Private dispute system better for workers, says WRC head

Oonagh Buckley defends Workplace Relations Commission against criticism

Oonagh Buckley, director general of the Workplace Relations Commission. Photograph: Colm Mahady/Fennell Photography

Oonagh Buckley, director general of the Workplace Relations Commission. Photograph: Colm Mahady/Fennell Photography

 

Workers are better off now that cases against employers over issues such as unfair dismissals and unpaid wages are being dealt with through a new private system, the head of the Workplace Relations Commission has said.

Responding to criticism that ending public hearings and issuing anonymised decisions serves to protect unscrupulous employers, Oonagh Buckley, the commission’s director general, said the changes were beneficial to workers.

“They are able to deal with their business in a way that means their personal details and the details of their working lives aren’t going to be published,” she said. “To me it would be a barrier to entry, if you felt your name was going to be there forever.”

The commission, established in October 2015, amalgamated five organisations dealing with workers’ rights, including the Employment Appeals Tribunal, the Labour Relations Commission and the Equality Tribunal.

While many of the bodies held cases in private, many core employment hearings were carried out by the Employment Appeals Tribunal in public.

When legislation for the new commission was introduced, it stipulated all hearings should be heard in private and decisions published on the commission’s website should be anonymised, although equality case decisions may be published with names. Labour Court hearings, which deal with appeals from the commission, are also held in public.

Both employers and unions supported commission cases being heard in private when the legislation was being introduced. However, solicitors working in the area of employment law have since raised concerns about the operation of the commission and in particular anonymity.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission said it was concerned that equality cases were being published without names even though the law did not require it. It said employers who discriminated against their employees should be identified.

Cherry-picking

Ms Buckley, who took up her role with the WRC last year, suggested people who criticise private hearings are “cherry-picking predecessor organisations”. She said the publication of employers’ names in the past “ didn’t change a lot of employers’ behaviours”.

Addressing the concerns of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, Ms Buckley said a note would be going out to all adjudication officers setting out the parameters under which they might want to consider publication of the names in equality cases.

She also said “culture shifts” were difficult for both adjudication officers and those who bring cases to the commission. She acknowledged they got “a lot of complaints about the system”.

“People who were used to the old system think the new system should be the same, but it is not,” she said.

In the Employment Appeals Tribunal, for example, three people heard the cases, whereas adjudicators now work alone.

Some adjudication officers who worked in previous bodies sought to run a hearing “as if it was a mini-courtroom” and some parties wanted to do the same, cross-examining with “ ‘I put it to you . . .’ stuff”, Ms Buckley said. But the system has been designed to be more inquisitorial than adversarial.

Waiting times for hearings have been reduced from an average of two years under the old regimes to five months for the majority of cases. But an unexpected consequence of the speed has been a reduction in the incentive for parties to engage in mediation, Ms Buckley said.