‘A Real and Practical Measure to protect Agency Workers’

SIPTU ProtestSIPTU ProtestSIPTU ProtestLast night, the Seanad had a lively debate on the Protection of Employees (Agency Workers) (No. 2) Bill. This particular Bill was introduced by the Labour Party and was taken in our own time slot. After hearing the speech by the Minister of State, Michael Ahern TD – which you can view by clicking here – I spoke in support of the Bill, its merits and what it would mean for those Agency Workers. Here is some of what I said: 

“Despite the talk of people being in favour of the spirit of the Bill, of everybody singing from the same hymn sheet and of the Bill being premature and not thought through, the Labour Party, with the support of others, is proposing a real and practical measure to protect agency workers which is being opposed by the Government.

It is being rejected by the Government which will vote against it.  I suggest we cut through the waffle and all the nonsense about everyone singing from the same hymn sheet.  When someone presents a practical proposal which has been well thought through and is clear in describing the impact of the measure, the Government informs them this proposal will be rejected and that it might do something in the future and it will discuss it with the social partners.

“I refer to the contribution by the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ahern, which lists at least five or six reasons. He referred to the reason the Irish Government did not support the EU directive on temporary agency work.  He spoke a nonsense about the fact there are different industrial regimes across Europe, something we all know is the case.  Everyone knows there is a long history of collective agreements at national level in Germany and other European countries.  This is not a new discovery.  There is employment legislation going back 30 years which applies in equal measure across the European Union in circumstances where different employment law and industrial relations regimes are in existence in those countries, such as the fixed-term work legislation and the equality directives.  Much legislation and many directives that have been introduced and implemented in different member states are implemented in countries that have different regimes and different industrial relations regimes.  The Minister of State’s argument is a nonsense and an excuse.

The Minister of State’s second reason and explanation is that flexibility is required.  He stated that the Irish Government is concerned that these proposals to give proper basic rights to agency workers might compromise the flexibility that is required in a market economy.  We are now getting to the real meat.  He gives a reason that is much closer to the truth of what is going on.  The foreign direct investment sector in particular is concerned about any possible measure which might require enterprises to offer permanent employment to temporary agency workers after a specific period of employment.

“Who runs this country?  Is it the sovereign Irish Government or the FDI sector?  We listened to the views and must take into consideration the views of people who set up industries in this country and I do not disagree with that for one moment.  However, such people do not decide, do not determine and should not be allowed determine the basic employment standards in this country.  The foreign direct investment sector is just one sector and only a sector.  For the Minister of State to elevate this, as he appeared to do in his speech, to being yet another one of his reasons for rejecting the proposal is simply unacceptable to this House.

The Minister of State listed further reasons in his speech.  He referred to his fear of unwelcome imbalances.  He stated that the Government must try to establish where the broader public interest lies at any given time.  What does he mean?  His next point states, “It is important to remember that agency working as such has a very legitimate role in an economy such as ours” and is the choice of many people.  Senator Paschal Donohoe and others made the point that no one is saying that agency work is to be banned.  No one is seeking to impose a prohibition on agency work.  Everyone knows that agency work in sectors such health and elsewhere is part of the environment.  We are arguing for the principle of equal treatment, that people are not treated differently or less favourably by reason of the fact they are agency employees.  What is wrong with this proposal?  No one is suggesting a prohibition.

“The Irish Government is wrong to stand in the way of this progressive measure.  It is not enough for the Minister of State to come to the House and say the measure did not win sufficient support and it was not going anywhere and so on.  The Irish Government was part of the reason for it not going anywhere.

“The Minister of State referred to flexibility.  Why is it that this great notion of flexibility is so privileged and elevated in the case of what employees must tolerate and sustain but never applies on the other side of the equation?  Flexibility is something only looked for from employees.  What about flexibility from employers and from this Government in terms of introducing basic standards?

The Minister of State said in his contribution, “I can say already that no government wants to see the emergence of agency working as the norm” but he then refers to “what might be termed “regular” jobs which provide for a stable, longer-term relationship between an enterprise and its employees”.  We all want this but the Government is standing in the way of it by refusing to implement this legislation.

“This legislation is modelled on existing legislation covering the rights of fixed-term workers.  There is nothing particularly strange or unusual in the overall scheme of this legislation.  That statement is not thought through.  It is a self-serving attempt by the Government to renege on the responsibility it should have as a sovereign Government to legislate for the basic rights of employees and workers in this State.

We should not leave this to social partnership in case, as Senator Callely extraordinarily said, we would be imposing it on the social partners.  This is the parliament of a sovereign country.  We make the legislation; we set the standards; we set what the minimum standards ought to be.  That is what we should be doing, not hiding behind this notion of flexibility.  The only thing not thought through in this House is the Minister of State’s speech.  It is a tissue of excuses and alibis and it simply is not acceptable in this State.

On behalf of my colleagues I thank others who have supported the proposition.  I wish to reply to the very reasonable question asked by Senator Paschal Donohoe in respect of pay.  He was concerned that other criteria should be used when differentiating pay and I agree with him.  Performance targets was one issue he raised.  We might have differences on exactly how that might be implemented but this Bill will not interfere with it.  We simply propose that there should be no discrimination against someone solely by reason of the fact he or she an agency worker.  If performance or some other criterion is introduced, it can be introduced in equal measure for agency workers and non-agency workers.  There should not be different treatment of agency workers.

 

Similarly in the case of pay, the Bill proposes that there should not be less favourable treatment of an agency worker.  Senator Donohoe expressed the legitimate concern if an agency worker were earning more than the comparator, whether they would be stymied by this Bill.  I assure him they would not because the provision in section 5(1) states that an agency worker should not be treated in a less favourable manner than a comparable employee.  This would settle any concerns that an agency worker’s pay might be reduced by this Bill.

More :: For a full transcript of the debate, click here.