Earlier this month the Irish government published draft legislation that has the potential to protect vulnerable low hour workers against exploitation by their employers.
The legislation itself isn’t perfect, and needs amendments to make it fit for purpose, but it is a small step towards improving employment standards, particularly in sectors where employers don’t necessarily treat their workers with the respect and dignity they deserve – including retail, bars, restaurants, academia and health, among other industries.
For best part of a decade Dunnes Stores workers and other retail and bar workers have been banging on Mandate’s door explaining how their hours are being arbitrarily cut, leading to a massive loss in income.
Members would often tell us how their employer is using low hour contracts to ensure they were kept compliant.
“When I complained about a fire exit being blocked by stacked pallets,” explained one member, “my manager told me I was being cut from 40 hours per week to 10 hours for six months.”
He added, “That meant I was down three quarters of my wage, more than €300 per week.”
There is nothing illegal in this. The workers’ contract states 10 hours as a minimum, so the manager has full discretion to cut it to the minimum with no recourse for the member.
To make matters worse for low hour and low paid workers, this cut can mean losing their entitlement to Family Income Supplement (FIS) because you need to work a minimum of 19 hours per week for three months in order to be eligible. If the employer spreads the hours over a number of days, the worker can also lose access to part-time social welfare because this is done on a day-to-day basis.
They can effectively manage you out of your job by ensuring you cannot feed and clothe your family or put a roof over your head. This is the disproportionate power an employer can have over their workers.
For three years now Mandate Trade Union has been lobbying to change legislation in order to outlaw this behaviour.
In 2015, Dunnes Stores workers went on strike to highlight these types of contracts.
Almost all political parties in the state joined the workers on the picket lines and the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, expressed his support for the workers in the Dail when he said:
“I support the workers in their right to have clarity about their working lives. Therefore, the message to the employers is that this can be sorted out. These workers are loyal workers. They provide services every day of the week on a 24-hour basis. That should be recognised.”
Opposition leader Michael Martin (Fianna Fail) visited the St Stephens Green picket line and said:
“I endeavour to get the full Oireachtas behind the [Dunnes Stores] workers, in the name of common decency, and in the name of basic rights that these workers are entitled to.”
Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein Leader also expressed his party’s support:
“They [Dunnes Stores workers], and the 129,000 low-paid workers in this state, deserve certainty about their hours of work and income. They deserve secure jobs and they should get fair pay. And their right to trade union representation should be respected.”
Ruth Coppinger, from the Solidarity/PBP said:
“The Anti-Austerity Alliance and the Socialist Party fully support the strike action taken by Dunnes Stores workers across the country today. We are calling on people to support this important strike by not passing the pickets today and to stand in solidarity with the workers.”
Clare Daly, Independents4Change also put on the record her support:
“It is vital for all workers in Ireland that the Dunnes workers win this battle. Employers in this country need to be sent a clear message that we will not tolerate these unscrupulous work practices.”
So with all this political support, it’s hard to understand why two and a half years later, we still don’t have legislation protecting low hour workers from exploitation.
Sinn Fein’s David Cullinane tabled a piece of legislation in June 2016 which would have given the Dunnes workers and others the security of income and hours that they needed. This was delayed by Fianna Fail by 12 months, entered the Joint Oireachtas Committee for pre-legislative scrutiny, but has now been put into purgatory by the Ceann Coimhairle for political reasons.
The Labour Party tabled a Bill in the Seanad which was unanimously passed, but hasn’t progressed further.
But now the Government has published its own Bill, which is welcome, but it has a number of weaknesses.
The two key flaws are the lookback period of 18 months and the width of the bands of hours.
The University of Limerick report, which was commissioned by the government, is adamant that a six month look-back period should apply. The cross-party Joint Oireachtas Committee, as a compromise, stated that 12 months should apply. But now the government is saying that a worker cannot get security over their hours for at least 18 months. This is simply too long and will facilitate exploitation.
The Joint Oireachtas Committee also recommended that the gap between bands should be no greater than 5 hours. This would allow a level of flexibility for the employer, but crucially, some security of income for the employee. The Government’s Bill has much wider bands with one band being 11-24 hours. This means an employer could still effectively cut a workers’ income by 54 percent.
That’s why Mandate members are out in force lobbying their local TD’s. They are calling on all TD’s to support Mandate’s Secure Hours = Better Future Charter which has six key demands.
Dunnes Stores, Dealz, Supervalu and Tesco workers among others have been visiting their local TD’s and asking them to sign the Charter. They’ve been explaining how important this is for low hour contract workers.
Lorna Dempsey, Mandate member and low hour contracts worker in Dealz in Dundrum said:
“We’ve been visiting TD’s in our constituency and asking them to support low hour contract workers. We explained to Catherine Martin TD from the Green Party that there are 1,200 Mandate members in her constituency, and each of them has family and friends who feel strongly about this issue.”
Ms Dempsey continued, “To be fair, I don’t think Deputy Martin realised the extent of these contracts and how difficult it can be to live on one of them.”
“They affect your mental health. You don’t know from week-to-week what your income is going to be so you don’t know if you’ll be able to pay your bills or feed your children.”
Ms Dempsey also explained to Deputy Martin how tackling these contracts would be good for the state.
“There are rogue employers out there who are abusing the system. Local managers can pick their friends to receive more hours and cut the hours of people they don’t like. This forces a lot of workers onto social welfare to receive top-up payment benefits – despite the fact many employers are making millions in profits. Why should the government have to pay top-up benefits when the employer can easily afford to pay the workers a decent wage?”
She added, “If companies like Tesco, Penneys, Supervalu and Marks & Spencer can give their workers security of income through banded hour’s structures negotiated with their workers’ union, then all retail outlets can.”
Ms Dempsey concluded by saying her local group will be meeting with Minister Shane Ross early in the new year to continue their lobbying campaign and demand that all TD’s support the Secure Hours = Decent Future campaign.
Mandate has now called on all members to lobby their local TD’s to ensure they sign up to the demands of the Secure Hours = Better Future charter.
Together we can make sure all workers have security over their incomes.
If you would like to join one of the local lobbying teams as they visit TD’s across the country, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact your local Mandate official.