Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation (Deputy Pat Breen): As Minister of State with responsibility for employment and small business, I congratulate Mr. Kevin Foley on his appointment as chairman of the Labour Court. I also congratulate Ms Oonagh Buckley on her appointment as director general of the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC.
I have listened with great interest to the debate this evening. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak as Minister of State with responsibility for employment and small business. Our debate must first and foremost be placed in the context of the programme for Government commitment to tackle the problems caused by the increased casualisation of work and to strengthen the regulation of precarious work. The maintenance and improvement of strong protections for workers have been, and will continue to be, a key element of Government policy as we seek to build on the progress made in recent years in our economic recovery. In this respect, the Minister indicated earlier our commitment to bring forward legislation to protect workers on low-hour contracts in response to the University of Limerick, UL, study. It is important to point out that we will bring forward legislation on this important issue. Our proposals will be balanced and workable. They will have the benefit of being informed by the UL study itself and by the large number of submissions received in response to the public consultation. A large number of submissions were made. If we are bringing in legislation, we must respond to them and consider them very carefully.
In response to Deputy Cullinane, I wish to state that we will not play games with this issue. We must strike a correct balance between the rights and needs of workers and of employers. We must find solutions that make sense and that work in practice for all concerned. Striking the right balance will also be important in terms of continuing to make progress on the jobs and employment front. Deputy Barry said that we were totally out of touch on this issue. I can assure the Deputy, who has left the Chamber, that we are not out of touch. We are very much in touch. Since I was appointed Minister of State with responsibility for employment and small business, the Minister and I have worked closely with the officials in our Department on this matter. I assure the House of this. Recent CSO figures show that the number of casual and part-time workers is continuing to fall. In the year to May 2016, the number of such workers fell by 7.8%. This is particularly relevant in the context of this debate and the concerns expressed by some speakers about the increasing casualisation of work. Also noteworthy is the strong downward trend in the figures for part-time underemployment, which declined to 99,100 in the first quarter of 2016 from a high of more than 150,000 in 2012. I ask the Opposition to take note of that. Again, this is a very positive trend and an indicator that we are moving in the right direction and that more people are in a better position in terms of their hours of work and earnings.
It is clear that this Sinn Féin Bill is motivated by a dispute between one employer and a trade union. However, the Bill provides a right for every worker in every sector of the economy to request additional hours.
Deputy Pat Breen: The UL study on zero-hour contracts and low-hour contracts recognises that the problem of low-hour contracts is only an issue in a number of sectors. Thus, it makes no sense to legislate in the manner set out in this Bill and apply a banded hours solution across all sectors, even in sectors where a problem does not exist. Most employers currently do not operate a banded hour structure. The Bill would impose new and unnecessary obligations on all employers. Moreover, the bands set out in the Bill are very narrow and provide little flexibility. It would have adverse impacts in terms of limiting an employer’s ability to manage its business and its staffing needs in line with the needs of the business and its customers.
A key concern with the Bill is that it only allows an employer to refuse to grant additional hours if they are experiencing severe financial difficulties. If an employer refuses to grant additional hours, they will find themselves having to fund appearances before the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court in an effort to prove severe financial difficulties. The Bill makes no provision for a worker to be moved to a lower band where the level of business activity has fallen and the business can only sustain fewer working hours. The logical corollary of the Bill as drafted is than an employer will have no option but to grant additional requested hours to employees until its business is experiencing severe financial difficulties. By this time, irreparable damage may have been done to the business. Jobs may be lost and competitiveness adversely impacted as a result.
Much has been said in this House in recent times regarding Brexit. It is relevant in the context of this debate to refer to the concerns which employers have in this regard. Notwithstanding the fact that the Government, the Department and the enterprise agencies are fully committed to supporting business at this time of heightened uncertainty, it may be the case that employers are reluctant to give additional hours at this time for fear that they may lose contracts because of Brexit.
I will not reiterate all of the points made by the Minister in her speech this evening. However, I would mention again the difficulties with the six-month reference period for calculating average weekly working times, which will form the basis for a request to be moved into a higher band. This short period takes no account of business realities, and we need to talk about business realities, in particular, the normal peaks and troughs of a business, including the seasonal nature of many businesses. Consider workers in a seasonal tourist area, such as Tramore in Waterford in Deputy Cullinane’s constituency, using March to September as their reference period for a request to be moved into a higher band just as demand falls. A similar six-month reference period in the UL study came in for particular criticism in many of the submissions received in response to public consultation on the study.
It is clear that the Bill will have significant cost implications for businesses, including SMEs and micro-enterprises. The Bill as drafted has many flaws and we do not have the time this evening to go into all of those flaws in any detail. However, suffice to say that the Bill if passed would have a significant adverse impact on jobs and competitiveness. That is the last thing we need at this juncture. The Bill could also have unintended consequences for those workers it seeks to protect. I do not believe that anyone in this House is interested in pursuing legislation that works against employees. Therefore, I welcome the proposal that the Bill would be subject to proper scrutiny by the Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. I know Deputy Mary Butler will do a fine job as Chairman of that committee.
Deputy Pat Breen: This is new politics and the Opposition has a chairman. I agree with the Minister that input from the social partners and other representative groups would greatly assist the committee’s consideration of the Bill.
In the meantime, I will be working closely with the Minister to bring forward proposals in response to the UL study, which will address the issues of insecure low-hour work in a more comprehensive manner than the narrow approach taken by Sinn Féin this evening in this Private Members’ debate. It is important for the Government to deal with this in a more comprehensive manner.