Employment Rights.

I raise this matter to ask the Minister to explain the status of a self-appointed limited company in the electrical business — EPACE, with PACE referring to pensions and conditions electrical — and to query its right to see electrical contractors' books and refer them to the Labour Court under the guise of a registered employment agreement. My questions relate to the proposed Employment Law Compliance Bill. I will give a brief outline of what has been happening within the electrical contracting sector in recent years. It has been brought to my attention by electrical contractors in Galway city and county.

A company called EPACE, pensions and conditions electrical, was formed in 2007 to monitor rates of pay and conditions for electricians. This is a private limited company with some of the directors also being trade union officials of the TEEU, the Technical Engineering and Electrical Union. It is allegedly funded out of the union contributions paid by electricians, apparently without their knowledge or consent. The company without any mandate or statutory right has been hounding contractors in Galway city and county to allow office inspections by its staff to examine records of all electricians and apprentices relative to a registered employment agreement, of which the majority of contractors are only now becoming aware.

While most of the smaller electrical contractors are really struggling at present and finding it impossible to get paid for work done, EPACE appears to have a very healthy bank balance of allegedly €800,000 and its constitution provides that it may pay to its management and directors whatever gratuity payments it wishes. What type of behaviour is this? It appears to be more jobs for the boys. I am aware of an electrical contractor who has been deeply affected by the EPACE company. He told me: "I received advice not to allow this private limited company access to our books. I now find myself hauled before the Labour Court as this company, through the union, passed on information about us. This is all I need at a time when I am struggling to meet wages bills, not to mention suppliers' bills."

At present, it appears that the Government is about to hand over statutory power to these people to govern the industry when there is already another body in place, the National Employment Rights Authority, NERA. Why is another monitoring body required? It is also worth noting that in recent years a huge amount of the larger contracts were awarded to Northern Ireland contractors as the registered employment agreement does not apply to them.

What is the status of EPACE? What rights does it have and is the Government supporting its intervention in this manner? It is having a hugely negative impact on businesses. Does it have the right to see electrical contractors' books and to refer them to the Labour Court under the guise of a registered employment agreement?

The company to which the Senator refers, EPACE, is a private company, which is limited by guarantee and established under the aegis of the National Joint Industrial Council for the Electrical Contracting Industry by employer and worker representatives. Its main objective is to advise electrical contractors of their responsibilities under the registered employment agreement, REA, for the electrical industry and it also carries out inspections of electrical contractors to ensure compliance with the agreement.

While the organisation does not have statutory authority under employment rights legislation to undertake such inspections, electrical contractors in the past have been willing to facilitate, and co-operate with, these arrangements. I am not in a position to comment in detail regarding the operations of EPACE Limited because it is a private limited company and neither my Department nor I have a role, representation or interest in it. It is an arrangement that was established by the parties to the registered employment agreement.

It is worth pointing out, by way of background, that a registered employment agreement, REA, is a collective agreement arrived at in one of two ways. It may be made between a trade union or unions and an individual employer or employers' organisation or, alternatively, it may be made by a registered joint industrial council. Such an agreement relates to the pay or conditions of employment of any class, type or group of workers and has been registered with the Labour Court under the Industrial Relations Act 1946. The effect of registration is to make the provisions of an REA binding not only on the trade unions and employers involved in its negotiation but also on others who were not party to its negotiation but who are in the categories covered by the agreement.

In general, an REA can deal with any matter that comes under the general heading of pay or conditions of employment. It may provide for the variation of any of its provisions. Each REA must contain a disputes procedure that is binding. The registration of employment agreements, such as the electrical contracting industry REA, is a matter for the Labour Court, as provided for in the Industrial Relations Act 1946. It is important to state that I do not have any role either in regard to the registration of registered employment agreements.

As with other REAs, enforcement of the provisions of the REA for the electrical sector is effected through the Labour Court under the industrial relations legislation. I understand the Labour Court recently considered an application to cancel the registration of the agreement covering the electrical contracting sector and that the application was rejected by the court. Accordingly, the REA remains a minimum legal standard for the sector, against which failure to comply is an offence.

The National Employment Rights Authority, NERA, is the body charged with promoting and ensuring compliance with employment rights legislation, including those statutory rights derived from registered employment agreements. Under the Industrial Relations Act 1990, NERA inspectors are empowered to inspect records, recover arrears and, if necessary, institute civil proceedings on behalf of workers if they are not receiving the minimum pay and conditions of employment laid down in an REA.

While NERA currently does not have a formal relationship with EPACE, it does investigate complaints referred to it by any person and, in so doing, it may also examine information furnished by EPACE on alleged breaches of the REA for the electrical contracting sector.

Senator Healy Eames referred to section 45 of the Employment Law Compliance Bill, as published last year. It is intended to support and enhance monitoring and inspection activity in regard to compliance with the REA in the electrical contracting industry. This section gives legal effect to commitments entered into under the social partnership agreement, Towards 2016, to complement the work of NERA on compliance with the REA in the electrical contracting sector.

Specifically, the Bill provides that the director of NERA can enter into a service agreement with bodies as may be approved by the director of NERA with the consent of the Minister. The service agreement would prescribe the operational arrangements to obtain between NERA and the approved body regarding the conduct by that body of inspection activity in regard to the electrical REA. In essence, the provision gives legal standing to the relationship between NERA and any such approved body.

Section 45, as drafted, does not prevent any individual pursuing his or her legal entitlements through NERA or any of the employment rights bodies. It simply recognises that, in the case of the electrical contracting sector, there are specific arrangements on the administration of the REA that predate the establishment of NERA and which were put in place by the parties to the REA themselves.

The Bill as published does not envisage any prosecutorial role for any approved body and that role will continue as currently through NERA or the other employment rights bodies or by the parties to the REA. In that sense, the Bill does not propose different enforcement standards for the REA in the electrical sector compared with those that obtain in other sectors. I am aware there are different views within the electrical contracting sector on the role of EPACE and the value of the registered employment agreements. I am open to hearing such views in the context of the Employment Law Compliance Bill and I am equally interested in hearing the views of Senators on the subject. I am sure there will be ample opportunity to debate this issue in greater detail when the Bill comes to this House, which I expect will be before the summer.

This issue was raised a number of times in the context of the Second Stage Dáil debate on the Employment Law Compliance Bill. Various views were expressed and this issue was raised forcefully. We will have ample opportunity to discuss it and we can listen to the arguments put forward by Oireachtas Members on the issue.

May I ask a supplementary question?

I do not know how much further advanced I am in my understanding. The Minister of State said, "Under the Industrial Relations Act 1990, NERA inspectors are empowered to inspect records, recover arrears and, if necessary, institute civil proceedings on behalf of workers". Can EPACE do that and who gave it the authority? I accept it is a private company but can EPACE do what it is currently doing to electrical contractors?

An agreement was reached between employers and employees that were party to the registered employment agreement for the electrical sector to the effect that a private limited company would be set up with the consent of the industry. There are views among electrical contractors that it does not have that authority.

From what I can see it is acting like a bully.

In effect, it is with the consent of the industry but NERA is the advocate in the context of pay or conditions not being met by employers. It would take the cases and it would have the prosecutorial role in any event. Equally, the Bill as drafted — it has only completed Second Stage in the other House — states that a service agreement could be entered into between the National Employment Rights Authority and a body such as EPACE for it to carry out the inspections on behalf of NERA. Most importantly, NERA would take any case in the context of civil proceedings.

I thank the Minister.