Averil Discusses ‘Critical Utilities (Security of Supply) Bill 2013′ in the Seanad

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I welcome the Minister to the House.

I echo many of the sentiments expressed by the previous speaker. There is much agreement across the House that the ESB strike, if it had gone ahead, would have been disproportionate. No doubt workers have a right to protect conditions of employment such as their wages and, as was at issue here, their pensions. The ESB showed bad faith in appearing to unilaterally change the status of the workers’ pension schemes and the workers were right to be outraged about that. They have an entitlement to resort to industrial action to protect their rights, as do any workers. At this, the coldest, darkest time of year, if the union had gone ahead with its threatened power cut this week, the consequences for the country would have been disastrous. As has rightly been pointed out, it would have ended up where householders, many of whom would be elderly, sick or have families with young children, would find themselves in a situation where they would have no light or heat in their homes, and where they cannot use their cookers and cannot provide food for their families, and in small businesses having to close their doors because they do not have the essential services to open at the one time of year in the few weeks leading up to Christmas where many of them bring in one third or more of their annual turnover. This is already one of the most difficult times for small businesses. They are struggling as it is. They do not need that extra burden. Restaurants, with perishable stock, would find themselves in a position where they would have to dump food. It would impact on large companies, such as the pharmaceutical industries to which Senator Barrett and others referred, that employ thousands of staff in this country. It would do considerable damage, not only to persons’ daily lives but also to Ireland’s international reputation as a place to do business at a time when, more than ever, we desperately need not only to protect existing jobs, but to attract other leading international companies to Ireland to do business.

I saw the coverage during the week. Members referred in the previous debate on the Finance (No. 2) Bill to Forbes declaring Ireland as one of the best places in the world to do business. I welcome that we are starting to get positive coverage internationally and commentators are noting that the economy is turning around. I would have some concerns about some of the criteria on which they based that analysis, for instance, in seeing a high unemployment rate as a positive development for employers, but it is essential that we on all sides of the House would support any measure that would help to get the country back on track and turn the economy around. A power strike would have been disastrous.

Within my party’s Seanad group, there are different views. We debated the Bill on a couple of occasions over the past week and members had different views on it. Some of my party’s Senators believe in the absolute right to strike, particularly when essential terms and conditions or wages are at risk. Others strongly support the principle in Senator Quinn’s Bill that the right to which I refer, which is protected by the Constitution and by the European Convention on Human Rights, should also be balanced against the right to essential services for the population and the public order and common good interest which are equally protected by the Constitution and by the European convention, and that there should at least be provided the minimum level of service to which Senator Quinn referred.

Senator Quinn was quite correct to point out that his Bill does not propose that all industrial action would be ruled out in utility companies and rather it would insist that there would be a minimum level of service or, as he stated, a skeleton staff would be in place. Speaking on behalf of the group, I reflect that diversity and state that we had different views. I appreciate that Senator Quinn pointed out that his Bill was in the works before the current industrial action was threatened but, of course, it falls to be considered in that context because that is the big issue at present. While we as a group respect the rights of the ESB staff to protect their terms and conditions, equally, we were alarmed and shared the concern that most Irish people would have that it would get to a point where one would end up two weeks before Christmas with no power in the country.

Personally, I would be concerned, if we are returning to a strike culture and a period of industrial unrest, to see both the threatened ESB strike and the threatened strike by the ASTI because that kind of culture will work well for certain types of employees. If one is in a job where one holds a bargaining chip, such as that one can threaten to turn off the power or close the schools, then one is in a fairly strong position, but the vast majority of workers in this country are not in such a position. It would not be right to resort to a situation where some workers are more protected than others only because they happen to work in environments where they can make such threats. Every worker, regardless of whether he or she is packing bags in a supermarket on minimum wage or is a highly paid professional, should enjoy the same protections under the law, should be able to avail of the same mediation processes, including independent mediation when something goes wrong, and should have the same chance as others of success in a dispute. It should not depend on where one works or how strong a bargaining chip one holds.

Both this threatened strike and the ASTI one, raise issues with the industrial relations machinery, as did CIE strike which, thankfully, also was resolved last year.

Again, it looked like we might end up in a situation where other workers in Dublin would not be able to get to work. It is timely that we review our industrial relations machinery to ensure it is fit for purpose and that all workers are protected equally.

I commend Senator Quinn for tabling this Bill. He is known to all of us as a compassionate and responsible employer. When I was still in school, one of my part-time jobs was packing bags in Superquinn. The shop in which I worked closed at 6 p.m. and the Senator wanted it to stay open until 7 p.m. He came into the shop and sat down with all the staff personally to negotiate with us as head of the company and listen to our concerns. He is someone who cares about workers’ rights and has a good track record on this issue. I respect his bona fides in this debate and I ask the Minister to reflect on the issue in the cold light of day now that the immediate threat of strike has diminished so that processes are put in place to ensure we do not end up in a similar situation in future.

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