Wednesday, May 5, 2010

éirígí demand jail for employers who breach employment laws

The National Employment Rights Authority (NERA) was established by the Fianna Fáil led administration in 2007 under the Social Partnership Agreement “Towards 2016”. An office of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, NERA's mission statement claims that it “aims to secure compliance with employment rights legislation and to foster a culture of compliance in Ireland”.

It provides employees and employers information about their rights, entitlements and responsibilities and provides for the inspection of workplaces and the bringing of criminal and civil cases against employers in breach of employment legislation

Figures from their annual report from 2009 (click here to read it)showed a massive increase in the numbers of employees seeking their assistance in obtaining their legal entitlements from their employers. According to the report, they received 150,000 calls for assistance in 2009, an increase of over 40,000 on 2008. As a result of NERA's investigations, 6000 employees secured just under €2.5 million in unpaid wages from their employers.

The reality is that current legislation and its enforcement is nowhere near adequate. While employers can be and have been forced to pay back money owed to employees, the absence of fines in most instances, the miniscule fines where fines are imposed and the absence of prison sentences for offenders, means there is no effective deterrent for employers who refuse to honour their legal obligations in terms of their workers pay and conditions.

According to NERA's 2009 report, despite the high levels of workers who were denied their entitlements, just 108 cases were brought to the District court against employers, resulting in just 27 convictions. Those convictions seen the employers in question receiving fines of between €300 and €3000. NERA also brought civil court proceedings in 51 cases which resulted in 45 employers being forced to pay back money owed to employees.

In not one instance, despite blatantly and deliberately breaking the law, has an employer received a prison term or received a fine fit for the crimes they committed. In the vast majority of cases, employers who were caught breaking the law merely paid their employees what they rightfully should have paid them all along. No punishment was imposed.

Under the current system, no effective deterrent exists. In fact, the system actually encourages employers to under-pay their employees, as in the vast majority of cases, if the employer is ever caught, their only 'punishment' will be to pay the money they should have originally paid in the first place.

Responding to the content of the report, éirígí Sligeach activist Gerry Casey has demanded the jailing of employers who exploit their workers and breach employment laws. He claimed that many employers are using the recession as an excuse to drive down their workers' wages and conditions of employment and that employees need to join a trade union now more than ever to protect themselves against exploitative bosses.

He said: "The current recession is being used by employers throughout the country to drive down their employees wages and the conditions under which they are employed. It is in the interests of all workers to ensure that such unacceptable moves by employers are resisted vigorously. If they are allowed succeed in their efforts they will turn back the tide of all workers rights and entitlements, the hard earned rights and conditions that workers have achieved for themselves, imperfect as they are, over the past century.”

"In one retail outlet in Sligo town, employees were forced by the owners to sign a waiver giving up their right to public holiday entitlements. Many of them signed these waivers under threat of their hours being cut or even dismissal. They were warned not to tell anyone about the waivers and were not allowed to keep a copy or bring one off the premises. Others were forced to work long extra hours with out extra pay, pushing their hours of employment well above the legal limit that employees are allowed to or can be forced to work.”

There are many other instances locally also of employers paying less than the minimum wage as they are obliged to by legislation. One of the main breaches we encountered has been employers paying the training or inexperienced worker rate in order not to pay the minimum wage, even though the employers' had no formal training schemes in place as required by law. This was also highlighted as the main area of non-compliance in relation to the area of minimum wage legislation by the NERA report for 2009.”

We also discovered many who are paying less than the minimum rates of pay as they are obliged to by the Joint Labour Committee's (JLC's). In virtually all the cases that éirígí Sligeach were made aware of, the employers blamed the recession and said if their employees did not accept the low wages, that they would have their hours cut or even be sacked. The other common thread between all the various cases was that all the businesses involved were non-unionised.”

“While in most instances the employees, as a result of the threats and fearful of being sacked, had to go along with their employers' actions, in some instances, where individual workers stood up to this bullying, the employers' were forced to back down. The actions of these employers are illegal. Employers such as this who blatantly break employment laws and attempt to intimidate and bully their employees in this manner should be jailed."

"Such instances only serves to underline the necessity for workers across the entire economy to organise themselves in Trade Unions. Workers, unorganised and on their own, are easy prey for greedy employers out to maximise their profit regardless of the legality of their actions or the effect their actions will have on their workers. The cases we have discovered reinforce that point.”

He concluded: “Organised and united in a Union makes it harder for employees to be singled out or bullied and makes it easier for them to fight back against employers engaged in this sort unacceptable behaviour.”

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