Are laws to protect employees killing jobs?
BELFAST BRIEFING:SHOULD THE North’s political leaders make it easier for businesses to lay off staff in Northern Ireland to help the local economy?
It might seem like a contradiction in terms, particularly given unemployment statistics which show there are now 62,900 people claiming benefits in the North.
But the question of how easy or not it may be for businesses to lay off staff is just one aspect of a long overdue debate that has finally got under way. Dr Stephen Farry, the Northern Ireland Minister for Employment and Learning, kicked it off a couple of months ago when he formally asked workers and employers for their opinions about laws governing the workplace.
The UK government’s department for business is carrying out an extensive review of all UK employment workplace laws. In order to cover the Executive’s collective backside when it comes to workplace legislation – the North is the only part of the UK where employment law is devolved – Farry got in on the act.
Despite its unforgivably dull title, his department’s Employment Law discussion paper has highlighted some crucial issues about the rules that currently apply to firms in the North – particularly when it comes to imposing redundancies.
Under current legislation, any business that intends to axe 20-99 staff has to begin consultation with employees at least 30 days before the redundancy notices take effect. If companies plan to make more than 100 people redundant, the consultation must begin at least 90 days before the notices take effect.
In the UK, there has been some discussion on whether this 90-day consultation period could be reduced to 60, 45 or 30 days. The UK government wants to find out what impact current rules have on business confidence and flexibility “to respond effectively and appropriately to market conditions”.
Overall, it claims, there is a need to “bring clarity to the existing arrangements”.
So where would that leave Northern Ireland and, more importantly its workforce, if new changes were brought in? Would Northern Ireland firms want to follow suit if Westminster was to make it easier for businesses to get rid of employees?
As Farry himself warns, Northern Ireland finds itself in “challenging times”.
“It is critical we work together to develop innovative regional solutions that stimulate business confidence whilst maintaining the rights of individual employees,” Farry says.
Redundancy may be one of the big issues raised in the new employment debate, but it is not the only one.