The Workplace Relations Act will come into effect on the 1st October 2015 and is one of the biggest changes in employment law in Ireland in almost 50 years. It is designed to make it less complicated for employees to bring claims and for employers to respond to them, to provide swifter access to justice and quicker resolution of disputes for everyone. The Act allows for a range of changes to the bodies and procedures which deal with the resolution, mediation and adjudication of industrial disputes and the resolution of complaints about breaches of employment legislation.
The objective of the Act is to reform Ireland’s workplace relations bodies, delivering a “world-class workplace relations service providing an integrated industrial relations, adjudication and enforcement service which is simple to use, independent, effective, impartial, cost-effective and provides for workable means of redress and enforcement, within a reasonable period”. (Minister of State for Businesses and Employment, Gerald Nash TD, 4 February 2015)
This Act forms part of the Government’s stated aim to make Ireland the best small country in the world in which to do business. The idea is to simplify and streamline workplace disputes procedures and bodies.
Currently, depending on the type of workplace dispute, an employee may have to take their case to one or more of the following bodies; Labour Relations Commission (LRC), the Equality Tribunal, the Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) or the National Employment Rights Authority (NERA). Each of those bodies currently has different procedures for appeals (i.e. you appeal a decision of the EAT to the Circuit Court and appeal a decision of the Equality Tribunal to the Labour Court) and have different limitation periods for taking cases (i.e. 6 months after the event).
In harmonising and de-cluttering the current system, the Act provides a single gateway for employment disputes in Ireland and replaces the current maze of tribunals and courts. From now on all employment disputes – everything from unfair dismissals and discrimination claims to working time issues, pay claims and any industrial relations issues – will be referred to the newly established Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) in the first instance. There is now one appeal body and that is the Labour Court.
Contrast this against the current system where the EAT sits in a panel of three with appeals going to the Circuit Court and the Equality Tribunal acts as a single decision maker with appeals going to the Labour Court. In short, it is a welcome streamlining of what was a complex and confusing process.
Workplace Relations Commission (WRC)
The WRC will have a board consisting of a chairperson and eight other members. Representatives of employers and employees will have two members each; one member will be from a body which seeks to promote equality in the workplace and three members will be people who have experience and expertise in relation to workplace relations, resolution of disputes in the workplace, employment law or equality law.
The main functions of the WRC are to:
- Promote the improvement of workplace relations, and maintenance of good workplace relations
- Promote and encourage compliance with the relevant laws
- Provide guidance in relation to compliance with codes of practice
- Conduct reviews of, and monitor developments as respects, workplace relations
- Conduct or commission relevant research and provide advice, information and the findings of research to Joint Labour Committees and Joint Industrial Councils
- Advise the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation in relation to the application of, and compliance with, relevant laws
- Provide information to the public in relation to employment laws other than the Employment Equality Act
The WRC may also provide advice on any matter relating to workplace relations to employers, their representative bodies and to employees, trade unions or other representative bodies of employees.
The WRC has specific functions in relation to the resolution of industrial disputes and the implementation of employment laws. It will be the body to which all industrial relations disputes and all disputes and complaints about employment laws will be presented. The WRC will employ mediation and adjudication officers to deal with industrial disputes and complaints about non-compliance with employment laws.
Changes with the implementation of the Act
The WRC will be the umbrella body for dealing with all claims lodged from 1st October 2015 onwards. Regardless of the nature of the claim, one single Adjudication Officer will hear the claim in private in the WRC. A reformed and expanded Labour Court will deal with all appeals from the WRC, with those appeals being heard afresh and in public. Labour Court decisions can be appealed to the High Court, but only on a point of law.
Time Limits to bring Claims
- Limitation periods for the referral of a dispute under any employment or equality legislation will be standardised to six months. This can be extended to twelve months where “reasonable cause” can be shown.
- The Act encourages mediation and the early resolution of disputes as close to the workplace as possible and without the need for parties to have to resort to formal adjudication where possible.
- An Early Resolution process is currently being trialed. When a complaint arrives at the WRC it may be referred to a mediation officer if it is deemed suitable for early resolution. If so, and if both parties agree to it, then a mediation conference (potentially held over the phone) will be convened. Any resolution arising from this will be binding on the parties and enforceable in the Courts.
- Should the early resolution and mediation process prove unsuccessful, both parties will be prohibited from using any information disclosed as part of the process in any subsequent proceedings, including in the adjudication or inspection processes.
Adjudication of Disputes
- If early resolution is not deemed appropriate, is refused by the parties, or if an attempted mediation is unsuccessful, a dispute will be referred to a single adjudicator at the WRC.
- This process is envisaged as being more inquisitorial than adversarial – the hearing will be held in private and evidence will not be on oath. Representation (legal or otherwise) will be allowed, but there are no references in the Act to the examination or cross-examination of witnesses.
- All decisions of adjudicators will be published on the internet on an anonymised basis.
Discovery / Witnesses
- An adjudication officer can require the attendance of a witness and/or the production of documents relevant to the proceedings. It is envisaged that this will be enforced more vigorously than in the EAT.
- Any appeal from a decision of an Adjudicator will simply go to the Labour Court in all instances. The Labour Court hearings will be public and decisions will be published in full, unless special circumstances arise.
- Decisions of the Labour Court can then be appealed to the High Court on a point of law only (rather than rehearing the entire case).
- The Act also allows for the determination of disputes (at adjudication and/or appeal stage) based on written submissions alone, rather than by way of a full oral hearing. However, either side can object to this.
- New procedures are to be implemented for the enforcement of awards of an Adjudication Officer or the Labour Court through the District Court.
The Act goes beyond simply reforming processes and procedures. In order to promote higher levels of compliance with employment and equality law, employers can now be penalised with ‘on the spot fines’ (with the possibility of imprisonment) for breaches of employment law:
- Compliance Notices
Where a WRC inspector is satisfied that an employer has contravened specified sections of employment legislation in the Unfair Dismissals Act; Payment of Wages Act; Maternity Protection Act; Terms of Employment (Information) Act; Organisation of Working Time Act; Carer’s Leave Act; or Protection of Employees (Temporary Agency Work) Act they may issue the employer with a Compliance Notice.
The Compliance Notice is essentially a direction from an inspector to an employer to do or refrain from doing certain things. If an employer believes they are compliant with the relevant legislation, they may appeal the Compliance Notice to the Labour Court. Failure to comply with a Compliance Notice will be an offence and on indictment may result in a fine of up to €50,000 or imprisonment for up to 3 years for the employer concerned.
- Fixed Payment Notice
Where a WRC inspector has reasonable grounds for believing that an employer has committed an offence under the Protection of Employment Act; Payment of Wages Act; or National Minimum Wage Act, they may issue the employer with a fine or “Fixed Payment Notice” which may not exceed €2,000.
This in some respects could be viewed as a plea-bargain; if the employer agrees to pay the Fixed Payment Notice within 42 days the WRC will not prosecute the relevant offence. There is no option to appeal a Fixed Payment Notice. If an employer disputes it, they would simply not pay it and defend the resulting prosecution.
For the first time, the Act gives the Minister for Jobs the power to charge fees to employees wishing to bring claims against their employer. While there are no plans to introduce blanket fees, it has been suggested in recent Dáil and Seanad debates that where a party fails to appear at an adjudicator hearing without good cause and wishes to appeal the decision to the Labour Court, that party will have to pay a fee of €300 when lodging its appeal. If the Labour Court determines that the party in question had good cause for failing to attend the first-instance hearing, the fee will be refunded. No decisions have yet been made, but a relatively broad power has been granted to the Minister.
Sharing Information on ‘Rogue’ Employers
The Act allows for increased sharing of information on employers who are in breach of employment law between various state agencies. This would allow the WRC to potentially share PPS numbers, ERN numbers and any other relevant information regarding non-compliant employers with the Revenue Commissioners, the Gardaí, the Director of Corporate Enforcement, the Health and Safety Authority, the Pensions Ombudsman and HIQA, among others.
A notable inclusion in the Act allows the WRC to contact any public contracting authority which awards public works contracts and inform that body of a breach by a contractor (or sub-contractor) of any relevant legislative provision. This may exclude certain employers from being considered for certain public tenders, or may result in payments under an existing contract with a public body being withheld pending compliance with the relevant law.
The Act will bring about much-needed reform to an out-dated system for resolving workplace disputes in Ireland. The idea behind the new structure is to make the system easier to understand and access. Virtually all employment laws are changed to some extent by this Act because the enforcement procedures are changed. However, on a practical level, employers do not need to be concerned about changing their day to day management of employees and running of their business as the law will stay the same. The Act aims to improve workplace relations and compliance levels in Ireland for the benefit of employers and employees alike.
If you would like further information on the Workplace Relations Act 2015, please contact Aspire HR on +353 (0) 86 8782557 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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