Employment Rights

Ceisteanna (13)

Louise O'Reilly

Ceist:

13. Deputy Louise O'Reilly asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation if his attention has been drawn to the recent decision of the courts to strike down the sectoral employment order in place for electrical workers; and if he will bring forward legislation to support and reinforce the SEO and strengthen it from further attacks of this nature. [15876/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (7 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Business)

Deputy O'Reilly has 30 seconds to introduce her question.

I am sorry. I had forgotten I had 30 seconds to introduce. Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach. My question is fairly simple. It relates to the decision of the courts to strike down sectoral employment orders. I would be grateful if an Tánaiste would focus specifically on the measures he and his Department intend to take to shore up the rights of workers which, in the view of the ICTU and other organisations, have been undermined and damaged by the court's decision.

I thank Deputy O’Reilly for this important and timely question. I congratulate her on her appointment as Sinn Féin spokesperson for enterprise trade and employment. I look forward to tangling with her for the next two and a half years.

In June, the High Court found that SI 251/2019 was made outside of the powers of the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2015. It was also found that the legislative framework governing the sectoral employment process is unconstitutional. In the judge’s ruling, it is explained that this is because of the manner in which the process is delegated to bodies outside of these Houses and the lack of clear guidance regarding how to balance competing interests in drawing up sectoral employment orders. SI 251/2019 applied to the electrical contracting sector.

As set out in the House on Thursday, 9 July, following a discussion with the Minister of State, Deputy English, and consultation with the Attorney General, it was decided to appeal that judgment. Once the orders which must be completed by the High Court for this ruling to be given legal effect have been perfected, an appeal will be lodged in the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court at the same time with a view to a leapfrog appeal directly to the Supreme Court. I appraised the Government of this matter at its meeting yesterday.

This is an area of legislation which has proven to be very litigious in the past 15 years, with significant constitutional issues being called into question. The Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2015 was major legislation brought through by the last Government which sought to deal with those issues. We must now await the outcome of the appeal to understand where to go next with respect to this issue and before we commit to any further legislation.

The existing terms, conditions and contracts of employees in this sector stand. They cannot be unilaterally changed by employers. The situation is different for new entrants or for those changing employer but the terms, conditions and pay of those with existing contracts with their employers stand and cannot be reduced unilaterally by employers.

That is exactly what was said when the last Fianna Fáil Government cut the minimum wage. We were told the wages of people in employment would be protected but they were not. I have absolutely no faith that, in the absence of sectoral employment orders, employers will act in the manner the Tánaiste very kindly suggested they might. I am very pleased to see that the Government will appeal the ruling but, in the meantime, there is an urgent need to protect the tens of thousands of workers who are reliant on these SEOs. We have evidence to suggest that, where legal protections or minimums are removed, employers will seek to act. We need to legislate to ensure and guarantee people these minimal rights. We are not talking about a bonanza for those covered by sectoral employment orders; we are talking about very modest rates of pay and fairly basic terms and conditions of employment. Nonetheless, these people require that level of protection. Will the Minister enlighten me as to whether he plans to bring in such legislation? We in Sinn Féin will certainly work with him to ensure its quick passage so that protection can be provided to the affected workers pending the outcome of the appeal.

The last Government and the one before it increased the minimum wage four times, having reversed the earlier cut in the minimum wage. Notwithstanding the earlier comments of the Deputy's party leader, we increased the minimum wage to one of the highest levels in the European Union and to a much higher level than that in Northern Ireland, where the Deputy's party is in power. Legislation to introduce new sectoral minima is problematic because the High Court has found that this House and the Government of the time acted unconstitutionally by applying sectoral employment orders. We need the courts to clarify this issue. There is now a serious point of law to be considered as to whether sectoral employment orders such as these are permissible. Such orders have been struck down before. Legislation to reintroduce them was passed in 2015. They have now been struck down again, or at least the one in question has. Our actions have been found to be unconstitutional. We do not agree with this judgment, which is why we are appealing it to the Supreme Court. It would not be possible, however, to bring in new legislation to set sectoral minima when the courts have found that we do not have the power to do so.

The Tánaiste has outlined the difficulties. I am well aware of the difficulties regarding sectoral employment orders, registered employment agreements and employment regulation orders. As the Tánaiste said, they are open to legal action and such actions have been taken on a number of occasions.

In the intervening time, what protections does an electrical worker who is due to start work tomorrow or the next day have for his or her basic minimum rights and entitlements now that such workers are no longer set by or covered by the SEO? We must bear in mind that this challenge was not taken by people who sought to improve the terms of the SEO; it was taken by people who sought to get around the terms of the SEO and in some instances to pay less than the SEO would have granted. Is there a plan for the intervening time, pending the appeal? As I stated to the Minister, we commit to working with him if there is a plan to bring in a form of legislation that will underpin the basic rights and entitlements. The Government clearly sees the need for the SEO, as it introduced it, and I am sure the Minister believes it is a good idea. Therefore, when it is gone something must replace it. What will the Minister say to a worker starting on a site tomorrow morning and in the intervening period?

What we need is for the Supreme Court to hear this case quickly because there is little point in us bringing in legislation that is equally unfirm and could be struck down. We will be seeking an early hearing by the Supreme Court so that this issue can be clarified. In the meantime, the terms and conditions of those on existing contracts cannot be reduced unilaterally. There is an issue, which the Deputy has identified, where people are changing employer or starting a new contract. They will still be covered by the existing minimum wage legislation and minimum terms and conditions but not by the SEO. That is a real problem. For Government contracts, we are saying the SEO terms and conditions should still apply. That is a matter of contract law but I cannot guarantee that everyone in the private sector will take the same view. Some of the unions have indicated that they would look very dimly on any employer trying to diminish terms and conditions while the issue is under appeal and may take industrial action. Any employers thinking of taking advantage of this High Court decision, while it is on appeal, should think about the fact that they may bring industrial action on themselves.

Employment Rights

Ceisteanna (14)

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

Ceist:

14. Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation his plans to address the defects identified in legislation relating to the making of sectoral employment orders following the recent High Court judgment; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15993/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Business)

On the same matter, I wish to have placed on the record of the House the Minister's intentions in terms of dealing with the High Court decision on sectoral employment orders, outside of appealing to the Supreme Court. Are there legislative proposals from his Department? The Minister indicated to my colleague that he does not have any legislative proposals but I ask him to clarify that and to justify it.

As I mentioned earlier, this case is going to be appealed to both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, with a view to going straight to the Supreme Court in order that we can have an adjudication as soon as possible. The difficulty we have is that because this section of the legislation has been struck down as unconstitutional, it is questionable as to whether this House can bring in sector-specific minimum wages, pension arrangements or terms and conditions. With that power in question, all we can do is bring in legislation across the board but that will not work because the whole point of sectoral employment orders is that they are sectoral. I am not sure we have a legislative solution to address this lacuna and the problem that arises, at least until the Supreme Court hears the case.

We have to work on contingencies, depending on what the outcome of the case might be. Having spoken to the Attorney General, we are confident as a Government that this House does have the authority to make sectoral employment orders. The Minister cannot do so on his or her own but provided it is done by regulation and can be revoked by the House, then we are confident that we can but it does create a lacuna during that period, and does speak to a bigger question that we need to resolve. One of the problems with sectoral employment orders is that they only apply to sectors and one issue we both need and want to address in next couple of years, presuming the economy allows it, is to continue to raise pay and terms and conditions for all workers, not just those in particular sectors or those who are represented by unions. I refer to the move from the minimum wage to the living wage. What that means has to be defined because it means different things to different people in different countries.

It is also intended to introduce auto-enrolment so that everyone has access to a pension fund. At the moment, three quarters of people in the private sector have no access to an occupational pension fund. We have pension apartheid in Ireland when one compares the public and private sectors. The third issue is to increase social insurance benefits more generally to every working person, so that work pays. In recent years we have made some good progress in that regard on issues such as treatment benefit, maternity benefit and parental benefit and we need to add to that now with other social-insurance related benefits as well, so that we are raising the floor for everyone not just those in particular sectors or those who are unionised.

If one is in employment that is governed by a sectoral employment order, one will feel particularly insecure currently, in conjunction with how insecure one might feel because of Covid and the fact that in living memory we had an economic crash less than a decade ago. We have lived in a low-wage economy for some years. I stated to the Minister previously - the Labour Party wishes to repeats the point - that statistics provided by the OECD show that 23% of workers are on low pay. Last week, my colleague, Deputy Nash, introduced the Industrial Relations (Sectoral Employment Orders) Confirmation Bill 2020. If the Minister were to support the legislation or to bring in similar legislation, he would be signalling to these workers that he has their backs and he is on their side. I have been in these Houses long enough to know that when a Government needs or wants to do something, it sends out a message. It is able to do so, regardless of what commentators might say or whether its constitutionality might be questioned. What sort of signal would the Minister give in terms of a legislative response? Just as the Labour Party has done with its Bill, could the Minister not do something similar in order to show the workers that he does have their backs and that he is not just going to wait for the outcome of a case before the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeal?

What we are doing to demonstrate that we have the backs of electrical contractors and workers on this issue is appealing the High Court decision. We do not have to appeal it but we are choosing to appeal it because we think it is the right thing to do. We will look at the legislation produced. I have not seen the Bill yet, but we will examine it. Deputy Ó Ríordáin has been a Minister and he has served in government. He knows that no Government can bring in legislation that is unconstitutional. Producing legislation that is unconstitutional is not showing that one has anyone's back: it is showing that one is pretending to have someone's back and that is not a good thing.

It is all about intent and how strongly one believes in these things. This is legislation that has been proposed by a former Minister in this area, who brought in the 2015 legislation to which the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, referred in an earlier comment. It is not a case of playing games or doing something for the sake of it; it is legislation that has identified the issues raised in the court case and is trying to iron them out. What I suggest is that the Minister could support the Bill or give it proper consideration and bring in his own legislation while we wait on the Supreme Court to rule on the case.

It jars with me and my party, and probably with others, to hear the Minister congratulate himself on taking the case to the Supreme Court. If the Minister were not to take the case to the Supreme Court, we would definitely see which side of the fence he is on. In the meantime, while we wait for the stimulus package and for the outcome of the Supreme Court case, it is the responsibility of the Government to show there is nothing the Government will not do or entertain in order to protect people who are covered by SEOs, who by their very nature are in vulnerable work, and are open to exploitation. That is the reason for the necessity of SEOs. This is the type of message we need from the Government. I appreciate that the Minister said he will examine the legislation that has been produced by the Labour Party, but I wish to hear a harder and more supportive message than that.

There is a big difference between intent and sincerity on the one hand and virtue signalling and critical messaging on the other. One is good and the other is phony. We will look at the legislation Deputy Nash has produced. We did look at the Bill he produced before Christmas, which was unconstitutional. We will give the Bill serious consideration and see if it is defective or not. What we have on behalf of the Government is intent and sincerity. I do not know what we have from the Labour Party. We will see whether it is just virtue signalling or not.

Company Closures

Ceisteanna (15)

Louise O'Reilly

Ceist:

15. Deputy Louise O'Reilly asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation if he will implement legislation or measures to prevent tactical insolvency and ensure that workers are protected in insolvency situations. [15877/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Business)

This question is a fairly simple one. It is to ask the Minister if he will implement the legislative measures to prevent tactical insolvencies and ensure that workers are protected in insolvency situations. The latest of quite a number of cases of this nature concerns the Debenhams workers, but there has been a litany of cases. Every time this comes up, whoever is in government says something needs to be done, someone should do something, this cannot be allowed to happen again and when it happens again they say the same things.

Workers are getting a bit sick of waiting, they want protection and they want it now.

I thank the Deputy for raising once again the important matter of insolvency and how it impacts on the rights of workers, creditors and others at this time. The procedures for liquidations are set out in the Part 11 of the Companies Act 2014. In general terms, a company is permitted to initiate a winding-up where it has complied with the requirements of the Companies Act 2014. A company both during normal operation and in a winding-up process must of course also abide by all relevant legal requirements, including the treatment of employees and creditors and disclosure to the Revenue Commissioners as well. However, the provisions of the Companies Act 2014 provide safeguards to prevent the abuse of the liquidation system. These include preferential payments under section 621 which provide for categories of employee entitlement such as wages owed, holiday remuneration, superannuation benefits, ill health payments and social welfare contributions. An insolvent company is defined by the Companies Act 2014 in section 818 as a company that is unable to pay its debts and is further defined in the Act.

Therefore insolvency cannot merely be asserted: insolvency is defined in the legislation and scrutinised in the courts. In addition the liquidator of an insolvent company must report to the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, ODCE, on its demise and must apply to the High Court for the restriction of each of the directors of the company, unless they are relieved of that obligation by the ODCE. Ireland has a longstanding preventative restructuring framework in examinership that provides a protective mechanism for companies that have real prospects for the future but find themselves in financial difficulty at a point in time. When it comes to workers the Protection of Employment Act 1977 imposes obligations on employers who are proposing collective redundancies, including official notification to the relevant Minister and a 30-day consultation period to allow employee representatives adequate opportunity to consider the employer's proposals and make constructive proposals in response. While this legislation is currently the responsibility of my colleague the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, it will shortly transfer to my Department under a transfer order.

On redundancy entitlements, it is the responsibility of the employer in the first instance to pay statutory redundancy and all other wage-related entitlements to eligible employees.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

However, the social insurance fund, under the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection provides a safety net for employees in situations where the employer cannot pay due to financial difficulties or insolvency.

The Government has committed in the programme for Government to reviewing whether the current legal provisions surrounding collective redundancies and the liquidation of companies protect the rights of workers effectively. It has committed also to reviewing the Companies Act 2014 with a view to addressing the practice of trading entities splitting their operations between trading and property with the result being the trading business, including the jobs, go into insolvency and the assets are taken out of the original business. Additionally, it commits to examining the legal provision that pertains to any sale to a connected party following the insolvency of a company including who can object and the allowable grounds of an objection.

As part of its next work programme, I will be requesting the Company Law Review Group to examine these programme for Government commitments.

The workers in Debenhams are on strike, they have balloted for industrial action. They are not on the picket line because they want to be there, they are on the picket line because they are literally in the last-chance saloon. They have got no option. They have nothing, they have lost their jobs. If one talks to these men and women, some have 20, 30 or 34 years of service to the company. Between them, they have given hundreds of years of loyal service to a company that has simply left them, dumped them.

The Tánaiste may recall that my party tabled legislation in 2016. His predecessor as Minister in responding to the legislation, the Protection of Employees (Collective Redundancies) Bill 2017, said:

The Government supports the broad principles of the Bill. It is well intentioned and in line with proposals being developed in my Department in response to the Duffy-Cahill report.

Where are those proposals now? They were being developed in 2016. It is 2020 now and we have another situation. They were developed on foot of what happened to the Clerys workers, we now have another such situation. We are going to have more of these if we do not take some action. We have tabled legislation that is broadly in line with the legislation previously tabled, entitled the Protection of Employees (Collective Redundancies) Bill 2020. I have sought leave to introduce it and I hope that the Minister will work with me in the spirit of his predecessor to ensure that action is taken on behalf of these workers.

Will the Minister agree to meet with a delegation of Debenhams workers? Their trade union, Mandate, has written to him to request that. I have spoken to them directly and they have said that if they could talk to the Minister and explain to him it might underline for him the urgency and the need to act.

I have met some of the Debenhams workers already about this matter although I have not met them through their trade union. I am certainly happy to consider any meeting request. It is important to say that the Debenhams staff who were laid off should get their redundancy and they will. Even if it has to come out of the Social Insurance Fund they should get it. I know that they have not gotten it yet but redundancy payments are suspended at the moment because of Covid. That should not stop them getting their redundancy payments and they should get them as soon as is possible, either from the company or from the Social Insurance Fund if needs be.

The situations with Clerys and Debenhams are not quite the same. Clerys had substantial property assets on O'Connell Street, Debenhams did not. It was renting its premises and had been in and out of examinership for quite some time. Putting the two together is a little bit inaccurate. There are legal changes that need to be made however. Some flow from company law and the company law Bill which we will publish in the next couple of days will deal with some of those. When we have the employment affairs section transferred over I will look again at the Duffy Cahill report and see if we need to make some changes on foot of that.

The Company Law Review Group issued a report in 2017. It outlines again the need for changes and outlines exactly what needs to be done. There is absolutely no dearth of information about what needs to be done and what would be the right thing to do. Everybody knows this. All that they are waiting on is the political will to act on it and that is why I am imploring the Minister to meet with the Debenhams workers and I welcome the fact that he will consider that. Their trade union has written to him, I think the letter was sent last week. They would be very grateful for a formal meeting with a delegation.

The Minister referred to redundancy. As he rightly pointed out, the workers are entitled to what I, in my previous life, would have called "stat", that is, statutory redundancy. They have a collective agreement. They were a unionised workforce and I am conscious of the fact that I am talking to someone who has worked for probably most of his adult life under collective agreements and national wage agreements. These workers had a collective agreement with their employer and their employer has walked away from it. It did cover issues such as their redundancy entitlement and they are now sitting-in because there is stock in the Debenhams store and once that is gone they believe that will be it, that it is all that is going to be left to them. Statutory redundancy after 34 years of good and loyal service is not really good enough. These people had a collective agreement with their employer which was negotiated. There was give and take, as there always is, on behalf of both parties but the workers should be entitled to the minimum terms that are in that collective agreement.

I am not sure whether that stock belongs to Debehams, to concessionaires or a bit of both but that is neither here nor there.

It is important to say that a company cannot just declare itself insolvent. A company has to initiate a liquidation while insolvent and it cannot do so by voluntary liquidation, it must apply to the High Court. It may be that these matters have yet to be heard in the courts and that is where they will be determined.

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

Ceisteanna (16)

Catherine Murphy

Ceist:

16. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation the modelling that has been undertaken to quantify the impact of Covid-19 on the sectors he plans to provide assistance to in the context of the proposed July stimulus; the persons that conducted the modelling and analysis; if it will be factored into the stimulus measures; if he has consulted with his Ministerial colleagues in the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform in relation to the stimulus; and if aspects will require an early budget. [16040/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Business)

This question relates to the modelling or analysis that has been done to date. Who has conducted the analysis in advance of the stimulus package, including the impact it will have had on various sectors such as jobs losses and the viability of sectors and companies? Was the analysis done in-house across the various Departments or who carried it out?

Extensive modelling and analysis were undertaken for the three Economic Considerations for Reinstating Economic Activity papers developed by my Department at phases 1, 2 and 3 of the Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business. These three papers, which are available on my Department's website gov.ie, were developed in conjunction with the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and provide an assessment of the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Some other Departments also provided sectoral input based on their analyses. The papers also drew on international analysis from organisations such as the OECD, the ECB, Copenhagen Economics and Oxford University.

The economic impact of Covid-19 has not been uniform across all sectors of the economy. Based on the analysis from the Department of Finance's stability programme update and a more detailed sectoral and labour market analysis provided by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the most heavily-impacted sectors are accommodation, food, construction, administration and support services, wholesale and retail and other personal services. Evidence for this includes the number of employees availing of the temporary wage subsidy and the pandemic unemployment payment. Sectors like finance, service activities and information and communications technology are the least affected. These sectors rely much less on direct contact with consumers and service providers and much activity can be completed from home.

There has also been less of a direct impact on the manufacturing sector. Many manufacturing industries were considered as essential during the restrictions and continued operations, albeit adapting to ensure safe workplaces with social distancing. The fall in output will be limited given that pharmaceutical and other medical devices sectors account for the majority of output. Indeed, activity in the pharmaceutical sector largely continued throughout the restrictions. However, production in the indigenous sector is expected to be adversely affected, reflected in an annual decline in manufacturing production in the traditional sector in February and March this year.

There are some welcome signs of improvement in business activity and the economy. However, sectors that employ a lot of people, such as tourism, hospitality, arts, entertainment and other services that rely on social interaction, remain in serious difficulty and their recovery prospects are uncertain.

I am out of practice doing this. I will get shorter replies next time.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

The July stimulus package, to be announced shortly, will be of scale and speed. In considering the analyses, I see five areas which we should focus on in helping our enterprises in the future: income support, direct grants for businesses, cheaper finance, new opportunities for future jobs and support for the hardest hit sectors.

Obviously there will be a number of opportunities to have a targeted approach to stimulating the economy and ensuring the maximum number of people continue to be employed. It is essential this analysis is done, and continues to be done, in order that there is a targeted approach. Is the approach of the stimulation that it will be jobs rich? It is one thing to make sure businesses recover but it is another that they recover and that good quality employment is provided where public money is invested in that recovery. What are the principles behind the analysis that was done? It is very welcome that the analysis was done. It is something that was called for at the Covid committee very recently by some of the employer organisations. They were quite critical that it was not done until very late in the day after the last crash. They made a point of saying it needed to be done to have a targeted approach in the recovery.

I thank the Deputy. The truth is, as the Deputy will acknowledge, that any analysis and projection as to how Covid will impact on our economy is a good educated guess. Nobody really knows how long this pandemic will go on for, how many waves there may or may not be or what they will look like. It is everyone's best guess as to what the impact will be but it is better to have some analysis and projection than none. We have to be honest with people that the analysis could change significantly over the coming months, depending on what happens with the virus and whether a vaccine is developed, and all of the things that everyone in the House appreciates already.

To answer the Deputy's question, if we have anything to do with the recovery, it will be jobs rich and jobs led. The priority is to get people back to their old jobs where possible. We acknowledge this may not be possible in all cases because some firms may fail and some sectors may not recover for a very long time. We need to make sure alternative employment is created in other sectors, such as climate action, green tech and green energy. It will also be in construction building some of the many houses we desperately need, and in areas such as care, where we need to increase the number of staff in that part of the public service and other parts of the public service.

Were consultancy firms brought in to do work? Was this done in-house, relying on some of the data already available? I completely acknowledge that there is a degree of the crystal ball associated with this, in the absence of a vaccine being available and some degree of certainty about when the crisis is likely to abate and we get back to the new normality post Covid.

I might be wrong but I think it was all done in-house and drew on existing papers and other papers from the European Central Bank, Copenhagen Economics and Oxford University. We had the report from Copenhagen Economics on Brexit and the Oxford work on Covid. I think it was done in-house with the assistance of external reports but not with external consultancy. If I am wrong about that I will come back to the Deputy and let her know.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Ceisteanna (17)

Louise O'Reilly

Ceist:

17. Deputy Louise O'Reilly asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation if the regulations will be amended to make Covid-19 an occupational illness having regard to the immediate, exceptional and manifest risk posed to human life and public health by the spread of Covid-19, thus ensuring occurrences of same among workers in the workplace are reported to the Health and Safety Authority. [15752/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Business)

This is a fairly simple straightforward request and the Tánaiste can just say "Yes" and we will not need a back and forth. It is simply to ensure that where a worker contracts an illness in the workplace, that illness being Covid-19, that it is notifiable to the Health and Safety Authority, which can examine the case to determine how the person got it. I am a member of the Covid-19 response committee and I have heard from people representing workers in high-risk sectors, such as meat plants, and healthcare workers among whom infection rates are very high. It beggars belief that this is not notifiable in the normal way that an illness acquired in the workplace is to the HSA.

I will set out the current situation for the Deputy, if that is all right.

As the Deputy might realise, Covid 19 has been included as a notifiable disease under the Infectious Diseases (Amendment) Regulations 2020. Any infectious disease pandemic is first and foremost a matter of public health, for which a legal basis for reporting already exists under public health legislation. Notifiable infectious diseases are statutorily reported under the Infectious Diseases Regulations 1981 to the Chief Medical Officer of the Department of Health for investigation and control. At present, under the occupational safety and health legislation the requirement to report accidents does not apply to a person who suffers a disease, occupational illness or impairment of mental health as a result of workplace activity.

There are a number of considerations to take into account with regard to reporting occupational diseases or illnesses or both to the Health and Safety Authority. These include the fact that many employers are not in a position to assess or attribute the diagnosis of Covid-19 as an occupational disease or illness with any degree of reliability since it can be acquired in a community or workplace setting. It would also introduce an obligation on employees to provide detailed confidential medical information to their employer, which would be seen as contrary to the protection of an individual's right to the privacy of such information.

However, I do understand that the board of the Health and Safety Authority has requested a review of the reporting obligations concerning infectious diseases in the context of employers' obligations under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005. The review will include consultation with a range of parties, including the Department of Health and the State Claims Agency. It will also examine whether a proposed change can be achieved without increasing reporting requirements for employers outside the health sector and can be aligned with general data protection regulation, GDPR, requirements. The review will also look at the practices in other European countries on the reporting of infectious diseases by employers. I have asked that the review be presented to the Department for consideration as soon as it is available. I am happy to revert to the Deputy at that stage.

I thank the Minister of State. Will representatives of workers be involved in the review? I heard the Minister of State list the stakeholders but I did not hear worker representatives on it. If they are not involved in the review, I urge the Minister of State as a matter of priority to ensure they are.

I note the Minister of State's concern for workers with regard to any responsibility that might be placed on them but their representative body, and a fine representative body it is too, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, wrote to the previous Minister to outline that the workers are more than happy to undertake that responsibility. If a person acquires an injury or illness in the workplace it should be notifiable to the Health and Safety Authority. It beggars belief. I actually did not believe it when I read the correspondence first that it was not notifiable to the Health and Safety Authority. For some people, putting themselves in the way of this disease is part of their job. It is part of their work and it is in the transaction of that work that they acquire it. It is not good enough to say we might not be able to determine exactly how people acquired it. That is what the Health and Safety Authority inspectors are there to do. They can come in and investigate how it happened. The Covid committee has heard at length how it runs through workplaces in particular settings. We know we have unusually high rates of infection among healthcare workers, which is very worrying. What we need now is to give the HSA the authority to do what it should be doing and inspecting these workplaces. However, in order to do this they have to be notified.

I understand that as part of the report, it will consult. We can check this. It is something we can also do when we get the report. To be clear, the Health and Safety Authority is aware that Covid-19 is a risk in healthcare settings and in other settings also. It is working with the HSE and individual employees in places of work to investigate the incidents among healthcare workers. The HSA is also investigating fatalities arising from cases where healthcare workers have contracted Covid-19. This is when they are called in. Approximately 9,000 non-fatal workplace injuries and accidents are reported to the HSA per year.

However, the report of a workplace injury or accident is for statistical analysis generally. It is when it goes deeper that it carries out the full investigation.

The Deputy asked why it is not included. As recently as 2016 a statutory instrument, SI 370 of 2016, amended the health and safety general application regulations to clarify issues for employers as to what was a workplace accident by setting out that the requirement to report an accident does not apply to an accident which occurs in a place of work or as a result of work activity in respect of which a person suffers any disease, occupational illness or any impairment of mental condition. At that time a regulatory impact assessment was carried out as part of this change to the regulations. The regulatory impact assessment identified that the exclusion of disease or occupational illness or any impairment of mental condition was needed as employers were not in a position to assess or attribute occupational disease or illness to a workplace activity. That is probably a fair assessment. However, we will await the report and take matters from there. We can discuss it in the House.

On 11 June, the European Parliament took a decision to include Covid-19 in the definition of biological hazard as encompassed by the biological hazards directive. It would seem, therefore, that the decision has already been taken at European level. It is a very simple request - that the Minister of State make the necessary amendment to regulation 224 of the safety, health and welfare at work general application, amendment, regulations. He has the power to do it. I understand and respect that he will wait for the report and the review, but this issue has been ongoing for some time. With the greatest respect, we should have that report and subsequent action on it without any further delay. As the Tánaiste pointed out in the previous reply, we do not have a crystal ball when it comes to this virus. In all likelihood we will face more waves of it, so we must put contingency measures in place now to ensure workers are protected to the greatest extent possible.

Every effort is being made to protect workers through the back to work protocols. That is an absolute guarantee. It is likewise in the health service. With regard to the changes and the biological agents regulations, this does not impact the reporting of Covid-19. The reporting requirements in the regulations require that the HSA be notified immediately of any accident or incident which may result in the release of a biological agent which could cause severe human infection or illness in a laboratory setting. For example, if a sample containing SARS-CoV-2 was released, this would have to be reported. The requirement for an employer to report a case of Covid-19 in a healthcare worker is not covered, or intended, under the biological agents regulations.

I can just set out what the situation is. It is appropriate that we wait for that report. Naturally, if the report makes recommendations, we will act. I have committed to discussing it in the House. We are very open on this as there is no issue with it.