Don't be misled - EU has led way for workers' rights


OPINION:Employment standards are protected, not diminished, by the Lisbon Treaty. The treaty has nothing at all to do with the minimum wage, no matter what Cóir or Joe Higgins say, writes MARY COUGHLAN

W HILE THERE are still three weeks to go in the referendum campaign it is already clear that the issue of workers’ rights and social protections is important.

Some of this is because of the wild inventions of Cóir about the minimum wage or Joe Higgins’s use of a false text – but it is an area which deserves attention. The most important reason for this is because it brings to the fore of the debate one of the most important aspects of why Ireland needs an effective European Union.

Put simply, the single most important ideal behind the European Union is that it is about helping all countries to achieve growth and social progress at the same time. The opening up of markets and the insistence on high levels of worker protection go hand in hand.

At a time when globalisation is increasing the challenges faced by countries, the EU is the only hope which individual states, especially smaller ones, can have of overcoming them.

The adoption of legislation setting minimum requirements has improved labour standards and strengthened workers’ rights. It is one of the EU’s main achievements in the field of social policy. I defy anyone to demonstrate that EU labour standards have not been a major driver of individual and collective workers’ rights in Ireland.

To suggest that the Lisbon Treaty will now somehow weaken those rights – when it contains the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the Social Clause and the Solemn Declaration on Workers’ Rights, is simply wrong and completely misleading.

Europe has shown its good faith both in its history and its response to the concerns raised by Irish voters last year. However, there is still a need to respond to misrepresentations when they arise.

Specifically, I want to deal with two related issues. I think they are crucially important to the debate: minimum wages and the effect of recent European Court of Justice (ECJ) rulings.

The Lisbon Treaty has nothing to do with the national minimum wage. The minimum wage in Ireland is set down in Irish law and can only be varied by the Irish Government, on foot of a recommendation made by employers and trade unions or following a recommendation of the Labour Court. The EU has no hand, act or part in setting the rate of the national minimum wage – in this or in any other country. The Lisbon Treaty will not change this position one iota.

This isn’t a matter for debate, it’s a simple uncontested fact. Yet there are thousands of posters on lamp-posts trying to make people think that Lisbon will cut the minimum wage. I would encourage people to look a little closer. There is actually a question mark at the end of the statement on the poster. When challenged about this, Cóir, which is based in Youth Defence’s offices, says: “We’re not saying it will reduce the minimum wage, we’re just asking the question.”

This sort of nonsense should have no place in a debate about such a serious referendum on the future of this country.

People should also be aware of other important safeguards which will make sure that key protections cannot be undermined by any European developments.

The Protection of Employees (Part Time Work) Act, 2001 provides that all workers who have a contract of employment in the State, including workers posted from abroad, are entitled to the same protection under employment rights generally as Irish workers. This includes the national minimum wage and extends to all other legally binding minimum wages such as Registered Employment Agreements and Employment Regulation Orders.

Registered Employment Agreements exist in areas such as construction and electrical contracting and other sectors. An Employment Agreement is made either between a trade union and an employer or employers’ organisation or at a meeting of a registered Joint Industrial Council.

Agreements are registered by the Labour Court. The effect of this is to make the provisions of the agreement legally enforceable in respect of every worker of the class, type or group to which it is expressed to apply and to his or her employer. It applies even if such worker or employer is not a party to the agreement. Employment Regulation Orders are used in areas such as hotels, catering and other services.

The bottom line? In these sectors, the wages and other conditions of a Polish, Portuguese, Irish or indeed Brazilian worker in Ireland – even if they are supplied through an agency – cannot be any less than the minimum set down in these agreements.

There’s a lot more technical detail that can be produced to show how the minimum wage and worker protections can’t be undermined by Europe and nothing will change because of Lisbon.

Equally, much cited Swedish and German cases from the European Court simply do not represent any threat to wages and conditions here.

If anyone wants that detail it’s available from a range of public sources.

However, let’s not lose sight of the core issues here. The fact remains that Europe has established its good faith towards combining support for job creation and support for workers’ rights.

Even if you were to accept the idea that the EU is now trying to undermine the interests of workers, an absurd idea in itself, there is not even the merest thing in the Lisbon Treaty which would promote this idea.

In fact, both the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the assurances given by all member states to the Irish people confirm that Europe remains fully committed to protecting the interests of workers.

The choice faced by us all on October 2nd is whether or not we believe in the European Union as central to our future.

The debate should not be distracted by false or cynical claims which distort the Lisbon Treaty and try to push us away from our traditional positive approach to the union.

For jobs, growth and worker protection Ireland needs a reformed and relevant European Union. That’s why we need the Lisbon Treaty.

Mary Coughlan is Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment