Dáil Éireann - Volume 569 - 26 June, 2003

Protection of Employees (Fixed-Term Work) Bill 2003 [ Seanad ] : Second Stage (Resumed).

  Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

  Mr. Broughan: I have already referred to the lethargic and tardy introduction of this legislation which is, unfortunately, typical of the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Government.

  The Labour Party will table a number of amendments on Committee Stage on various aspects of this Bill when my colleague, Deputy Howlin, will have an opportunity to contribute to the debate. In regard to contracts of employment as referred to in the definitions section of the Bill, it was our understanding that the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Michael Ahern, gave commitments in the Seanad on the direct employees of agencies. Having listened to the contribution of the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Fahey, I do not know whether this is an area which our officials and the Minister can make a bit more favourable, particularly in regard to agency workers, about whom I spoke at length during my previous contribution.

  In regard to the definition of “employer” in the Bill, the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ahern, indicated that he might be prepared to expand on that definition and on the definition of “fixed-term employee”, in order to give a more favourable role to fixed-term workers. The Labour Party has concerns about the section on fixed-term employees, particularly an employee with a contract of employment “which has been concluded within the framework of a specific public or publicly-supported training integration or [1074]vocational training programme”. What will be the impact of that on employees who came through such programmes into permanent employment? I would be grateful if the officials would tease that issue out further and respond to the Labour Party's amendment, which will be tabled on Committee Stage. I warmly welcome the extension of “remuneration” to include pension schemes or arrangements. It is an important innovation.

  We also have some concerns about section 3, regarding the regulation in orders and we will also table an amendment in that regard. One of our major concerns in section 7, is in regard to the “objective grounds” whereby an employee would be given another fixed-term contract, rather than a contract of permanent work. A sufficiently clear definition does not seem to be provided. I referred earlier to employees on public sector short-term contracts and one can think of examples in the private sector, such as the ICT development for the millennium, where there is a definite objective reason for it. However, we still feel this is too vague and it is something to which the Minister will hopefully return.

  There does not appear to be a role for the rights commissioner in the first phase of enforcement in regard to an employee being informed in writing by the employer of the objective grounds justifying the renewal of the fixed-term contract. The Rights Commissioner should have a role in deciding and making an assessment of what these objective grounds would be. In Part 2, section nine is a key section which relates to successive fixed-term contracts. How can we prevent rogue employers making a mockery of this legislation in the future? This aspect was rightly criticised in the Seanad by my colleagues Senators McDowell, O'Toole and others on the difficulties that arise with allowing for the contract of a fixed-term employee to be renewed on one further occasion after the employee has completed three years of continuous employment. The Labour Party would strongly support an amendment which would provide that a full year's service would be deemed to be a contract which would be followed by permanency. On behalf of the Labour Party I welcome the Bill and I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, to the extent that the Bill is at last with us. I urge him to consider a number of important amendments which the party will table next week.

  Mr. Eamon Ryan: I wish to share my time with Deputies Ferris, Finian McGrath and Harkin. If I run over my own time allocation, the Ceann Comhairle might give me an indication.

  An Ceann Comhairle: The function of the Chair is to say when the slot is concluded.

  Mr. Eamon Ryan: With Deputy Murphy and Deputies from the other Opposition parties I welcome the provisions of this Bill. I particularly welcome the tone of such legislation from Europe from which we get so much of the progressive, [1075]social and environmental legislation which is directing our society. The Green Party was associated in some recent referendums with those who were critical of some aspects of the European Union policy. I am happy to say the party supports the European Union institutions and the direction of the Union when it is setting out fundamental social rights which would be introduced more slowly if we were outside the EU.

  It is deeply regrettable that for all the espousal of European regulations by those in Government, we are passing this legislation at the last minute, when in effect the sheriff is knocking at the door and the European Court of Justice is taking prosecutions against the Irish State for its failure to implement the directive. It is regrettable that in my limited experience in the Dáil we invariably seem to be the last to implement the fundamental social environmental protections which directives from Europe are providing. We recently passed the Fisheries (Amendment) Bill 2002, yet were the last in Europe to apply the relevant EU directive. In the Bill before us today we are again slow in complying, but I welcome the fact that we are doing so.

  Deputy Broughan asked how we might keep tabs on rogue employers. With regard to fixed-term contracts, in my experience – and the Minister might back this up – it is the State itself which has been the greatest user of such contracts. We are all aware of individuals who seem to have been employed for years by the State on continuous fixed-term contracts. I know a number of teachers in such a situation. It becomes embarrassing after a number of years when one meets a person, asks how the job is going and if it is now full-time, and is told that yet another annual contract has been rolled out. It is remarkable that the State allowed its own institutions to develop this form of employment. The greatest changes to come as a result of the legislation before us will be in the State and the semi-State sectors. A sign of that is the welcome fact that with pension entitlements now being made allowable for such fixed-term workers, the bill to the State is some €50 million annually. This is a remarkable figure and shows the remarkable extent of such fixed-term contracts in the State itself.

  While welcoming the Bill, the Green Party shares some of the concerns expressed earlier. In particular it is concerned about how we will move away from the policy of using fixed-term contracts. The Bill as currently drafted does not address this issue properly. It is hard to know exactly what the proposal is in this area. The Green Party supports a much tighter timeframe regarding the elimination of the multi-annual one year fixed term contracts. The provision in the Bill for three years of fixed contracts followed by only one more before full-time employment must be offered, is far too lax and is in a sense generous in allowing the current policy to continue.

[1076]  As a former employer, I know that when one employs people on a full-time basis, one is very cognisant that after one year, many legal issues kick in, in terms of the person's rights, and quite rightly, the protection of that employee's status. If we want to have equality between fixed-term contracts and full-time working, we must look first at the one year timeframe, and then look at ways of providing equal rights. Otherwise, if allowance is made for three consecutive one year contracts, there will still be a huge incentive for employers to continue using that system. That is not in the best interests of employees and does not sit with the general intent of the Bill. I encourage the Minister and his officials to take on the amendments tabled by, I believe, Irish Congress of Trade Unions representatives and certain Senators.

  The other main issue of contention arose in the Seanad debate and will probably arise again on Committee Stage. This is the issue of temporary workers and temporary agencies, and whether the legislation would apply to workers provided by such temporary agencies. The Minister says there is a separate directive on the way, and perhaps we should wait for that before legislation is approved.

  I am seriously concerned, however, that the ideology of this Government is one which, as Deputy Broughan said, would be involved in Europe in trying to water down or cut back on the protection we want to give to temporary workers. Unfortunately it is impossible to know which countries are being progressive on the issue and which are trying to hinder it, as it is a closed process. Reading the Minister's speech and its references to this matter, I fear that an Italian EU Presidency followed by an Irish one might well result in the matter being dragged out further and further, with the provisions watered down.

  Responding to Deputy Broughan's speech, the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, said that what people want is flexibility, as if this great use of employment agencies proves that. What people want is proper maternity leave. They want the benefits system changed so that benefits are not lost at a very low pay threshold if one goes into part-time work, as happens currently. People want a strong telecommunications network provided to enable them to work from home. The flexibility people want is not the flexibility George Bush is looking for in the great globalised economy, where we are involved in a race to the bottom in terms of us as a State providing the most flexible, cheapest and best arrangements for employers. What we want is a family friendly set up in the true sense of providing Irish parents with the chance to work for a period with flexible arrangements. I fear that is not the exact intention of the Minister when he talks about flexibility. I welcome the chance to debate the Bill on Committee Stage and Report Stage when I hope the Minister will accept certain amendments to tighten up the issue, particularly in regard to the [1077]number of consecutive fixed-time contracts a person can be given.

  Mr. Ferris: I welcome the objectives of this Bill. It is only right that fixed-term workers be given equality with comparable permanent workers. We must first ask why it is only now that this Bill is being brought forward by the Government to implement the provisions of the EU Council directive 1999/70 EC 28 June 1999. The target date for the implementation of this directive was July 2001. The European Commission referred this State to the European Court of Justice for failure to implement the directives on time. This questions the sincerity of the Government given its failure to meet this stipulation, and one must question the reasons.

  There are legitimate reasons for employing people on fixed-term contracts for specific purposes. We must, however, recognise that there has been a high level of abuse in this area by employers who keep staff on a casual or temporary basis to avoid giving them the rights to which they would normally be entitled. This behaviour by employers is unacceptable and must be brought to an end. Measures to tackle this abuse and evasion by employers are long overdue.

  Even public sector employers are involved in this abuse. For example, many postal workers are employed on successive fixed-term employment contracts. I know of one person who has been employed in such a way for more than 18 years. This is scandalous. Many teachers and health board staff are also kept on this type of contract. During the general election, I met a teacher who was employed for 18 years on this type of contract and this militates against people in such positions in trying to secure mortgages or loans for their houses and so forth and discriminates against them. It is only right that this should be brought to an end.

  I am concerned that the provisions in the Bill will not have the intended effect and that section 10, which provides that an employer can only renew a fixed-term contract once after three years of continuous service, will not result in such employees being made permanent. I am concerned that this provision could result in certain employers laying people off to avoid the measure. Workers will be concerned unless the Minister of State can assure the House on this matter, and I urge him to do so.

  Neither my party nor I are gullible enough to believe that the Government has a real commitment to ensuring workers' rights. I intend to address a number of issues that expose its lack of commitment. One such issue that the Government has ignored is workplace accidents and deaths. Some 57 people died in work-related accidents last year, 21 on construction sites. Over the past ten years, 172 people have died on building sites. In the first four months of this year there have been eight fatal accidents on construction sites. Despite this, the coalition Government has [1078]failed to act to protect the health and safety of workers, especially those in the construction sector. This is an indictment of the Government.

  This Administration has long promised tough new legislation and on-the-spot fines, yet nothing has been done. This legislation is not a priority for a Government that is closely connected to the building industry. Public protests by construction workers reflect a deep level of anger on their part and is because they have seen their colleagues die on unsafe sites. We in this House have recently witnessed a number of these protests by construction workers trying to obtain this basic right of safety in their workplaces.

  The Government, in the interests of employers, recently joined with Britain, Germany and Denmark in blocking an EU directive designed to improve rights for part-time and temporary workers by giving them the same pay and conditions as full-time workers. This is an indictment of the Government and questions its sincerity in proposing the Bill. The Government has put basic workers' rights on the bargaining table of social partnership. Workers are increasingly forced to bargain with employers on issues such as recognition of unions, compliance with labour regulations and the fulfilling of statutory redundancy rights which are all basic workplace rights.

  The Minister of State will be familiar with the position of oil rig workers. In recent years, to prevent unions organising on oil rigs, Irish men who wish to obtain work on oil rigs near Ireland have been forced to go to the North Sea or elsewhere first for work before they can obtain work on rigs in Ireland, and non-union ones at that. This is wrong. The Minister of State is well aware of this and I have met him about it before in the company of two oil rig workers from Galway.

  The Government has used the partnership process to create an obedient trade union leadership by making union leaders part of the establishment, therefore creating a gulf between union leadership and grassroots membership. It is unfortunate that there is such a compliant union leadership in place.

  The current agreement, Sustaining Progress, represents a poor deal for workers and the low paid. It offers nothing on the real issues facing workers, such as health, child care and education. There is no doubt that the Government, under the control of the Progressive Democrats, has used social partnership to silence dissent on social and economic matters in the face of broken promises, wide-ranging cutbacks in health, housing and education and the deterioration in the quality of life of working people. It serves to occupy the time of union representatives as the Government implements its anti-worker right-wing agenda. This is a Government for employers, landowners, big business and exploiters. Workers should not be fooled by the words of the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, who has little credibility among ordinary working class people given his record on other issues.

[1079]  I welcome the Bill although I have reservations about it. Will the Minister of State assure me regarding the possibility of workers being laid off to avoid the measures in section 10?

  Mr. F. McGrath: Workers' rights are always important for me and it is essential in this debate to ensure that all staff are treated in a fair and just manner. The fact that we live in a high-tech economy does not mean that we should ever forget the tradition of great people like James Connolly or other great trade unionists who fought for the rights of workers. It is essential that we are constantly on our guard to ensure that low wages, discrimination and exploitation are things of the past. The Bill is a step in the right direction and I will support it, but we still have a long way to go to end low pay, poverty and social disadvantage.

  The Bill provides for the improvement of the quality of fixed-term work by ensuring the application of the principle of non-discrimination. It also provides for the removal of discrimination against fixed-term workers where such exists and establishes a framework to prevent abuse arising from the use of successive fixed-term employment contracts. I welcome section 4 which raises the fines of £50 and £10 provided in section 10(1) of the Employment Agency Act 1971 to €2,000 and €1,000, respectively. I welcome Part 3 on enforcement. Section 15 provides that a complaint by an employee or trade union of which the employee is a member, that the employer has contravened a provision of the Bill in respect of that employee may be presented to a rights commissioner. Section 17 gives some teeth to the Bill and some positive action in the interests of the employee.

  I have some concerns about section 18 which does not apply to a trainee nurse. I hope that this will not be used as an excuse to ignore the plight of young nurses, especially when we are in the middle of major changes to our health services. We should always remember that young nurses are the future of health care and are on the front line in providing services. We should always be on our guard to protect their rights. This is why I am concerned about section 18.

  I notice in the financial implications that the cost to the Exchequer will be about €50 million per annum. However, I agree that the benefits that will accrue, especially regarding the promotion and encouragement of the process of change in work relationships which will benefit employers and employees, will outweigh the costs involved. People's rights and entitlements should never be eroded by costs and it is essential that we keep this in mind when debating this legislation.

  We must also face the reality that certain elements in society would like to see workers' rights eroded and the end of the trade union movement. Right wing elements will always want to suppress trade unionists and I put down a [1080]marker in this debate that the trade union movement will never be beaten. Despite economic circumstances, it has a major part to play in society. If it ever goes out of business we will all lose. It is the future, the progressive force, and we should listen to it. When it comes to social justice and workers' rights, particularly for PAYE workers, trade unions will always pay a progressive role. I commend the thousands of active trade unionists in Ireland today and I intend to be their voice in this Dáil. Today members of the INTO, of which I am a member, visited Ministers about the conditions of schools and I welcome them to the Houses of the Oireachtas.

  It is a disgrace that senior Ministers are not listening to sensible voices in the trade union movement. In the current debate with the Minister for Transport on the plan to build a private terminal at Dublin Airport, the break up of Aer Rianta and the ending of the bilateral agreement at Shannon Airport, the Minister's objectives are not supported by the findings of reputable reports, particularly those commissioned by the Government. The trade union movement, particularly the civil aviation branch of SIPTU at Dublin Airport, has been pointing this out for months, but no one is listening. The best independent economic advice is given to the Minister for Transport but he ignores it.

  This is a wake up call for everyone and I urge the Minister to heed the voice of the trade union movement in this debate. We will then see if we are really serious about the Protection of Employees (Fixed-Term Work) Bill 2003, which directly affects more than 70,000 workers. I commend it to the House.

  Ms Harkin: I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the House on this important legislation. I welcome and support this Bill, an encouraging and progressive move to provide equal treatment for non-permanent workers.

  As we move from the jobs for life era and into a period of fixed-term contract arrangements, Government legislation should protect the workers concerned. It is essential that we put in place laws to ensure that workers are not deprived of their rights by the use of repeated roll-overs of fixed-term contracts.

  We have enjoyed an unprecedented ten years of growth in employment, including an estimated 70,000 fixed-term contract workers. Unfortunately, we now face a period of reduced growth where employment might be more difficult to find. This situation could encourage employers to take advantage of workers through offering reduced salaries and conditions that would run totally counter to the social partnership ethos which, up to now, has worked well for employers, employees and the economy.

  I welcome this Bill as a practical example of the benefits of EU membership to Irish workers. Sometimes people ask what benefit EU membership has offered, other than Structural Funds and agricultural support. There is no doubt that in the [1081]area of equality and labour legislation, Brussels has led the way and in some cases forced the Government to implement legislation that has been of enormous benefit to workers, women and minorities whose rights were not enshrined in law.

  In the wider context of the protection of employees, I want to raise the proposed cuts in the jobs initiative programme. In County Sligo, on 11 July, 26 workers will face redundancy after four years in a successful community-led employment project. These workers have been employed in a range of projects – care of the elderly, estate management and social care. Following redundancy they will return to the live register, losing good community jobs and saving the Exchequer little. As the majority of the people concerned are men over 50, their future prospects of employment are bleak, particularly in a rural area. The communities will lose a range of services provided by the scheme and by people they know.

  I have discussed this with the Minister on other occasions, especially the health care and elder care projects, because they are extremely important. It should be noted that there has been 60% success in progressing scheme participants into full-time employment. It is an example of a scheme that is working well, providing services to the community and employment, but it will end in July.

  A similar situation exists in County Leitrim, where up to 15 workers will face redundancy as a result of the discontinuation of community services in towns like Dromahair, Drumkeerin, Mohill, Kinlough and Manorhamilton. While it is not directly connected to the debate, an athlete from the Gambian team, which Manorhamilton is hosting, ten year old Nuha Sanneh, is the youngest athlete to win a gold medal at the Special Olympics and I send him my congratulations.

  The Government has now put in place a new, one year jobs initiative programme. If we contrast that with section 10 of the Bill, where an employer may renew a fixed term only after three years in continuous service, we see that the workers in the current jobs initiative scheme will not get that opportunity because existing workers will not qualify. I ask the Ministers concerned to reconsider this decision.

  Not only will workers not qualify, communities that are being served by the scheme will not qualify for the same services. If a worker is made redundant, the post will no longer exist. If a worker in estate management in McDermott Terrace in Manorhamilton is made redundant, that job will no longer be there and a crucial community service will disappear. I ask the Minister and the Tánaiste to review their decisions on the jobs initiative scheme and to keep in place a valuable community service.

  I welcome this Bill. It will benefit Irish and non-national workers and is positive labour legislation.

[1082]  Mr. Ellis: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill which will be of significant benefit to many people. We have all seen the problems faced by contract workers. Teaching has experienced major difficulties over the years, with teaching organisations, including the Department of Education and Science, giving people short-term contracts and renewing them ad infinitum. The bottom line was that many people had no statutory rights when it came to pensions and retirement. In recent years I have met teachers who have worked on a contract basis for 15 years. I remember sitting on an interview panel with a teacher who had been employed on a temporary basis for 14 years. That was terrible. He had problems getting a mortgage and his life was governed by renewal of his contract. Even after periods of lengthy service, people employed under contract were let go. The same situation exists in the health care system, although to a lesser extent.

  This Bill, however, should protect those employees and their rights and entitlements. The fact that the maximum by which a contract can be increased after three years is one year is to be welcomed.

  Credit is due to the employers' organisations that co-operated in the drafting of the Bill. Some of them may have been reluctant but they realised that workers are entitled to know what the future holds for them. There are 200,000 part-time workers in the State and they are entitled to protection of their rights. They represent 17% of the workforce.

  The Bill will help to improve the position of people on contract work. Many contract workers, be they nationals or non-nationals working under permits or otherwise, have found themselves in a very insecure position. They do not know what the next day will hold for them and it is imperative that they be given reasonable tenure with regard to their employment.

  Various guidelines have been issued over the years by the European Union and other bodies. EU legislation has improved the position of part-time employees but in protecting their rights it is imperative that the rights of employers are equally protected. This Bill will give solace to both parties because it will help address the problems experienced by them as far as fixed-term employees are concerned. In many cases, those workers have been at the mercy of employers but employers also have been at the mercy of some part-time workers who would walk away from the job if a permanent position was offered to them. It is important that the proper notice is given to both parties.

  When we consider all the other labour law that has been introduced here over recent years, we have to accept that the introduction of the minimum wage is probably one of the greatest achievements of this Government. While some might say that certain industries are affected by the minimum wage, its introduction has prevented employers abusing weak employees. Before the introduction of the minimum wage [1083]there was always the danger that unscrupulous employers would force somebody to work for very low wages in the knowledge that because of their circumstances, family or otherwise, they could not move from that employment. We have all heard of cases where that applied. The recent decision to increase the minimum wage is to be welcomed.

  There has to be a further review of work permits. Certain industries are experiencing a shortage of skilled labour and the delays some employers are experiencing with regard to the renewal of work permits need to be examined. I came across a case recently in my constituency of an employer whose employee had to leave to return to his own country for family reasons but who had been held up for quite some time trying to get his work permit renewed. The unfortunate aspect is that the particular employee needs the job more than the employer needs him because his family, who live in the home country, are dependent on him as a breadwinner. That is an issue that needs to be examined.

  If we are to continue to be competitive as far as the labour market and world markets are concerned and if industry is experiencing a shortage of a particular labour force, it is imperative that companies have the opportunity to bring in foreign workers. That is not always practical and, in some cases, foreign workers have been used to displace nationals, but where that has happened, reasonably appropriate action was taken by the Department and the displaced employees.

  As far as certain professions are concerned, if it were not for our non-national workers we would be in serious trouble. I notice that especially with regard to hotels, pubs and restaurants, which have found it very difficult to get Irish staff and were forced to take in foreign staff. In many cases they would not have been able to continue in business but for those foreign staff. That is an area that also has to be addressed.

  Community employment schemes have been mentioned. We are all familiar with the work done by people on CE schemes who are on fixed-term contracts for the lifetime of the schemes. Many of them have progressed significantly on CE schemes. People who were unemployable prior to taking up CE schemes have become employable during the lifetime of the schemes. There will always be a certain section of people who will not be employable in the ordinary workforce and CE schemes have provided them with a sense of pride and a good income.

  There is some merit in examining the continuation of CE schemes, especially those involving community and care work. I hope the schemes can continue because if they do not, much of the good work done over recent years will go to waste. Some of the successful CE schemes may founder and the net result will be that care for the elderly, underprivileged groups and neglected areas of towns and villages will discontinue. That is something we all hope will not happen.

[1084]  I mentioned the teaching profession earlier. There is a definite need for fixed-term work to be properly legislated for and controlled, and the Bill will do that. I know that the Minister hopes that when the Bill is passed by the House it can be implemented as soon as possible. It is hoped that before the House rises next week, it will be complete and will come into operation at the earliest possible date.

  On the labour market here, we are facing a shortage of labour in certain areas and contract and fixed-term employees will have to be taken on. I hope the Bill will give those workers the same protection as those in permanent positions.

  Mr. Nolan: I hope the Bill is passed by the House before it rises for the summer recess. It had a speedy passage through the Seanad.

  The EU directive on fixed-term work, on which the Bill is based, provides that the quality of work be improved by the application of the principle of non-discrimination, which means that people on fixed-term contracts are not treated in a less favourable manner than comparable permanent workers. The debate so far has been interesting in that regard. There appears to be cross-party support for the principle. The purpose of the Bill is to protect the rights of individuals who are not fortunate enough to have permanent, full-time work.

  I am glad to note that both the ICTU and IBEC have had fruitful discussions on this legislation. As a result of their negotiations, some amendments to the Bill were agreed and they will be introduced on Committee Stage.

  It is only right that the Government should enshrine in legislation the rights and responsibilities of individuals who are not permanently employed. For far too long we have seen abuses by unscrupulous employers. Fortunately, the level of protection employees received in the past 15 years in particular from successive Governments has improved because such protection was enshrined in legislation. The passing of legislation addressing the problem of work practices which employers imposed on their employees in the past is welcome.

  In implementing legislation to improve the rights of employees, we have to be careful that we do not shift the balance. My concern is that we will shift it to the point at which individuals or companies which are in a position to create employment will choose not to do so because of the level of responsibility being imposed on them by Government and State agencies and that, effectively, we price ourselves out of the employment marketplace. We have seen some evidence of this in the past three or four years as companies, particularly international firms, sought to source future manufacturing plants and operations elsewhere, notably in the Far East where employment is not as expensive. I hope the World Trade Organisation and world leaders will ensure we have a level playing pitch and countries such as China adopt the same levels of responsi[1085]bility and workers' rights as the European Union and the United States.

  It will be difficult for the Government to enforce certain aspects of the legislation. However, this will be possible with commitment from employers. IBEC, in particular, appears to be genuine in its concern to preserve the rights and work practices it has negotiated. It is interesting to have observed the change in attitude of the trade union movement since the 1980s, particularly during the past two years. I commend it for the manner in which it has succeeded in safeguarding the rights of its members. The attitude of trade unions in the past five years has been excellent in so far as they have shown no interest in representing rogue workers. I know at first hand that the trade union movement represents the vast majority of workers, who are keen to earn a decent living, work hard and do well for themselves. Their rights are being looked after well.

  Health and safety is another area in which the current Government and its predecessors have taken a positive approach. We have seen major improvements in the health and safety record of construction sites in the past five years. It is important that those employed in that industry are aware the Government is serious about implementing health and safety rules, regulations and laws. While we still have an inordinate number of workplace accidents, the controls and safeguards in place, which are constantly monitored by the Health and Safety Authority, are welcome.

  The labour market and work practices have changed significantly over the past 20 years. There are now significantly fewer Irish employees working in the hotel and catering industry, which is indicative of a national trend. Our young and well-educated workforce is no longer entering that sector of the labour market, which is the reason we must employ non-nationals.

  I ask the Minister to be mindful of employment agencies which bring non-nationals into the country. They are, to an extent, fixed-term contract workers who are possibly being exploited. One or two cases of individuals in agencies exploiting workers have been brought to my attention. Fortunately, the unions, whom I commend in this regard, were able to get involved on behalf of the non-national workers concerned and sort out the matter to their satisfaction.

  Difficulties are increasingly cropping up in the area of international shipping and employment practices on ships. In the past year, there have been a number of cases of workers having to stage sit-ins on ships docking in our ports in order to obtain their rights. In some cases, these have continued for weeks or months without the workers receiving pay from their employers who are based overseas. I ask the Minister to discuss this issue with his counterparts in the European Union and to seek European-wide strategies to help the individuals concerned, who tend to be non-nationals with little knowledge of their rights. It is only when they come to countries such [1086]as Ireland that they are able to tap into the trade union system and obtain advice.

  Given the cyclical nature of the labour market, the introduction of this legislation is timely. We have seen a downturn in our economic fortunes and according to all the economic indicators, matters will improve significantly over the next 12 to 18 months. It is important, therefore, that this legislation be introduced at this time.

  The temporary nature of employment in some sectors of the labour market has been mentioned, notably teaching. While it would be wrong to say teachers were abused in the past, the roll-over of temporary contracts for teachers was a symptom of the 1980s. Thankfully, this practice has stopped and we now see more permanent contracts being offered to teachers.

  Benchmarking was raised at the Committee on Finance and the Public Service this week. It will be of interest to the House and its committees to observe how the evaluation and the improved work practices proceed. There are areas within the public sector and Civil Service where productivity needs to improve. I hope the implementation of the benchmarking process and the provisions agreed therein will enable us to identify and tackle areas in which improvements are required.

  I hope the legislation, including amendments negotiated by the Minister with ICTU and IBEC, will be passed and on the Statute Book by the time the House rises.

  Mr. Neville: I wish to share time with Deputy Boyle.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Is that agreed? Agreed.

  Mr. Neville: I welcome the Bill. Although the legislation is now two or three years overdue, the Government has now responded to the directive issued by the European Union. We like to praise ourselves for progress made in legislating in the area of labour relations. However, we have always been forced to do so on foot of EU directives. I recall that as far back as 1977, when a raft of legislation was introduced by the European Economic Community on unfair dismissals, equal pay and a range of other matters, the Government tried to postpone implementation. There were, at that time, real and considerable cost and competitiveness factors involved and a concern that the legislation would lead to massive job losses. Nevertheless, the State responded by transposing the directive into law, minimised job losses and got on with things.

  The Minister of State referred to our tradition of voluntarism. Our having as little legislative input as possible into the area of labour relations has proved to be very productive. For this to be the case, there needs to be a strong trade union movement and responsive employers. Otherwise, those in marginal employment and those who are not in a position to negotiate for themselves [1087]would fare badly. The National Minimum Wage Act should not have been deemed necessary in a society where voluntarism was practised and where negotiations between equal partners took place.

  As other Deputies have stated, employees are vulnerable to exploitation and they have been exploited over the years. However, strong unionisation or the fear of unionisation has compelled some companies to offer good conditions of employment. I have had much experience of the legislation of the 1970s and I was on the Employment Appeals Tribunal for nine years. That there be no legal involvement in labour relations cases was in the spirit of the legislation introduced in 1977 but, as I stated in respect of a different Bill, lawyers became increasingly involved in bringing cases before various tribunals. For example, when I was on the Employment Appeals Tribunal I remember when representatives of IBEC – or its predecessor, FUE – would take the case of the employer and a trade union official would take that of the employee. This approach was extremely successful and all parties involved were keen to seek a resolution to difficulties. The Employment Appeals Tribunal recognised that the parties to the disputes were not lawyers but that they were trying to make their cases as well as possible.

  Nowadays, cases that come before the Employment Appeals Tribunal, such as unfair dismissal cases, invariably involve some of the highest paid lawyers in the country, who are representing either the employee or the employer, and sometimes both. The law was never meant to be applied in this way but, unfortunately, it has. I would love to see a return to its original spirit, which stressed voluntarism in negotiations. Many of the Acts pertaining to this area were meant to extend face to face negotiation between the trade union and the employer or the employee and the employer.

  The Minister of State praised the various agreements – I accept that they have played a valuable role in developing rights and ensuring competitiveness – but employers' and employees' representatives have almost lost the art of negotiation. The trade unions involved in the many agreements I negotiated were very experienced, and we all became very experienced because we had to. One negotiated instinctively. I believe there would be a considerable fight between the trade unions' and employers' representatives if they had to negotiate individual agreements in every company in the country. They may not even have the personnel to do so. I do not know what the position would be in respect of organisations without trade union representation – I presume the employers would try to find a way of negotiating with their employees to the satisfaction of both parties. It would be an interesting development and I would be keen to observe it from the outside.

[1088]  There is no doubt that the conditions of workers have changed dramatically in recent decades. I remember when people who joined a company after their having left school remained in that company until they reached the age of retirement. This was expected, especially in the old, traditional companies which represented the mainstay of employment at that time. Every man who took up employment in Guinness's at the age of 14 knew he would remain there until he reached retirement age. Such companies were often very good employers and looked after the welfare of their staff. However, this has totally changed. Nobody taking up employment in a particular company believes he will remain in it for the rest of his life, except for some people taking up positions in the Civil Service or public service. However, there are also changes in the public service – there is much more flexibility and opportunity for development, which was not the case previously. It is believed that anybody starting work today will probably have three to five jobs or careers in his lifetime.

  There is a need for the flexibility that is now evident in the workplace. However, as it became more prevalent so also did exploitation. Employers in the private and public sectors used fixed-term contracts to contract themselves out of what I would regard as their obligations under the various employment laws to which I referred, including the 1974 Act. The Minister of State stated that there are 70,000 people on fixed contracts. Obviously, many of these contracts suit both the employer and the employee and they are necessary in certain businesses.

  When Acts such as those to which I referred conferred certain rights on employees, certain employers examined ways in which they could renege on their obligations. Before these Acts came into law, there was no such thing as a fixed-term contract – an employer could give a week's notice to anybody and terminate his or her employment. There was no control at all over employers and unscrupulous ones could sack anybody for no reason and did not have to account for themselves, except in cases where the involvement of a strong trade union might have given rise to a strike.

  One way in which employers attempted to renege on their obligations under the legislation was to introduce piece-work contracts. They stated to employees that they would not give them a weekly wage but a fixed sum for doing a certain job. The meat industry company I worked for introduced contract boners. They were paid per carcass, their status was self-employed and they had to deal with their own tax and social insurance. The company had no obligations towards them. The legislation is necessary to address situations such as this.

  I am pleased that the ICTU and IBEC have been involved in drawing up the legislation. It sends a signal that the main players in the employment areas agree in principle with the legislation and probably with the detail. While [1089]employers will want less and trade unions more, that is the nature of the volunteerism process. It allows for negotiating positions to be taken.

  There will be no significant erosion of competitiveness. Inflation and the cost of insurance are much more important in that regard, both of which the Government can do much to address. It is ten years since IBEC produced a report showing that our insurance costs were uncompetitive by comparison with our European competitors. It showed that if employer's liability insurance in this country was as competitively priced as elsewhere, an additional 10,000 jobs would have been created. I hate to consider how much more uncompetitive the cost of employer's liability insurance is today. It would be interesting to see how many jobs could be created if the cost of such insurance was in line with our main competitors in Europe.

  The area of negotiations to which I referred often provided the opportunity for employers to express concern about their difficulties, including their competitiveness, while allowing trade unions to express their concern about the aspirations of the employees they represented. I was involved in personnel management for almost 20 years. I question the use of the term “human resource management”, which originated in the United States. While it is legitimate to refer to resources in terms of minerals, raw materials and such like, I am uncomfortable in referring to human beings in the same terms. They are more than a resource. The old personnel management approach placed a great emphasis on welfare. By this I mean not only conditions of employment and remuneration, but the well-being of employees in terms of their home situation. For example, if an employee had a sick family member he or she was often helped by the firm. By contrast, human resource management suggests that human beings are a resource that must be maximised, while there is no desire to deal with employees in the round as human beings. We have lost much of the welfare approach inherent in the old personnel approach.

  Contract employment is likely to become increasingly prevalent. Many of those with higher skills will work on this basis. Women who have left employment to rear families constitute a massive resource to the economy. Many are highly skilled and experienced and everything should be done to assist them to return to the workforce and contribute in whatever way they can, be it on the basis of temporary employment, short-term contracts or shared employment. There have been developments in these areas. The Bill goes some way to address the concerns of those taking short-term contract employment regarding exploitation, which is to be welcomed.

  The Bill also responds to the EU directive and is in line with the socially progressive nature of the Union since its foundation. It was founded after the Second World War for social and economic reasons. Many of the directives are socially aware and allow for flexibility for business to [1090]expand and change while balancing this with equitable and fair legislation to protect the rights of workers.

  I hope the Government will ensure that the economic downturn will be of short duration. It has a duty to do so and it will be in the interests of us all. I also hope it will respond to the need to ensure that employment losses are minimised.

  Mr. M. Moynihan: I wish to share my time with Deputy Mulcahy.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Is that agreed? Agreed.

  Mr. M. Moynihan: I welcome the Bill. It is further legislation introduced under the guise of social partnership involving employers, employees and the Government, which has served us well over the past decade and beyond. A great strength of the economy of the past ten to 15 years has been the unity of purpose by all on the question of the need to go forward. The legislation is social, practical and progressive and it adds to the already significant legislation in this area.

  Debate adjourned.