Good morning. You are very welcome to this year’s Ibec Employment Law Conference. There are many challenges ahead as we deal with the existing and the proposed demands made on Irish business. I look forward to welcoming Minister Bruton later this morning, and getting an insight into the work carried out by him and his Department, and we look forward to continuing to face those challenges through working with the Minister and his Department.
We have a very interesting day planned for you today. We are excited and privileged to have the Data Protection Commissioner, Mr Billy Hawkes, with us today and I would like to extend a warm welcome to the Commissioner.
We in Ibec, are fortunate to liaise with the Commissioner and his office at various times, and we are appreciative, not only for the Commissioner’s attendance today, but also for the ease of understanding and accessibility the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner provides to Ibec and its members.
As we all know, employment law is a particularly dynamic area of law. Since the employment law conference of last year, there have been many developments and proposals. I wish to highlight three main areas of work on the employment law agenda that are currently being shaped into legislation, namely; the critical and complex area of collective bargaining, the somewhat controversial protected disclosure (whistle-blowing) legislation and the on-going reform of the employment rights bodies.
Ibec welcomes the announcement by Government earlier this week that it will not change Ireland’s voluntarist industrial relations model by introducing mandatory collective bargaining.
Ireland’s voluntarist approach is fundamental to our ability to attract foreign investment and to create and sustain employment. Any move to undermine this approach would have cost jobs. Government has listened to the concerns of business and made the right decision.
Ibec has consistently warned that any move to introduce mandatory collective bargaining rights would cost jobs and significantly reduce Ireland's attractiveness as an investment location. The law already provides a robust set of rights and protection to employees, but importantly allows for flexibility at a company level in how employee relations are managed and disputes resolved.
Work is underway on shaping legislation that will address certain issues which have arisen, under the Industrial Relations Acts but that will maintain our voluntarist system. Focus will be on issues such as the definition of collective bargaining and the policies and principles for the Labour Court to follow when assessing workers’ terms and conditions, including the sustainability of the employer’s business in the long-term.
Protected Disclosures Bill 2013
The second area I wish to touch on is the Protected Disclosures Bill i.e. the proposed whistle-blowing legislation which is currently making its way through the Dail having already passed through the Seanad. It is due to be enacted before the summer break. Ibec has been closely monitoring developments on the Bill and has made a number of submissions to reflect employers’ concerns.
Ibec strongly supports the objective of securing appropriate levels of protection for those who disclose illegal activities or other wrongdoing where those disclosures are made in good faith and in the public interest. However, we are concerned that the Bill allows an individual to raise an issue which could be considered a protected disclosure, in order to create a form of protection from management or change in the workplace. Issues raised which are designed to inhibit the management of employees in the ordinary course should be expressly distinguished from cases of actual penalisation for having made a protected disclosure.
Ibec is also particularly concerned about the disproportionate and unjustifiable penalties provided for in the Bill. It is proposed that compensation of up to 5 years’ salary may be awarded. This is a 250% increase in the standard employment law maximum of two years’ salary. For any employer, but particularly for the majority of Irish employers who are small/medium enterprises, such awards are particularly worrying.
Such high awards, in addition to the proposal for a statutory avenue of injunctive relief to the Circuit Court, will compound the difficulties faced by employers in managing employees and claims. This has the potential to turn legislation that should be about transparency and accountability into a question of how much a well crafted claim could yield.
Fostering an environment in which individuals feel free to make disclosures in the public interest requires a more targeted approach than threats of extreme penalties against employers. It requires a change in culture and in education of those occupying positions of responsibility. While we accept that regulation of employment has a place in fostering such an environment, any legislative approach must remain reasonable and proportionate.
Reform of the employment rights bodies
Our third priority area is the reform of the employment rights bodies. We understand the publication of the Workplace Relations Commission Bill is imminent. The Bill will transform the way employment law claims are processed and adjudicated upon. We have long been of the view that the aim of our employment rights framework should be to resolve matters as close to enterprise level as possible, without recourse to costly and potentially divisive adjudication hearings unless absolutely necessary.
In this regard, we hope that the Bill will further support the early resolution service and strengthen the workings of this service to ensure access to voluntary, confidential meditation. It is in everyone’s interest to have a simplified structure with streamlined procedures for the resolution of workplace grievances. Ibec has made detailed submissions on the reform agenda and we remain committed to ensuring that employers’ interests help shape the legislation.
There are many legal and practical concerns with the proposals which we have highlighted to the Minister. In particular, we are concerned with the proposal to remove the avenue of appeal to the Circuit Court in unfair dismissal cases.
A mechanism which provides no appeal to the Circuit Court, and permits only an appeal from the Labour Court to the High Court on a point of law, is really no appeal at all, given the restricted legal basis for such an appeal and the potential costs associated with a High Court appeal.
Ibec will continue to call for the introduction of a modest fee for the processing of claims. This would bring employment law claims in line with claims in other forums like the small claims and civil courts. This would reduce the likelihood of unnecessary, ancillary and perhaps frivolous or vexatious claims from being added to the complaint form which now covers all pieces of legislation on the one form.
Resources should be focused on the actual complaint in question and a modest fee would assist in reducing the risk of multiple claims and focusing the mind on the relevant claim in a significant legal process.
I would like to finish by thanking you, our members, for your attendance today and for your on-going engagement and support. I hope you enjoy your day and gain as much as possible from our guest speaker Commissioner Hawkes and from our resident experts who will take you through your issues from contracts to claims.
Ibec’s 2014 Employment Law Conference “Back to Basics” was sponsored by Oracle and supported by Brightwater Recruitment Specialists.
Monday, 19 May 2014