Tectonic plates in the world of work may be about to shift significantly

Varadkar’s proposed review of collective bargaining seen by unions as hopeful sign

The proposals being brought by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar to the Cabinet come in the wake of a series of announcements in recent weeks which would be considered worker-friendly. Photograph: Julien Behal

The proposals being brought by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar to the Cabinet come in the wake of a series of announcements in recent weeks which would be considered worker-friendly. Photograph: Julien Behal

 

Just as the world of work is changing, the tectonic plates may also be about to shift on how industrial relations is practised in Ireland.

The Cabinet will on Tuesday consider proposals from the Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar, to establish a high-level review of collective bargaining and the industrial relations landscape.

Traditionally, Ireland has followed what is known as a voluntarist system of industrial relations. Workers had a constitutional right to join a trade union. However, employers equally had a right not to recognise or engage with trade unions.

The proposed new review group would look at the issue of trade union recognition and its implications for collective bargaining, as well as considering any legal or constitutional issues.

Government sources maintain that the new review will examine the landscape, but there is no commitment in advance to any particular outcome.

However, within the union movement there is a view that to get the Government into a space where it is committed, establishing a group to look at potential reforms in this area represents a step forward.

Arguments

Unions have been campaigning for collective bargaining rights for years, but there seemed little appetite for change on the part of successive governments.

The key arguments made in the world of industrial relations over many years on the difficulty of introducing reforms in relation to trade union recognition and collective bargaining centred on the likely opposition of some high-profile employers in Ireland and the potential impact on foreign direct investment.

However, the new Government initiative comes against a backdrop of a number of different developments domestically, at EU level and internationally.

Unions believe that there has been a shift internationally away from the concept of “shareholder value” at all costs towards “stakeholder” value, including workers.

Danny McCoy, the chief executive of the employers’ group Ibec, told an employment law conference earlier this month that in the US the Biden administration had very firmly swung the pendulum towards collective bargaining, minimum wages and a right to union recognition.

At European level last October, the European Commission presented proposals for a new directive on adequate minimum wages across the bloc. Ireland has reservations about this move and favours a more flexible approach. However, it remains to be seen what will ultimately emerge.

There are also two Supreme Court rulings due which could have implications for industrial relations.

The court will give judgment shortly in an appeal, viewed by employment lawyers as highly significant, concerning the constitutionality of procedures for the resolution of workplace disputes.

The core issue is whether the process operated by the Workplace Relations Commission under the Workplace Relations Act 2015, including having adjudication officers determine complaints, involves the “administration of justice” reserved under the Constitution to judges.

Pay and conditions

The Supreme Court is also, separately, to rule in an appeal against a High Court decision last year that found as unconstitutional legislation which allows for the setting of legally enforceable pay and conditions for thousands of workers in various employment sectors.

The proposals being brought by Mr Varadkar to the Cabinet come in the wake of a series of announcements in recent weeks which would be considered worker-friendly.

He has said he is committed to introducing a statutory sick pay scheme for employees and employers as quickly as possible, and that workers should have the right to seek to work from home and should have a right to disconnect from their jobs when the workday is over.

Mr Varadkar has also said the pandemic had led to a re-definition of what constitutes a frontline or essential worker. He said where previously people thought about doctors or nurses, “now we also think of the retail worker, transport worker, cleaner and food service staff”.

“One of the legacies of the pandemic must be better terms and conditions for them including the move to a living wage and access to an occupational pension,” he said earlier this month.

In recent weeks he also met with Deliveroo riders who he described as “essential workers” and called for them to be “treated better”.