Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 15 Jul 2020

Vol. 995 No. 1

Employment Rights: Motion [Private Members]

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:


— the structural problem of low pay in the Irish economy, resulting in many people living on the breadline, denying them the opportunity of a decent standard of living;

— the precarious nature of many jobs, resulting in many workers being underemployed and dependent on welfare support;

— the lack of entitlement to basic protections such as sick pay and statutory leave for many workers;

— the increasing casualisation of work, with uncertainty about hours and days of work;

— the absence of the right to collective bargaining and representation in the workplace;

— the recent High Court decision to strike down a sectoral employment order, leaving many workers unprotected, and while the Government intends to appeal this judgement, the ultimate need for legislation; and

— the need for a clear pathway to the living wage;


— that since the emergence of the Covid-19 crisis, there is an even more urgent need to recognise the valuable contribution to our State of the large number of essential workers who are in lower paid and precarious jobs;

— the exceptional efforts of such workers involved in our food production and supermarkets, care assistants, those who collected our waste throughout the crisis and those who provided support services to our frontline healthcare workers to enable them to carry out their duties in conditions that were sanitary and safe, amongst many others; and

— that the Irish State owes a debt of gratitude to its workers, particularly those on low pay and in insecure work; and


— to ensure an enhanced focus within Government on creating good jobs and protecting workers’ rights;

— that access to jobs, where workers have a voice that provides a level of autonomy, a decent income, security of tenure, satisfying work in the right quantities and decent working conditions, should be integral to public policy given how this contributes to better health and well-being by tackling inequalities, building self-efficacy and combating poverty; and

— to establish a task force to give effect to this Resolution.

Allow me to begin with a simple truth: a state should never have to afford standard rights to its citizens as a form of thanks. This is not the intention of the motion we have tabled. My colleagues in the Social Democrats and I will speak about a contribution made by some of our most vulnerable workers that is unquantifiable. We will speak of a debt that remains unpaid. That contribution from our workers and the debt the State owes them for the manner in which their labour has been undervalued was prevalent in our society long before Covid-19. We hope and expect the motion we have tabled will give Deputies throughout the Chamber the opportunity to turn words into action, give substance to the applause and take meaningful action that will improve the pay and conditions of workers, which is the end point of the appreciation that has been expressed over recent months.

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and in the midst of our national lockdown, I stood in the Dáil and thanked front-line workers, many of them in low paid and precarious employment, for risking their lives and health to keep our society and economy going. These workers are all over Ireland, in every one of our constituencies. They have been essential in ensuring our food production lines remained operational and our supermarkets remained open. They collected their wages throughout the crisis and ensured our hospitals were clean and our essential workers could carry out their duties in conditions that were sanitary and safe.

My words are similar to those of many other Deputies who stood in the House during the first weeks of the new Dáil, many of whom find themselves in government now. Together we promised that when the opportunity came, we would offer more than thanks. Today is the first opportunity we have to live up to this promise. This is a chance to ensure an enhanced focus in government on creating good jobs and enhancing workers' rights. We can recognise that access to jobs where workers have a voice and to jobs that provide a level of autonomy, a decent income, security of employment and decent working conditions are an integral part of public policy, given how they contribute to better health and well-being and tackle inequalities, build self-efficacy and combat poverty. We have sought to be constructive in the motion to achieve this aim. I hope the wording as originally presented will look familiar. The Minister of State, Deputy Troy, will recognise it as being almost identical to that which was part of the New Decade, New Approach agreement that restored devolved Government in the North of Ireland and was approved by the previous Government in January.

Our request in this regard is very modest. We accept that the Social Democrats and Fine Gael view the world with a very different gaze and have sought to meet Fine Gael at its level, because the advancement of better workers' rights is all we seek in the motion. We ask that workers in the Republic be afforded the same recognition and promised protections as those in the North. We thought that while we can disagree on many issues that pertain to Government spending and taxation, the advancement of workers' protections during these unparalleled times could be a point of unity throughout the Chamber. However, the Government's needless amendment has clearly sought to deny even these modest gains.

Establishing a task force to give effect to this resolution and to propose concrete actions is essential given how weak the programme for Government is on workers' rights and how silent it is on the issue of collective bargaining. According to the document, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party have absolutely nothing to say about trade union rights, workplace representation and collective bargaining. The section in the programme for Government on a better work-life balance contains a measly two sentences comprising only 30 words, which in themselves are vague and non-committal.

The Minister of State's amendment has purposely sought to remove any reference to collective bargaining, workers' protections and workplace representation so as to completely undermine the spirit of the motion and leave behind something that is self-serving and meaningless. This is in keeping with Fine Gael's market force laissez-faire approach to workers' rights that we have witnessed over the past nine years of Government, which has been to the detriment of our lowest paid workers. This is not the change that Fianna Fáil and the Green Party promised the electorate in February. If the Green Party will not take a stand for workers so that environmental justice can truly go hand in hand with social justice and a just transition for our workers then what is the use? If Fianna Fáil is not going to be a more socially conscious worker friendly version of Fine Gael in government then who exactly does it intend to be?

Recent research by Oxfam indicates that Ireland has the fifth largest number of billionaires per capita in the world. Ireland has the second highest incidence of low pay in the EU, affecting 23% of our workers in 2019. In further contrast, last year also saw Ireland registered the highest GDP in the Union for the third year in a row. This is directly connected to the fact that only 32% of employees in Ireland are covered by a collective agreement. This drops by almost half when considering only workers in the private sector. This is compared to an average in our EU peer group of 76%, with 78% in the Netherlands, 90% in Sweden and Finland and more than 95% in Austria, Belgium and France.

This is not simply a moral issue; it is an economic one. There is a very strong correlation between countries with higher trade union density and levels of collective bargaining coverage and countries with lower levels of income inequality. Labour's share of income has been falling in most of the western world in recent decades and this phenomenon is particularly prevalent in Ireland. This means those on lower and middle incomes, those who tend to spend a much higher percentage of their incomes and, in turn, boost our local economies have much less money to spend. Collective bargaining, therefore, does not damage our economic competitiveness but enhances it. Ireland is ranked 24th in the global competitive index, lagging behind those aforementioned countries with much higher levels of collective bargaining, including Austria, Belgium, France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland, despite those countries often also having premiers who consider themselves to be radical centrists. Ireland is unusual in the European context in that employers are not legally obliged to engage with trade unions to negotiate pay agreements or other conditions of employment. This explains much of our lower level of collective bargaining coverage. We are simply way out of line with EU norms in the area.

It is an undeniable fact that the State owes a debt of gratitude to its workers, particularly those in low paid and insecure work. However, let us be very clear that while Covid-19 has made this invisible work visible, this does not mean the work did not exist before Covid-19; it was merely that those in power placed little value on it. Those who work in low pay and precarious work, among whom women, migrants and younger workers are over represented, have always done the most crucial work to keep our economy and society thriving. They have always received the least recognition for it. Although this recognition changed somewhat during Covid, the pay and conditions of workers did not.

Despite increases in the national minimum wage in recent years, it is wholly inadequate and, currently, it is 18% less than a living wage. We have an opportunity to turn this around, starting tonight, and to turn our claps for these workers into secure jobs with at least the security of a minimum wage and access to collective bargaining rights. There is a structural problem with low pay in the economy, resulting in many people who work living in poverty or working multiple jobs to give themselves and their families a decent standard of living.

We have a shameful situation where too many workers are in precarious work or underemployment and dependent on welfare support. For many women working part-time due to childcare costs or care responsibilities, the work simply does not pay and is a major contributing factor to increasing child and family poverty. In many sectors there is a lack of entitlement to basic protections such as sick pay and statutory leave and an increasing casualisation of work, with uncertainty about hours and days of work.

A task force is critical because of the interlocking and reinforcing nature of these individual issues. For example, if a living wage were to be introduced overnight, if an employee is on a precarious contract his or her hours will just be cut. We know this. It is for this reason that a task force must look at a holistic approach to examine the issues as a whole and institute a suite of measures to ensure that workers are paid well in secure jobs.

We must also acknowledge the gender implications of low pay. The majority of those in low-paid and precarious work are women, and the motion would be an important measure in going some way to help to close the gender pay gap. In the midst of the critical Black Lives Matter movement we should also acknowledge the critical role played by migrant workers in keeping our economy going, again often in insecure and underpaid work. It is critical that alongside the trade unions and employers on the task force we envisage, there would also be women's groups, migrants' groups and representatives from civic society. All should be around the table to discuss how we can improve the lives of our workers.

It is time to turn a collapse into action. This is a chance for the Government parties to show that their failure to make substantial commitments on progressing workplace protections and collective bargaining in the programme for Government was simply an oversight and that this Government will not adopt the same old approach when it comes to workers' rights.

I wish to reiterate the point made by Deputy Gannon, that the actions we are seeking on foot of this motion are exceptionally modest, as part of the New Decade, New Approach agreement in Northern Ireland. We remember that agreement in January very well. I am sure the Minister of State remembers it. It was just before the general election was called and it got the institutions back up and running. The agreement was signed by the previous Government as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. The last Government committed to focus on creating good jobs and protecting workers' rights. This motion calls on the Government to demonstrate the same commitment to workers' rights in the Republic as was signed up to in the North.

Yesterday, the Tánaiste said to me in response to a question that there is no crystal ball to show how long the Covid-19 pandemic will continue or its long-term effects. Of course, that is true. However, while we might not be able to see the future we should not allow ourselves to forget the very recent past. We must aim to recover in a way in which we have learned lessons from the past. There are obvious structural weaknesses in the way work has been developing in a precarious way, whereby people cannot make decisions for themselves because they are never sure of their income.

The Covid-19 crisis has had a devastating impact on public health and the wider economy. The ongoing pandemic has amplified and shone a light on the many issues affecting workers in this country. Throughout the pandemic every Member of the House has given praise to workers and especially to low-paid and precarious workers, such as the people who deliver the food to our supermarkets, who stock the shelves and who we meet at the check-outs. People refocused what they saw as being essential. However, it cannot be enough just to acknowledge that and to thank and congratulate people. Those workers cannot live on our platitudes. We owe them a debt of gratitude and we must deliver real and practical solutions to vindicate their rights. That has to be the legacy from this crisis.

When the Covid-19 crisis passes, employers in both the private and public sectors will be judged on how they treated the most vulnerable workers during these unprecedented times. This Dáil has an equal responsibility to ensure that workers' rights and conditions are enshrined in law and have full statutory backing. The latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, statistics show that 23% of the Irish workforce are low paid. That is the third highest in the European Union. Moreover, a 2018 report from the Think-tank for Action on Social Change, TASC, found that 44% of the workforce was in precarious employment. Most of them were at an increased risk of poverty. They have no guarantee of hours or income, no sick pay, no annual leave and no pension entitlements. We saw a report published today on the pension time bomb. I wonder to what extent the precarious nature of employment has been built into that.

This is bad enough in and of itself, but we must consider the knock-on effects it has on workers' lives. They do not have the security to aspire to buying a house, for example. Often they postpone things like forming a family. Even where somebody has a well-paid job in contractual employment, something like a mortgage can be out of reach. It is not just impacting on their weekly wage and conditions but also on their quality of life and the choices they can make. In a country as wealthy as ours, this is unacceptable. Moreover, it is uneconomical. At the end of last year, 108,400 part-time workers were categorised as underemployed. According to EUROSTAT projections the chances of an Irish part-time worker transitioning to full-time employment in 2017 was as low as 3%, the lowest in the EU countries that were surveyed.

This is a huge resource of skills, talents and human potential that we are allowing to be wasted because we remain wedded to an out-of-date, outmoded model of employment that, frankly, belonged to the middle of the last century. It was not fit for purpose before the pandemic and it certainly is not fit for purpose afterwards. Until we take decisive action, and it will not happen by accident, there will continue to be inequality and shameful poverty rates. One in five children lives in poverty. One in six people who are employed lives below the poverty line.

None of that is acceptable, yet the Government has proposed an amendment to the motion that strips out all the practical actions that need to be taken and will make a difference. It is particularly telling that the amendment removes all references to workers' rights and collective bargaining. This is an area in which this country is distinctly lacking. We are the only EU member state in western Europe that does not have binding collective bargaining legislation. It is very troubling to see the Government take this tack especially when we are seeing the erosion of workers' rights. Obviously, we must rebuild differently.

In the last few weeks I have received a number of messages from workers who are finding themselves under pressure to reduce their pay and conditions to facilitate their employers. It is really a David and Goliath fight. We have seen that with the Debenhams workers outside the House today. We see how unprotected they are. We saw it a few weeks ago with CityJet. Essentially, our examinership process is working to the advantage of the parent company in the Cayman Islands at the expense of the employees here. Indeed, we will end up with a shell company here with very little employment. The Instant UpRight workers comprise another group. They are seeing their jobs outsourced to China and Latvia. Even in the shopping malls one sees places that are not open and will not open. Much of what was heretofore direct employment in this country is disappearing.

There needs to be a significant focus on job retention.

The workers in this country deserve far greater ambition. We must strive for our country not just to recover from the economic impact of the pandemic but to recover as a better country than when we went into it. We need to see good-quality jobs in which workers have a voice and a level of autonomy, a guarantee of a decent income, security of tenure and decent working conditions as the bare minimum every citizen in this country should be entitled to expect. This will require a clear roadmap and legislative plan. The task force we are proposing certainly would not be a panacea but would at least move the focus of attention in the right direction. We need wide-ranging structural changes. What we need is a tangible pathway to deliver something better. We do not want to be here in two or three years' time talking about the continued precarious nature of work. Anyone who looks at those who are impacted will find that young people, who are talked about as being the group we need to be most concerned about in the future, are the most likely to be in the most precarious of jobs. According to a recent survey, they take up those jobs because, they say, they do not have any other option.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this very important debate and I thank the Social Democrats for tabling the motion. It gives us an opportunity to debate where we are going with workers' rights and sustainable employment. I, too, acknowledge the essential work that has been carried out by so many different workers in the public and private sectors during the Covid-19 public health emergency: our front-line healthcare workers, the people who work in our supermarkets, our home carers, people working throughout retail, people who collect our refuse and so many more. I thank those workers for their continued efforts. They have carried us through these very challenging times, made so many people feel safe and done so much for so many people. It is also important we acknowledge all workers who have made the necessary adjustments this health emergency has required. I know that remote working has imposed its own challenges through these difficult and continuously changing times. We are all learning and doing our best to stop the spread of the virus. I thank those people also. The time for adjustment is not over. We must continue to balance public health concerns with economic and social challenges. Collectively, we have a responsibility to work together to address those challenges and the other challenges facing our country.

It is for this reason that my party signed up to the programme for Government and to participate in government in order that we can influence change. Within the programme for Government there is a commitment to progressing a living wage over the lifetime of the Government. There is, however, an immediate challenge this year and next year for sectors such as hospitality, retail and tourism, where much of the low-paid employment is apparent. Anyone who walks through the streets of Dublin or any provincial town will see, unfortunately, that many people in these sectors are still not working. It was in this context that the previous Government introduced the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and the temporary wage subsidy, to ensure that people who had been working on the lowest incomes were protected during this pandemic. Our priority as a Government must be, in the short and medium term, to get these people back to work and restore employment. That is why next week's job stimulus is so important, to ensure that measures are introduced to support business to bring people back from unemployment and into employment. That is why this week the Cabinet approved a credit guarantee scheme and next week we will see improvement to the restart grant and a commitment to extend the wage subsidy in order that people can have confidence that their jobs will be protected into the future.

The intention of the Government is to restore employment, and as we work towards that we will move towards realising the ambition of a living wage. This will require cross-party support, and I welcome suggestions on how this can be achieved. The living wage is an estimate made by a number of NGOs, civil society groups and academics doing research in this area. It is based on research identifying the income required for the minimum essential standard of living for a single adult household in Ireland. This research is conducted by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice. The programme for Government is committed to a move to a living wage over the lifetime of the Government.

In this context it is important that Ireland's statutory minimum wage and the living wage concept are not conflated. The living wage is a voluntary societal initiative centred on a social, business and economic case to ensure that, wherever it can be afforded, employers will provide a rate of pay that provides an income that is sufficient to meet individuals' basic needs, such as housing, food, clothing, transport and healthcare. It is for this reason that we are addressing the costs of childcare and housing and making affordable housing a key priority of the Government. My colleague, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is already out making the case for the provision of affordable housing.

The national minimum wage has a legislative basis and confers a statutory entitlement on employees and a statutory obligation on employers. The national minimum wage is a legally binding lowest average hourly rate that can be paid by an employer to an employee. The rate is set and governed by the National Minimum Wage Act 2000, which applies to all employees, including full-time, part-time, temporary and casual employees, with some exceptions. Legislation on the setting of the national minimum wage has existed since 2000. The Low Pay Commission was established in 2015 and its primary function is, annually, to examine and make recommendations on the national minimum wage with a view to providing for adjustments which do not negatively impact jobs or competitiveness. The commission takes an evidence-based approach to its recommendations, having regard to changes in earnings, productivity, overall competitiveness and the likely impact any adjustment will have on employment and unemployment levels. Since the establishment of the Low Pay Commission, the Government has accepted all recommendations it has made for the national minimum wage.

The national minimum wage approach seeks to find a balance between a fair and sustainable rate for low-paid workers and one that will not have significant negative consequences for employers and competitiveness. It has to be a pragmatic approach, providing a clearly defined minimum hourly rate for employers, giving them the freedom to pay higher rates while providing a measure of security for low-paid workers. As it is legally enforceable, it provides protection for workers. More broadly, the setting of wages is a matter between employers and employees, which takes place in the context of the market, and the Government does not interfere unduly in the process. There is widespread evidence that shows that a minimum wage is a blunt tool for reducing poverty as many minimum wage earners are sometimes located in households higher in the income distribution. This was found in the ESRI's report on the impact of the minimum wage on household income distribution. Therefore, it is integral that other work supports are in place for low-income families.

We should have learned from recent months, however, and we have learned through striving together against something that threatens all of us that we can work together to shape our common future. All the economic initiatives must be centred on employment, retaining existing jobs, creating new jobs and providing a strong focus on quality employment with good terms and conditions and a work-life balance.

The Government is asserting its ambition to meet these challenges, repair the damage that has been inflicted by the pandemic and take renewed spirit arising from these challenging times and translate it into action - action that can deliver a better quality of life for everybody, equality within society and a deeper sense of connection to the natural world around us and to each other. That is the most effective response to concerns about poverty and inequality. It is the best way to provide more and better opportunities for all our people.

The Government supports an approach to the minimum wage which seeks to find a balance between a fair and sustainable rate of pay for low-paid workers and one that will not have significant consequences for employers and competitiveness. The Government will continue to be guided by the evidence-based recommendations from the Low Pay Commission when considering changes to the national minimum wage. The Programme for Government: Our Shared Future, in its commitment to valuing those in low-paid employment, includes a commitment to progress to a living wage over the lifetime of this Government and this important work will commence shortly. The best antidote to poverty and inequality is to focus on employment, ensuring people have access to jobs and that those jobs are of good quality with a strong social insurance safety net for when it is needed. Before we make greater strides for the benefit of our workforce, our initial and unrelenting focus must be on getting people back to work and preserving and protecting people in precarious situations at the moment.

I am confident we can achieve a better life for all. We must take the good things we have learned from the pandemic and employ them towards a resilient future. This Government will facilitate and support remote working, reduce the time wasted in our cars and ensure families have more time together. I commend the Government’s countermotion to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Social Democrats' first Private Members' motion in the new Dáil. I am delighted to be in a position to contribute to the debate as a Social Democrats Deputy for Wicklow. Our motion recognises first and foremost the incredibly important role essential workers in many different sectors have played in giving us the certainty and safety we craved during Covid-19. Be they our local shop assistants, our care assistants, our waste collectors or our takeaway deliverer, they all had to navigate the unpredictable and uncertain nature of working under Covid-19 so that we did not have to. We recognise and acknowledge the valuable contribution these workers make to the fundamental running of our economy. Now that the roadmap to exiting Covid-19 is under way, we need to face a hard truth in this country. We have relied on some of our most precarious and lowest paid workers to keep the country going during this crisis. The fact is that many essential workers are in low-paid and precarious jobs. They lack decent wages, statutory protections and the certainty that most of us take for granted. Praise and gratitude are not enough. Workers deserve a living wage, a decent standard of living, statutory protections and the right to collective bargaining. The State can no longer take advantage of these workers and it is for these workers and their families that we have tabled this motion today.

The structural problem of low pay in the economy is also a gendered one. I want to use my time today to focus on this aspect of low pay and workers. According to a 2016 report from the Think-tank for Action on Social Change, TASC, 29% of female workers are in low-paid jobs, in comparison to 19% of male workers. Some 46% of these women are the main earner in their household. Who minds one's children when one earns a decent living? Who educates them? Who nurses one's sick, elderly parent or cares for a loved one in a hospital? They are primarily women and they make up a large proportion of the workers who have kept this economy running while we were safe and protected in our homes during lockdown. It is no coincidence that the sectors experiencing chronically low pay are those made up of mostly female workers. Governments past and present have devalued care in this country and have taken advantage of the competing demands in women’s lives. It is no wonder that female workers make up 55% of the workforce earning the national minimum wage or less, with men making up 45%. That is a 10% difference.

The childcare sector is an example. Early childhood educators are among the lowest paid of all our professional groups. A survey of more than 3,000 childcare workers found that 94% of them cannot make enough money to make ends meet. The average hourly rate for staff in the sector is just €12.55 and 90% of childcare workers question whether they have a future in the sector. These are the people who we rely on to educate, nurture and take care of our children and yet we do not value them enough to pay them a proper wage.

It is not just our children. It is also our elderly and vulnerable. According to CSO figures, women represent 80% of healthcare workers in Ireland. Low pay and difficult working conditions are plaguing the sector, particularly for home care workers. Most private home care assistants are qualified with a minimum of a Further Education and Training Awards Council, FETAC, level 5 qualification. However, the average rate of pay is less than the living wage.

These women have children too, families who depend on them for income and support. It is important that we acknowledge the impact low pay has on families because the two are interlinked. Female workers often need the flexibility of hours that comes with low-paid jobs because they simply cannot afford the high childcare costs but flexibility suits the employer more than the worker. The casual nature of the work makes it difficult to unionise and with family in the background the demands on women’s time and energy make them further disadvantaged. To add to the insecurity these women have to deal with, they are at increased risk of poverty with no guarantee of hours or income from week to week, no sick pay, no annual leave and no pension entitlements, leaving them open if circumstances change.

Governments past and present have presided over many policies that have consistently left behind women who work in these sectors. It is time to break the cycle of discrimination and establish a task force so we can move forward towards a living wage, enforce more rights for workers with better pay and conditions and include the right to unionise.

I too welcome the opportunity to speak on the Social Democrats' first Private Members' motion in the new Dáil. The pandemic has highlighted how undervalued so many of our essential workers are. Like my colleague said, we all owe them a debt of gratitude but gratitude is not just paying lip service. Real gratitude is providing them with fair pay, better conditions and basic rights. Another motivation for putting this motion forward is that by addressing workers’ rights we not only ensure their livelihoods and dignity, we help solve so many other social and economic issues too, from poverty and food insecurity to family health and vulnerability to unregulated loans.

Everyone deserves decent working conditions and to be valued. We know this leads to increased health and well-being and, therefore, increased productivity. It is in everyone’s interest - workers, employees and the State - that people are guaranteed safe, secure and positive professional environments. Dependable income, security of tenure and decent working conditions enable people to put down roots, settle in communities and help those communities to thrive.

Covid-19 demonstrated who our essential workers are. They are nurses, carers, cleaners, food producers, postal workers, public transport drivers and so many front-line workers. The wages and working conditions of these groups and others have been eroded over the past generation. Wage cuts, recruitment freezes and subcontracting are becoming established practices. These policies create uncertainty and precarity. They only benefit the few, not the many. Research by Social Justice Ireland based on CSO figures found that in 2018, almost 110,000 people at work fell below the poverty line, as did a further 82,000 people on home duties, such as parents and carers. Their children and dependants are also living in poverty as a result. This is a systematic failure and we should do everything we can to fix it.

Today, unfortunately, gender still impacts on wages and conditions. A paper by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service shows that the Irish gender pay gap was 13.9% in 2016. That gap is worse for older women, women from ethnic minorities and higher earners. It estimates that, at the current rate of decline, it would take Ireland another 55 years to close the pay gap. Words fail me.

The proposals in our motion will help to tackle these issues at source. They focus on the casualisation of labour, the precarious nature of many jobs and the absence of collective bargaining.

Media reports on the clusters of Covid-19 infections in meat plants and the statements given to the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response by witnesses from Migrant Rights Centre Ireland last Friday are a harrowing example of how some workers are treated. Workers have consistently told journalists that they are frightened to talk about conditions in the sector. They have stayed anonymous in media reports for fear of retribution. This paints a shameful picture of the conditions people are working in today. Outbreaks in these factories raise serious health and safety concerns, as do the absence of sick pay for many workers and the subcontracting practices which leave people more vulnerable to exploitative labour conditions. Migrant workers in this sector are at particular risk because their immigration permissions may be tied to their employer, leaving them in an even more precarious and vulnerable position. Language barriers, institutional racism and a lack of social capital exacerbate their circumstances. I have called separately for a review of the meat processing sector. This motion aligns with that objective and with the recommendations by Migrant Rights Centre Ireland regarding worker rights in meat processing plants.

Our motion calls for fairness. It proposes a rights-based framework to ensure workers get fair pay and conditions and everyone can live a dignified existence. Precarious employment and the gig economy are increasingly common in different sectors, including healthcare, retail, customer service, deliveries, childcare and universities. We are calling for the introduction of basic safety nets which were taken for granted a generation ago. Basic entitlements, dependable hours, collective bargaining and a decent salary are the minimum workers should expect. Good employers will welcome these requirements. Indeed, they are already practising them. Many small companies and family-run businesses in my constituency of Cork South-West and across Ireland provide these conditions for their employees. This motion will help to create a level playing field, where decent employers will not be undercut by others who place profit above workers' rights.

We want work to be valued. We believe everyone should have access to basic conditions and entitlements which reward good work. When those conditions are in place, employers benefit, the State benefits and families benefit. We all benefit. I am asking my colleagues from all parties to support our motion.

I thank the Social Democrats for bringing forward this important motion. It is a very broad motion but it has sparked a very necessary conversation. When the Fianna Fáil Minister of State, Deputy Troy, took us through the greatest hits of the minimum wage, he left out a very important part, which is that the last time Fianna Fáil and the Green Party were in government together, they cut the minimum wage. When their backs were to the wall, as they would say, the first people thrown under the bus were low-paid workers. It is important that those parties which have any concern for workers' rights use their time in the Dáil Chamber to ensure we put those rights front and centre. We cannot have enough conversations, let alone too many, about the need for workers' rights to be protected.

I will focus my remarks on three specific issues referred to in the motion, namely, tactical insolvency, precarious employment and the striking down of sectoral employment orders. We know that the practice of tactical insolvency is happening. The Tánaiste and I discussed it in the Chamber earlier this week. Large companies with access to resources can use loopholes in the law to evade their responsibilities and treat their workers disgracefully. They have been doing this for quite a while. We only have to look at the litany of company closures, which include TalkTalk, Clerys, the Paris Bakery and La Senza, to see the evidence of it. Every single time this happened, the Government said it needed to do something to ensure it could not happen again. It is happening again with Debenhams. The good news is that Sinn Féin has already drawn up legislation to tackle this issue. That legislation, which we introduced during the last Dáil, was described by Fianna Fáil as worthy of support and was not opposed by Fine Gael. Our Bill is ready to go and I have sought leave to introduce it. I will be asking all parties to support it.

What is happening to the Debenhams workers is an absolute disgrace and it is not good enough for us simply to say that we need to make sure it does not happen again. It keeps happening because successive Governments facilitate it. It keeps happening because successive Governments have shrugged their shoulders, said we should do something about it but not actually followed up on it. The workers who find themselves in this situation deserve a bit more respect than that. As I said, the Bill we brought forward was not opposed. We must resolve to make sure it passes all Stages in this Dáil as quickly as possible.

I have said on the record of the Dáil that precarious employment destroys families and wrecks people's lives. People in precarious work never know from the end of one week to the start of the next whether they will be working, what hours they will be working, how much they will earn, how much childcare they will need and whether they will need transport to and from work. That situation destroys people's lives. The Minister of State, Deputy Troy, referred to the need for a work-life balance. It is hard not to laugh at that. For people in precarious employment, work-life balance is not even a pipe dream. They cannot even imagine what that would be like. We know there are hundreds of thousands of workers on these types of contracts but, yet again, the Government is shrugging it shoulders and nothing is being done about it. What these workers need is action.

I raised the issue of the striking down of sectoral employment orders with the Minister of State, Deputy English, last Tuesday in the Dáil. There is a very real need for action to be taken on this matter but the response from the Tánaiste when it was put to him was very telling. When I told him that action needed to be taken, he reminded me, although I did not need any reminding, that the workers who would ordinarily have been covered by the orders, who will turn up for work tomorrow or the next day or change employment, have the benefit of the National Minimum Wage Act. None of us in this House works for the minimum wage. I am sure that very few family members of the Minister of State, Deputy English, work for the minimum wage. For the Tánaiste to say that those workers have the benefit of the minimum wage legislation is to say they are entitled to the absolute minimum. This evening we have had a Fianna Fáil Minister of State come in here and eulogise the minimum wage. Workers deserve more than this. The minimum wage is a floor, not a target. The way Government members talk about it, one would think people were living it large on the minimum wage. They absolutely are not living it large, because the cost of living is out of control.

Workers need to know who is on their side, who will stand up for them and who has their back. This evening, every Deputy from every party, regardless of their previous record in or out of government, has an opportunity to stand with workers. I am proud to say that Sinn Féin will be supporting the motion. I commend the Social Democrats on bringing it forward.

I welcome this motion in support of workers' rights. The Covid crisis has brought many employment rights issues to the fore. In May, 176 job losses were announced at National Pen's European headquarters in Dundalk. This was a huge blow to the workers and their families. Some of those workers came to me and told me of similar positions being advertised by National Pen in Tunisia two days before they were told about the lay-offs. I brought this issue to the company and the job advertisements were taken down from one website and put on another. During the negotiations with management, workers were refused union representation or to have third parties with negotiations experience speak on their behalf. The workers were given training for the negotiations but that is hardly best industrial practice. In fact, it is outrageous. Union representation and collective bargaining are fundamental rights but the situation of the National Pen workers, like that of many other workers, flies in the face of best practice across the EU and is in defiance of a number of Labour Court recommendations.

Many good employers have absolutely no difficulty with meeting the conditions I am talking about. However, the continuation of a situation where employers can pick and choose who to deal with is totally unacceptable, particularly when we are talking about the legal rights of employees. It is a farce to have people who may not have experience in human resources, employment law or negotiations facing off against globally experienced management teams. What makes it worse is that some of these firms have received huge benefit via state aid and grants. National Pen has received €1.5 million in grants since 2015.

We need Government action to protect our workers and families. These are the people who work in this economy and maintain and sustain it. These are the people who maintain and sustain this very society. We cannot have no Government action, or have cases where the Government stands not with National Pen and Debenhams workers but with Apple. We need people to make absolutely sure that we have a Government that protects their basic rights. What we need to offer people is decent, secure work and protections. Caithfimid an tacaíocht seo a thabhairt dóibh.

I thank the Social Democrats for bringing forward this motion. In the short time available to me I will address comments made about the living wage. In the previous Dáil, I brought forward a Sinn Féin motion to introduce a living wage of €12.30, which was passed. The Minister of State referred earlier to the Government's commitment to delivering a living wage during the course of this Dáil term and he spoke about the minimum wage in terms which sent a chill through my spine. I was deeply concerned by his emphasis on the Low Pay Commission delivering a living wage. I do not believe that will happen over the course of this Government because the Government will hide behind the Low Pay Commission and go with whatever it comes up with. The commission has form in this. In 2016, it proposed an increase in the minimum wage of 50 cent, of 20 cent in 2017, 30 cent in 2018 and 25 cent in 2019. It was not moving forward when the economy was booming.

A living wage is important and we need to make the distinction between it and a minimum wage. A living wage is one where people can actually go to work and live decently. It is based on the price of rent, travel and childcare. We are aware that we cannot move straight to a living wage, but the commitment the Government set out earlier deeply disturbs me because it is going to hide behind the Low Pay Commission. The Government is not interested in a living wage and we will be back here at the end of this term when it has not moved forward in any way to a living wage, having hidden behind the commission.

During the height of the pandemic, when certainty was a rare commodity and worry was prevalent, our health professionals sacrificed and suffered to keep us safe. However, they were not the only ones stepping into the bearna baol. Cleaners, porters and many others stood up with them, far too many of them on a low wage. The pandemic has shown the need for a living wage, and workers' protection has never been more important. We must honour the risks they have taken and ensure all workers are given a decent wage.

I support this motion on workers' rights. In particular, I support a living wage, the right to unionise and the right to collective bargaining, which is being denied to so many. Today, Debenhams workers held a protest outside this building to highlight the mistreatment and abuse they have received from the Debenhams UK company. These workers are only looking for fairness, their entitlements and fair redundancy. I am proud of them because what they are doing is standing up for all workers in this country who are in the same position. A number of years ago, we had similar issues in Cork with companies like Vita Cortex and Coca-Cola, and workers had to have sit-ins and protests for months before they finally got a fair redundancy package. If the Debenhams workers have to do the same, they are right to do so because, at the end of the day, this is all about fairness and justice. Low-paid workers in this country kept the country going during the pandemic. I have asked the Minister in both this Government and the previous one what we have done to show them our gratitude. When this country was at its most vulnerable, these people stood up and went out to keep the country, shops, supermarket and hospitals going. It is about time we recognised this effort and respected them for the work they have done.

During the pandemic I was contacted by a number of people who are 65 years of age and who were retired through letters and notifications. That is wrong. People have an entitlement to work if they wish and they should not just be let go with a piece of paper that says "thank you but goodbye". We need to ensure people have that right to work if they wish to do so. When workers in this country look for justice, they get the law and the law is against workers and for big business.

Nine years ago, the workers of Vita Cortex in the south side of Cork city sat in for 160 days to try to get the pay and redundancy to which they were entitled. At the time, they were visited by many public figures, maithe agus mór uaisle, including the current Taoiseach, who gave them very strong support, vocally if not practically. We are now in the same situation nine years on in that workers who are made redundant due to insolvency are way at the back of the queue. The language might refer to preferential treatment and so on but the reality is very different. In that time there have been numerous other similar cases, such as Game and La Senza, and now we have Debenhams as well. The Duffy Cahill report was also published in that time but its recommendations have not been progressed. We urgently need legislation on this. Workers are often left without any answers, poor communication and are denied their pay and entitlements. That should not be the case. It is a brutal way of treating workers and the Government has to address it.

There are those who believe, including unfortunately some on the left, that the objective is to give people the opportunity to get whatever employment they can over the course of years or generations and achieve social mobility. That is not the objective. While it can be part of it, the objective should be for everyone in any job to be able to live a secure, fulfilling life and to be able to pay for whatever they need and have that security. Crucial to that is ensuring that every worker has decent pay, and the greatest guarantee of decent pay is joining a union. Our unions are not perfect and I have had many disagreements with them, but the fact is that union workers are better paid and better protected. I urge anyone listening and people generally to join a union. Our legislation needs to be resolved. It is unacceptable that employers have the option to just disregard a well-organised, legally constituted union, set it aside and force it out the door. That needs to be fixed. We are an outlier in Europe on this matter. We need legislation on collective bargaining.

It is clear that we are facing massive problems as regards the underemployed or the working poor. Many workers have contacted my office to say they are now working similar or increased hours but with no increase in pay, meaning their income in real terms has taken a serious hit even with the assistance of the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS. Some employers have been unable or unwilling to top up the TWSS and there is also a problem with it in that it does not allow employers to pay more than the top-up payment. If they do that, the payment is scaled back until the employee is deemed to have come off it and appeals to Revenue have fallen on deaf ears. Seasonal workers, who already have few or no rights, were also shut out of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and full supports.

The Government's amendment emphasises job creation and retention, but too often workers are asked to carry an unfair share of the burden to keep businesses open. We must implement a living wage to ensure people do not dip below the poverty line through poor pay. It is something Sinn Féin has consistently called for and it is only right and proper that it be recommended by any task force. It is telling that the Government amendment expresses gratitude to workers. Retail workers in particular have been the unsung heroes of this pandemic, but they often survive on low pay and poor conditions. The legacy of the pandemic must be the improvement of their material conditions and the defence of collective bargaining rights and workers' protection. Before I was elected, almost every time I met with a client who had a work difficulty, that person had no workplace representation. This continues in Kerry with McCauley Chemists laying people off and refusing to recognise the union.

Workers have also been treated very poorly by Debenhams and Mothercare. This must change and now is the time to do it. Taking action would be appropriate as this is the weekend on which the Tolpuddle Martyrs are usually commemorated. Their struggle was the beginning of most union rights. Much has been said about the judicial decision on sectoral employment rights. Those workers have been left vulnerable and the ultimate protection will be strong legislation in this area and not just an appeal. As legislators, we must face up to this responsibility.

I am interested in the possibility of remote working for people in Kerry and other rural areas, but affordable and reliable broadband is sadly lacking and the technical support from all companies, including Eir and Vodafone, is shockingly bad. A person could be left waiting half an hour. It is interesting that the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation has been tweeting from his home while looking at his new monitor. I invite him, however, to try to do a video call from Gneevegullia or Caherdaniel and see how that works out for him.

I welcome this motion put forward by the Social Democrats. It speaks to the reality faced by many and highlights the fundamental inequality that exists between those on higher incomes and the majority of people who are just about existing and getting by on low incomes. The reality for too many people in employment is that they are earning barely enough to exist and many are living from wage packet to wage packet. Many have no safety net of savings or have insufficient income to deal with an unforeseen problem such as a domestic appliance breaking down and needing repair. Many families also do not have sufficient income to be able to set aside a portion to cope with any emergencies that might arise.

These are the realities of the financial pressures faced by many people in Ireland as they live day to day and week to week, according to what is in their wage packets and the bills they have to pay. Many are struggling to pay rent or mortgages and, before the lockdown, to pay the cost of childcare, which was often beyond the means of many parents. Such financial stresses can lead people into a spiral of debt and poverty. A proper living wage would go some way to address such inequalities in society. Sinn Féin has always advocated a living wage so that families can at least have a minimum standard of living. We have called for legislation on a national living wage to be enacted in order to ensure that workers receive proper remuneration for their labour and are given a proper living wage that would relieve the financial stresses and exploitation that many face daily.

Any proposals for the recovery of the economy should not involve regressive measures such as the exploitation of workers through low pay and contracts that lead to financial and social insecurity. In the past, we have seen how those most impacted upon by measures supposedly for the recovery of the economy have been the lowest paid and the most vulnerable in society. The burden of these recovery measures in the past fell disproportionately on those in society who are least able to shoulder it. This must not be allowed to happen again. From an economic point of view, a living wage will ultimately benefit the economy in the context of greater taxable income and increased spending power for the consumer. Decent pay for decent work is the very least that a worker should expect to get.

We now move to the Labour Party slot. I call Deputy Ó Ríordáin.

I thank and congratulate the Social Democrats for putting forward this motion, which the Labour Party will be supporting. We absolutely reject the amendment put down by the Government. I will refer to that in a moment.

I would like everybody listening to this debate to pause for a second and realise where we are. We are in the north inner city in the geographical birthplace of the workers' rights movement in Ireland. We are in the shadow of Liberty Hall and we are within walking distance of where Jim Larkin once spoke to striking dockers. It is possible to take a trip down Henry Street and see the plaque commemorating where the Dunnes Stores' women, they were predominantly women, went on strike in the 1980s. This is not a history lesson of course because, as has been referred to, the Debenhams' workers are just the latest example of how the struggle for workers' rights continues.

I find the amendment put down by the Government to be an insult. It is an insult to what the Social Democrats' motion is attempting to achieve, an insult to those who believe in workers' rights and an insult to those who have struggled for long years to obtain workers' rights and to enshrine those in legislation. I am not, however, surprised, because the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Varadkar, actually insulted myself, my party and our efforts to deal with the High Court judgment only yesterday when he said that what we were engaging in was "virtue signalling". That is what he said and this is the same individual who, when launching his Fine Gael leadership campaign three years ago, stated that he intended to introduce legislation to ban those in the public sector who work in essential services from striking. This is the type of political ethic with which we are dealing with the Tánaiste. That was enough to get some political support for his candidacy for the leadership of the Fine Gael Party three years ago and yet these are the same essential workers that he was happy to applaud during this pandemic and to state that without them our country would have fallen apart. That is classic dog-whistling.

The Labour Party and other parties in the Oireachtas have gone to great lengths to introduce legislation to improve the lot of workers in Ireland in recent years and that legislation has been rejected by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. I refer to the Industrial Relations (Joint Labour Committees) Bill 2019 put forward last year by then Senator and now Deputy Nash. That Bill was rejected by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. The Protection of Employment (Measures to Counter False Self Employment) Bill 2017, put forward in June 2019, was again galling because the Government at that time stated that it would introduce its own bogus self-employment legislation and yet there is no sign of it a year later. The issue here is that bogus self-employment actually cheats us all. I go back again to the Tánaiste's political ethic. When it comes to welfare, he is quite happy to put on the side of a bus a sign saying "Welfare cheats cheat us all". Bogus self-employment costs this country hundreds of millions of euro each year because of losses in PRSI, yet nothing was done about it in respect of the legislation which we introduced and a commitment was not lived up to.

Regarding workers' rights, we live in a low-pay, low-tax economy. We live in an economy where, before Covid-19 hit, 23% of Irish workers were on statistical low pay. That is an OECD figure. It is a scandal and it is a statistic that should shame us all, because living on a low wage is humiliating. It grinds people down, burrows into the marrow of their bones and could stay with them for life. As has been referred to by my colleagues in the Social Democrats, it is disproportionately migrant workers and women who are affected.

Of course, low pay is, naturally enough, unprotected by collective bargaining rights. That is because we have some of the weakest collective bargaining rights in Europe. Inevitably, an employer that has a veto on collective bargaining negotiations has no interest in lifting up the 23% of our entire workforce who are in low pay. This is not just a low-pay issue, because 40% of young people under 30 years of age are in insecure work. Insecure employment leads to insecure accommodation which in turn leads to insecurity in a whole range of other areas of life, including educational prospects. That is the economy to which the Government is telling us that it is hoping to return.

With the greatest of respect to the Minister of State and what he is trying to achieve, suggesting that welfare cheats cheat us all but that bogus self-employment is not something we need to worry about immediately is wrong. I suggest to him as well that anybody who stands in front of a microphone and states that it is necessary to introduce legislation to ban those in the public sector who work in essential services from striking has not got a clue what he is talking about and should not have the gall some years later to applaud those same workers when they are saving lives.

I also want the Government to recognise that we have a low pay economy within which we need collective bargaining rights. If it is unconstitutional to have this - I imagine the Attorney General will advise the Government that it is the case - then let us have a constitutional referendum and a citizens' assembly on the matter. The Government is justifiably organising an assembly in respect of the drugs issue and education. A task force has been recommended by the Social Democrats. We could go with that. If a constitutional referendum is required to change the Constitution to allow for collective bargaining rights and to break the employer veto, then let us go with it.

I put it to the Minister of State that for the Tánaiste, the Minister who is in charge of this area, to stand in Dáil Éireann and accuse members of the Labour Party or any other party of virtue signalling because we introduced legislation to protect those who need legislative protection is beneath him, his ministerial office and the dignity of this Government. This is especially the case since the people are looking to the Government for help, support and protection. What the Social Democrats are proposing and what Sinn Féin, the Labour Party and others are supporting is not virtue signalling. It is about workers rights and the ongoing struggle. I really hoped that the Government produced a better and more thought-out amendment than the effective insult it has brought forward this evening.

Will the Minister of State move the amendment?

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:

“acknowledges the essential work that has been carried out by so many different workers in the public and private sector during the ongoing Covid-19 public health emergency, and thanks those workers for their continued efforts;

endorses the commitment within the Programme for Government to move to a living wage over the lifetime of the Government as part of the development of a new social contract between citizens and the State;

notes that the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation is appealing the High Court ruling that Chapter Three of the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2015 is unconstitutional;

recognises the need for the Government to have a strong focus on job retention and creation, given the number of people whose employment has been threatened as a result of the Covid-19 public health emergency; and

resolves that the forthcoming July jobs initiative and the subsequent National Economic Plan contain substantial and innovative measures of scale to support the retention of employment where possible and the creation of new, good quality sustainable jobs in areas of opportunity.”

An Teachta Barry is next. Is he sharing time?

No, I will speak myself. I will speak briefly because there is only one issue I want to focus on this evening. It is the question of the striking down of the sectoral employment orders.

The Government has decided to appeal the decision of the High Court to the Supreme Court, and I welcome that. The High Court decision represented a clear and present danger to the wages and conditions of 120,000 construction workers, including electricians, mechanical engineers, plumbers, pipe fitters and others. The fact that there is an appeal to the Supreme Court is positive in two senses. First, in the sense that it allows the possibility that the High Court decision will be overturned. Second, in the sense that the wages and conditions of these workers are protected in the interim. However, the Government must make provision in case the Supreme Court appeal is lost. This can easily be done by preparing legislation that would give the three sectoral employment orders in question the full force of law through an Act of the Oireachtas. That is what needs to be done. It cannot simply be a throw of the dice on one court case. We must ensure and guarantee that those orders are protected and the wages and conditions of the 120,000 workers are protected.

I commend those construction trade unions - there is more than one or two - that are balloting for industrial action on this issue. They are right to do that. I would not trust the Supreme Court, the Government or the Dáil majority on this issue.

Should the Supreme Court strike down the Government appeal and should the Dáil fail to pass legislation that would provide cover, as it were, for these sectoral employment orders, then industrial action to defend wages and conditions would be necessary and justified. I understand that one trade union, Connect Trade Union, has said that there will be war - those are the words of the trade union, not mine - if those orders are struck down. I would add that such a war would be a just war and would command a high level of support among construction workers, trade unionists in the construction industry and the general public. I hope it will not come to that. I hope the Supreme Court will uphold the appeal. If it does not, I hope the Dáil will pass the legislation. However, if it comes to it and it is necessary for construction workers to stand and defend their wages and conditions, then I have every confidence that we will stand behind them 100%.

Níl aon Teachta ón Regional Group of Independents anseo. Tá siad as láthair. Bogfaidh mé ar aghaidh go dtí an Rural Independent Group agus glaoim ar an Teachta O'Donoghue.

Deputy Danny Healy-Rae and I are sharing time, with four minutes each.

If this pandemic has taught us anything it is how we need to invest in our front-line workers. We can see it from all the front-line workers who came home and all the trainee nurses who helped the front-line services while getting paid during the Covid-19 crisis. Up to the outbreak of Covid, they did not get paid for the time they spent training. When the pandemic ends, the Government wants to stop paying them again. Trainees in the construction industry or any other apprenticeships get paid while in training. Yet, the very people we have depended on during the pandemic do not get paid while training.

Not all companies are bad but we have some companies that treat their workers disrespectfully. I acknowledge that. We have seen the Debenhams workers protest outside the Dáil today. They are protesting in Limerick too. The company is still trading in the UK. It is basically giving the two fingers to Ireland. We should be picketing the company in the UK. We should be stopping its online trading in this country if it is not willing to look after its former workers. I have seen the workers in Limerick standing on the picket line. It is the last thing they need to hold on to because of what is in the store in stock. They are being treated with so much disrespect in this regard having given great service to Debenhams.

We also look at people who live in rural Ireland and who are working. We debated the question of increasing the carbon tax in the context of the Bill that was just before the House. Let us imagine how it is for a person living in rural Limerick. Most of the industry is located in west Limerick. A person living in east Limerick who has to drive to work must drive to a childcare facility with the children first. The family needs a second vehicle at home because if a student is living within 2 km of the school, he or she does not qualify for public transport. Parents must drive their children to school. The Government does not acknowledge that to which I refer. It amounts to a carbon tax on a minimum wage. Everyone within rural Ireland is suffering double because of the minimum wage, the cost of living and the expenses imposed on us when trying to get to work. Yet, we are being penalised again. The majority of the funding for this is being spent in Dublin. Again, the Government does not understand Limerick or rural Ireland. If the Government learns one thing from the pandemic, it must be that we need investment in our workers, infrastructure and companies. We need them to open up in Limerick in areas where there is no industry. That way we could actually help to reduce the carbon taxes and help our workers throughout the country.

It has to listen to the people. There are 19 Independent Deputies in this Dáil and they should be listened to.

I thank the Social Democrats for giving us the opportunity to talk about workers. I thank all of the front-line workers who went to work at the height of the pandemic in hospitals and nursing homes. I commend all of those who went to work, including nurses, doctors, staff in canteens who bought food to patients, home helps who visited houses and tried to keep older people going, shop workers who held the fort while working behind counters to ensure people could get food and supplies and all of those who worked in the emergency services. However, some people have been left behind by the pandemic unemployment payment. If lockdown had not started for another week or two, some seasonal workers would have been paid by their employers and would have received the pandemic unemployment payment. Many of these workers are still not back at work and their stamps are nearly gone. The Minister of State was part of the Administration that introduced the payment. I ask him to deal with this matter.

Many people over 66 years of age are working and have created employment. All we are asking is that their payments be increased from the current old age pension payment to €350 per week because they have bills to pay due to the employment they are in and the employment they created. Sadly, they were left behind. All of the tour buses in Kerry are lying idle and the drivers did not receive the payment.

There is an anomaly in the wage subsidy scheme that has to be addressed. It only applies to firms with employees who worked in January and February. Those who were not working are not entitled to the subsidy. Those who employed people for perhaps 20 hours a week during quiet periods cannot get any more money for them now.

The Minister of State, Deputy Robert Troy, said it is the duty of the Government to get people back to work. A great opportunity was missed today when publicans in rural Ireland were denied the right to bring back their workers and open their doors. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy English, to tell me what those publicans did wrong. Did they add to the pandemic or virus? They did not, because their doors have been shut for 17 or 18 weeks. It is as though they are being blamed for the virus. They played no role in creating or expanding the virus. Certain things that may have happened in Dublin, where over two thirds of the pubs are open, did not happen in rural Ireland. Publicans, workers and those who would like to go to a pub and enjoy a pint or two, but cannot do so without travelling 15 or 16 miles to the nearest large town, are being discriminated against.

Why do people have to eat a meal to be able to have a pint? It is not right or fair.

That is not the topic of the debate.

It is doing no good for the coronavirus. Publicans and their workers are being discriminated against.

I am happy to speak in support of this Private Members' motion from the Social Democrats on the issue of decent work, workers' rights, inequality and precarious work. The motion highlights the structural problem of low pay in the Irish economy.

Many people are not aware that Ireland has one of the most unequal distributions of market income in the European Union. It is true that when our tax and welfare systems kick in as a safety net we have a more equal outcome, but our tax and social welfare systems should be focused on the provision of basic services for our citizens and on investment in our economy and social systems rather than propping up the very low wages of a significant cohort of workers. That is why this motion calls for a clear pathway to a living wage. It cannot be an issue for the Government, as it has already made this commitment in the programme for Government. According to Social Justice Ireland, the at risk of poverty rate in Ireland is 14%, but without our tax and social welfare system that rate would be greater than 40%. This clearly illustrates the systemic issue of low pay. In fact, 110,000 people live below the poverty line despite having a job.

According to the OECD, Ireland has one of the highest rates of low-paid employment in the OECD. The rate is almost six times that of Belgium and is second only to the United States. According to the labour force survey of national minimum wage estimates for quarter 4 of 2019, 122,800 employees or workers were in receipt of the minimum wage or less.

Many Deputies have spoken about the fact that the motion calls on the Government to make precisely the same commitments to workers in the Republic of Ireland as they have made to workers in Northern Ireland in the New Decade, New Approach agreement reached in January of this year. I reiterate that very important point. Another important issue is the increasing casualisation of work. This is partly driven by the unparalleled pace of change in production, research, development and innovation. The buzzword is "disruption". This disruption is having an extremely disruptive effect on workers and their employment. There is often no certainty or anchor, and less and less stability in people's working lives.

How are workers supposed to plan? How do they know they can pay their rent in six months' time or their mortgage in two years' time? How can they plan for their or their families' futures? I agree with Deputy Louise O'Reilly, who she said that precarious work destroys people's lives because it takes away their ability to plan. It undermines people's hopes for the future and leaves them on a treadmill. No matter how fast they run, they do not make any progress.

Another issue is the fact that our labour legislation no longer covers the consequences of the major changes that are taking place in the world of work. That is why this motion calls for the right to collective bargaining and representation in the workplace and recognises the lack of entitlement to basic protections such as sick pay and statutory leave for some of our workforce.

Senator Elizabeth Warren coined the phrase "gig economy", and as the numbers in the gig economy increase, workers' rights are being eroded. More and more holes are appearing in our basic safety net of employment that helps to hold our society together. Our focus should be, as the motion calls for, on creating good jobs and protecting workers' rights.

The International Labour Organization, ILO, has a phrase that covers a lot of what I believe in, namely, "decent work".

Decent work sums up the aspirations of people in their working lives; a plan where they can move forward, have security and plan for a family. Decent work delivers a living wage and provides security in the workplace and opportunities for people to participate in decisions that affect their working lives. We are always told that access to work and to employment is a way out of poverty but this is not the case for a significant numbers of workers in Ireland.

It is not mentioned in this motion but flexible work - working from home - now needs to come within the remit of some kind of labour legislation and I am sure that is something we will come back to again.

This Private Members' motion is modest in what it asks for. It asks for a focus on the creation of good jobs and the protection of workers' rights. It calls for decent income, security of tenure, decent working conditions and the setting up of a task force to help deliver those modest aspirations.

Others have commented and used stronger language than me but I am disappointed at the Government amendment. It reiterates the Government's commitment to delivering a living wage and it assures us that the July jobs initiative and the national economic plan will support the creation of good quality jobs. I really hope it does. However, it minimises the legitimate concerns raised in this motion by the Social Democrats, especially on the issues of precarious work, the casualisation of work, systemic low pay in the Irish economy and the real need to improve collective bargaining for those on low pay.

If the Government felt the need to amend this motion and, politically, I understand why, it should have dealt with those issues in a decent and comprehensive way.

I thank the Social Democrats for the opportunity to have this debate and all the Members for their contributions. I gather some Members have concerns about the countermotion but that is their right. The motion put forward certain views. We do not share all of those views so we tabled a countermotion but we all support developing and improving workers' rights. We are trying to get that balance right for decent work and decent workers and employees. We must also recognise there are many decent employers. Most contributors recognised that, although we know that, in some cases, some are not decent. We will try to make sure we get the balance right to protect everybody who is trying to do the right thing.

It is just over months since we took the first emergency measures to respond to the public health emergency caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. As we adapted to the reality of life during the pandemic, businesses shut and families and friends stayed apart. Many developed a deeper appreciation of the sacrifices and determination shown by the essential workers who steered us through the crisis, including our doctors, nurses, porters, cleaners, carers, gardaí, transport workers, emergency services, those working in our shops, in haulage, logistics, those keeping the shelves stocked and our cupboards full, those in our NGOs, those providing homeless services, our postal workers, farmers and all those involved in producing food and drink for the country. I thank all of them and acknowledge all those who have worked so hard to get us through the most difficult times since February.

I am also conscious that whenever we single out one group another is often missed. We should be wary of dividing workers between those who are categorised as essential and those who are not because, if anything, we have learned in the past few months that people are often categorised in the wrong areas. Everyone has a role to play in our national response to this public health emergency.

We all recognise the period ahead is going to be difficult, certainly over the next 18 to 24 months as we try to recover and get back to where we were pre-Covid-19. We must build on that to grow more new jobs and jobs that might pay more money with better conditions, and so on. We are all committed to that. It will not be an easy road but I recognise that everyone here is genuine in their efforts around that.

In doing that we must balance the public health concerns with economic and societal challenges. We have gotten the balance right to date but we cannot take this for granted. The people successfully suppressed the virus with a spirit of solidarity. Everyone played his or her part. We recognise that we are in this together and can get out of this together.

The public health emergency has left an economic crisis in its wake. By working together we can overcome this enormous challenge for the good of the people.

At the start of the year the economic outlook was positive. Unemployment was at record low levels. Wages were growing and inequality was falling. Of course, we recognise there is always more work to be don and, that we need to push to get better rights, better services, to grow more jobs and to secure more companies. We must recognise also that we have to plan for the future when it comes to creating jobs. Jobs are constantly evolving and moving. We must invest in innovation, research and development. We must invest in our companies, employees, workers and students. That means investing in their education and skills development and investing in our communities to bring it all together.

A number of speakers referred to the role our small businesses and their employees often play in bringing our communities together and providing that local service. We again recognise that during Covid-19.

To go back to where we were pre-Covid-19, seven months later it often feels like we are living in another country. Despite the enormous challenges we now face, the early interventions taken by the Government in responding to the Covid-19 crisis and the efforts of the residents of this country clubbing together to ensure we responded in the right way have paid off.

The Government has introduced €12 billion worth of measures on behalf of the taxpayer, including wage subsidies, increased welfare payments, direct grants to businesses and low-cost loans to get our country through the worst of the crisis. However, we recognise that is not enough in itself and we must go further. We are now starting to emerge in the darkest days of the emergency and we must keep on that path.

Figures published this week show the number of people depending on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, has, thankfully, fallen by 42% since its peak. That accounts for a quarter of a million people. More than 67,000 people came off the payment in the last week alone, the biggest weekly drop to date. That is good steady progress. We are making progress but we have much work to do. I am happy to work with all parties in this House to achieve that and to build on that work, and so is the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, our Department and other Departments. We will certainly lead on this from a jobs point of view.

Next week we will publish the July jobs stimulus. It will be of scale and speed to meet the challenge. As we know, there are still many challenges. The stimulus will help businesses to reopen, save jobs and create new ones and get our people back to work. It will also give hope to the many sectors that have struggled over the past couple of months and need that extra bit of help to reopen, restart and to survive and to thrive.

Some Members referred to seasonal workers and other categories that have missed out in the supports and I am hope the July stimulus plan will address all of that. It will be published next week and every effort will be made to do that. We recognise that in many parts of the country seasonal work is important and the seasons were disrupted this year.

It will include an enhanced restart grant, an extension of wage subsidies and a focus on retraining and upskilling. If we want job security, high wages, good conditions and so on, the best way we can ensure that, as well as designing and creating those jobs with companies, is by investing in our employees and their skills and training. Certainly, the big argument is always for constantly upskilling and I am glad now we have another Department with responsibility for education to focus on further education and training and to have a greater focus on higher education. Two education Departments fighting at the table for more money to invest in education is a positive.

As set out in the programme for Government, the July stimulus will be followed by the national economic plan in October to be published on the same day as the budget. It will take a longer-term view over the next two to three years as we build on the supports announced already. It will set out our long-term approach to restoring employment and our broader economic approach. All these economic initiatives must be centred around employment, retaining existing jobs, creating new ones and providing a strong focus on quality employment with good terms and conditions and good work-life balance.

We are absolutely committed to that. That is the most effective response to concerns about poverty and inequality and it is the best way to provide more and better opportunities to all of our people.

While the economic critique put forward by the Social Democrats is well founded for other countries, it does not necessarily hold for Ireland. The Irish economic story of recent years is not categorised by falling wages, rising inequality or increasingly precarious employment. That is not a true picture of Ireland. Before the onset of the Covid emergency incomes were rising, inequality was falling year on year and the minimum wage was increasing constantly. It does not mean we still do not have challenges and work to do, but it is an untrue picture to paint of Ireland.

Within the programme for Government, there is a commitment to progressing to a living wage over the lifetime of the Government. Ahead of us, there is an immediate challenge for this year and next in relation to the sectors, such as hospitality, retail and tourism, where much of the low-paid employment is provided. Our priority in the short-to-medium term must be to restore that employment and to secure it.

However, our intention and that of the Government is that once we begin to restore employment, we will move towards realising that ambition of the living wage. How we do that is not yet decided upon and I would welcome the thoughts and consideration of Members opposite on this. In fairness, the motion talks about having a task force. That is one way of doing it. There are other ways of doing it. There is no point in Deputy Shortall shaking her head. We are here to listen and work with everybody. The Deputy might bear that in mind.

Another option, apart from the task force, is to utilise the Low Pay Commission, which has been quite successful, and the minimum wage. The history of the minimum wage over the past 20 years, and particularly over the past nine years, shows the significant progress towards a substantial living wage can be made through the minimum wage and through that process. Twenty years ago, the first minimum wage was brought in. In 2000, it stood at £4.40, the equivalent at that time of €5.58. In 2008, it stood at €7.65. Since then, it has increased to €10.10 today - steady progress we are certainly willing to build on and make happen.

Over the past nine years, the minimum wage has grown by 32%. This growth surpasses by a considerable distance the growth in the cost of living and broader wage growth. During that same period, inflation has grown by 6.1% and median weekly wages by 9.2%. Everybody else wants to quote statistics; we can also quote them. As a result of those changes, the minimum wage in Ireland is the second highest on a monthly basis in the European Union, second only to Luxembourg, according to EUROSTAT. When accounting for purchasing power, Ireland's drops to sixth - we accept that - but ours remains among the highest minimum wage rates in the EU. This gives us confidence that we can, once we get the economy and employment back on track, achieve a living wage during the lifetime of this Government and I am happy to work with all parties to achieve that.

Poverty and deprivation rates have fallen dramatically since the end of the previous economic crisis through a strong focus on employment and getting people into work, and sustainable jobs. Some on the Opposition benches may claim jobs were poorly paid, with high rates of in-work poverty and on precarious terms. That may be true in other countries but it is not here. Ireland's in-work at-risk-of-poverty rate in 2018 was 4.8%. The EU average was 9.3%. Of the countries that provide data, Ireland has the third lowest in-work at-risk-of-poverty rate in the EU behind the Czech Republic and Finland.

When we look impartially at recent experience in Ireland, at the facts rather than everyone's interpretation of the facts, there is much that is positive we can take from what has happened in the Irish economy in recent years. We can see from this experience that the best antidote to poverty and inequality is a focus on good-quality employment, on ensuring people have access to jobs and those jobs being of good quality with a strong social insurance safety net for them when they need it. That is also an area we want to build on.

There have been recent improvements in the minimum wage, public sector pay and conditions, reducing income tax levels, social insurance benefits such as paternity benefit, parental leave benefit as well as the extension of social insurance benefits to the self-employed, including invalidity pension, jobseeker's benefit and treatment benefits. These are all positives. It shows positive actions over the past couple of years of Governments that my party was a part of and work we want to continue on.

As I will probably run short on speaking time, I will reference the legislation that failed in the High Court and that issue there. Some people have taken issue with the Tánaiste's approach to that. I remind this House that one of the first discussions I had with the Tánaiste, the new Minister in the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation where I am as well, was whether we would launch an appeal or not to that High Court decisions because we are concerned about that. That legislation came in with a Fine Gael-Labour Party Government in July 2015. It was a positive development, trying to strengthen the laws around collective bargaining that many speakers here claim we do not have. That is what it tried to do and that is now being called into question. We will appeal that. We have been clear on that. The Tánaiste was absolutely clear on that in the discussions on Thursday last in the Dáil, this week on Question Time, and would do it again tonight if he was here. We are determined to fight that on behalf of the workers of this country.

To conclude, Deputy Cian O'Callaghan is sharing with Deputy Shortall.

I am proud that it is the Social Democrats who have tabled the motion defending the rights of those on lower pay and in precarious work. I commend my colleague, Deputy Gannon, who has taken a lead in preparing this motion. I also thank the Deputies from Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, Solidarity-PBP and the Independents for supporting this motion.

If there ever was any doubt in anyone's mind about the crucial role that our care workers, cleaners, shelf stackers, retailer workers and everyone in essential and front-line work play, this pandemic will have put that doubt to rest. The best and the most appropriate and fitting tribute we could pay to those workers for their contribution during this crisis is to agree that we will have universal healthcare, access to affordable housing and a living wage for everyone. If we were serious about solidarity, nothing short of this is acceptable. Rhetoric that we are all in this together is all well and good, but action is what we need.

I am disappointed with the response from the Government to the motion that we have put forward. The Government is, through its amendment, effectively seeking to delete our motion pretty much in its entirety. It is a deliberate attempt to remove any reference to collective bargaining, workers' protections and workplace representation. I appeal to all Deputies, especially to Green Party Deputies, not to vote for the Government amendment and instead to support this motion and stand with low-paid workers.

I will address some of the comments from the Minister of State, Deputy English. The Minister of State correctly stated we should be wary about dividing workers into different categories and yet tonight the Government is putting forward an amendment to our motion that exactly seeks to do that and seeks to introduce language about dividing workers into different categories of public and private. Why is it the Tánaiste, every time he makes a contribution, is always dividing workers into public and private? What is that about, when we should be wary, and I agree with Deputy English, about dividing workers into different categories? It is right to point out and put emphasis on the rights of workers who are on lower pay and in precarious working conditions. We are right to highlight that. In relation to some of the facts, contrary to what the Minister of State, Deputy English, has said, 23% of Irish workers are low paid, according to the OECD. We, in Ireland, are the third worst in the European Union. Young people, women and migrants are particularly affected by low pay and precarious work, especially those working in retail and services. We have also seen that continued privatisation, outsourcing and casualisation in healthcare have increased the numbers in low paid and precarious work.

As to the comments earlier of the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, which I must say were contradictory, first he told us that the Government is committed to a living wage, but not now, not next year, sometime in the future. He then argued against the introduction of a living wage and said it should be a voluntary measure. Deputy Troy then admitted, and defined, a living wage as a wage that is required so that one can meet the basic costs to live and then he attacked the idea of increasing the minimum wage on the basis that it is a blunt tool for addressing poverty, his argument being that not everyone on the minimum wage lives in a household suffering from poverty. What about all the people living on the minimum wage who are in a household suffering from poverty? Why should they not have a minimum floor when they go to work so that they can meet the basic costs of childcare, housing, putting food on the table, being able to participate fully in their local community, and being able to say to their children that they can go on that summer camp that is being run and they can go on that school trip? What about those people on the minimum wage? Why do they not come into the equation when we are talking about increasing the minimum wage?

We face a very simple choice this evening as to what to do. I want to address one final point before handing over to my colleague. There is no better way to achieve a recovery than by addressing low pay and putting money into the pockets of low-paid workers who will spend it in the local community and local shops. There is no better way forward.

I thank everybody who has contributed to this debate and those parties and Independent Members who have indicated their support for this motion. In the view of the Social Democrats, this motion is very important. It sets out clearly the weaknesses in our employment protection provisions which give rise to the kind of low pay and poor conditions which, as a modern society, we simply should not tolerate. It also proposes means by which to address these weaknesses.

The Minister of State spoke about the true picture of Ireland. I will tell him what that is. It should be a matter of shame that almost one in four workers is low paid and struggling to survive in poverty. It should be a matter of shame that such a significant number of our workers are in insecure employment and do not have access to the statutory entitlements many of us take for granted. How does one survive without an entitlement to sick leave, for example? The answer is that one does not survive and ends up either going to work while sick or not being able to pay one's rent or other bills. How does one operate when one does not know the hours one is expected to work from week to week or even from day to day? How does one plan childcare or arrange other activities outside of work?

The truth is that we are becoming an increasingly two-tier workforce. On the one hand are those in established secure employment with decent pay and conditions, while on the other hand are a growing number of predominantly younger lower-paid workers in precarious conditions with limited protections. The absence of collective bargaining and the denial of the right to representation in the workplace have undoubtedly led to this situation.

Before the election, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions appealed to all parties to commit to including a specific paragraph in the programme for Government which would ensure an enhanced focus on creating good jobs and protecting workers' rights. It is incredible that not one of the three parties in government regarded this issue as sufficiently important to include in the programme. Not only that but, on examination of the programme for Government, it is revealed that there is no reference at all to workers' rights, collective bargaining or the right to representation. It beggars belief that the section entitled, A New Social Contract, says nothing about workers' rights. The section, Reigniting and Renewing the Economy, does not say anything about workers' rights either and, bafflingly, no reference to workers' rights is to be found under the heading, Social Dialogue. One really has to ask whether anybody in Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or the Green Party is remotely interested in workers' rights.

The commitment requested by ICTU was a short paragraph, which is reproduced in our motion. It is taken from the New Decade, New Approach document drawn up by the Irish and UK Governments to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland, which was accepted by all five main parties there. That document commits to an enhanced focus on creating good jobs and protecting working rights. Parties to the agreement "agree that access to good jobs, where workers have a voice that provides a level of autonomy, a decent income, security of tenure, satisfying work in the right quantities and decent working conditions, should be integral to public policy given how this contributes to better health and wellbeing by tackling inequalities, building self-efficacy and combating poverty."

The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and then Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, actually negotiated that document and called it a fair and balanced package. Where is the Minister tonight? Where are he and his Government colleagues who said we should support these rights in Northern Ireland? How can they not do the same in the Republic? Do people in Ireland not deserve the same protections as those in the North? Is there no recognition on this side of the Border that these rights are integral to a fair and equal society which rejects the normalisation of inequality and poverty? Does this Government believe that only applies in the North?

The motion before us tonight is about workers' rights. It is a disgrace that at no point in the Minister of State's contribution did he engage on that issue or use the term "workers' rights". We strongly appeal to Government to withdraw its meaningless amendment, honour the resolution it itself drafted, show respect to workers, and support the motion proposed tonight. I strongly commend the motion to the House.

Amendment put.

In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Thursday, 16 July 2020.