Dáil Éireann - Volume 399 - 23 May, 1990

Ceisteanna — Questions. Oral Answers. - Minimum Wage Levels.

15. Mr. McCartan asked the Minister for Labour if his attention has been drawn to the speech made by the general secretary of the Public Service Executive [93] Union to the Institute of Public Administration Conference on 6 March, 1990 in which he said that there was growing demand among the trade unions for minimum wage legislation and that some people would regard this as an obstacle in any negotiations for a new Programme for National Recovery; if he intends to take any measures to introduce new minimum wage legislation; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

21. Mr. T. O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Labour if he will outline the plans he has to investigate the extent of low pay in Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Mr. B. Ahern: I propose to take Questions Nos. 15 and 21 together.

The question of low pay has already been the subject of much research and debate and a wide range of measures covering the education, training, welfare, taxation and industrial relations areas are already being taken to tackle the problem. I have no plans to carry out further investigation in this area as there is general agreement as to the factors which give rise to low pay and an acceptance that measures to deal with it must cover the range of areas I have referred to.

With regard to Deputy McCartan's question, I am aware of the comments referred to by the Deputy. As I have already indicated in replies to previous similar questions I am not convinced that the introduction of a minimum wage is the solution to the problem of low pay. I feel that progress in the industrial relations area on low pay can best be achieved through collective bargaining operating in conjunction with the Joint Labour Committee system. The JLC system can take account of the particular economic and industrial relations circumstances of specific sectors and is a flexible and effective means of tackling the problem.

The Industrial Relations Bill which is at present at Committee Stage in this House contains proposals to improve the functioning of existing committees and [94] speed up the establishment of new committees. In addition the proposed new Labour Relations Commission, will have responsibility for monitoring and reviewing the operation of JLCs and will also have the power to examine whether new committees should be established.

Mr. T. O'Sullivan: Does it not occur to the Minister that we are one of three countries in the European Community who do not have minimum pay legislation? Is it not time for some movement on his part in this area?

Mr. B. Ahern: We have undertaken a number of reviews in the Department over the years in regard to this type of legislation. There are completely different standards. My contention is that the major issues in regard to low pay are education, training, welfare and taxation. They are the issues which will help people in the low pay category. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions have said that in a future programme they will want to look more directly at this issue. I have said that this might be a good way to see how progress could be achieved. I am not convinced that a statutory minimum wage will create more jobs and solve the problems of the low paid. It could cause unemployment and great difficulties. The JLC system is a better system.

Mr. T. O'Sullivan: While I accept that the threat to jobs could be put forward as one of the reasons for not introducing minimum pay legislation, it is mostly women who are discriminated against in low paid jobs. One problem in the implementation of such measures could be that higher paid workers would want to maintain differentials. There could thus be a source of opposition in an area one would not expect. It is also likely that there would be an increase in food costs in supermarkets. Nevertheless we should have this legislation. Other countries have introduced it without any adverse effects.

Mr. J. Mitchell: Would the Minister not agree that there is not a cheap labour [95] solution to our unemployment problem? Would he also agree that there is scope for some form of minimum income policy without jeopardising the creation of jobs? Would he consider going towards a minimum wage policy in conjunction with some addition to or extension of the family income supplement?

Mr. B. Ahern: That is a matter for the Minister for Social Welfare. There are now about 7,000 families in receipt of family income supplement. The issue will be addressed in discussions later this year. There would have to be agreement among the social partners. A statutory minimum wage seems like a simple solution but the salary must be pitched at a certain level. If there is not agreement employers on one side will bring down recruitment salary levels to that level. We have had examples of that in the past few years which created great industrial relations difficulties. Other employers may be unable due to market forces to bring salaries up to that level. It is a complex issue. Some countries brought in very strong minimum pay legislation, but while we in this country implement the laws on the Statute Book the laws are ignored and the legislation on the Statute Book is not used to any effect.

Mr. Rabbitte: The Minister continues to rely on the alternative, which is the joint labour committee method. Even the answer to the earlier question dealing with the conviction of the hairdressing salon shows that the efficacy of the joint labour committee system must be under serious scrutiny. Is the Minister concerned that the more moderate wing of the trade union leadership have said that the failure of the Minister to bring forward any proposals concerning minimum pay legislation is likely to prove a sticking point in negotiations for a new programme between the trade unions and the Government?

Mr. B. Ahern: I have already addressed that. This will be one of the items on the agenda for the talks and we [96] will have to see what progress can be made. It does not move away from the question of how we can help to tackle the issue through taxation, welfare benefits, training and education generally.