Adjournment Debate. - Turf Board Employees (Offaly).

Sir, the following question was addressed to the Minister for Industry and Commerce by me yesterday at the request of Deputy Norton:

"To ask the Minister for Industry and Commerce whether he will state separately the number of workmen and gangers employed by the Turf Development Board at Walsh Island, Geashill, Offaly; the basis of payment and rates of wages observed in connection with the work, and the average amount earned weekly by (a) each workman and (b) each ganger in each of the last five weeks."

The Minister replied as follows:—

"The particulars desired by the Deputy relate to administrative matters the settlement of which falls within the competence of the Turf Development Board and in which my Department does not interfere."

Now, I was amazed to learn from the Minister for the first time that his Department does not interfere in the administration of the Turf Development Board, for which this House, in this year's Estimates, has set aside the respectable sum of £40,500. Is it to be understood from the Minister, for the first time, and does he now emphasise the fact, that he is not responsible to this House for the spending of the sum of £40,500 which has been voted by the House for development work carried out by this Board? The Minister, when speaking at a turf-cutting competition only a few weeks ago in the same area, made the statement that it was proposed to spend, or rather he promised to set aside, a further sum of £200,000 for the Turf Development Board for further development work.

The Minister must accept responsibility for the spending of money voted by this House or else admit that he is either ashamed or afraid to stand over the conditions under which people are being employed by the Turf Development Board. I am not going to suggest that the Minister is afraid to stand over these conditions, but I do suggest, from the supplementary replies he gave to the further questions I asked him yesterday, that he was not aware of the conditions. I suggest, if he has been furnished by the Turf Development Board or by his advisers in the meantime with particulars of the conditions under which persons were originally employed on this work by the Turf Development Board at Walsh Island, that he will take the necessary steps to see that these conditions are considerably improved.

What were the original conditions under which the men were employed there? They were employed on task work and obliged to cut a trench of 18 yards long by 3 feet wide and 1½ feet deep, and for that tiresome and dirty work they were to be paid at the rate of 1/- per trench. When I first heard from Deputy Norton about the conditions under which these men were originally employed I had certain doubts as to whether we were furnished with the actual facts, but Deputy Norton and I have since been furnished with statements in writing bearing out the statement I am now making. As a result of protests and a strike on the part of some of the men who were originally employed there, the length of the trench was reduced from 18 yards to 14 yards, as a result of which, I understand, it is possible for those men to earn, roughly, one shilling more per week than under the original conditions under which they were employed there. Some of the men who were originally employed and who are still employed on this particular scheme are obliged by the manager of the local labour exchange to travel a distance of 12 miles to their work. Some of them live at Rathangan and have been ordered by the manager of the local labour exchange to take up work, under the conditions I have mentioned, on that scheme at Walsh Island, or else forfeit their unemployment insurance benefit or the unemployment assistance they were entitled to receive. They were given no option in the matter except the option of forfeiting whatever unemployment assistance or unemployment insurance benefit they were entitled to.

I have made fairly careful inquiries into this matter and I understand that, in the conditions under which they worked, for the first two weeks it was not possible for these men to earn more than an average of 22/- a week or, roughly, 5½d. an hour. I know the conditions under which men have to work on turf-cutting and turf-rearing schemes. I come from a part of the country where turf-cutting and turf-rearing were recognised, in the bad days, by small farmers as a form of semi-skilled work and where men were employed by small farmers and large farmers at a rate of from 5/- to 7/- a day, and in many cases with board as well. I can quote cases of small farmers engaging men for a numbers of years at the rate I have mentioned. Surely a Government which is supposed to be a model to every country in the world should not pay less for such work than the fairly respectable rates paid by small farmers in the midland counties of this country, as can be found out by the Minister. Surely such a Government should rather set an example to the farmers of the country.

At the request of the Labour Party, and as a result of the disclosures which came into the possession of Deputy Norton and myself and other members of the Party, I put down an amendment to the Report Stage of the Turf Bill for the purpose of having inserted in that Bill a fair-wages clause which, if it had been inserted in the Bill, would have compelled the Turf Development Board in the future to recognise fair and reasonable conditions in regard to the men who will be employed when the Turf Bill becomes law. You, Sir, ruled that amendment out of order. Now, I also learn—as a matter of fact, I had previously known—that the Turf Development Board, which, I presume, will be the same body that will administer this £200,000 that has been promised, has applied for exemption from the terms of the Conditions of Employment Act, and I suppose that by that they intend to compel men to carry on under the conditions I have just mentioned. I wonder would any of the rural Deputies, who know the conditions under which men are employed on other State-aided schemes be prepared to admit that there is a difference in favour of people engaged on turf-cutting and turf-rearing schemes as compared to those employed on fire station work, county council work, or minor relief schemes? I contend that turf-cutting and turf-rearing work is certainly much more laborious and much more tiresome and dirty work than county council work or work on the afforestation schemes in the country. If that is so, surely there is a clear case for seeing that better conditions prevail in the case of turf-cutting and turf-rearing work than in the case of the other employments I have mentioned.

I am not raising this matter in any spirit of antagonism to the Minister or the Ministry. I am raising it because the men themselves have failed locally to secure an improvement in their conditions which would bring them up to a reasonable rate of wages and reasonable hours of work. The men who have been compelled to travel from Rathangan area to their work in Walsh Island have to leave at 6.30 a.m. in order to be able to report at the place of work at 7.45, and they have to work in their bare feet from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. under the conditions to which I have referred. I have here a number of letters from individuals. I do not want to worry or weary the House by going into the details of what certain men got for so many hours work or for digging a trench so many yards long, but I want to put before the Minister what I believe to be the kernel of the whole position. I have here a letter from a certain workman who gives particulars of the wages earned by him since he commenced work on that scheme. I happen to know this individual personally and I believe he is a hardworking man and I think the history of his work, when he was employed on other State-aided schemes in or around the same area, would prove that he is a man who does not lie down when work is to be done.

He says:

"I worked hard for two days and a half doing 98 yards. My wages for that week were 5/7, after deducting 1/5 for stamps."

That man travelled a long distance for a week's work.

There has not been a full week's work there yet.

It is true that some men have not got a full week's work. He sums up the situation in this way:

"No doubt the board and their officials are taking advantage of the unfortunate men, knowing that they are not organised. Big strong men were brought here for a day to set a head-line for the rest of the men. Every bluff is tried."

That is a fair summary of the position. I am raising the matter in order to see whether the Minister accepts responsibility for the original conditions on which these men were employed at Walsh Island, and to know what steps he has taken, since he disclosed his ignorance of the conditions yesterday, to see that the men employed on this kind of work in future will get a fairly reasonable rate of wages and reasonable hours of work. What is the use of the Minister for Industry and Commerce coming to this House and asking it to pass a Conditions of Employment Act to compel public employers and public companies to observe decent conditions for employees, when he will not observe the same conditions or see that they are complied with in the case of men employed on State-aided schemes, such as turf cutting, afforestation and other work of that kind for which moneys are voted by this House. I hope the Minister will not say that he has not the right to interfere with the activities of the Turf Development Board, which is not a statutory body but for which £40,500 has been voted this year, in the belief that it would be spent in useful development work and that those employed would get fair wages and reasonable hours. I do not want to weary the House now, but I raised this question for the sole purpose of giving the Minister the opportunity to say if he takes responsibility under existing circumstances for the work carried on by the Turf Development Board, and if he agrees that the original conditions were unfair, and will take the necessary steps to interfere and to compel the board which is responsible for the spending of the money to have men employed in the future treated fairly.

Did this work start a few days ago in Rathangan?

The work only started recently. A full week's work has not been worked yet. The Deputy asked for information concerning the average amount of earnings for each person during the past five weeks. I am informed that no men have been employed for five weeks because the work started within that period. The Deputy's question and speech raise, in an acute form, a matter to which I think he and his colleagues must give their earnest attention. The Turf Development Board is a State enterprise, financed, as the Deputy mentioned, by a Grant-in-Aid voted by this House, and it is entrusted with the task of carrying out what we think will become a very important scheme of national development. The Minister for Industry and Commerce is responsible to the Dáil for that scheme, and responsible for the policy and actions of the board, but in relation to activities which are purely commercial, and particularly the enterprise with which the Deputy is concerned, and which has been undertaken as a purely commercial enterprise, the Minister for Industry and Commerce does not interfere with the discretion of the board in matters of administration and particularly with its discretion in the matter of employment. I think it is going to be of vital importance to the future of that scheme or any other scheme of development undertaken by the State, that that attitude should be maintained. I know that the policy of the Labour Party favours the undertaking of enterprises of that kind by the State, rather than by private individuals, but it will obviously become absolutely impossible for the State to do so if every time there is a question raised concerning conditions of employment of workmen, or a dispute between a body of workmen and the particular board concerned, the matter can be raised here, and political pressure exercised for the purpose of securing readjustment of these conditions. Whether the particular rates of wages being paid on that work are good rates or bad rates it is difficult to say. The rates are fixed on a piece-work basis, and they were, naturally, fixed on an experimental basis at first, because there was no standard practice to which reference could be made.

I understand the board fixed rates which they thought, after carrying out certain experimental work, would enable these workers to earn what would be regarded as the normal rate of wages for unskilled labour in the area. A number of men were told to report for the work and they did so. Two classes were taken, people from rural areas and certain urban workers, particularly from the town of Portarlington. The report I received is that the urban workers did not give the piece rates a fair chance, but went on strike almost immediately, without really endeavouring to find out if the piece rates would enable them to earn a standard week's wages. The rural workers remained at work and there are some 90 men employed there at the present time. After the work had been in progress for some time, as the Deputy mentioned, certain readjustments in rates were made. He stated later that he was raising this matter because the men had failed to secure locally an improvement in conditions but, in fact, he admitted earlier that there was an improvement in the rates.

Roughly 1/- a week.

The rate was 1/- for 18 yards of a drain 3 × 1½, but that was subsequently improved by being reduced to 14 yards. No doubt, other variations were made or might be made.

They were not made.

This matter is one which should be dealt with by the Turf Development Board and by them only, and I think it is very undesirable that it should be raised here at all, certainly in the first instance before the usual approach to the employers in the case was made, that is an approach to the Turf Development Board. I think Deputy Davin, in raising it here, acted without having given due regard to what the consequences would be The inevitable consequence will be that the State will avoid having work undertaken in that particular manner, where questions of rates of wages of employees on particular work or a particular class of work could be raised here and made the subject of a debate. It is much more desirable that the Turf Development Board, even though it is financed by a Grant-in-Aid voted by this House, should, in relation to such matters, be regarded as an ordinary employer, and the Department of Industry and Commerce should treat it as an ordinary employer, in the event of a dispute arising on any matter which would require the intervention of the Department, in the same way as it would intervene between an employer and workers in industrial disputes of the ordinary kind. The Deputy stated there was no use in passing a Conditions of Employment Act if the State did not observe the conditions prescribed for ordinary employers under the Act. The State does observe these conditions, and so far as the State employs industrial workers, the Conditions of Employment Act applies to them in the same way as to any other class of industrial workers.

Does it apply in these cases?

I do not want to answer that question, because I am not quite sure whether any question has been raised in that connection. In my opinion, it does apply, but if an application were made for certain modifications of the hours of work on the ground that the employment involved here was of a seasonal nature, the matter would have to be considered. It would have to be considered in accordance with the provisions of the Act, with the requirements of which, I think, Deputy Davin is familiar. Certainly the Department of Industry and Commerce, exercising its functions under the Conditions of Employment Act, would deal with any such question in precisely the same way as it would deal with the question if it were raised in relation to the conditions of employment enforced by a private employer. There should be no prospect for the Minister, or the officials of the Department of Industry and Commerce that the issue would become a political issue and not one of the ordinary kind which arises every day in the week in connection with other classes of employment.

It is desirable, I think, that the relations between the workers and the Turf Development Board in connection with this scheme should be harmonious. The scheme has been undertaken, as I have said, as a commercial project. It is intended to provide capital for the Turf Development Board for the purpose of carrying out the scheme, which capital has to be remunerated. It has got to be repaid to the Exchequer, together with interest from the moment it is advanced. The products of the scheme have, therefore, to be sold at a profit. It is only on such a basis we could undertake the work. We would not undertake it on any other basis and questions of this kind cannot, therefore, be dealt with otherwise than on commercial considerations. It would be very undesirable that the prospects of success of a scheme which may be the forerunner of a number of similar enterprises should be prejudiced by the intervention of political considerations, inducing other than purely commercial conditions to operate. Therefore, I indicated that I did not wish to deal with such questions in reply to Parliamentary queries addressed in the ordinary way.

The Turf Development Board is fully aware of its obligations as an employer of labour and of the policy of the Government in relation to the employment of labour. On that account, it is likely to deal fairly with any representations made to it on behalf of the workers as to rates of pay and conditions of employment subject to its being free to deal with these matters in an ordinary commercial atmosphere. There must be no idea, however, at the back of the workers' minds that an awkward political situation can be created for the Government if they do not take a particular course or if they take another course. I am personally particularly anxious——

Their policy is to pay low wages.

The policy is to pay the standard rate for similar work in any other part of the country.

This is not the standard rate.

Whether it is or not is difficult to say. One class of workers remained at work and their rates of wages were adjusted. Another class did not do that. The class who did not remain at work did not give the rates a fair trial. They organised a strike before doing so. So far as I know, the full number of workers are now employed and a number of other workers have applied for employment.

Does that justify the continuance of these conditions?

I will admit, having regard to the information supplied to me, which has reference only to the rates which have been fixed per yard or foot in respect to the various operations on the bog, it is impossible to say what an average man working for 48 hours per week could earn, but the Turf Development Board is desirous of ensuring that the rates will be such that the average man will at least earn the standard rate for that class of work. I know nothing at all as to the statement made by Deputy Davin that men were sent to this work from an area 12 miles away.

Did the Minister inquire?

I shall be glad to inquire if particulars of the case are sent to me. I had better say no more on the matter until these particulars are forthcoming. It would be impossible to pass any comment on a statement of that kind without having an opportunity of investigating the facts of particular cases. The work here is merely starting. It is in our opinion likely to involve a very considerable amount of employment. At the commencement about 90 men are employed, and it is hoped that the employment on this particular operation will run into several hundreds. Perhaps even larger numbers can be employed when commercial operations are commenced. It is a matter of considerable importance for that part of the country. It will be sufficient to absorb all the registered unemployed within a very considerable radius of the work. On that account, I am anxious that the scheme should be given a fair chance. The scheme will not be given that fair chance unless the relations between the board and the workers are good relations. I think they can be best kept good, and the difficulties which will inevitably arise and which may need adjustment, will more easily be adjusted if the atmosphere of political controversy does not enter into the matter. I can assure the Deputy that the board will be anxious to deal with all complaints received by them in a reasonable manner, if the work is allowed to proceed in a normal way. I am anxious to see it proceed in a normal way because I think the success of this type of organisation will result in other undertakings of a similar nature being embarked on later on.

The Dáil adjourned at 11 p.m. until Thursday, 18th June, at 3 p.m.