Dáil Éireann - Volume 595 - 16 December, 2004

Priority Questions. - Job Protection.

  2. Mr. Howlin asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he has plans for amendments to labour law to provide workers here with some degree of protection in situations in which employers decide to lay workers off and replace them with contract labour from other countries paid at a lower rate and under inferior conditions; if his attention has been drawn to the serious concerns expressed by trade unions regarding the outsourcing of jobs; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33883/04]

  Mr. Killeen: A number of issues have been raised in the Deputy’s question to which I will respond as follows. I do not propose to amend labour law on redundancy as there are adequate protections in the Redundancy and Unfair Dismissals Acts. Severance terms are a matter for negotiation between employers and employees. However, there are conditions for such arrangements to qualify for funding under the Redundancy Payments Acts. Under the statutory redundancy payments scheme, where an employee is immediately replaced in the same job by another employee, whether from another country or not, a statutory redundancy situation is not deemed to arise.

In any such situation, the employees concerned who feel they have been unfairly displaced in their employment, can then take a case to the Employment Appeals Tribunal under the Unfair Dismissals Acts 1977 to 2001. There are no distinctions as to employment conditions between Irish and non-Irish workers. All labour law on the Statute Book in Ireland applies to non-national [993] workers working in this country in the same way as it applies to Irish workers. If a non-national worker feels he or she is being treated by his or her employer in a way that breaches any of this employee protection legislation, it will be open to him or her to refer their case for adjudication to a quasi judicial body person such as a Rights Commissioner, the Labour Court or the Employment Appeals Tribunal.

The composition and skill mix of our labour force continues to change in response to the international pressures, affecting both the manufacturing and service sectors. It is fair to say that our strengths and competitive advantages, especially compared with low wage economies, have fundamentally changed. Ireland’s economy is now typified by high output and productivity, together with high returns to labour in the form of wages, salaries and better living standards. Ireland has become a more prosperous and wealthy economy, converging with the broad income and prosperity levels of other member states of the EU. I doubt if anyone would have it any other way.

In a borderless Europe, which places no restrictions on where people can work or where investors can do business, there will always be competition for work and investment. One of the Government’s key objectives is to develop a competitive economy that will be resilient to the toughest competitive pressures, either from within the EU or elsewhere. It is committed to making sure that when companies decide to invest, Ireland will retain its reputation as a secure, profitable and world class investment location. I am also committed to Ireland having a participatory society based on social justice. We are all committed to ensuring Ireland is responsive to the constantly evolving requirements of international competitiveness necessary for continuing economic and social success.

  Mr. Howlin: The Minister of State gave a very long answer and entirely ignored the core of the question, namely, the challenge posed to Ireland and employment here by the yellow packing of Irish jobs. It is not a matter of redundancy payments, because where a worker is satisfied to accept a redundancy package, where that worker is replaced by someone from a new member state, and where the terms and conditions of the new job are well below the terms enjoyed by the previous occupier of the job, it poses a real and substantial threat to jobs across the economy.

I do not intend to go into the specifics of the current issues in Irish Ferries where an entire crew operating out of my constituency has been told they will be replaced by a new member state crew, at greatly reduced rates, in a clear effort to reduce costs. If that becomes a pattern for seafarers — it certainly threatens every seafaring job in Ireland — no doubt it will spread into other sectors of the economy. Therefore, the question I am posing to the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment is what response does the Government propose to make to this real and [994] substantial threat to employment and the standards of employment in this State to protect Irish jobs in Ireland, Irish standards and Irish wages?

  Mr. Killeen: The principal issue in the Deputy’s question relates to amendments to labour laws. There are seven substantive Acts already on the Statute Book, some of which I mentioned in the initial response and which appeared to deal adequately with the situation outlined in the question. The Deputy also referred to the current dispute at Irish Ferries and I am pleased that the parties to the dispute agreed to enter into talks. I take this opportunity to commend the Labour Relations Commission and the parties to the dispute for having done so, because it is important progress.

I am also aware of the other substantive issue raised by the Deputy, namely, what he referred to as yellow packing of jobs. The remainder of my reply adverted to the fact that conditions in the European and world economies are evolving very quickly and the focus of the Government must be to encourage workers to be up-skilled in order to be able to participate at the highest levels and benefit from the highest levels of pay.

  Mr. Howlin: I thank the Minister of State for his philosophical musing, but perhaps he will now answer the question directly. Has the Government a response to the decision of any company in Ireland to yellow pack jobs by disemploying Irish people, employing new member state nationals at greatly reduced standards, wages and conditions, or is the Department and the Government happy to let market forces prevail and talk about up-skilling and so on, while doing nothing specifically to address the real and imminent threat to Irish jobs?

  Mr. Killeen: There is well tried and tested machinery in this area that has been used successfully in a great number of disputes over a long period. That machinery has come into play in regard to the specific difficulty in Irish Ferries. I certainly would not want to undermine the attempts to address the very serious issues that arise in this area. Under the NIB proposals, which have been accepted by the parties——

  Mr. Howlin: The Minister of State should answer the general question, not the specifics of Irish Ferries. Where does the Government stand on the issue?

  An Ceann Comhairle: The Minister of State without interruption.

  Mr. Killeen: It is very difficult to respond. When I responded in specific terms, I was told I should do so in general terms, and when I respond in general terms, I am told I should do so in specific terms.

The situation in regard to the specific issue is one which has progressed considerably and one which I think will have a positive outcome on the [995] basis of a viable service, which is what is required and is the wish of the Government and of both parties to the dispute.

The more general question is one which must be addressed across several levels. At the risk of again being accused of being philosophical, there are, as I outlined in my initial reply, a huge range of forces at work that make it impossible for the Government to provide an answer to every philosophical question, except to say that we need to be aware of the forces at work. Let us not pretend that we are able to address them or undermine them from day one, which is what the Government is ultimately committed to doing.