Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Questions (22)

Bríd Smith


22. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation if he will meet with representatives of construction, contract cleaning and security workers to discuss the way in which to safeguard pay rates in these and other sectors in view of recent court rulings that could dramatically affect workers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15812/20]

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Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Business)

The paths in the House are well trodden by the captains of industry and sometimes by trade unions and their representatives. My question to the Tánaiste is a bit like the question he was asked earlier about meeting the Debenhams workers. Maybe he could clarify it but I believe he responded positively to that. In the light of the recent High Court judgment which sent shockwaves through the industries affected by the judgment, would he be willing to meet representatives of construction, contract cleaning and security workers, those most affected by that judgment?

I thank Deputy Bríd Smith for raising this issue. She has raised it in the House previously and she will understand we are appealing this decision, as confirmed by the Tánaiste last Thursday. I reiterate the Tánaiste's message at that time and again today to all workers and employers affected by this decision in regard to sectoral employment orders, that until the appeal process is concluded and legal certainty has been obtained, there can be no unilateral diminution of the terms and conditions of employees by employers. In regard to contract cleaners and the other sectors the Deputy raised, they are covered by employment regulation orders, which is a slightly different part of the Industrial Relations Act 2015 and they are not impacted by this judgment directly. In regard to meeting representatives of the workers governed by the sectoral employment orders, I intend to meet the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in the coming weeks to discuss this and other pressing matters. We can take it from there. I am happy to engage with the Deputy on this but the important thing is that we appeal this at the appropriate time.

I welcome that the Minister of State said he will meet their representatives in the coming weeks. I hugely welcome the announcement that the Government will appeal the High Court decision and I particularly enjoyed the Tánaiste’s video that he put out on Twitter last night with Countess Markievicz clearly having his back. I doubt he will take her advice and leave his jewels in the bank and buy a revolver but nevertheless-----

I do not have jewels or a revolver. I am a simple man.

-----he might follow her inspiration and show us that he has the backs of the workers involved. The reason I am putting the question in this manner is that I think there is more to protecting and advocating workers’ right than just what goes on in the courts. There is also the ability of workers to defend themselves. There is plan A, where one defends the rights in the courts and plan B, where the State gives workers the possibility to defend themselves. Here I am talking about the legal right to trade union recognition where if one has a high percentage or a certain percentage - as is the case in other countries - of workers who join a union, then the employer must recognise and deal with them and give them access to the workplace, which would prevent the sort of scandals which are alleged to have happened during the Covid crisis in meat plants. That sort of legislation that enables workers to defend themselves rather than always relying on the courts is also needed. It is not just about appealing laws we make here but it is about enabling workers to fight for and defend themselves.

It is fair to say that we, as Ministers, have over the past nine years committed to proving our worth when it comes to industrial relations. The Industrial Relations Act 2015 was quite a large Act. Previously, we had 15 or 16 years of discussion and legal cases. We tried to bring certainty to this and we acted on that with that legislation. We have built on that since and we have shown our absolute commitment here. The national minimum wage has been increased four or five times over the past nine years since we have been in government. When it comes to any cases, we try to strengthen the position of employees and workers. Naturally, we try to bring employers with us on that journey at all times and to get that balance right and that is what the legislation was about.

It is important that we concentrate on appealing the court decision and trying to get that appeal right. The ruling in this case calls into question the constitutionality behind the regulations and statutory instruments that were based on the relevant legislation. We will concentrate on this issue in the weeks and months ahead, and both the Tánaiste and I will engage with trade union representatives as part of that. There is no doubting our commitment to this area.

I agree that we need to appeal the decision in this case and robustly defend the right of the workers concerned to sectoral employment agreements. I do not agree that this Government and its predecessors have done their best to defend workers' rights. The Lockout more than 100 years ago was all about trade union recognition and we still do not have that in this country. Several Bills were put before the previous Government, which ended up being delayed and never progressing through the legislative Stages as they should have. No doubt we will introduce similar Bills in this term.

Workers need the right to organise and defend themselves and they cannot consistently rely on the courts to uphold that right. I refute the Minister of State's claim that this and previous governments have always had the interests of workers at heart. We need to look again at the Duffy Cahill report in view of what has gone on at Debenhams. What happened in that case will repeat itself in other cases. We need to consider giving workers the ability to organise and trade unions the ability to access workplaces such as meat plants where there are contentious issues. Construction sites are notoriously bad for bogus self-employment, precarious working conditions and low pay. All of those practices must be addressed. That will require a commitment from the Government to introduce robust legislation that will ensure workers can organise and defend themselves instead of having to rely on the courts to uphold that right.

A number of agencies are working with departmental officials to ensure workers' rights are protected and there is follow-through on all the legislation we introduce in this House. That is the focus of a lot of our work in the Department. The Deputy referred to a particular report. Our officials work through all such reports and bring forward any changes that are required on foot of them. The machinery at the disposal of the State when it comes to employees' rights is very strong. We are proud of that machinery and we will protect it. We will be happy to engage with the Deputy on any legislative proposals she brings forward in this area. It is about getting the balance right. We are all committed to protecting workers' rights and that is why we will launch an appeal to the ruling in question when it is the appropriate time to do so.

Question No. 23 withdrawn.