Amid much noise from the government benches I attempted to find out when the Government will legislate for changes to the Joint Labour Committees (JLC) system in the Dail last Wednesday, a system set up by Sean Lemass after World War Two to ensure decent pay and working conditions for employees in a range of such industries as hotels, catering and retail.
After some prompting from Pat Rabbitte, the Taoiseach eventually managed to tell me that Richard Bruton would bring his proposals to Cabinet at the end of June.
That did not answer the question I asked and the exchanges and banter did hint that the Government was even more in the dark now than it originally seemed.
Mr Rabbitte suggested I write about it — so, for his benefit and information, I am penning this piece. While I can’t ensure he will be any the wiser after reading this, I can, like FE Smith, ensure he is better informed.
His colleague, Jobs Minister Richard Bruton, tells us at every occasion that his JLC proposals are designed to remove impediments to job creation.
I thought that was what the Government’s Jobs Budget/Initiative was about, but I won’t dwell on that here. If I thought his proposals were designed to achieve that without penalising the lowest-paid workers, I might be able to support him.
I understand the pressures on employers, particularly those in the hospitality and service sectors, but the plain and simple truth is that Mr Bruton’s own proposals are so ill-considered and poorly drafted that they are likely to have precisely the opposite impact to those planned.
This is not just an opposition spokesman having a pop at a new Government, this is the emerging view of a number of experts in the field.
One of those is Tom Hayes, the managing partner of BEERG, a Brussels-based, European employee relations information-sharing and networking service.
In a recent analysis of the emerging controversy, he said: “In rushing to push through reforms that concern around 15 per cent of the Irish workforce, (Mr Bruton) may find himself with a much more difficult political issue on his hands than he had bargained for. Call it the law of unintended consequences.”
This “more difficult political issue”, he says, arises from one of Mr Bruton’s own proposals — a proposal that goes far beyond the Duffy/Walsh Report.
What Mr Bruton suggests is that workplaces may be “excluded from coverage by a JLC through a collective agreement at local level, even if the terms and conditions are less than would apply under an order made by the JLC”.
Many Fine Gael backbenchers have cheered this proposal, seeing it as heralding a cut in overtime and Sunday pay rates, but it is clear that they, like their hero, have not thought through the consequences of these actions.
What does a “collective agreement at local level” mean? Mr Bruton has offered no definition yet, but there are two hints.
The first lies in the Duffy/Walsh Report itself, which says it should be understood as meaning agreements between independent workers’ organisations and employers — ie, trade union recognition.
The other lies on page 54 of the Programme for Government, which commits them to bring Irish law on union recognition into line with the case law of the European Court of Human Rights.
So, Mr Bruton is prepared to re-open the hornets’ nest of trade union recognition and potentially scare off American multinational investment just so he can look tough to his party’s right wing by taking a few euros from the pay packets of the lower paid?
Yes, the JLC system does need reform. Yes, it does need to be more open, fair and responsive to the real-world pressures on staff and management alike.
But what we need are policies — from whatever source — to make it easier for employers to create new jobs, not to reduce the pay of those just barely clinging on to their existing jobs.