Proposals for major changes to Northern Ireland employment law flagged by Conor Murphy

Economy Minister launches consultation on range of issues, many of them measures introduced by the Irish government in recent years

The North's Economy Minister Conor Murphy. A wide-ranging consultation process on proposed changes to employment law in Northern Ireland has been launched. Photograph: David Young/PA Wire

A wide-ranging consultation process on proposed changes to employment law in Northern Ireland has been launched as Economy Minister Conor Murphy signalled his intention to adopt a range of measures introduced by the Irish government in recent years.

Speaking in the Assembly on Monday afternoon, Mr Murphy said his intention is to gauge the views of the business community, unions and the wider public on a long list of issues of potential changes, including a proposed ban on zero-hours contracts, improved rights to disconnect and request flexible working and improved parental leave.

He said the consultation would feed into “good jobs” legislation he hopes the Assembly will pass during the 2½ years remaining before the next scheduled elections.

Mr Murphy said there were “potential lessons to be learned from the South of Ireland,” on issues like zero-hours contracts, and many of the potential changes he touched on have been adopted to a greater or lesser extent by the Irish government, often on foot of EU directives.

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If all the proposed changes were adopted by the Assembly they would collectively represent a very significant departure from the existing framework of workplace legislation in the rest of the UK.

The British Labour Party has, however, committed to bringing in legislation to grant workers additional rights in the event it wins this week’s general election.

“This package of measures promotes good jobs through a comprehensive modernisation of employment law,” Mr Murphy told members of the Assembly. “The purpose of my good jobs agenda is to ensure that working people can provide their families with a decent and secure income and meet their family and caring responsibilities.

“Tackling zero-hours contracts, protection for agency workers, proper holiday pay, the right to disconnect, better trade union representation, more flexible work and better leave entitlements for carers and parents whose newborns are in neonatal care ... these changes and others included in the consultation document will benefit workers, businesses and society as a whole.

“In implementing these changes we need to be mindful that micro and small businesses, many of which operate on tight margins, make up the vast majority of our businesses. My department will, therefore, use the consultation period to assess the impact of changes on smaller businesses in order to ensure that they can continue to thrive as part of a good economy with good jobs.”

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions welcomed Mr Murphy’s announcement, saying “the employment Bill will be the most substantial act from the Northern Ireland Assembly for workers since devolution and the Belfast Agreement”.

It had, said Ictu deputy general secretary Gerry Murphy, the potential to “improve the daily working lives of thousands of people”.

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Work Correspondent at The Irish Times