Regina Doherty: Only unscrupulous employers need fear Bill

Government is fine-tuning labour law to match realities of 21st-century workplace

Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill: from March 2019, this will improve the security and predictability of working hours for employees on insecure contracts and those working variable hours.

Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill: from March 2019, this will improve the security and predictability of working hours for employees on insecure contracts and those working variable hours.

 

We live in an age of disruption. Technology in particular has accelerated that pace of change in all aspects of life – whether it is work, rest or play. Indeed, with growing digitisation and automation, many of today’s jobs may not exist in the next 20 or 30 years. In fact, in the next decade or two, there will be new roles and jobs that we couldn’t even envisage today.

The challenge for governments and societies is to prepare and create the right training and educational environment so that our citizens have the right skills and talents to participate fully in the workplaces of the future.

However, the changing workplace also challenges us to deal with today as well as tomorrow. Sometimes we try to regulate modern 21st-century workplaces with late 20th-century laws and there is a particular need for governments to be more agile and keep pace with emerging work practices. In particular, we need to address the challenges thrown up by the increased casualisation of work and to strengthen the regulation of precarious employment.

In a dynamic and ever-changing global environment, the Irish economy continues to strengthen and grow. The number of people on the Live Register is the lowest since May 2008. The number of people in full-time employment accounts for 80 per cent of all employment. However, we must remember those people who, not by choice, are in less secure arrangements and may not know from week to week what hours they will be working. This makes it very difficult for people to plan their lives outside of work.

The Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill will come into force in the first week of March 2019 and will represent a significant once-in-a-generation reform of our labour market.

Security and predictability

This legislation will profoundly improve the security and predictability of working hours for employees on insecure contracts and those working variable hours. In a changing world, this reform ensures that the legal protections for all workers will match the conditions experienced by a modern workforce and make a real difference in the lives of thousands of workers.

The legislation is rooted in a process of extensive consultations, including a public consultation following a University of Limerick (UL) study on zero-hour contracts and low-hour contracts as well as detailed discussions with the employers’ group Ibec and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions over a number of months. As a result, this is a balanced and fair approach for both employees and employers and is well-placed to work in practice.

For workers in particular, it will strengthen their position.

For example, employers will now be required to give employees their basic terms of employment within five days of starting. The legislation also prohibits zero-hour contracts except in situations of genuine casual employment and where they are essential to allow employers to provide cover in emergency situations or to cover short-term absence.

One of the most common grievances in the past was where employees were called into work but sent home again without work or pay. Under these new reforms, anybody called in for work but not given any will be entitled to a new minimum payment – set at three times the hourly rate of the minimum wage.

Flexibility and loans

The legislation also contains “banded hours” provisions – creating a new right for employees whose contract of employment does not reflect the reality of the hours they habitually work. They will be entitled to be placed in a band of hours that better reflects the hours they have worked over a previous 12-month period. This recognises the fact that many workers who work flexible hours can have difficulties in applying for mortgages or other loans. This measure gives them a fair recognition of their true work commitment – vital for planning ahead.

This legislation will apply to all employers across all sectors of the economy. It is important that we strike a fair balance between the respective rights and obligations of employees and employers. The Government approach in this legislation has been to try to ensure that where we are introducing new rights for employees or strengthening existing provisions in the law, the measures are proportionate and counterbalanced by reasonable defences for employers. We also need to recognise the challenges faced by employers in running their business or providing their service. The vast majority of employers are good employers who treat their employees well and who meet their responsibilities under employment law. These employers should have nothing to fear in this Bill. On the contrary, the Bill is aimed at tackling exploitative employment arrangements – only the unscrupulous need fear these changes.

Regina Doherty is Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection

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