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.