to command a salary which is more than comparable to what he can get with similar training and skills anywhere else in the Irish agricultural field. In order to be realistic, we have to examine the situation and see whether the improved wages and pay suggested by the Minister would achieve the required objectives. I suggest that they will not achieve the objectives. We must examine the root of the problem.

The reason is twofold. First of all, we have the existing agricultural labour force consisting of the paid employees on the farms. As in other industries, the great need in agriculture is for retraining and for the acquisition of new skills so that the farm worker can fit into the modern agricultural industry. I suggest that the Minister should have taken some steps with regard to retraining in this new Bill. The committee the Minister proposes should examine this question carefully. Industrial conditions and techniques are changing very fast. Conditions in agriculture are also changing rapidly. Unfortunately, we are in the dilemma that on farms many people over 25 to 30 years of age are suffering from a great lack of education because in their youth there were no facilities available for post-primary training. They are trying to cope with a complex industry. Consequently, it is necessary to realise that retraining is a matter of urgency. Such people would increase their earning capacity by retraining. Retraining would be of more assistance to them than any Bill which might be passed in this House. The retraining should be on a scale commensurate with that of industry under the heading of redundancy. It is important to the Government that people on farms should be equipped for their jobs in order to avoid redundancy in agriculture. Farm labourers will not then be adding to the national redundancy problem. That is specially true when we realise that there is a chronic scarcity of labour in Irish agriculture today. There is a scarcity of the highly skilled labour which is very necessary in modern agriculture.

It is very simple to go to any farmer anywhere in Ireland and suggest to him ways and means of increasing output. One could suggest rearing more cattle or cows, or planting more crops. No one can give a satisfactory answer to the farmer who says he is unable to get help in order to increase his production. He is unable to get help to enable him to lead a more bearable life rather than be chained to his work from morning to night, seven days a week. There is a serious problem with regard to labour on farms. I suggest to the Minister that he should consult the National Farmers' Association, as a matter of urgency, on this question. The Minister would get worthwhile suggestions on the problems which the committee should study.

Another important point which we must consider is that of intake into the agricultural industry. All industries in this country are concerned with this problem of intake and their schemes of apprenticeship and gradual training for their young workers coming into the industry. Agriculture must be assisted in the same way. Prior to this the entrants to agriculture were largely the rejects of the educational system. They were mainly boys of 13 to 14 years who drifted into the farms, stayed around without any particular competence for a few years, and then probably drifted to England in their early 20s. That is the chronic pattern of what has happened over the years. It is not useful to a progressive and dynamic agricultural programme. This will not happen in the future. With the emphasis on post-primary education many of those who in the past went to work on the land at 14 years of age will be encouraged to avail of the post-primary educational facilities. If such youths get some post-primary education the Minister will find that they will not return to work on the land unless conditions in agriculture improve vastly. We will have a greater scarcity of workers than we have today. A suitable type of young man must be geared to the agricultural industry just like the apprentice going into any other industry. He must be geared and selected to be ultimately a valuable member of the industry. I feel that in the future the only worthwhile recruits to get into Irish agriculture would be those who had some post-primary education. They would then be like other apprentices aged 16 to 17. The Government and the Minister have to raise their sights and broaden their thinking on this question of intake. They must see the intake as coming through the farm apprenticeship schemes.

The Chair would suggest that the Senator would come to the terms of the Bill.

Better conditions must be made available to young men so that they will accept work on the land as a vocation. I should like to see my suggestions incorporated in the Bill. I am heartened by the Minister assuring me that he is setting up a committee and that at least some of those omissions can be repaired in the future by suitable terms of reference for the committee. If the committee is not prepared to tackle the problem of entry into the trade or group I do not know what other problem they can tackle. I am suggesting to the Minister that what he laid down as desirable conditions for entry into the farm apprenticeship scheme at the age of 16 or 17 are now the minimum conditions we can accept for entry into agriculture for the agricultural working force and consequently our whole thinking must be geared to that. I make an appeal that we should think on that level because I see in Irish agriculture a tremendous challenge and a great source of employment in the future if properly handled and I share the pessimism of neither the NIEC nor the Buchanan reports as to our prospects in agriculture. I am at one with the Minister in that. I am very heartened at all times to see that he is against that decimation of agriculture.

As it is now 4 o'clock I wonder would the Leader of the House have any comment to make on the course of the Bill?

Next sitting day.

Perhaps Senator Quinlan would move the adjournment?

I move the adjournment and I hope that in the meantime the Minister may be able to think out terms of reference for this committee.

The Senator need not make a speech.

I hope that I shall be making a very positive contribution.

Debate is now adjourned until next sitting day.

Debate adjourned.

There seems to be some delay in getting in touch with the Minister for Labour. Would the House agree, as the Minister for Local Government is here, to take the Housing Bill?

Could we adjourn for half an hour to wait for the Minister?

That would not be a solution.

Would the House agree to take the Committee Stage of the Housing Bill now?

I suggest that the House adjourn now and resume at 4.15 p.m. If the Minister for Labour is not present at that time we agree to take the Housing Bill.


Business suspended at 4.10 p.m. and resumed at 4.15 p.m.