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Employment rights reformed

Employment Minister Richard Bruton has outlined his plan to streamline the employment rights and industrial relations structure. Stephen Dineen examines the proposed new system. Five employment rights agencies could be ‘streamlined’ into one entity to ensure employment law claims are simpler to make.

At present there are five bodies that employees can approach for making claims of breach in employment rights or entitlement: the Labour Relations Commission, Rights Commissioners, the National Employment Rights Authority, the Equality Tribunal and the Employment Appeal Tribunal. Governed by over 30 statutes and regulations, claims can be made to Rights Commissioners, the Equality Tribunal or the Employment Appeals Tribunal in the first instance, with the option of appeal, in certain cases, to the Employment Appeals Tribunal or the Labour Court (which also takes cases in the first instance under certain legislation).

After Bruton outlined his intentions in a speech in July, his department published a discussion paper on 11 August and received public submissions until

16 September. The document contained a proposal to streamline the work of the various employment agencies and create a two-tier entity of first instance and appeal for all employment rights claims and industrial relations disputes.

At the heart of the proposed plan is a “single authoritative source of information” on employment rights, and a “single entry point for claims.” The proposed body of first instance will investigate all employment disputes of interest, disputes of rights or equality issues. Claims would be made on a single application form, with standardised processes such as case numbering and tracking.

The first instance body would be an amalgamation of the Labour Court and the Employment Appeals Tribunal, with the Equality Tribunal and its functions being integrated into the new system.

The establishment of an upper tier appellate body, as outlined, would involve the integration of some of the Employment Appeals Tribunal’s functions into the Labour Court, as well as those bodies’ appellate functions. It would also serve as an entity for final appeal against recommendations from the lower tier functions of the Rights Commission Service, the Employment Appeals Tribunal and the Equality Tribunal. The document suggests employment rights appeals could be dealt with by a separate division of the appellate court.

The discussion paper stated that “a system that was intended to be informal, accessible and speedy has become extremely complex and protracted.” In his introduction, Bruton described the status quo as a “confusing array of industrial relations and employments rights bodies.”

Criticism of current structures has continued despite improvements to the effectiveness and efficiency of the system e.g. the establishment of the National Employment Rights Authority (NERA), an increased emphasis on resolution in the workplace and information exchange between regulatory bodies.

A 2004 report by a review group on the functions of the agencies said there was inconsistency between them, excessive delays and deficient case management.

The consequences included: claims often being referred to the wrong forum or under the wrong statute, ‘forum shopping’, and irrational and inequitable variations in compensation for workers.

The workload of the Equality Tribunal, for example, suggests that excessive delays exist in getting cases heard. It received 906 referrals in 2009, with 840 outcomes. On 1 January 2011 it had a backlog of 1,745 cases. A departmental briefing note for the new Government said that people have to wait approximately three years for their employment cases to be heard.

The consultation document also sought the public’s views on:

• organisational distance between the roles of inspectorate, conciliation, investigative procedures and formal adjudication;

• issues of representation (consistent arrangements for different cases and who should be allowed to refer a complaint); and

• finding a consistent method for enforcing awards from employment rights bodies.

Benefits

Several benefits will arise from reform, according to the department. Shared services will give greater value for money. All related cases would be taken at the same hearing and employment law claims will be simple to understand. It says there would be consistency, and recourse to appeal for everyone.

The prospect of reform is strengthened by the initial reaction of the unions and employer bodies. SIPTU’s services division organiser John King said that many of the ideas put forward to rationalise structures “are worthy objectives in themselves,” and that reform is undoubtedly necessary. He added, however, that “it is hard to see how such a major overhaul of the existing structures can be achieved without also addressing the question of collective bargaining.” He said the Programme for Government commitment to legislate for collective bargaining must be honoured, thereby giving employees the right to pay and working conditions negotiated on their behalf by employee representatives and management.

IBEC welcomed the Minister’s document, with head of employment law Rhona Murphy saying a more efficient and user-friendly system is an essential part of reform. “The plan set out by the Minister is welcome,” she added, “but will require careful design in its detail.”

In parallel with this consultation Minister Bruton has initiated a single online form for claims to the Employment Appeal Tribunal (replacing five which had been in use) and a shared services drive between the employment rights bodies and the Courts Service. Bruton hopes to implement some interim and administrative changes before the end of the year, with legislative changes following thereafter.

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