SIPTU has launched a campaign against Government plans to introduce exemptions from minimum pay requirements for employers whose workers earn among the lowest wages in the economy.
By as early as July, the Government intends to amend the Industrial Relations Bill 2009 to allow employers in areas such as construction, catering, contract cleaning and retail to plead inability to pay the minimum wage rates set by Employment Regulation Orders (EROs) and Registered Employment Agreements (REAs) for each industry.
Wage rates and conditions of more than 500,000 workers in the economy are set by the EROs and REAs. The legally binding minimums are set by agreed committees of employers and employees in each industry.
In recent weeks, the Government has indicated that in order to support employers who are struggling to keep their businesses afloat, there should be an temporary opt-out clause made available providing the employer can prove that their operation is in dire straits.
It has proposed a “mechanism” by which the Labour Court would examine the books of the employer, would hear testimony from the staff representatives and decide whether the temporary exemption is warranted.
However, the trade union movement claims not only that such a system would be unworkable, but also that it would give companies that are already failing to comply with rates carte blanche to continue underpaying their staff.
SIPTU divisional organiser Patricia King said the Government and a number of employers were taking the opportunity afforded by the recession to try to reduce the pay of the most vulnerable workers in the economy, “the lowest paid working in very labour intensive industries”.
She said her union intended to bring workers to meetings with both the relevant ministers and to the leaders of employers’ groups like ISME and the Small Firms Association to put a human face to the consequences of the policies they were pursuing.
Ms King also highlighted the unworkable nature of the proposals.
“The Labour Court has no resource whatsoever for dealing with or having the financial situation of any company appraised,” she said. “Therefore, what is being asked of the court is something they can’t do. They do not have the resource or any provision in the bill to give them the resource to do it.”
Her colleague Michael Halpenny, head of the union’s legal rights unit, claimed that those employers and their representatives most vehemently pursuing the campaign for the exemptions were the same people who during the boom were calling for no increase in the minimum wage which had not increased since 2007.
“The exemption if granted will effectively mean the exempted employer paying less than the rate will be the person who will be the most attractive for the contract itself,” he said. “Those employers who wish to be compliant and pay their employees in a fair and reasonable fashion will be the people put at a disadvantage.”
The campaign by SIPTU will, for the moment, revolve around information sharing and advocacy. However, it has not ruled out the possibility of strike action in the affected industries.
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