Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Questions (36)

Mick Barry


36. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to outline her views on zero-hour contracts; if she will introduce legislation to outlaw this practice; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16244/16]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Jobs)

What are the Minister's views on zero-hour contracts? Will she introduce legislation to outlaw this practice? Will the Minister make a statement on this matter?

I thank Deputy Barry for raising this important issue. I am committed to considering an appropriate policy response to the report of the University of Limerick study of zero-hour contracts and low-hour contracts. As Deputies will be aware, the University of Limerick was appointed in February 2015 to study the prevalence of zero-hour contracts and low-hour contracts and their impact on employees. The study, published in November 2015, found that zero-hour contracts, as defined within current Irish employment rights legislation, are not extensively used in Ireland. It found low working hours can arise in different forms in employment contracts. There are regular part-time contracts with fixed hours or a contract with if-and-when hours only or a hybrid of the two. Under if-and-when contracts, workers are not contractually required to make themselves available for work.

The UL report made a range of recommendations relating to contracts, hours of work and notice, minimum hours, how contracted hours should be determined, collective agreements, data gathering and wider contextual issues. The UL study was an independent study and the conclusions drawn and recommendations made are those of UL. Therefore, it is essential for the Government and my Department to seek the views of stakeholders. To this end, my Department has sought submissions from interested parties by way of a public consultation. A large number of submissions were received in response to the consultation.

The responses contain a variety of views both for and against the findings and recommendations as made by UL. These responses require, and are currently being given, careful consideration by my Department. The study and the responses to it will be considered by Government with a view to agreeing the actions that should be taken.

The report may state zero-hour contracts are not extensive, but tens of thousands of people are affected by zero-hour contracts alone, apart altogether from the if-and-when contracts and the other low-hour contracts the Minister of State mentioned. These people have enormous difficulty organising child care, credit, bank loans and mortgages and accessing benefits, including FIS. In addition they have difficulty organising rent and paying for groceries or school uniforms when they do not know what their hours or salary will be the following year.

UL reported back to the Department more than six months ago. Can the Minister of State give the House a more definitive timeframe as to when he will bring forward legislation or if he intends to introduce legislation at all?

I thank Dr. Michelle O'Sullivan and her team at the Kemmy Business School for preparing the report. The report pointed out that zero-hour contracts are not exclusively used. There is, of course, evidence of if-and-when contracts. The Deputy is right in pointing to a lack of clarity regarding employment status. That is something that is also evident. I believe the Deputy is referring to if-and-when contracts more than to zero-hour contracts. People will argue about the unpredictable hours. The Deputy rightly pointed to the difficulties in managing family life, the unstable income and access to credit institutions. Often people with these contracts work more hours than they are contracted for.

As I pointed out - I believe the Deputy agrees with me on this - we must give this report detailed and careful consideration. It is an independent report. Some 47 responses were given and the majority of those from trade unions and NGOs recommended implementation of the report and on the other hand employer and business groups opposed the implementation of the report. That is why we have to give this careful consideration and it takes time. We will do that and we will try to publish the report as quickly as possible after we give it that consideration.

It does not surprise me that employer organisations have come out against a ban on zero-hour contracts. It would not take a commission or a rocket scientist to work that out.

Is the Minister of State aware that the New Zealand Parliament voted unanimously to ban zero-hour contracts and that became effective on 1 April? In New Zealand employers now must guarantee a minimum number of hours per week and workers can refuse extra hours without repercussion. Is the Minister of State concerned that legislation here lags behind the example set by New Zealand? Is he aware the previous Administration, in the aftermath of the Dunnes Stores strike in April 2015, promised to take action on this matter? As it is now more than a year on, how long is the Minister of State prepared to wait on this? Can he give those workers who are in these extremely difficult circumstances any indication as to when he plans to bring forward legislation or does he plan to introduce legislation at all?

This was a very serious report, but it is an independent report. As the Deputy rightly pointed out there will be different views on the matter. The trade unions and NGOs will support the recommendations and the employer and business groups will be against it. Those of us in government and the Department have to strike a balance regarding the employers and the workers. This will take time. We do not want to rush this. We want to ensure that careful consideration is given here.

Some of the people who made submissions want to have meetings with departmental officials. We will consider all that in the context of the study itself. If legislation is necessary, obviously this is something we have to look at seriously. We will, after careful consideration, deal with this in the interests of workers and employees.