I welcome the Minister of State back to the House. Before we commence, I remind Senators that a Senator may speak only once on Report Stage, except for the proposer of an amendment, who may reply to the discussion on the amendment. Also, each amendment must be seconded. Amendment No. 1, in the names of Senators Cullinane, Ó Clochartaigh and Reilly, arises out of committee proceedings.
Industrial Relations (Amendment) Bill 2015: Report and Final Stages
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 8, between lines 33 and 34, to insert the following:
“(5) An employer may subsequently apply to the Court to become party to the agreement in its application to any worker or workers to whom it applies.”.
As I would like to catch my breath, I might listen to the Minister of State's response first.
The purpose of this amendment is to allow an employer to sign up to an existing registered employment agreement, REA, as a new party to the agreement. However, section 8 of the Bill already provides for a mechanism by which an REA can be varied in its application to any worker or workers to whom it applies. In this regard, the variation provisions under section 8 would allow for an application by a new employer to become party to an existing REA, subject to one of the existing parties to the agreement making the application to the court. Alternatively, it is always open to an employer to enter into a separate collective agreement, involving the same terms and conditions, with a trade union and have that registered with the Labour Court. The amendment might also have the consequence of permitting an employer to become party to an REA against the wishes of the original signatories and then seek to have it modified contrary to the wishes of the original signatories. For the reasons outlined, I cannot accept the amendment proposed.
We have discussed most of these amendments in detail so, while I will press them, I will not speak on them, because we have made the arguments already. I anticipate that the Minister of State will not support most of them, because he has already indicated this. They are all important, but there are some I want to speak on. I will press this amendment.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 10, line 40, after “concerned” to insert the following:
“and 3 months’ notice of this decision shall be given to the trade union by the Court of its decision after which an appeal maybe heard no later than 6 weeks after the decision has been made”.
This amendment was tabled following representations from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which said it would be better for the union involved if it were given a three-month notice period. Again, we discussed this on Committee Stage, and I remember the Minister of State's response that it was unnecessary, but we felt it was important to table the amendment again.
I second the amendment. This comes after subsection 5, which states that if a trade union that is party to the agreement is no longer substantially representative of the workers concerned, the court may cancel the agreement. Could the Minister of State clarify how this applies? I have dealt with the Labour Court on many occasions over the years. Some businesses are fully unionised, which is of benefit, but I have seen others with some employees who were in the union and some who were not, or, worse still, some who were in one union and others who were in a different union, which meant that the company would get caught in inter-union rivalry, with one trying to outbid the other. In many cases, the consequence was job losses as a result of unnecessary conflict within the company. It is important that cohesion is built into the system. It is for that reason that I am putting the question to the Minister of State.
Section 10(5) of the Bill provides that the Labour Court may cancel the registration of an employment agreement if it is satisfied that a trade union that was a party to the agreement is no longer substantially representative of the workers concerned. The purpose of amendment No. 2 is to require the court to give three months' notice to the trade union of its decision to allow for an appeal within six weeks of the decision.
Any consideration by the Labour Court as to whether a trade union is no longer substantially representative of the workers concerned would require the court to engage with the trade union in advance and to consider submissions from the union on the issue. In this regard, the trade union would clearly have advance notice of the Labour Court's consideration. Moreover, it is not considered appropriate to allow an REA to remain in place for three months after it has been determined by the Labour Court that a trade union is no longer substantially representative of workers. It is also important to remember that cancellation of the registration of an employment agreement does not affect an individual worker's entitlement to the terms of an REA under his or her personal contract of employment, which can only be changed by agreement between the worker and the employer.
We have considered in great detail what "substantially representative" means, and it was decided after a long period of consultation and discussion with trade unions and employers that some latitude would be provided to the Labour Court to decide, based on the circumstances of the issue, whether a grade, group or category of workers was in the trade union and represented by the trade union. There is good reason for that. There is a huge amount of knowledge and experience available to the Labour Court and there are a series of engagements with the trade unions whereby the Labour Court can decide whether a group or trade union is substantially representative of the workers. In cases such as this it is never useful to use bald figures, because sometimes that does not deal with the complexities of the industrial relations situations that the Labour Court often faces. I will not accept the amendment.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 12, between lines 8 and 9, to insert the following:
“(g) country money,”.
Section 13 of the Bill provides for a definition of remuneration for the purposes of a Labour Court recommendation for the terms of a sectoral employment order. The definition is based on the definition of remuneration included in the Protection of Employees (Temporary Agency Work) Act 2012. The definition includes basic pay and a list of other elements in excess of basic pay that may be included as part of the court's recommendation for a rate of remuneration for a particular sector.
I understand that the payment of country money was a feature of the former registered employment agreement for the construction sector. Generally speaking, employees in that sector do not have a permanent fixed place of work and are required to travel to different building sites according to the duration of the employer's contract on each site. In this context, I do not consider that country money, which is designed to compensate employees for expenses incurred in travelling varying distances to and from building sites and to cover subsistence expenses, is part of a person's pay. Moreover, I understand that the payment of country money may be made without deduction of tax and PRSI where certain conditions are met. Accordingly, I would not propose to include it as part of the definition of remuneration and, therefore, I cannot accept this amendment.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 14, between lines 14 and 15, to insert the following:
"(e) the percentage of workers in the identified economic sector earning two-thirds or less of median income;
(f) the pervasiveness of part time and/or short hour contracts in the identified economic sector;".
When a recommendation has been made to the Minister, issues such as low pay and the percentage of workers in the identified economic sector covered by an REA who would be earning less than two thirds of the median income, and also the pervasiveness of short-hour contracts which are a problem in some sectors of the economy, would be a factor. Similar arguments were made regarding the Low Pay Commission where we had lengthy discussions on Committee Stage. I am aware of the Minister's response but we felt it was necessary to resubmit these amendments and press them today.
I second the amendment for the purpose of the debate.
I was not a great fan of many of the JLCs. Most of them came about because of social partnership, which played a significant role in involving unions and workers, employers, farmers and others in the recovery from the economic recession in the 1980s. Social partnership was a strong contributory feature of the growth in the 1990s and the first decade of this century. However, we may have been wedded to the JLCs for too long. In some instances, large employers used these and their representative union bodies to drive up pay rates, which ultimately partly led to uncompetitiveness in the country, but also prevented smaller, much more efficient operations from competing on a different level. As I have stated on many occasions, we artificially increased rates right across the public service. I have had an analysis done and if one compares public service pay, including our pay and that of the Minister of State, with that of a coterie of western European countries, Ireland is out of sync. That adds to uncompetitiveness which ultimately affects the economy. Everything, including wage rates, should be geared towards competitiveness. We lost sight of that some time during the past decade and when the downturn came, it was a fairly significant issue which led to a lot of pain for employees and, perhaps, was inadequately dealt with. We should not allow ourselves to get into that particular cycle again. Artificially increasing wage rates is wrong and ultimately leads to job losses. Those who suffer in all of this are workers because many will find themselves unemployed.
We need to be careful in the context of the route we are taking. I am all in favour of having a good dynamic between employers and employees and things being fair, but we are talking here about the private sector in particular where some 50% of people do not have pensions. There is a demographic time bomb coming down the road. Young people going into the public service now will be extremely fortunate to get a pension because the State may not be able to pay it down the line at the rate it has been going. We should be trying to broaden it for those in the private sector. As people live longer, the need for pensions will be greater and I would like greater focus on negotiating pensions for those who do not have them rather than giving increases in wages, which may give some short-term gain but are not as valuable. Those who work in a company for 20, 30 or 40 years have an entitlement to some remuneration in their retirement years. We need to review our approach to many of these issues.
The sectoral employment orders will be permitted to cover areas to do with pensions. Senator Walsh has made a strong case for sectoral employment orders in the private sector because they can also include, as expressed in the Bill, coverage for pensions. We would all welcome that. As Senator Walsh will be aware, the JLC system fell foul of the superior courts a couple of years ago. The system was reviewed and we introduced a joint labour committee system. There are a number of discussions ongoing on potentially new orders emanating from JLCs.
Joint labour committees, JLCs, have been in existence for generations in this country and in the United Kingdom. They served a strong purpose in terms of ensuring that those who were working in vulnerable sectors of the economy had more significant coverage and protections, and improved pay, than they would if they did not have the protection of a joint labour committee. The joint labour committee orders were agreed by employers, notwithstanding the fact that they covered other employers which were not necessarily involved in that process. This was an issue the courts found against and we were conscious of it when we were reconstructing a JLC system that was fit for purpose for the 21st century.
It is the case that issues to do with competitiveness have to be taken into consideration when one is introducing wage-setting mechanisms. We are very clear on that. That is something that is explicit in terms of the legislation governing JLCs, sectoral employment orders, the national minimum wage, collective bargaining and registered employment agreements. Section 16 of the Bill sets out a comprehensive and challenging set of factors that the court must take into account when it is making a recommendation to the Minister in respect of a sectoral employment order. Amendment No. 4, from Senator Cullinane, would add two further factors that the court would be required to take into account. I have given consideration to these criteria in the drafting of the Bill and I do not consider it necessary to refer specifically to median earnings, changes or proportions above or below particular proportions of median earnings, particularly where one of the criteria specifically requires the court to look at the general level of remuneration in other sectors where similar workers are employed. The Bill also requires the court in making a recommendation to be of the view that the recommendation is reasonably necessary to ensure fair and sustainable rates of remuneration in the sector concerned. As Senator Cullinane will be aware, the suggestion in relation to "the pervasiveness of part time and/or short hour contracts" is part of a wider decent work agenda, including the issue of zero and low-hour contracts, that I am pursuing. Accordingly, I cannot accept the amendment.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 14, after line 38, to insert the following:
"(c) hours of work;".
This was the amendment that the Mandate trade union asked us to include. It is to ensure that not only rates of pay, but also hours of work, would be looked at when forming REAs. That might go some way towards addressing what happened in Dunnes Stores and what happens in other companies where there is a prevalence of low-hour contracts. Its purpose is to insert the words "hours of work".
Section 14 of the Bill provides that a trade union of workers or a trade union or organisation of employers which the Labour Court is satisfied is substantially representative of workers or employers in a particular sector may, separately or jointly, request the Labour Court to examine the terms and conditions related to the remuneration and the sick pay or pension of workers in the sector and request the court to make a recommendation to the Minister on the matter.
Accordingly, the Labour Court examination will be confined to the consideration of remuneration, as defined, and sick pay and pension provisions. The hours of work would not come within the scope of the court's examination and, therefore, it would not be appropriate for the court to include hours of work in a recommendation. Moreover, hours of work are already covered, generally, by the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997. Therefore, I cannot accept this amendment.
Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 are related and may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 16, line 36, after “not” to insert “blacklist,”.
As there is no seconder, the amendment lapses.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 16, between lines 36 and 37, to insert the following:
“(a) trade union membership or activity,”.
The purpose of amendment No. 7 is to add trade union membership or activity to the activities in respect of which an employer may not penalise a worker to whom a sectoral employment order applies. A number of protections are in place for workers who consider that they have been subjected to victimisation in the workplace. Any worker who finds himself or herself the subject of victimisation measures already has the option of taking a case under the Industrial Relations Acts.
In addition, the 2004 code of practice on victimisation provides that, where there is a dispute in an employment where collective bargaining fails to take place and where negotiating arrangements are not in place, no person should be victimised or suffer disadvantage as a consequence of his or her legitimate actions or affiliation arising from that dispute. A procedure for addressing complaints of victimisation is set out in the Industrial Relations (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2004, and these protections will be further enhanced in the provisions in Part 3 of this Bill in regard to the Government's commitment on collective bargaining. Accordingly, I cannot accept the amendments.
Amendments Nos. 8 to 10, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 17, between lines 25 and 26, to insert the following:
“(6) The Minister may authorise other persons, including designated union officials, to carry out inspections and monitoring of Registered Employment Agreements, Registered Employment Orders and Employment Regulation Orders.
(7) The Minister may make regulations providing access, for union officials, to the workplace and employees for the purpose of this Act.
(8) An employer shall not coerce workers to relinquish or abstain from a registered employment agreement.”.
These amendments were tabled to allow access to the workplace by trade union officials. I have grouped these amendments and they are all very similar. We had a lengthy Committee Stage discussion on this matter. I tabled the amendments just to push them again because my party feels they are important.
I shall speak on the group of amendments. Amendment No. 8 seeks to provide a role for trade union officials in the enforcement of REAs, or registered employment orders, which are more correctly entitled sectoral employment orders, and employment regulation orders. The amendment would also provide for the Minister to make regulations providing for a right of access by trade union officials to the workplace and employees. Finally, it seeks to prohibit an employer from coercing workers to relinquish or abstain from an REA.
In respect of REAs, it is a matter for the parties concerned whether they wish to include in the agreement provisions in regard to access to the workplace for trade union officials. An REA will be binding on the parties to the agreement, and I am aware that some previous REAs, such as the construction REA, provided that, in the event of concerns arising regarding compliance, a union official would have access to a designated member of management. It is totally open to the parties to agree similar provisions in the future. That was never something that was underpinned in primary legislation.
With regard to the appointment of other persons, including union officials as inspectors, it must be appreciated that the powers that have been given to NERA inspectors are quite extensive. I believe such extensive powers are rightly and appropriately reserved solely for officers of the Minister who are appointed as inspectors.
I do of course believe that it is vital that unions are able to represent the interests of their members and take action in support of those interests, and the laws of this State vindicate that right. However, I am afraid that the suggestion that trade union officials should have a statutory right to enter a workplace to meet with workers, even in workplaces that do not recognise trade unions, does not accord with the voluntarist approach to industrial relations that has existed down the decades, whether we like that particular tradition and voluntarist approach or not. Also, and very significantly, it would leave the legislation open to the possibility of a legal challenge as regards an employer's constitutional right not to engage with or recognise trade unions - again, whether we accept that position or not. We have had quite an extensive debate about that matter. I think Senator Cullinane and others will understand that we do not want in any way to jeopardise this long-awaited legislation that the trade union movement has been committed to securing for some time. Therefore, we do not want to leave any gaps open in that regard. Accordingly, I cannot accept the amendment.
I move amendment No. 11:
In page 20, between lines 4 and 5, to insert the following:
22. The Minister may by regulations provide for a mechanism to provide for representation by or on behalf of retired employees, including organised groups of retired employees, in relation to his, her or their pensions, deferred or otherwise.”.
I second the amendment.
In terms of pensions, there have been instances in which people with deferred pensions and others have been disadvantaged and left feeling totally unrepresented. Many of these people have given long service to the company that they were part of and had paid subscriptions to their unions for many years. They felt a bit betrayed and unrepresented when agreements were subsequently reached between existing employees, through their union representatives, and the company. In certain instances, such agreements have left the people to whom I refer at a disadvantage. Major companies have been involved in that regard. I refer to cases in which employees who were retiring, perhaps with deferred pensions or whatever else, suffered as a consequence. I know that pensions are complex. However, there is a lot of work that needs to be done, because this area of pensions has not been addressed at all. The Tánaiste could have placed much greater priority on the area. It is an absolute shame that so many people, particularly in the private sector, do not have a pension. In time to come they will find themselves in a fairly serious pecuniary position when they reach retirement age. All Members have had people make representations to them and complain about the manner in which these people were disadvantaged in their pension fund and the fact that their justifiable expectations, based on the contributions they had made, were not honoured. One of the great things in industrial relations is the fact that if one gives one's word and makes an agreement one maintains it, but if one does not then one does not unilaterally abandon the initiative, which is what happened in the case of retired people. I am surprised that the proposer of the amendment did not make a greater case for it.
In fairness to Senator Cullinane, he has made a strong case for me to consider this particular amendment, as have his colleagues in the Dáil. I cannot, for the reasons I have set out previously, accept the amendment. The pensions issue has been given careful consideration by the Government, particularly the Tánaiste. She has recently introduced regulations and approved amendments to guidance issued by the Pensions Authority to provide for the recognition by the trustees of a pension scheme of groups representing the interests of pensioners and deferred members of pension schemes. These changes mean that all groups representing the interests of the various categories of pension scheme membership are treated the same in the context of provisions in the Pensions Act. That is what governs issues to do with the rules and deeds of pension schemes, etc., and not the industrial relations forums and machinery that we have in the State.
The changes to regulations will require that trustees of a pension scheme notify the groups representing the interests of retired and deferred members where the trustees of a scheme propose to apply to the Pensions Authority to restructure scheme benefits under section 50 of the Pensions Act. This notification affords the representative group an opportunity to make a submission to the trustees of the scheme in regard to such proposals.
In addition, the Pensions Authority is now required to notify groups representing the interests of scheme members where the Pensions Authority proposes either to issue a unilateral direction, under section 50 of the Pensions Act, to the trustees of a scheme to restructure scheme benefits, or to wind up a pension scheme under section 50B of the Pensions Act.
This notification affords the representative group an opportunity to make representations to the Pensions Authority in relation to such proposals. The regulations also give the representative group the right to appeal a direction by the Pensions Authority on a point of law. I am strongly of the view that it is within this framework rather than through the State's industrial relations machinery that a collective approach is best effected. Accordingly, I cannot accept amendment No. 11.
I move amendment No. 12:
In page 22, line 32, to delete “voluntary”.
This is an important amendment, as it is the one that seeks to delete the word "voluntary" so that we have mandatory trade union recognition, or at least move in that direction. I will not repeat or go through all of the arguments again. Some of the Senators present may not have been here on Committee Stage and may not be aware of the lengthy discussions we had on these amendments then. There is no point in speaking for the sake of it again. I am aware of the Minister of State's view and have put on the record my understanding that in framing the legislation, he was operating within the Constitution. We had a very lengthy discussion and I made a very lengthy speech on Committee Stage stating why we need at some point to grasp the nettle of going to the people if necessary to improve the constitutional position to allow us to have more robust protections for workers. Whether through this or other legislation, we are prevented or strangled by provisions within the Constitution and there is a need to level the playing field at some point. I understand and accept that the Minister of State cannot accept the amendments, but I must press them to place the matter on the record. We have to keep pushing out the boat as much as we can on these issues.
As there is no seconder, the amendment lapses.
I move amendment No. 13:
In page 27, to delete lines 34 to 36.
I second the amendment. I was not here on Committee Stage as I was asked at short notice to stand in this evening. I have not heard the actual arguments, but I accept the point Senator Cullinane has just made. The deletion of these lines is a proposal I would like to hear arguments about. The amendment implies that the court in any adjudication of a dispute may have regard to similar employments of an associate employer outside the State. In other words, the court would look at wages, salary and other conditions applying externally. I am not sure about that from a competitive point of view. Given the way our wages have gone, we are one of the highest paid countries across most of the world. Before the recession, research was done by a Glasgow university which placed us at the top of the pile of western European countries, particularly in urban areas. I do not see why the conditions in an associate company abroad would be of particular relevance. An associate company is not necessarily involved in the same business. There may be associated companies carrying on completely different activities. In fact, they may be in different sectors that have no relevance. Even if they are in the same sector, it is in a different economic environment. I am not sure why that would be pertinent for the Labour Court to consider. Perhaps the Minister of State might explain.
I am glad to have the opportunity to address that particular point. Section 30 inserts, inter alia, section 5(4) to 5(8) in the principal Act to provide guidance to the Labour Court in the context of considering whether to make a recommendation on a dispute and the procedures to follow in assessing whether the totality of the remuneration and conditions of employment of the workers concerned provides a lesser benefit to the workers concerned having regard to the totality of remuneration and conditions of employment of comparable workers employed in similar employments. In this context, section 5(5) provides that the court may, not shall, have regard to those in similar employments of an associated employer outside the State. The purpose of amendment No. 13 is to delete that requirement.
The purpose of section 30 is to allow a company to make a case to the Labour Court. It is important to make the point that many companies operating in Ireland face competition not only from external competitor firms but also in many cases for contracts, site extensions and investment decisions from closely associated companies operating outside the State. The provision was considered relevant by all parties involved in the discussions that framed the legislation, including, to the best of my recollection, trade unions. This is one of a number of factors that the Labour Court would take into account. As such, it is considered appropriate to allow Irish-based firms to make a case to the Labour Court that it should have regard to the totality of remuneration and conditions of employment of comparable workers employed by an associated employer outside the State. When we say "outside the State", we often mean the North, which is just across the Border from my own constituency.
I remind Senators that in the context of trade disputes under the Industrial Relations Act 1990, the Labour Court has regard to such factors in the normal course of its consideration of disputes in relation to terms and conditions of employment where such factors are relevant. It is important to remind ourselves that this is just one of many factors that the court would have to take into account. Therefore, I cannot accept the amendment.
I have come new to this today, but it is an area in which I have a keen interest because working in ports involves quite a degree of industrial relations management. My colleague who proposed today's amendments will be well aware of the difficulties, because in New Ross we gained considerable traffic and tonnage over the years due to the appalling industrial relations in the Port of Waterford, which was closed for decades. A balance must be struck in the industrial relations area between the rights of workers on the one hand and the solvency and success of businesses, which ultimately generate jobs, on the other.
I commend the Minister of State on the enormous amount of work he has done in an area in which he has quite a degree of expertise. Given all my years of dealing with unions, I often advise companies coming into Ireland that one is as well off, and perhaps better off, having a union, as it puts a structure on negotiations. As I noted earlier, the worst possible scenario is for different unions to be competing with each other. My one criticism, from my short observation of the legislation, is that we may be getting overly prescriptive. I found that in general good trade union officials were able to assess when a company was being fair and when competition required a stronger stance by the company. They were also able to identify when companies could make concessions or were being unfair to the workers. Ultimately, it was all about being fair and ensuring the viability of the company as well. The stakeholders in a company are not just the shareholders; they include the employees and the customers. They all become dependent on cohesiveness among them.
My experience in the past was that the less government or statutory intervention one had, the better it was. Leave it to the wisdom of the people, and when they are not able to get agreement, they will go to the Labour Court. There have been good people in the Labour Court, and the expertise has been there. It has always been a vehicle for avoiding conflict within a business. Even trade union officials have conceded to me that it is a failure on everyone's part, including that of the trade union, if the parties end up in conflict. It is not generally to the workers' benefit either.
We have seen entrenched trade union conflicts in various companies ultimately being a factor in job losses, which nobody wants to see. I commend the Minister of State on what he has done but I am inclined to argue against the excessive provisions which have been included. I was never a fan of JLCs, which the Minister of State has mentioned. I was friendly with a number of individual employers in the construction business who had left many people go but needed certain employees with a little skill, although not on a full-time basis. People on the dole were prepared to work in some instances for reasonable rates between €12 and €14 an hour, but the JLC stated it had to be €18 or €19. At the time the employer could not justify paying this amount, so the people remained unemployed. This is one example of where the State over prescribed rather than leaving it to those at local level and individual negotiations between the members, the company and the unions. This is a far more satisfactory set-up than big brother prescribing in too much detail what employers and employees need to do.
I strongly disagree with the previous speaker who missed the point as to why this Bill was brought forward in the first place. It is not over-prescriptive. I could argue that in many areas it is not prescriptive enough because of the issues we discussed earlier with regard to the Constitution. The reason we have the Bill is to restore the REAs, because some unscrupulous employers made an attempt to dismantle the entire industrial relations architecture in the State. We saw it with the JLCs, the REAs and the employment regulation orders. If we did not have these mechanisms and collective agreements we would have had many more industrial relations disputes and this is a fact. These agreements are between employers and employees. It is much better in sectors where employers and employees come together to agree decent pay rates for workers and register them. Everybody signs up to it and it negates what potentially would happen in their absence, which is a dog eat dog type of approach. It would be a race to the bottom and the more unscrupulous employers would win. Everybody is a winner when we have these types of collective agreements, which is why they are in place. The problem I have with the Bill is that the collective bargaining provisions do not go far enough, despite the fact it is a step in the right direction. There is no doubt there was a clear attempt by some people to dismantle the entire industrial relations architecture of the State. My only regret is the Government took so long to bring this forward as it is almost four years into its term of office. It is here, it is a step forward and it is being introduced for the right reason. In the absence of this, it would be much worse for everybody, not only the workers but also decent employers who want to pay decent rates of pay.
I join colleagues in complimenting the Minister of State for bringing forward this significant legislation. As Senator Cullinane stated, it is four and a half years since we assumed office and the Government has addressed many very difficult and significant issues in this time. The Bill is designed to further promote harmonious relations between workers and employers. We all want to see successful businesses throughout the country and we want to see workers being treated fairly. The Bill strikes a good balance. We have in place structures to deal with situations where people are not treated fairly.
I agree to some extent with Senator Walsh that the best way to sort out problems is around the table at local level. I worked in industry for 30 years in a manufacturing facility which never had a work stoppage. Significant issues arose from time to time, but they were thrashed out around the table between management and unions. We very seldom had to use the industrial relations machinery of the State, such as the Labour Court, but it is important that this machinery is there to deal with situations that cannot be resolved locally.
The Bill is important and I hope we will continue to grow business and attract overseas investment at the pace we have seen in recent years. I also hope unemployment figures will continue to decrease and more people will be back at work and people will return to fill the key vacancies beginning to arise in various sectors in the economy. It is important that we have addressed issues that have been hanging around for a long time. The Bill is significant and will help employers and employees. I say well done to the Minister of State and congratulate him on the amount of interest and energy he has invested in the Bill.
I compliment the Minister of State. He had a good day today as he passed two Bills through the Seanad. This Bill is every bit as important as the National Minimum Wage (Low Pay Commission) Bill. The Minister of State is trying to ensure there is fairness in the workplace and that there is security of tenure for employees. The Bill is very welcome.
I thank Senators for their support and for the lively and robust debate we have had over recent weeks on the various Stages of the Bill. This is a very important step forward in industrial relations and fulfils a significant programme for Government commitment introduced by the Labour Party. I pay tribute to the former leader of the Labour Party, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, who insisted on including this ambition in the programme for Government, not only to fulfil our international obligations to have a constitutionally robust collective bargaining system but to do the right thing by our economy and society.
To be perfectly frank, fairness at work, treating people fairly in the workplace and having fair remuneration and terms of conditions do not contradict the need to have flourishing businesses and a positive enterprise environment. The most successful societies and economies throughout the world manage to balance these principles, which are often considered to be competing. They are not competing principles and they are not binary or opposite principles, they are two sides of the same coin.
The Bill can transform the industrial relations landscape and ensure we have harmonious industrial relations. It is the central ambition of the Bill, which provides for a constitutionally robust framework for collective bargaining and the introduction of sectoral employment orders and registered employment agreements, which can improve workers terms and conditions, provide a level playing pitch and framework for their engagement with employers and ensure employers also compete with each other on a fair and balanced playing pitch.
I am very glad trade unions such as SIPTU, Mandate and others have welcomed the legislation. They see its utility in addressing some of the very high-profile disputes which have occurred in recent times. I hope employers and trade unions will engage in a spirit of partnership to address issues of concern and that the legislation will enable them to settle very significant issues with legal and constitutional protection. The new provisions on sectoral employment orders and REAs will be welcomed by workers throughout the country, particularly those involved in difficult disputes in recent times and those concerned about the future of their workplace and the future of their companies.
I pay tribute to all of the stakeholders involved in the process. I like to think I have given the process renewed impetus in the 52 weeks I have held this position. This is a programme for Government commitment which is being delivered and I pay tribute to those on the employer and trade union side for working constructively with the Government and departmental officials who have worked extremely hard on the Bill and brought it to this point.
It will, I am absolutely certain, promote harmonious industrial relations, fairness and decency in the workplace, and ensure that we can continue to see Ireland as a very positive place for foreign direct investment and promoting our strong enterprise culture.