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. M. Moynihan: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Protection of Employees (Fixed-Term Work) Bill 2003.

  This legislation stems from an EU directive and across the European Union it has been recognised that the nature of employment has changed considerably and greater flexibility is needed in the workplace. Fortunately we have managed to avoid confrontation in meeting this challenge by developing a highly skilled, educated and motivated work force, and by utilising fiscal incentives we have enjoyed remarkable success in reducing unemployment.

  Many countries look to Ireland as an example. They are coming to the conclusion that regulations that are rigid and inflexible only lead to unemployment, stagnation and a lack of opportunity. There must be a genuine balance between regulation and freedom and this legislation achieves that balance.

[1119]  Employees want to see a balance struck between work and family life and want to be able to move from job to job with ease and we must ensure this is possible. Ease of movement between jobs offers the chance to improve and broaden skills. Long gone are the days when a 17 year old entered the work force and stayed in one job for life. Many people value security over anything else but there has been an acceptance that contracts enable us to see challenges and potential where once problems would have been envisaged.

  In this House we are all contract workers and this gives us a sense of urgency and purpose. Productivity can soar in a contract situation and contracts help to provide barriers against complacency and a jobs-worth attitude. There is no doubt that the combination of job satisfaction for fixed-term employees and increased productivity for employers were a major boon for the labour market in recent years.

  In the last ten years the work force has risen by 45% from 1.22 million in 1994 to 1.77 million in 2002 and the measures enacted in that time made a colossal contribution to this. Many of the new jobs are a direct result of a willingness to undertake contract work.

  This Bill, however, takes account of the rise in contract work and seeks to extend protection to employees in a manner that will not undermine the benefits that have accrued from such work. The EU directive seeks to improve the quality of fixed-term work by ensuring the application of the principle of non-discrimination – fixed-term workers must be treated no less favourably than permanent workers.

  The directive further seeks to establish a framework to prevent abuse arising from the use of consecutive fixed-term employment contracts. The Bill, which was inspired by the directive, seeks to fulfil its terms.

  One aspect of the Bill that is especially welcome is the extension of pay-in pension entitlements to fixed-term workers and the Government is to be congratulated for that. When there was no compulsory PRSI provision for pensions, some people disregarded advice and failed to avail of the opportunity to make payments and now those people are 65 years of age and find they have little or no pension. Our population is ageing and a serious situation could arise in years to come. Provision must be made for pensions and security in relation to health for older people.

  Fixed-term workers should be treated the same as comparable permanent workers with immediate effect in so far as pay and pension entitlements are concerned. This Government has already granted similar pay and pension entitlements to part-time workers under the Protection of Employees (Part-Time Work) Act 2001. Granting such entitlements to fixed-term workers will increase overall pension coverage levels, a goal of the new social partnership agreement. [1120]There is a cost to the Exchequer but the value of the legislation will be seen in the consequent economic and social benefits that accrue. That will be particularly pertinent for the promotion of harmony in the workplace and fostering an environment open to innovation and dynamism.

  As women are more likely to be on fixed-term contracts between the ages of 25 and 44, this legislation will provide an excellent opportunity for them to accrue pension benefits. Most public representatives in this House and beyond will know of women who had been in employment, left that employment to rear their families and returned to the workforce only to find that because of the gap in their PRSI contributions they were not entitled to a full pension. This legislation will ensure that women get their pension entitlements.

  Another aspect of the Bill to be welcomed is the provision that fixed-term workers must be provided with a written advice by their employer of the criteria justifying the renewal of their contract of employment on a fixed-term basis.

  Section 10 expressly deals with the issue of successive fixed-term contracts for employees. In regularising the fixed-term contracts it might be seen that they could be used almost on a permanent basis but renewing them every three years. The upshot of this section is to ensure that in the event of a period of continuous service of not less than three years by a fixed-term contract employee, an employer may, in effect, renew a fixed-term contract only once. By the time this arises, I presume the employer will have some idea of the quality of the staff involved.

  I welcome the fact that, under sections 15 to 17, fixed-term contract workers who are concerned about their treatment by their employers will have recourse to redress through the rights commissioner service of the Labour Relations Commission in the first instance, on appeal to the Labour Court and a further appeal, on a point of law, to the High Court.

  I welcome the Bill, which is in the spirit of the partnership from which this country has done well over the past number of years.

  One issue on which employers throughout the country have expressed concern over the past number of years, and rightly so, is the cost of insurance. While I welcome the Bill, the insurance issue needs to be addressed to ensure that employment continues and employers do not become involved in the black economy or go outside the area of insurance. I welcome the opportunity of commending the Bill to the House.

  Mr. Mulcahy: I thank my colleague, Deputy Michael Moynihan, for sharing his time with me. We could easily underestimate the importance of the Bill but we should not do so because it is important new legislation. It must be seen in the context of a tapestry of legislation on labour and [1121]workers' rights going back to 1967 with the introduction of the Redundancy Payments Act. It is not a coincidence that much of that legislation, the best of which was introduced in the early 1970s, coincided with Ireland's membership of the EEC, as it was then, now the European Union. The Bill before the House also implements a European directive of 1999.

  I would like to read into the record some of the legislation which has made Ireland the vanguard in terms of workers' rights. It includes the Redundancy Payments Act of 1967; the Minimum Notice and Terms of Employment Act of 1973; the Employment Agency Act of 1971; the Unfair Dismissals Acts – the seminal Acts – of 1977 to 2001; the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997; the Worker Protection (Regular Part-Time Employees) Act 1991; the Parental Leave Act 1988 and the Carer's Leave Act 2001.

  As somebody who practices as a barrister in the area of employment law, I am aware there are myriad rights which protect the worker from virtually every angle, including being capriciously dismissed or dismissed for reasons due to pregnancy. Part-time workers were protected in the 2001 Act. If my memory serves me correctly, the period a part-time worker had to be working was 18 hours per week and so on. We can be justifiably proud of the amount of legislation we have put in place to protect workers' rights.

  On a slightly philosophical level, in the area of workers' rights legislation there is always a fine balance to be achieved because a contract of employment is just that – a contract. Obviously the worker has certain rights including the right to remuneration, the right to be treated with dignity, the right to information and all the statutory rights. We must remember, however, that employers have rights also. Their right is that the workers they pay will perform the tasks for which they have been hired and that they will be diligent, honest, punctual and so on. We should not forget that it is a contract of employment.

  The Minister will probably agree that some countries in Europe have erred by going a little overboard on one side or the other. From what I know of the position in the United States, the balance is tilted far too much on the side of the employer. Employers in the United States can hire and fire with impunity whereas in some European countries it can be very difficult to fire employees under any circumstances. I would not support that. There is a fine balance to be achieved in that area. There are rights and obligations on both sides and they must be respected and enshrined in law. The Protection of Employees (Fixed-Term Work) Bill 2003 strikes that balance.

  I ask the Minister to clarify one detail. When the Bill went before the Seanad it was proposed that if a worker who had been in employment for a period of three years was offered another [1122]contract, it would have to be a permanent one. It appears now that the period of time is four years. It may have been argued in the Seanad that a period of three years was too short and that four years was preferable. Somewhere in the region of three to four years is about right. A shorter period might have negatived the requirements of an employer and a longer period would have negatived the due entitlement of those seeking work.

  I notice there is recourse for an employee to go to the Labour Court and subsequently to the Circuit Court. Why was the Employment Appeals Tribunal, the EAT, an excellent institution of which I was once a member, not brought into play in the Bill? It would have made sense to provide for an appeal of a finding from the Labour Court to the Employment Appeals Tribunal, which would have been a less cumbersome and more cost-effective way for workers to remedy their rights. The EAT is an informal and successful tribunal where awards of costs cannot be made. It is a tribunal that workers and trade union representatives have felt comfortable with over time. Was there any reason the Employment Appeals Tribunal was not given a place in this legislation?

  I strongly welcome the Government's decision to include the concept of pensions in the Bill's definition of remuneration. I understand there was no binding legal obligation under the directive to introduce pension rights. The Government has correctly decided to do so as there is no reason those who benefit from the Bill should be excluded from pension provision.

  The State has been one of the main culprits in using fixed-term contracts. We have all heard of teachers or health service workers employed in temporary, full-time positions on contracts which are renewed from year to year without those workers ever being given the certainty of permanency. The Bill, therefore, remedies a problem partly brought about by the State.

  I ask the Minister to clarify whether the Bill's provisions will be retrospective. If someone has been in a temporary position for ten years, will he or she automatically qualify for permanent status, or will the provisions apply only to people employed on temporary contracts for three or four years after the Bill becomes law? They should be retrospective.

  A teacher who has been on a one year, fixed-term renewable contract renewed for the past ten years deserves to be made permanent immediately. I call on the Minister to ensure the Bill is retrospective and that those who have been denied rights for many years are given their due entitlements. The relevant temporary employees should be made permanent immediately on enactment of the legislation.

  All of us have been approached in our clinics by people complaining that they have been employed on a roll-over contract for many years and are suffering a disadvantage through not [1123]being made permanent. These people would not be happy to learn they must wait for another three or four years to be given permanent status, especially as the directive is being implemented slightly late.

  I am delighted the Government has introduced the Bill. It is well drafted legislation which will do the job it sets out to do and add to an already rich and positive tapestry of law in the area of employment rights. I commend it to the House.

  Mr. Perry: I am delighted to speak on the Bill. The Fine Gael Party supports this overdue legislation which provides that a fixed-term employee shall not be treated less favourably than a comparable permanent employee in respect of his or her conditions of employment. Deputy Mulcahy discussed the rights of employees to have a contract of employment. It is equally important that contracts be two-way, providing a clear definition of the work of the employee and employer to be honoured by both parties. This is often difficult.

  Employees are frequently regarded as victims. It is important to note that the people who take the risks, hits and pressure in business are the employers. Even with the best intentions, matters do not always work out. I recommend that all employees receive a contract precisely defining their responsibilities. Unfortunately, too many employers do not clearly define the work they expect of their employees and contracts are only examined when litigation or unfair dismissals arise. IBEC and the Small Firms Association should recommend that their members issue contracts which comply with legislation and specify the obligations of the employer and employee in terms of the work they are contracted to do.

  The Bill transposes a European Union directive four years late. The area of employment law illustrates that membership of the EU has been positive for the country and employees. During the Nice treaty referendum campaign we debated the difficulties of Europe. This important legislation is one of the benefits of membership. Its main provisions prevent employers from continually renewing an employee's contract. Only one renewal will be allowed after a three year period, after which the employee will be considered permanent.

  As a businessman, Deputy Cassidy will be aware that jobs are no longer for life. In recent years, difficulties have arisen in the services sector. This is apparent from the number of visas and work permits issued and the number of people who have entered the country to work. Service and meeting the customer are of critical importance in tourism and at the coalface of business. Regrettably, the education system frowns on the céad míle fáilte, friendliness, commitment and customer care associated with the service sector. Jobs in the sector are perceived by parents as [1124]part-time and somewhat demeaning for their sons and daughters and, as a result, are seen as useful only for filling gaps.

  I am a firm believer in the enterprise culture. The backbone of this economy was built by small companies, the people who from a small acorn grew a large oak. It is important we continue to encourage enterprise and consider employers as vital partners. We should never castigate them as a group, although there are obviously rogue elements whose activities I do not condone. It is paramount that employers adhere to the law and comply with the tax regime. Equally, it is vital that partnership is encouraged to promote development and growth.

  Small companies employing fewer than ten people provide the backbone of the economy, yet few incentives are offered to enterprises of this size. This role has been left to enterprise boards. Enterprise Ireland deals with manufacturing and development companies, while IDA Ireland deals with external companies. Our small towns and villages have been developed by people who started out small, but had a burning ambition to succeed. Unfortunately, they receive little or no encouragement under the current system.

  This issue closely ties into the objective of the Bill, which is to address the level of security offered to permanent employees. The success and sustainability of any job rests on the profitability of the company in question. In many cases, business owners are often the last and lowest paid. This is not a common perception and may not be believed by many. I know many business people who work 40-hour weekends, as opposed to 40 hour weeks. They take great pride in their work and many risks, which cost them sweat. Their families must also endure a great deal. While I do not wish to diminish the role of employees, it is critical that we take a balanced view.

  A contract worker cannot be discriminated against purely because of his or her status. If he or she is doing the same work as a permanent employee, no preferential treatment can be given to the permanent worker.

  People going into business can spend a fortune on equipment and machines, which are significant cost factors. The largest and most important investment a company operating in an open economy will make is in staff capable of doing the work required. Contract periods are, therefore, important as they allow employers to assess new employees. There should be a clear understanding when one signs a contract that one is entering a trial period in which one's capabilities as an employee are assessed. I have seen curricula vitae which are so good and well presented that one expects the person to be able to go straight to the moon. People do not always live up to expectations and their CVs are not always fully truthful. They may contain dubious references and this is why recruitment companies have been so suc[1125]cessful. The selection process in which these companies engage is critically important because if an employer mistakenly takes on an unsuitable employee, it can have undesirable consequences. Deputy Cassidy would agree with me in this regard because the recruitment process involves a significant investment on the part of employers and, therefore, it is very important that they choose the correct candidate. The principle of selecting a suitable candidate applies not only to private companies but also to the public service. People should be able to do the job they are paid to do, just as employers are obliged to fulfil their contracts, because a successful company is about having a successful team. The Bill will help in this regard.

  An employer who contravenes the law can be taken to the rights commissioner who will adjudicate on the matter in question. If an employer fails to mend his ways, his employees may take him to the Labour Court and vice versa. This Bill is as good for the employer as the employee and we should not castigate employers or use them as fall guys. A culture exists whereby begrudgery is directed at those who are enterprising and creating wealth in the economy but we should acknowledge and encourage their risk taking and foster an enterprise culture. State organisations such as FÁS and the enterprise boards have a role to play in this respect.

  Deputy Cassidy is Chairman of the Select Committee on Enterprise and Small Business, which is doing a very good job addressing the issues of small companies. It is critically important that a man of his expertise hold that position in order to recognise sufficiently the difficulties companies encounter. These difficulties are mentioned daily and include high insurance and electricity costs. People often make comparisons with other countries in Europe but they do not take into account the huge stacked-up costs and operational charges that companies must pay in Ireland.

  Some concerns exist regarding bureaucracy and red tape. The Government should assure business people that these problems will not arise and stress the importance of compliance. It is important to note that the smallest businesses now have to employ a secretary just to comply with all the legislative requirements imposed on them. The legislation that applies to businesses should be kept simple and the red tape involved in the creation of employment should be kept to a minimum. Simple contracts would ensure that employees and employers knew exactly what they had to do, and there should be no hidden agenda.

  Deputy Mulcahy referred to the State and local authorities. It is quite disappointing that people taking up employment in the health boards have very short-term contracts. Their parents think they have long-term jobs only to find out that [1126]they lose these jobs soon afterwards because of their short-term contracts. The employers have to operate totally within the law and cannot retain employees for one day in addition to the period specified in their contracts. I hope the Minister will take heed of this in the Bill and ensure that local authorities, health boards and State bodies are not in breach of any regulation. If we are to establish standards for the private sector, it is equally important that the public sector is fully in compliance with the law.

  Our present workforce is very different to that of ten or 20 years ago. There are now 294,000 part-time workers in the economy, representing 17% of the workforce. The idea of one's having a job for life is gone. Nowadays, people may carve out a career but they feel it is neither practical nor desirable to spend 20, 30 or 40 years working for the same employer or institution. To change is to live and most people like the idea of change. It is very much an American concept that people feel they can improve themselves in a job, but it is important.

  Let us consider pension entitlements. Insurance companies are promoting the concept of pension policies. Employers must promote the concept of pensions but it is unfortunate that they are not obliged by law to have pension schemes for their employees. Pensions are very badly catered for in both the public and private sectors – it is very much at the discretion of the employer whether to have a scheme. There should be a mechanism in the PAYE system to ensure that people who have served in employment all their lives do not end up without any allowance other than the old age pension. This is very important.

  Contract work is an attractive prospect for young people entering the labour market who are unsure whether they wish to pledge their entire working lives to a chosen profession. This no longer happens. Young people are so well educated that they want to go abroad to work and want to change careers. It is only right that they get the opportunity to do so. As they get older, they settle down, have families, buy houses – generally between the ages of 27 and 40 – and develop a greater sense of what they are doing in their lives. They look for security and pension entitlements. They have to consider the high costs of rearing families and of mortgages, etc., and it is important that the tenure of their employment be sufficient to provide job security.

  Some years ago, there was usually only one wage earner per household but now two or three members of certain families have jobs to maintain a high standard of living. Some families go on two holidays per year, own two cars and have high expectations. It is very common to compare one's lifestyle with that of one's neighbours and friends. In the past people were happy to go to a local beach on holidays once a year – they now want to go to Portugal and other places. The mass [1127]exodus of holiday makers from the country demonstrates that expectations have changed. There is considerable pressure on people, particularly young people who are interested in fashion and want to buy designer brands. Never was there greater pressure on families than there is now and simple lifestyles are no longer evident. These factors have a bearing on people's desire for secure jobs.

  During the debate on the Intoxicating Liquor Bill this week, the Minister, Deputy McDowell, spoke about the difficulties associated with alcohol and the huge impact they are having on families. However, the problem is also having a huge impact on employers. The difficulties it causes bring themselves to bear on the employment contract. One must remember that Monday morning blues are a significant difficulty and contribute to the tension that exists between employers and employees. A massive commitment must be made by the licensed traders to police this problem. It is equally important that the overall contract should deal with those employees who are not doing their job, do not attend work on Monday mornings and have a sick head on Tuesday afternoons. This is making an impact, as the recent debate on the liquor licensing legislation testifies.

  This legislation is concerned with what Fine Gael believes to be the need for rights and responsibilities. For employers this means the right, enshrined in our democratic system, to run a thriving, successful business. Nobody suggests it would be possible to do this without the flexibility afforded by a system of contract work. In this context, partnership is important. It also means that a duty is owed to employees who have been in employment for a given period of time. I am sure that will be recognised by the majority of employers. Only the unscrupulous need be worried about the legislation. It is a good Bill.

  The rights and responsibilities of employees are also recognised. By allowing for an easier passage to the status of permanent worker, they will share in the duties and responsibilities of every permanent employee. In this way, both employers and employees win. Although the legislation might be four years overdue, its importance is undiminished because it places the contract of employment on a permanent footing.

  It would be difficult to argue against the broad thrust of the Bill. Section 7 provides that a fixed-term employee shall not be treated less favourably than a comparable permanent employee in respect of his or her conditions of employment. It is astounding that this should even be debated in 2003. Section 10 provides that the contract for a fixed-term employee may be renewed only once after he or she has been employed for a period of three years. I support this. It is unfair that somebody could work for a company for, say, 20 years and not know from one year to the next [1128]whether he or she will keep his or her job. It is an insult to treat in such a manner somebody who may work for a company for all of his or her life.

  We live in a dynamic economy, but we are also civilised human beings. We must treat each other accordingly. I welcome the establishment of a rights commissioner who will adjudicate on alleged cases of contravention of the legislative provisions. I am also pleased that in cases where the rights commissioner cannot solve an impasse, provision is made for referral to the Labour Court.

  I congratulate the Minister of State for introducing what is a good Bill, albeit that it is late. The employment contract is a two-way process. It is equally important that recognition is given to employers and small businesses, who are the backbone of the economy.

  Mr. Cassidy: Much has been covered in this debate. I agree with much of Deputy Perry's contribution. He is experienced in the business world. I welcome the Bill and compliment the Minister of State and his civil servants. It is a move in the right direction.

  I have been an employer since 1963 and I can testify that a company's biggest asset is its employees. A happy workforce is productive and a productive workforce gets results. I have always found that trust is the most important attribute between employees and employers. The Bill enhances the opportunity for trust to prevail.

  I welcome the provisions on accountability. Workers cannot be treated in a one-sided manner. They must be able to be accountable because if their employers do not succeed in achieving their goals, job opportunities will diminish. The day of the job for life is practically over and in the few areas where it prevails it is not as assured as it was 25 or 30 years ago. This has arisen because of global change. World markets are changing. For example, with a few exceptions, the products that were popular 30 years ago are no longer so. Some 80% of the businesses located 30 years ago on the principal street in the city, O'Connell Street, are no longer trading. It illustrates the massive change in trends, and is replicated across the country.

  The Bill affords the employee the opportunity to make a big impression and create an opportunity for himself or herself. As one who worked in the postal services for five years in what was known as a whole-time temporary position, I can identify with short-term employees and I welcome the opportunity the legislation affords them for the first time. The teaching and nursing professions have been mentioned, but the great friend of most people in the country was the postman calling to the door once or twice a week. In some rural parts of the country he was the only person somebody in the autumn of his or her career might see. Some 90% of them were never [1129]appointed to permanent positions. They were always known as whole-time temporary appointments. At the time there was no such thing as the five day week – it was a six day week – nor the fine tarmac roads that now prevail. The roads then were most difficult.

  I commend Ireland plc, especially for the marvellous changes that have occurred since the 1960s as a result of the education system. The first-class contribution of the teaching profession must be acknowledged. The Bill will help and reward certain individuals for the significant contribution they have made to the success of the country and its achievements over the past 30 years.

  Since 1987 in particular, an enormous number of people have given employment and taken risks. At that time, the top level of income tax was 65%, the lower rate was 35% and a 2% health levy applied. We have come a long way since then and have achieved much. In 1987 the country probably had the highest income tax rates of any EU country whereas today we have one of the lowest. At that time, the banks charged interest at a rate of 19% while today rates are unimaginably low. Some home owners pay less than 3.7% on their home loans.

  Most of us employers have worked all our life to keep our business going, paying high interest charges. That was not confined to Ireland but was the order of the day across the world. It prohibited employers from reaching their full potential. Thankfully, our entry to the European Union and subsequent entry to economic and monetary union has provided us with a marvellous opportunity. Nobody thought we would be in such an advantageous position as one of the best performers in the western world and one of the top countries in the EU. The reward for the risk taker must always be acknowledged and the reward for the worker must always be protected. The Bill addresses this issue.

  I acknowledge the marvellous contributions of the community employment scheme and of those people who took part in them. I acknowledge, in particular, the contributions of those who cared for the less fortunate in our society and those members of our community with handicaps. It is wonderful to consider that during this week of the Special Olympics, the greatest single sporting event in Ireland during my lifetime. I congratulate everyone from the Taoiseach and members of the Government to the personnel at Croke Park, without whom the event could probably not have happened. I congratulate the 37,000 volunteers who have made it all possible by doing everything they can to encourage our athletes to bring them to where they are today. Also to be congratulated are the parents and those who are looking after everyone associated with the event. Travelling around Ireland has reminded me of the time His Holiness visited in 1979 and of the [1130]effect An Tóstal had right across the country in the 1950s when I was a very young boy.

  We should not forget that we are presented with a marvellous opportunity and we should hold on to the idea of the volunteer and to the value of making a contribution in a voluntary capacity. Almost all of us became Members of the Oireachtas because of our total commitment to working in voluntary organisations, our commitment to communities and our commitment to the sporting life in the early part of our careers. There are no greater rewards than the community spirit engendered by community commitment and the value to a person of helping people to enjoy themselves, particularly by getting them involved in the sporting world to exploit their abilities fully. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle had a distinguished career as a sportsman before coming to the House and he will know that we were told a fit body meant a fit brain which gave one confidence. If one had confidence, one could move mountains. The Special Olympics and the commitment of the volunteers have rekindled everything we were taught during our early years in sport.

  The Bill before the House represents a major contribution by the Government which will cost €50 million to implement. The Government has brought this legislation before us at an opportune moment. The various aspects of the Bill highlighted and discussed during this debate are to be commended. This week the Intoxicating Liquor Bill came before the House to be amended. When it came before the Oireachtas previously, I asked in the Upper House what time we would allow people to go to their beds to sleep. The opening hours permitted to various establishments did not allow people to participate in school, work or life in general. I am glad to see that amendments have been made to the Act.

  It is nice to see that pension rights are included in this Bill. All fair minded politicians will say that Deputy McCreevy has been an excellent Minister for Finance. The initial provision of €50 million in this Bill is a move in the right direction. We should keep a watchful eye on this legislation to see how it progresses over the next year and if it needs further amendment, I will encourage the Minister to return it to the House. He is to be commended for bringing the legislation before us and I hope it receives a safe passage. I look forward to its early implementation.

  Mr. J. Higgins: I am a little confused having listened unfailingly to Deputy Cassidy. I am not sure if we are discussing the ballrooms Bill or the disabilities Bill.

  Mr. Cassidy: The ballrooms were all closed long ago.

  Mr. J. Higgins: I remember them well.

[1131]

  Mr. Cassidy: They were good days.

  Mr. J. Higgins: The Protection of Employees (Fixed-Term Work) Bill 2003, which enshrines the 1999 EU directive, is acceptable to me as a socialist as far as it goes, which is not a great distance. In his opening statement, the Minister of State said there were 70,000 fixed-term contracts representing about 4% of the workforce. He made the point that the Central Statistics Office did not have a category for this type of worker and he made the welcome statement that this is to be corrected. Many trade unionists believe the figure of 70,000 is an underestimation of the true number, which is why we need access to accurate information in this regard.

  The stated aim of this Bill is to apply principles of non-discrimination with regard to fixed-term contract workers. According to the explanatory memorandum, workers on fixed-term contracts will not be treated less favourably than comparable permanent workers, which is to miss the point slightly. By virtue of being fixed-contract workers, this category of employee is vulnerable to discrimination. They cannot be considered to be on the same level as permanent workers in terms of their rights and status within the same workplace. It is a fact that categories of employers have a calculated policy to use the fixed-term contract system to suit themselves. While the title “fixed-term contract worker” sounds impressive, we are really speaking about a form of casual labour. It is true that we have moved on from the days of Jim Larkin when workers had to line up at the docks to be picked out by gangers according to their record of trade union militancy. Thanks to Larkin, Connolly and the ordinary, nameless men and women who fought for union rights, that day is gone but certain forms of exploitation are still with us.

  The casualisation of labour through fixed-term contracts is a part of that. Such contracts are used consciously by certain employers to keep workers in check. The workers are on tenterhooks for the extent of the contract, whether that is for six months, nine months or a year, as to whether they will be re-appointed. There is either an overt or an unspoken threat that they may not be re-appointed if their conduct is not suitable to the employer. That could mean anything from joining a trade union to expressing dissatisfaction with the rate of remuneration or the work conditions.

  It is, unfortunately, an increasing phenomenon in our society. It is scandalous that fixed-term contracts are increasingly used in the public and semi-State sector. I assume the €50 million for the implementation of this Bill is to deal with workers who are employed at present on fixed-term contracts in the semi-State or public sector. I hope I am right in that assumption. I know from experience that in the so-called prestigious parts of the public sector short-term contracts have been [1132]increasingly utilised in recent years. That is disgraceful. Workers on fixed-term, generally short-term, contracts are in a vulnerable position. They have no long-term security of employment. A number of implications flow from that. Try to get a mortgage as a fixed-term contract worker. Even if one is on a reasonable level of pay, and that is often not the case, no bank or building society will give a mortgage on the basis of the good character of the fixed-term contract worker applying for the mortgage. The contract determines whether workers will be granted the right to take out a mortgage. These workers are at a serious disadvantage in many areas.

  It is quite contradictory that this legislation, which confers welcome extra rights, is the result of an EU directive because the trend on workers' rights is now in the opposite direction within the EU in crucial areas of life. This directive was issued in 1999 after, presumably, years of consideration. One wonders whether the same directive would be issued in 2003. There is an increasing trend within many of the important states of the EU to obliterate the concept of permanent, pensionable employment. I was amused by the contribution of one of the Deputies who participated in this discussion. He castigated the left in this country for its opposition to the Nice treaty on the basis that the EU is a champion of workers' rights, as this Bill proved.

  However, the current thrust of EU policy is in the opposite direction. A number of EU states are, in a calculated way, reversing the gains that have been made in terms of workers' rights and they are doing so in a brutal fashion. Take, for example, the issue of pension rights, which is mentioned in this Bill. In France there is a calculated assault, led by the French Prime Minister, Mr. Raffarin, on the pension rights of the French working class. Whereas now a French worker will qualify for full pension after 37.5 years, the Government wishes to extend that to 40 years. That should immediately set alarm bells ringing for workers and the trade union movement in this country. This process is not just confined to one country in the EU but is happening in many others and, inevitably, pressure will be brought to bear on the pensions area in this country as well.

  This must be seen in the context of what has happened over the last 200 years. During that time working people had to struggle incessantly for some of the rights they currently have. The struggles were probably never more bitter than when they were about the length of the working day, the working week and the working year. Throughout the history of the labour and trade union movement and of the working class, workers sacrificed their lives for these principles. The eight hour day was not granted out of the munificence of the hearts of the employers in this or any other country but as a result of bitter struggles by the organised working class in those [1133]countries. In the annals of the American working class, for example, we encounter the same history. The famous Haymarket Martyrs were victimised for participating in major protest and strike movements for the eight-hour day. They were victimised, framed and hanged by the state. Incidentally, many of these workers were immigrants from Europe.

  Perhaps the Minister of State will outline the position of immigrant workers in this country vis-à-vis this legislation. Where do they stand in terms of the extra rights conferred by this Bill? Do they figure in the equation? They are the supreme example of the fixed-term contract.

  Mr. Fahey: They are covered.

  Mr. J. Higgins: I am glad to hear it. However, let us see how it works out. They are imported into this country for a 12-month contract period. If the contract and the work permit are renewed and they qualify for permanency as envisaged under the provisions of this Bill, are they granted an indefinite work permit by the Government? Perhaps the Minister of State would clarify that. This is an alarmingly exploited sector of the workforce. Unfortunately, it is not sufficiently outed because of the vulnerable position those workers occupy. We should note, and the Government should note, the storm of opposition in country after country in the EU to the plans to cut back on workers' employment and pension rights. Two million workers went on strike in France on 13 May, and in Austria, Spain and other countries there is a great deal of opposition to these plans.

  Mr. Fahey: Socialist countries.

  Mr. J. Higgins: There is no socialist country. It does not exist on the face of this earth and it never did, apart from a short period of the healthy democratic phase of the Russian Revolution when workers and peasants held democratic power before being obliterated by Stalinism. That is the only example to which we can point. The international media was always very happy to label the monsters who called themselves socialists as such in order to denigrate the ideas of genuine socialism for which we stand. I make this point in passing.

  Mr. Fahey: We will go to the bar afterwards.

  Mr. J. Higgins: EU-based multinational corporations and their lobby groups are applying serious pressure to the structures of the EU and the European Commission to cut back on the pension and other rights of workers. Deregulation and liberalisation are the flavour of the times. It is interesting that IBEC, the employers' organisation, criticised precisely the fact that pension and remuneration provisions of fixed-term contract [1134]workers were included under the scope of this Bill. In this, they are in complete sympathy with their counterparts in Europe who are trying to thwart and take away such rights as exist because globalisation is dictating to them.

  The dominance of multinational companies of ruthless, faceless employers who want to strip away as many rights as they can for the maximisation of profits for themselves and their shareholders is sacrificing workers' rights. This is the key to understanding that in 2003 we have the phenomenon of an attempt to turn the clock, as far as workers' rights and entitlements are concerned. I warn the Minister that it will not be possible to do this because he will face strong opposition when he moves to introduce the same measures in this State as are being adopted in other countries.

  I received an interesting submission from the free legal advice centres on this, as I am sure did others. I hope that the Minister of State and his Department also received it because it makes some good points as to how the Bill should be strengthened, even within its present confines. The comment on the written statement from employer to employee in section 8 is valid. It suggests that whereas in the Bill the employer is to provide the contract “as soon as practicable”, these words should be replaced by “in advance of the commencement date of the contract”, and that should be the case. It should be set down in black and white when the contract is being agreed upon and granted.

  Subsection 2 of this section obliges an employer, when renewing fixed-term contracts, to inform the employee in question of the objective grounds justifying the renewal of the fixed term rather than the offer of a contract of indefinite duration. This is in the nature of an information provision only and there does not seem to be a corresponding right for the employee to challenge this decision if he or she is unhappy with the explanation provided by the boss so the suggestion, therefore, is that the legislation should confer a specific right on the employee to bring a complaint to a rights commissioner if he or she is unhappy with the explanation offered as to renewal of fixed term contracts.

  Acting Chairman (Mr. Ardagh): Deputy Higgins' time is now up.

  Mr. J. Higgins: I will forward this advice to the Minister of State if he has not received it because he and his officials should look at it with a view to improving the Bill. Tacaimíd leis an mBille chomh fada is a théann sé ach, i ndáiríre, ní théann sé fada go leor.

  Mr. Finneran: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and compliment him on bringing forward this important legislation, which is a protection for workers. As a former Minister and [1135]Minister of State, Deputy Fahey has a long and proud record as regards his response to issues, social or otherwise, and his time in the Oireachtas as an elected representative has been fruitful and supportive of many areas covered by what would be considered to be social legislation. Tonight we are dealing with the Protection of Employees (Fixed-Term Work) Bill 2003 which will put in place protection for people who are on fixed-term contracts.

  The legislation is clear in its intent. Although it is the result of an EU directive it is fashioned here in a way that fits into the Irish practice of social partnership and it protects workers in so far as fixed-term workers must be treated no less favourably than comparable permanent workers. This is the most important aspect of the Bill and is its clear intent. The Bill will remove discrimination where this exists. The other important point is that a framework to prevent abuses arising from the use of successive fixed-term employment contracts is to be established. Those three aspects alone will be an insurance for people who are in fixed-term employment, once this legislation is put in place.

   We have come a long way since the day of the spailpín fánach who stood at the corner where the landlord employed him. If it rained the landlord told him to go home at lunchtime and when night fell, he gave him a few pence for the work he had done during the day. There was no cover for sickness or holidays; one had only to serve the landlord when that was required and stay away when it was not. The same applied to all the fine young men who worked in the cities of England in particular, in London most of all, who stood in line in Kentish town or Camden town waiting for the Grey Murphy or the Green Murphy or Lowry or somebody else to come along and pick out one in every three on the basis that he would deliver a good day's work. Many of those who stood in line were desperate for the money as they could not get a full-time job. In some cases they had to get a substitute at 10 o'clock to get their breakfast. This legislation is important but we should not forget all of those young Irish men and women who had to work in atrocious conditions without any protection down through the centuries.

  We have come a long way over the years with the legislation enacted up to now, the minimum notice and terms of employment, the payment of wages, the safeguarding of an employee's rights and transfer of undertakings, the protection of young people at work, safety, health and welfare, redundancy legislation, minimum wage entitlements and the protection of part-time workers. Those are examples of legislation passed by successive Governments. When I looked through the list earlier this evening, I saw that 90% of it was enacted by my party.

[1136]  There are of course other matters that should be mentioned here, for example, the concept of the social partnership that has taken us from the strife of the 1950s and 1960s, with the loss of all those working days and all that production owing to there being little or no understanding between employer and employee – nor was that promoted. The concept of social partnership was introduced some years ago by my party and has existed since. It has proved the test of time. During my time on the consultative council of the European Commission some years ago, many of the other European Ministers with responsibility for labour were in awe of social partnership in Ireland. They would dearly have loved to have it in their countries. Our template or prototype has been worked on in many European countries and is in place in a few. The success of the social partnership supported and implemented by successive Governments is to be commended and spoken of in glowing terms. This country would not have achieved the current prosperity and levels of employment or production had it not been for social partnership.

  In 1993-94 there were around 1.1 million or 1.2 million people employed in this country. Today the figure is 1.8 million. Some 300,000 of those workers are part time, and I understand that there may be up to 100,000 on fixed-term contracts. It is important that what legislation we have in place is recognised, but that we also move on to new situations. The situation in which we find ourselves today is one where fixed-term contracts are increasingly becoming part of employment concept and practice. If that is the case, we must ensure that there are no abuses. We want legislation in place to protect those in that category. I compliment the Minister for introducing this legislation to do just that – bring in protection for people on fixed-term contracts.

  We would be foolish to ignore the fact that employers need a flexible workforce. That is understood and expected and is part of the way that production, employment and employee/employer relationships are today. If a flexible approach and fixed-term contracts are needed, we must legislate for that. That is what we are doing here, and I compliment the Minister on it.

  The biggest downside to fixed contracts hitherto has been that there has been very little if any protection – perhaps in some areas but certainly not to the necessary extent. There was nothing of substance regarding pensions, which are so important today. The whole Government thrust is towards people making provision for their pensions, and the Government is to be complimented on the scheme which it introduced recently whereby people can invest in their pension voluntarily under the PRSA system. I do not know what the uptake on that is yet, but I would be surprised if it were not significant. The Irish [1137]people seem to respond to opportunities that present protection and comfort for them and their families. I remember being in the Oireachtas when the special savings scheme was initiated. It is interesting to read some of the comments made in the two Houses at that time. Some of the people, I am sure, will wish that they had not made those statements.

  Mr. Hayes: There would be many in that category.

  Mr. Finneran: I assume that the Deputy joined it all the same.

  Mr. Kehoe: Wait until we get our money back first.

  Mr. Finneran: Did the Deputy join it too?

  Mr. Kehoe: I did not say that.

  Mr. Finneran: He did not say that he did not, either. He will get his money back, at least. The important part is that 1.1 million people in this country availed of that scheme. It set a new concept that was needed so that young people – and people generally – would start to save again. We had moved from a situation where it had been indoctrinated into people that they should go to the post office to save, putting in a few pounds or whatever. The important thing was not how much one put in but that one set up that trend in one's life, starting with £5 or £10 or whatever the sum was. For one reason or another, that had disappeared from Ireland in the 1990s. Deputy McCreevy, as Minister for Finance, and the Government in general, took a brave decision. It is costly to the State, but one should remember that it is only our money returning to us to be available to this country again. It was not thrown away, wasted or gambled. It is being made available to the people themselves. While that is important and positive, the fact that we were able to start people on the savings road, thinking how important it was to do that, was vital.

  In the area of fixed work contracts, I do not think that any group has suffered more or been in greater danger than the women of this country. Over the years, contract workers who were the victims of not having proper protection were women. It suited them to take short-term or contract employment, and they were at the whim of their employers. I am glad for them alone that this legislation is being introduced. They have been the backbone of much of the development that has taken place in this country over the years. It is they who have got the children out of school and who have held homes together. They have made all the effort towards making Ireland what it is today, for if one does not have a base at home, one has neither employment nor social life. For various reasons, women have had to take [1138]contract employment, and there has been little or no protection for them, but now the Minister and his legislation have provided that.

  Another area by which I am impressed is that of enforcement. Over the years we have seen where inadequate or poorly thought out legislation has been put on the Statute Book. One hears the excuses that it is hard or impossible to enforce or that there are problems with enforcement. Then somebody suggests further legislation is needed. I have always been of the opinion that legislation should be enacted and enforced before introducing new legislation. Too many Bills have been put through this House and the other House and enacted.

  Mr. Hayes: I agree.

  Mr. Finneran: The media, those outside and even those who saw it through the Houses have criticised it afterwards as being inadequate but in most cases the simple fact is that it has not been enforced. If legislation is enforced and found to be inadequate then we should amend it. However, we should not amend it on the basis that it has not been properly enforced. I see that as a problem in regard to under-age drinking and problems on the streets at night. Sometimes the Opposition may say the resources are not available to enforce it. I am not sure if that is the case but it may be a question of the proper placing of resources and about attitude towards the problem.

  I am of the opinion where workers' rights are concerned that there will be enforcement because the trade union movement is there to take it to the Labour Court. Our social partnership agreements would not have survived the test of time had it not been for the labour laws. Social partnership involving employers, Government and farmers is a good idea and would possibly work if everybody stayed with it. In the event that what has been agreed is not put into practice, there must be checks and balances, such as the Labour Court, on labour laws. In this case we are talking about labour laws and the trade union movement being involved and having a say.

  In the area of multinationals we have to be careful while ensuring that workers' rights are protected. Many of them are not interested in representation from the trade union movement. I do not have a problem with that provided they deal with matters in a way that is transparent and that the overall workforce accepts the practices laid down in the agreements. If, however, sections of the workforce in some of the large corporations or major plants are abused I would be concerned. When replying perhaps the Minister of State would tell the House if there are protections in place for such groups in multinationals? I assume there are protections but it is an area about which I would be concerned.

[1139]  I welcome the legislation and compliment the Minister of State and the Government on bringing it forward. Looking back over 30 years of involvement with the EU there are those who would say there are too many EU directives and that too much of our lives is controlled by EU directives, that there is too much bureaucracy, form-filling and so on. On balance the EU has been supportive and has made a positive input into people's lives, particularly those of workers. It is one other step along that road and one that will be welcomed by workers generally. It is a protection for some 100,000 fixed-term contract workers.

  I commend the Bill to the House.

  Acting Chairman: Is it agreed that Deputy Boyle speaks before Deputy Kehoe? Agreed.

  Mr. Boyle: It was amusing to hear Deputy Finneran claim the success of 90% of progressive social employment legislation for Fianna Fáil Governments. While it may be technically true that Fianna Fáil would have been in Government when some of the legislation was introduced, it is stretching it to say it was introduced by such Governments.

  Mr. Finneran: The Deputy should remember it as he was one of those types.

  Mr. Boyle: I will let the Deputy know exactly from where I was coming. My recollection is that much of this legislation did not exist in an Irish parliamentary form until the 1970s. Practically all employment legislation has been introduced on foot of an EU directive. We should be grateful for our membership of the European Union for achieving such progressiveness. It is not in order for any one political party to claim a monopoly, or a near monopoly, on introducing progressive change in Ireland. It is fair to say that the first tranche of progressive employment legislation was probably introduced during the coalition Government's term of office from 1973-77 under the then Minister for Labour, Michael O'Leary.

  Another EU directive is now being transposed into Irish legislation. As a 1999 directive, it is coming before the House much earlier than many other directives. The trend in the past has been for many Irish Governments to drag their feet on transposing these directives into Irish law. For example, another directive which seeks to introduce the Protection of the Environment Bill 2003 into Irish law is of a far older vintage. At least this Government appears to be quicker at introducing some legislation.

  The problems regarding fixed-term work and short-term work need a legislative response. My party would be supportive of the limited moves that come through this legislation as a necessary addition to the rights of those who find them[1140]selves in such employment conditions. When the Irish economy was achieving higher growth rates and creating many jobs, there was an assumption that all the jobs being created were of the highest quality, highest security and highest forms of payment. That was not the case, and the figures mentioned by the Minister in his Second Stage speech, indicate that almost 300,000 are involved in part-time, short-term work of one form or another. That indicates that we have allowed to develop within Ireland a casual economy. My fear is that a casual economy serves only the needs of a casual society and the Government needs to be aware of these trends.

  In my employment record I have never been in employment where I had fixity of tenure. That has nothing to do with my short fuse or my ability to operate any employer's instructions. I happened to work largely in the State system as a community worker, a youth worker and a social worker under contracts defined by time and contracts which were dependent on funding. Many in our economy exist under such conditions. Between employment positions there were also difficulties in terms of periods of unemployment. While the Bill is welcome I would prefer if it was part of a co-ordinated approach. I am also my party's spokesperson on social and family affairs.

  One of the areas this Bill needs to address is the issue of a tie-in regarding what is done with people's social welfare entitlements in the periods between fixed-term contracts. From my own experience between periods of employment, where I was not receiving any form of welfare for periods of up to three months because the time a contract would finish was not convenient in terms of a calendar year, I found that the required number of stamps would not be earned for the period in question. I suspect there are thousands of people in the country who have similar employment records. I hope the Government, in addressing the wider issue, will look at that. It is another example of what we refer to on this side of the House as the lack of joined-up thinking. It is all very well to introduce piecemeal reform but we must look at the wider picture. This area is something the Government has chosen or has not been willing to examine.

  In terms of the narrow definition of fixed-term work, what is being proposed is welcome. The Minister, in his speech, referred to the lack of statistical information and hopes for better information provision in the future through the Central Statistics Office which will properly define how many people are involved in this category. There are others who are in part-time, short-term work categories who will not be affected by this Bill and there is a need for legislation in this area also.

  I find it ironic that this Minister is introducing the Bill considering that one of my periods of employment over the past number of years was [1141]as a FÁS community employment scheme supervisor. If anything typifies the nature of part-time, short-term employment it is the use of and the history of the community employment schemes. Of course the category of workers involved in them will not be affected at all by this Bill. There are thousands of those people in our labour market and in society.

  Mr. Kehoe: The FÁS workers are all gone.

  Mr. Boyle: Almost, but some live on. Given the nature of employment trends, the need for community employment schemes will be greater in coming years than in the past. The schemes were community supports and never really employment schemes. We have had that argument in the House previously and will continue to have it in many other debates.

  In regard to fixed-term work, part-time or short-term work, the categories of people most affected are younger people – people in first-time employment, people from 16 years of age to mid and late 20s. They are largely women and increasingly, given the changing nature of Irish society, they are non-nationals with residency status.

  My fear regarding the legislation can be expressed in the same manner expressed by other speakers. Having the legislation is one thing but having the ability and willingness to enforce it is something else. The Minister stressed the involvement of the social partnership in this process. Social partnership has served the country well but it is no panacea to solving all the problems of our society.

  Social partnership is not fully representative of Irish society or of the reality of Irish economic life. The trade unions and employers' groups which have influenced, through consultation, this piece of legislation do not represent many of those who will be affected by it. Many of these workers are non-unionised and many continue to work in employment situations where their employment can be threatened or terminated through any number or manner of means. While this Bill is a welcome step towards ensuring that threat does not exist to the extent it used to, the threat will not disappear. Those threats are most pertinent in terms of the employment conditions of many non-nationals. Many of the jobs referred to are of a menial nature, in the service industry and have low pay.

  Mr. Fahey: They are all covered.

  Mr. Boyle: The Minister of State says they are covered but I can point out any number of examples of employment legislation already on the Statute Book which is not enforced due to the lack of resources, for instance, the Protection of Young Persons (Employment) Act.

[1142]  Mr. Fahey: Let the Deputy give us specific cases and we will deal with them.

  Mr. Boyle: In the case of the Protection of Young Persons (Employment) Act, how many inspectors are employed to enforce the legislation? We have four for the whole country. As we are speaking in this Chamber, thousands of young people under the regulatory age are working in conditions in which they should not be working. They are working hours they should not work and being paid rates they should not be paid.

  Mr. Fahey: That is typical Green Party baloney. Give us the examples and we will deal with those employers.

  Mr. Boyle: This is the reality. The Minister of State has been informed of this by youth organisations. The answer is simple. The legislation has been on the books for many years but the Government does not have the resources to put in place an enforcement network. The number of inspectors in regard to that legislation is derisory. It makes the legislation ineffective and I fear the same will happen with this Bill.

  It is not only a duty of a Government to introduce legislation which is workable, effective and fits the criteria of social justice but there is an ongoing responsibility on the Government to ensure the resources are provided to ensure legislation is workable. I do not see that in the history of this Government.

  I mentioned three particular categories about which I am concerned, namely younger people, women and non-nationals. I wish to concentrate now on the role of women in fixed-term employment, part-time and short-term work. The difficulty that many women have had, aside from being engaged in low security, low paid jobs, is that the work has an enormous effect on family life and, subsequently, on community life. The type of employment in which many women are engaged affects decisions on whether to have a family because of difficulties regarding maternity leave and payments. This will be addressed to some extent in the legislation but will the resources and the desire to ensure that the necessary support is available be addressed? Not only must this be done in the Minister of State's Department, it must happen across the range of Departments.

  I would like to see legislation introduced in this House that has more than one Minister's or one Department's name on it. I would like to see legislation that makes a reality of the idea of joined-up Government, which would look at the gaps and try to fill them. There is too much empire building in Departments. Each one measures success in terms of the number of pieces of legislation it can get through, the number of staff it employs and the size of its budget. The [1143]role of Government and Departments should be to work on behalf of the people. This Government has shown itself to be more selfish than most.

  In regard to the role of the European Union in this directive and to where European policy is going, it is unfortunate that the directive which was to be put in place regarding temporary workers with agencies has collapsed at European level. A new draft is now under discussion. We needed that regulation to help us have a better and broader Bill. If this directive is eventually agreed – probably in 2004 or 2005 – and we follow the timescale the Government tends to follow, this House will not see any legislation in terms of temporary workers until 2009 or 2010. This is a long process but it is the reality.

  This is a 1999 directive and it has taken four years to produce this piece of legislation. If we are only at draft directive stage now regarding agency workers, the directive will only come into force in the next couple of years. On the Government's timescale, it will take another four to five years to bring forward legislation in this House. This is a piecemeal approach to the rights of all people who find themselves in temporary, part-time or short-term work and is another sign that the Government has missed an opportunity.

  There are some provisions in the Bill which deserve congratulations and to which we can look forward. The raising of fines to a more realistic level is welcome and begs the question as to why they were so low for so long. I realise this is something the Government intends to tackle in a fines Bill which would index-link fines of this nature. When fines are at such a derisory low level, the incentive does not exist for employers to engage properly with employment legislation. Deputy Joe Higgins said that there are too many employers in the economy who will abuse workers in whatever way they can if they get the chance. The abuses are usually in the area of length and types of working conditions and pay, and it does not seem to matter what legislation is in place.

  It could be argued that the reluctance to put in place proper resources and bring about effective enforcement of this type of legislation is because of the relationship the Government parties have with employer bodies and prominent employers. We do not have a balance in terms of enforcement of rights. The people most affected by not having the rights that exist enforced are the socially disadvantaged. This is why much of what Deputy Finneran said is laughable in its content and untrue in its form.

  In summing up, the Minister of State needs to tell us where he sees employment legislation going from here. Does he see the Government coming up with ideas in its own right to identify the areas that still remain for many people in the [1144]labour force in terms of having their working conditions improved? Will the Government wait for the EU to come up with directives in several areas and wait for the process of drafting a Bill to come into being again? If it does so, it will be serving the needs of workers badly. It has a special responsibility to recognise that the people most in need of this legislation and having their rights enforced are not those who are being represented.

  Mr. Fahey: In which areas does the Deputy suggest we need legislation?

  Mr. Boyle: I have mentioned several areas, including short-term temporary work and part-time work.

  Mr. Fahey: They are all covered.

  Mr. Boyle: I do not believe they are in social welfare legislation.

  Mr. Fahey: I have rarely heard a more ill-informed speech in the House.

  Mr. Boyle: Following Deputy Finneran's speech, I do not know whether to take that as a compliment.

  Acting Chairman: Deputy Boyle, without interruption.

  Mr. Boyle: I did not know whether the chairman was chastising me or the Minister of State.

  Acting Chairman: I am not chastising anyone.

  Mr. Boyle: The Government has presented a Bill to the House which has not come from its own resources or philosophical base. It is filling up the time of the House which would be better served if it were to come up with a more all-embracing Bill. Some rights will be improved in this Bill. However, other rights need to be defined and protected and other Bills need to be brought before the House. I do not have the confidence that they will come before this Dáil. I hope that the informed debate that will follow on Committee and Report Stages will highlight some of the areas on which the Government can act.

  Mr. Kehoe: I wish to share time with Deputy Hayes.

  Acting Chairman: Is that agreed? Agreed.

  Mr. Kehoe: I welcome the Minister of State and this Bill to the House. With regard to the exchange between Deputy Boyle and the Minister of State about the rights and responsibilities of employees, conditions are not as bad as they were years ago. I disagree with Deputy Boyle in that if a person is being abused in the workplace, [1145]he or she will now know his or her relevant rights and will contact the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment or his or her local representative. People have contacted me in this connection and in my subsequent representations to the Department, I found the officials more than helpful on occasions, for which I thank the Minister of State. It is important that when a young person is starting out in a workplace, he or she is treated correctly and not abused in any way. I welcome the Government's legislation to protect younger workers in order that they enjoy proper pay and hours.

  It is up to anyone in employment to report the matter if he or she is being abused. This Bill is long overdue. It will give people security, which is important because I have experience of workplaces with no sense of security. Deputy Perry spoke earlier about security, in particular with regard to young people, and the need to make sure they are well looked after. Some 70,000 people will benefit from this Bill, which is a good thing. Deputy Finneran referred to the Bills which pass through the House but are not enacted. In that context, I hope this Bill is enacted straight away because it is there for the protection of many workers.

  Local authorities, health boards and the State in general have been abusers in not giving employees full-time contracts. I understand that local authority employees work on a year-to-year contract, which is unfair. Wexford General Hospital is one of the few that does not employ agency nurses. The nurses who are employed there work on a year-to-year contract, or not even that – they work on a part-time/full-time basis. These nurses are not appreciated and some of them have contacted me to tell me what is happening. They are called at 8 a.m. and asked to be in work for 9 a.m. That type of situation gives no sense of security to people who have, perhaps, spent many years in college training for their job. However, they are not getting the respect and security they deserve. There are many agencies which will take on nurses, a point to which Deputy Perry referred earlier. This Bill should give people like these nurses a sense of security and stop the abuses that are being perpetrated.

  It is disappointing for a worker to be in a workplace on a part-time basis. When I left college, I did not go into any workplace to be there on a part-time basis. Rather, I wanted to be a full-time employee, which I hopefully will be in this job for a few years more. I like to see people trying to move up ladders from one company to another. Few people remain in their workplace for long these days if they are able to move. For example, accountants can move up the ladder to other companies. People are mobile, and fair play to them. I admire anyone who is trying to move up any ladder in life and gain a better position in any job. When a person goes through the education [1146]system, he or she is trying to do something to better himself or herself and it is good that people have the opportunity to move. The same opportunities are not there that were there years ago. People do not have many opportunities to move on but hope they will in future.

  I urge the Minister to create better working conditions for people. When people are not in employment for a long time, they do not get the benefits of permanent workers, and that is disappointing. I spoke earlier of some people in this country abusing the contract system. I have worked in many jobs and was once a manager in the forestry sector. The sort of situation which arose there was mentioned by Deputy Finneran. If it was a wet day or if it became dark, the workers were sent home. This happened years ago.

  Deputy Cassidy spoke about postmen. With regard to companies like An Post, the ESB and other State-run companies, we were always told that they offered jobs for life, but they no longer do so. We all want to see people enjoying their rights, and job security is a great thing. All employers have responsibilities and must look after their workers. If they do not, they should not be allowed continue as employers.

  I am critical of this Bill in so far as it was not introduced years ago. I realise we have gone through boom years, but the relevant EC directive should have been implemented in 1999. One has to consider the rights of employers too because they are the people supplying jobs. The employee is not always right, and neither is the employer, but the legislation must protect both.

  I welcome the rights commissioner. He or she can judge cases and if a decision cannot be reached, the issue can be taken to the Labour Court. It is important that we have the commissioner so that employers can enjoy protection at all times.

  When I worked as a manager in a private company in the forestry service, I noticed that the amount of red tape which the employers had to deal with was unbelievable. I would like to see the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, looking into this matter. The employer is providing a service in employing people but has to deal with red tape which is becoming more prevalent than in the farming sector, where it has gone out of control. The Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, told us in the House this evening that the red tape is gone in that sector, but I do not believe so. The more red tape there is, the worse the situation becomes. Perhaps the Minister, Deputy Fahey, will raise this issue with the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney.

  I welcome the Bill, which provides the security and respect deserved by all our workers. I trust it will not be delayed in its passage through the House. It is a shame the EC directive was not implemented in 1999 as it should have been, but [1147]nevertheless I commend the Bill to the House, as does Fine Gael.

  Mr. Hayes: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, to the House. I am glad of the opportunity to speak on the Bill. Because of the downturn in the economy and the escalating costs, there are major challenges to be faced to ensure that we remain competitive as a country. For that reason it is important that reasonable conditions of employment exist. It is important too that the respective entitlements of employers and employees are clearly set out. There is no doubt that we lost some competitive advantages in the past year, but this is not entirely due to the Government's inaction. There are many other causes.

  Rising insurance costs are probably the principal reason for the loss of many jobs in small industries. I cannot repeat often enough that huge insurance costs are a burden on employers. The Government is making an effort in some areas, but I ask the Minister of State to pursue this issue again. A constituent of mine told me that his insurance bill three years ago was £3,000 and that he has today been given a quote of €29,000. These are huge costs for employers in an economy which is becoming more competitive. It is becoming more difficult to employ people. Employers must be encouraged.

  In the past couple of weeks, the directors of Pall Ireland, an employer in Tipperary town which earlier this year laid off 200 workers, met Oireachtas Members. They told us that they would prefer to stay in Ireland than move to any other European country. They specifically mentioned France, which they saw as more competitive because of its long holidays. We remain competitive in Ireland but should try to maintain competitiveness for the benefit of everyone, including workers.

  This Bill is being introduced against the backdrop of an Irish workforce very different from that of ten or 20 years ago. There are now 294,000 part-time employees in the economy, representing over 17% of the workforce. Added to this, the idea of a job for life is gone. Nowadays, people may carve out a career, but they feel it is not practical nor desirable to spend 20, 30 or 40 years with the same employer or institution. That is a good thing. I come from a background where I was never employed by anybody, but was always self-employed. Some years ago I came into this job, and I find a total change in my lifestyle. Yet it is good for me and my family. The discovery that one can change from one career to another has given me a renewed interest in life. People should be more open to career changes. In the United States, for instance, people consider that when they have spent a certain period of time in employment they can retire and move [1148]on to something else. It is good for the economy but also extremely good for people. When one is too long in the same job doing the same thing, one becomes stale. That is an important consideration.

  The concept of contract work offers an attractive prospect for thousands of young people entering the labour market for the first time, unsure of whether they wish to pledge their entire lives to the chosen profession or employer. Unfortunately, some attractions come with price tags – job insecurity, less favourable treatment by management and often a general sense that the employee is being undervalued. Frequently, it is the contract worker who is asked to do something that the permanent employee would not dream of doing. This situation cannot be allowed continue.

  Deputy Kehoe spoke about the contract system for nurses. Nursing is a profession that we have been very proud of in Ireland. Some years ago, wherever Irish nurses went in the world, they were the pride of the nation. Whether they went to America or England, Canada or Australia, Irish people were extremely proud of them. Their great care of patients was often mentioned. I have no doubt that we probably trained the best nurses in the world, but in the past few years, something happened that has dented that profession greatly. The contracts system, whereby nurses were recruited to work alongside permanent and temporary staff in hospitals, had a negative effect. Many nurses say it has been a disheartening experience for their profession and has changed nursing from what it was some years ago. We should examine the way in which we have let standards in the profession slide as a result of hiring so many nurses on contract. Why did we allow it to happen?

  The debate is framed around the need for rights and responsibilities. For employers, the right to run a thriving and successful business is enshrined in our democratic system. No one suggests it would be possible to do this without the flexibility of a system for contract workers. What is suggested is that there is a duty and responsibility to those workers who have been in employment for a given period. That would be recognised by the majority of employers. There are certainly employers who abuse their position and do so at the first opportunity. The Bill also points to the rights and responsibilities of employees. The legislation can be of benefit to employers and employees. Where both are satisfied with their lot, it can be of huge benefit to all.

  I welcome the Bill. It is late, but it is better late than never. It will be of benefit to employees and employers. We live in an increasingly competitive environment which is making it more difficult for employers to continue in business. We have a committed workforce which, if treated properly and with dignity, will respond. Any legislation we [1149]introduce that secures people's position is of benefit.

  A worker works for his family. The Minister of State referred to flexibility where family life is concerned, and that is most important. Earlier this week we discussed parental responsibility in the context of the Intoxicating Liquor Bill. There should be flexibility for parents to spend time with their children. Young children are growing up in a difficult environment and need their parents to be with them as often as possible. There must be flexibility in the workplace to allow employers to give their employees the time to spend with their children. I hope that is covered in the Bill.

  Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Mr. Fahey): I thank all Members who contributed to the debate. All contributors welcomed the thrust and intent of the Bill, and I welcome the cross-party support for it. Many referred to the rights and responsibilities of employees and employers and the need for both to play their respective roles in this regard. I share this view.

  I will deal with the issue raised by a number of Opposition Members of the reason for the long delay in bringing the Bill before the House. The date of transposition in the directive was set at 10 July 2001. The main reason for the delay was the preoccupation of the relevant section in the Department with the work on the Carer's Leave Act and the Protection of Employees (Part-Time Work) Act which had been given priority. When both measures were enacted towards the end of 2001, priority was then given to the implementation of the Fixed-Term Work Directive.

  Considerable time was spent on the tripartite group discussions which included representatives of the ICTU and IBEC and which was established to consider the best means of transposing the directive in Irish circumstances. The work of this group is reflected in the Bill. There were considerable delays as well in the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel which were outside our control. These delays were caused by a significant amount of legislation in the pipeline. The provisions of the Bill will come into effect immediately upon its enactment and it is not intended for them to be retrospective.

  Members referred to amendments and I know they will table a number of them for Committee Stage next week. I will also table a number of Government amendments which will be aimed at securing the flexibility and security fixed-term workers and employers want and to which a number of Members referred. These are being worked on by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel to the Government and will be discussed next week.

  I reject some of the criticisms made by some Members about the content of the Bill. Considerable discussion and negotiation took place during [1150]preparation of the legislation and especially since it was discussed in the Seanad a few weeks ago. A good and positive debate took place in that Chamber during which a number of issues were raised and as a result of which we promised to make amendments.

  Considerable discussions have taken place with the social partners, especially with the ICTU, in order that we would arrive at a consensus and try to satisfy the requirements of unions. I am grateful to my officials in the Department for their work and effort in examining the ICTU's proposals and trying to incorporate them in the legislation.

  Listening to some Members, one would have thought that no consultation took place and that the Bill was flawed and was being rushed through. I reject that criticism. It is good legislation. It is also complex and it took significant discussion to ensure we satisfied in particular the demands of the ICTU and unions and ensured the rights of workers were properly balanced in the legislation. I thank the ICTU and IBEC. A number of Members referred to the spirit of partnership which was part of the formulation of this legislation.

  Members referred to cases of workers being exploited. Deputy Boyle's contribution was not only negative but also inaccurate in this respect. I am not concerned about being criticised by Members nor about their making good critical analysis, but when a Member makes outlandish statements that are clearly untrue, it is very unfair. Deputy Boyle said that thousands of young people are being exploited. That is just not correct. If he has examples of employers exploiting young people he should bring them to my attention and I will have them dealt with. It is not fair to come into the House and make outlandish statements and claim that we should have enough inspectors to police everyone. That is not the way to enforce legislation. We do not want to use a significant volume of taxpayers' money. We have an inspectorate and a control system but at the end of the day it is up to the people themselves, their unions and committed people in the community. If there is exploitation of young people, or anyone else, in the workplace, they should bring it to the attention of my Department. I assure the House, and it is a credit to the officials of the Department, that these incidents are dealt with quickly and effectively and, if necessary, as we saw in some high profile cases recently, offending employers are brought before the courts.

  For the benefit of the Green Party I will reiterate some of the legislation of recent years covering workers' rights – the Minimum Notice and Terms of Employment Act, the Unfair Dismissals Act, the Payment of Wages Act, the Organisation of Working Time Act, the Safeguarding of Employees' Rights on the Transfer of Undertak[1151]ing Regulations, the Protection of Young People at Work Act, the Safety, Health and Welfare Act, the Redundancy Payments Act, the National Minimum Wage Act and the Protection of Employees (Part-Time Work) Act.

  If there are gaps and if Deputy Boyle wants to lecture us about joined up Government, let him be specific and tell us what legislation we are missing. There is some legislation still to be introduced but I reject, particularly from the Green Party, the sort of contribution we got from Deputy Boyle. I am sure he would pay for it all with the green taxes he would raise to provide all the extra resources he demands.

  Many Deputies asked about non-national workers. Non-national workers who have proper work permits are covered by this legislation in the same way as everyone else. Non-national workers are covered by all employment rights legislation and that is how it should be.

  I wish to comment on the misunderstanding about the temporary agency workers legislation. The reason we, along with Britain, Germany and Denmark, opposed the Commission in Luxembourg in trying to reach agreement is because a different culture exists in a number of European countries. We have heard a great deal about the difficulties in France at the moment but the temporary agency workers regime works well in this State. If I was to hear of any instances of exploitation of workers who are employed by temporary agencies, I would deal with that but I have not heard of any major difficulties.

  The concept of temporary agency work has worked well here and we want to protect that segment of our employment because it gives a flexibility that has contributed in no small way to the growth of employment in the State, particularly in the IT industry. A significant proportion of the rapid growth in the IT industry was caused by the fact that a company can set up and employ workers straight away under the employment agency regime. The vast majority of those workers have gone on to become full-time, permanent employees in these companies. I have heard from senior people in the IT industry that Ireland has an advantage in that a regime exists where they can find workers immediately. They tell me that they pay the workers in that sector of the economy as much if not more than they would those on permanent contracts.

  The European Commission's proposals would have allowed the temporary agency businesses a six-week qualifying period before temporary agency workers were assigned to the user enterprise and would qualify for the same terms and conditions and permanent employees. Temporary agency workers have the same rights and are covered by all of the legislation I mentioned. They are not being exploited and while there may [1152]be differentials in pay levels, and some temporary agency workers who are paid less than others, it is equally fair to say that many temporary agency workers are paid more, as is the case with temporary agency nurses.

  We sought to lengthen the qualifying period proposed by the Commission to a year and I am sure the Commission will continue to try to make progress on the issue. We will contribute in a positive way to reach a solution which is satisfactory to all concerned.

  The Labour Party is of the view that we are opposed to the introduction of this directive because we wanted to leave temporary agency workers in a worse position than others. That is not the case. We feel there should be an adequate qualifying period because it gives the employer an adequate opportunity to take on a worker on a temporary basis before making that worker permanent.

  There are also many people who want to work in that structure, who do not want to work a full five-day week on a permanent basis. They want the opportunity to work two or three days a week and in different firms, they want to take weeks off at a time. I have had many people from across the spectrum lobbying me since the start of the debate to say they are happy with the arrangement they have with an employment agency.

  Consequently, there is much to recommend this type of work and I have not seen anyone breaking down my door in recent months saying that this is wrong, he or she is being exploited or experiencing major problems. We want to have a reasonable qualifying period and want to reach agreement in Brussels and I am confident we will do that. It will be a priority during our Presidency.

  I thank all Deputies who contributed to this Bill. It will have an impact, particularly for State employees. In the teaching profession there are far too many teachers who have been on short-term contracts from September to June for up to ten or 20 years. It is time to end that. There are many nurses in the same situation and those people will benefit significantly from this legislation. It will cost the Exchequer an extra €50 million to implement this legislation which shows that someone will benefit.

  Question put and agreed to.

  Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 2 July 2003.