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Election 2016 – What do the parties have to say about employment law rights?

Thursday, February 25, 2016

All of the major parties deal with employment law in one form or another when setting out their stalls for the election, as do the newcomers to the political stage.  Non-party movements (the Independent Alliance and People before Profit) also have quite a lot to say about employment rights.  So what’s on offer and what can realistically be achieved if one or – more likely – a combination of these parties get into power?

Unusual contract models

A near-universal theme in the manifestos is “Zero Hour Contracts” and practically every party wants to take action in relation to them.

Several of the election hopefuls  (Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and People before Profit in particular) are uncompromising when it comes to these types of contracts – they say they will ban them outright.  Other parties are more cautious and Fine Gael and Labour, for example, merely suggest that they will address the issue of these contracts if they return to power.

These contracts have been the subject of some controversy recently.  Where they’re used, an employee is on call to work, but the employer doesn’t have to actually provide work and, crucially, doesn’t have to pay them for being on call.  Labour’s Ged Nash commissioned a study into these contracts last year and the findings suggest that while they aren’t commonly used here, which may explain why Labour isn’t calling for an outright ban.

However, the 2015 study did suggest that so-called “If and When” contracts are in use in Ireland (basically the same type of contract although the employee isn’t contractually bound to make themselves available – they can say “no” when they’re called to work).  In addition, there is definitely a perception out there that less than legitimate contract arrangements are becoming more common in Ireland.  That is something that is definitely picked up in the election promises on offer and suggests that irrespective of what combination of parties makes it to the Dáil, some form of action will be taken.

The parties aren’t overly specific on the form that action will take but, among other things, it’s likely that action such as guaranteeing a certain fixed rate of pay irrespective of hours actually worked will be tabled at some stage in the lifetime of the next government.

Low pay

Unsurprisingly, the parties have a lot to say on the subject of low pay although there are different schools of thought on how this might be addressed.  Sinn Féin, for example, proposes an outright (albeit modest) immediate increase in the existing national minimum wage.  They also aspire to a “living wage”, albeit without fixing a value on this.

Fianna Fáil, on the other hand, refer specifically to a “living wage” of €11.50 per hour.  Interestingly, they suggest that a “living wage” at this level will become mandatory in government departments – with the intention this will serve as a role model for all employers.  Labour make a similar commitment.  Neither of these aspirations is costed in the manifestos.


Industrial relations

Parties leaning to the left of the spectrum have a lot to say about industrial relations, something that the mainstream parties don’t address in similar detail.  Some of the proposals are dramatic.

Both Sinn Féin and People before Profit, for example, favour the imposition of mandatory collective bargaining.  People before Profit’s proposal, in fact, is that once a union obtains 20% membership in a workplace, it will have the automatic right to collectively bargain.

This would definitely have an impact on the employment relationship if it ever becomes law and would at a stroke end an employer’s ability to ignore a union and refuse to negotiate with it.  That would be a significant development in Irish employment law.

Elsewhere, several of the manifestos contain proposals that are clearly influenced by the situation that prevailed last year when Clerys shut down.  People before Profit and the Social Democrats, in particular, suggest that they will amend the law to prevent this happening again.  How this would play out in practice is not entirely clear but the Social Democrats have a somewhat novel proposal that company directors will be barred from serving as directors for a period in the event that they are at the helm of a ship which refuses to pay statutory redundancy.  That could well be a sanction with some teeth if enacted.


Interns also get a mention in some of the manifestos.  Fianna Fáil’s contribution is possibly the most comprehensive – they intend to ban unpaid internships of more than four weeks and to implement legislation making it mandatory for employers to pay interns so long as they provide work of value to that employer.  Both of these would be pretty significant – the use of interns is very much a grey area at present and it’s not at all uncommon for interns to be unpaid even where they’re clearly doing work that benefits an employer.  Interns in this situation theoretically have a cause of action in employment law – but are probably unlikely to start off their careers by taking employers to the tribunals.  A statutory right to a certain level of pay would definitely make a difference.


It seems quite likely – if not inevitable – that we’ll see action taken on atypical contract models (including “Zero Hour Contracts”) in the next Dáil.  The form that action will take isn’t clear at this stage, but employers making extensive use of these contracts should be ready for change.

It’s also a reasonably safe bet to say that whatever party is in power will at a minimum carry out some form of action in relation to a “living wage” although the degree to which that happens probably depends upon whether the administration has a left-leaning slant or not.

There definitely appears to be a perception that exploitative practices exist in the workplace (certain of the parties, for example, also refer in quite strident terms to “bogus self-employment models”).  Watch this space.


Patrick Walshe