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.
"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.