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Sinn Féin table Dáil motion calling for stand-alone Department of Labour Affairs

21 February, 2006


Sinn Féin spokesperson on Employment and Workers Rights Arthur Morgan TD has, on behalf of the Sinn Féin Leinster House team, tabled a motion in the Dáil calling for the establishment of a stand-alone Department of Labour Affairs. Opening the Private Members debate this evening, Deputy Morgan said, "There must be a recognition that there is a need to reform the Government's approach to labour affairs."

He said, "Sinn Féin has brought this motion before the House because we are seeking to end the current regime of weak regulation and poor enforcement of workers rights. We believe the current configuration of employment, as a secondary responsibility within the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, while its primary focus is on enterprise and competition policy, is a major cause of the failure to give appropriate priority to workers rights. We are arguing that in order to redress this situation there must be an immediate decoupling of departmental responsibility for Labour Affairs from Enterprise.

"Sinn Féin has brought this motion before the Dáil because there is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Enterprise, Trade and Employment as it now stands - a contradiction which is harmful to the interests of workers. On one hand the enterprise agencies and in particular the IDA when seeking to attract Foreign Direct Investment promote the state's weak regularity regime and absence of compulsory trade union recognition as a positive attributes while on the other hand a unit within the Department has responsibility for the promotion of employment rights. Basically one section of the Department is bringing in companies noted for their anti union stance while another section is theoretically supposed to be ensuring that workers rights are upheld.

"There must be a recognition that there is a need to reform the Government's approach to labour affairs. Economic growth has been accompanied by the growth of exploitation of workers. In the face of globalization and aggressive corporate greed the necessity to protect workers has never been greater. Labour standards and workers terms and conditions of employment are under increasing pressure and attack. This is obvious from the growing revelations of exploitation of workers and from the anti-union actions of increasing numbers of employers.

"Sinn Féin rejects absolutely the notion that workers rights must be bargained for and fought for across a table at social partnership talks. The rights of workers are fundamental to society and the Government consequently has an absolute duty to ensure that these rights are upheld. We cannot continue with the regime of weak regulation and feeble enforcement. It is vital that there is a voice at cabinet making the case in defence of workers. A voice which is not compromised by other primary and contradictory responsibilities. There must be a robust and focused response to the race to the bottom from a stand alone Department of Labour driven by a Minister for Labour Affairs and scrutinized by an Oireachtas Joint Committee on Labour Affairs." ENDS

Full text of speech follows:

Sinn Féin Private Members Time: the establishment of a Department of Labour Affairs

Sinn Féin has brought this motion before the House because we are seeking to end the current regime of weak regulation and poor enforcement of workers rights. We believe the current configuration of employment, as a secondary responsibility within the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, while its primary focus is on enterprise and competition policy, is a major cause of the failure to give appropriate priority to workers rights. We are arguing that in order to redress this situation there must be an immediate decoupling of departmental responsibility for Labour Affairs from Enterprise.

The early 1990's saw a shift in the approach to labour affairs and industrial relations. This commenced with the enactment of the 1990 Industrial Relations Act. This legislation hamstrung the development of trade unions and the ability of unions to act on behalf of their members. It put restrictions on strike action, ballots and secondary disputes. Then in 1993 the Department of Labour was done away with under the Fianna Fáil Labour Coalition Government. The Department of Enterprise and Employment was created, later becoming the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. This represented a significant backwards step effectively demoting labour affairs and de-prioritising the promotion and protection of workers rights. Labour Affairs is now handled primarily by a junior Minister. The chief focus of the Department is on enterprise and competition policy. The largest proportion of the funding provided to the Department is allocated to these areas rather than to Employment Rights or Industrial Relations. The Labour Court is under resourced resulting in lengthy waiting times for processing cases. The Labour Inspectorate at 31 inspectors falls far short of what is required to enforce existing labour law for an expanding workforce. Irish workers enjoy inferior work life balance rights than their European counterparts. The plight of low paid workers is not being addressed -- the richest 20% are now earning 12 times as much as the poorest 20%. We do not have equal pay for equal work as gender pay differentials persist. Anecdotal evidence suggests that civil servants within the Department are often unsympathetic on workers rights related issues.

Sinn Féin has brought this motion before the Dáil because there is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Enterprise, Trade and Employment as it now stands - a contradiction which is harmful to the interests of workers. On one hand the enterprise agencies and in particular the IDA when seeking to attract FDI promote the state's weak regularity regime and absence of compulsory trade union recognition as a positive attributes while on the other hand a unit within the Department has responsibility for the promotion of employment rights. Basically one section of the Department is bringing in companies noted for their anti union stance while another section is theoretically supposed to be ensuring that workers rights are upheld.

This contradiction is exemplified in the attack by the Competition Authority, which falls under the aegis of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, on the right of certain freelance workers, including musicians, actors and journalists, to be collectively represented. The Competition Authority is treating these mainly low paid workers as commercial companies and using a measure designed to prevent price fixing to attack their rights. Yet there is no advocate in Government who is willing to act in defence of these workers.

The competitiveness which the Department pursues is one where workers rights are being sacrificed to increase competitiveness. The Department has clearly accepted the arguments of those who want us to emulate the low cost base in Eastern Europe and developing states by cutting labour costs by interfering with workers rights, standards and terms of employment and by the displacement of workers and their replacement with migrant workers on lower pay and diminished conditions. We all want a competitive economy, but competitiveness achieved on such foundations is not acceptable.

It is also worth noting that it is not customary in other European states for one Department to deal with these contradictory responsibilities - further demonstrating that it is not best practice.

France has a Minister of Employment, Social Cohesion and Housing. Finland has a Ministry of Labour Affairs. Norway has a Minister for Labour Affairs and Social Inclusion. Germany has a Department of Labour and Social Affairs. At EU level these labour affairs and workers rights issues are dealt with by a Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities.

No doubt when the Minister speaks he will claim that enterprise and employment are complimentary and not contradictory. Of course there are those who support the current configuration and who have benefited from it. Those who benefit include the unscrupulous employers who exploit a weak regulatory regime and insufficient enforcement to increase their profits by exploiting their workers. Also benefiting are the employers who risk their workers health and safety by cutting corners and who make the calculation that the savings to be gained by risking the health and safety of their workers outweighs the penalties for non-compliance if caught. SIPTU have described the penalties for non-compliance with employment rights legislation as "so paltry as to have absolutely no deterrent effect." The state's largest union has also said that it no longer has any confidence in the current regime for the enforcement of workers' legal rights because of the grossly inadequate resources provided to the labour inspectorate.

The motion tabled by Sinn Féin sets out the rights which must be at the core of employment policy. We need a Department of Labour Affairs that is focused on upholding the rights of workers to be free from exploitation, to a fair remuneration sufficient for a decent standard of living, to equal pay for equal work and to work in safe conditions that are not harmful to health and well-being. The right of workers to form, join and be represented by trade unions, to negotiate contracts of employment, and to engage in industrial action must also be upheld and promoted.

The state already has obligations to uphold many of these rights under a number of international instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the revised European Social Charter.

There must be a recognition that there is a need to reform the Government's approach to labour affairs. Economic growth has been accompanied by the growth of exploitation of workers. In the face of globalization and aggressive corporate greed the necessity to protect workers has never been greater. Labour standards and workers terms and conditions of employment are under increasing pressure and attack. This is obvious from the growing revelations of exploitation of workers and from the anti-union actions of increasing numbers of employers. Deputies Ó Snodaigh and Ferris will go into greater detail on these particular issues. Sinn Féin rejects absolutely the notion that workers rights must be bargained for and fought for across a table at social partnership talks. The rights of workers are fundamental to society and the Government consequently has an absolute duty to ensure that these rights are upheld. We cannot continue with the regime of weak regulation and feeble enforcement. It is vital that there is a voice at cabinet making the case in defense of workers. A voice which is not compromised by other primary and contradictory responsibilities. There must be a robust and focused response to the race to the bottom from a stand alone Department of Labour driven by a Minister for Labour Affairs and scrutinized by an Oireachtas Joint Committee on Labour Affairs.

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