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New employment rights & firefighters on the picket line

On 1 January 2023, the minimum wage increased by 80 cent. More benefits for workers were to come in the months that followed including breastfeeding breaks and domestic violence leave but the right to request remote work was not finalised, as expected, in 2023.

There were landmark employment law rulings that could have big impacts for retirement policies and gig economy workers.

Industrial unrest saw retained firefighters take to the picket lines but a major strike by workers in the community and voluntary sector was called off at the last minute

New employment rights

The year began with a boost for low-paid workers with the minimum wage increasing from 1 January to €11.30 per hour, a rise of 80 cent.

From 1 January 2024 it will increase again, rising to €12.70.

This followed a recommendation of a 12% increase from the Low Pay Commission.

In its submission to the Commission, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) had called for a €2 increase in 2024. ICTU also called for the ending of sub-minimum pay rates for young workers, describing them as outdated and grossly unfair.

This was rejected by the Irish Small and Medium Enterprise Association (ISME) who said it was “nonsensical” to suggest that sub-minimum rates of pay are discriminatory.

From July 2023, workers became entitled to extended breastfeeding breaks and new unpaid leave rights as part of the Work-Life Balance Act.

Under the legislation, the entitlement to breastfeeding breaks was extended from six months up to two years.

Parents and carers also became entitled to a new right to unpaid leave for medical purposes.

From November 2023, employers were required to offer paid leave to workers who are subjected to domestic violence.

Also contained within the Work-Life Balance Act is the right to request remote or flexible working.

It had been hoped that element of the legislation would have come into force in 2023 but it was not to be.

The provisions will not commence until the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) has finalised a code of practice which will set out practical guidance for employers and employees when it comes to requesting remote or flexible work.

The code of practice is expected to be completed by the end of January 2024.

Delays in fully adopting the EU Work-Life Balance Directive led to the threat of a fine from the European Commission.

Remote workers were also disappointed that the right to request flexible arrangements did not come into force with research showing that remote and hybrid options remain extremely popular among employees.

The fourth annual National Remote Working Survey was released in November and showed that 44% of workers would change job, even if it means taking a pay cut, if their remote working preferences were not facilitated.

The researcher from the University of Galway and the Western Development Commission also showed that 55% of respondents indicated that they would change job if their remote/hybrid working preferences are not facilitated even if it means less promotion opportunities.

Industrial unrest

In June 2023, retained firefighters began strike action in a dispute over pay and conditions.

They took to the picket lines outside fire stations across the country and engaged in a series of rolling work stoppages as part of a campaign of industrial action.

The firefighters, who are paid an annual retainer for being on-call, said there was a recruitment and retention crisis in the service due to low pay and difficult working conditions.

The action was suspended after 10 weeks when agreement was reached at the Workplace Relations Commission.

Among the proposals were increased guaranteed minimum earnings and a reduction in the required time for members of the part-time service to be available.

Another group that highlighted recruitment and retention problems in their industry were health and social care workers in the community and voluntary sector.

More than 5,000 employees across 17 charities and organisations were hours away from taking indefinite strike action in October when a last-minute pay deal was reached at the WRC.

The Government agreed to an 8% increase in pay funding for Section 39, 56 and 10 organisations.

These are privately run organisations and charities that are contracted by the Government to provide services to the State in the areas of health, children’s services and homeless services.

There were sighs of relief when the strike was called off as it would have impacted some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens.

Legal Rulings

In October, the Supreme Court ruled that Domino’s pizza delivery drivers should be treated as employees and not contractors for tax purposes.

The court found that the evidence had shown close control over the drivers when at work, and while there were some features of their activities that were consistent with them being independent contractors, the Tax Appeals Commissioner was entitled to conclude that the evidence pointed to the drivers carrying out the company’s business rather than their own.

The ruling sparked renewed debate and discussion around the employment rights of so-called “gig economy” workers.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) welcomed the decision and said it highlighted the need for greater legislation when it comes to the employment status of workers.

The Labour Party described the ruling as a landmark judgement which could have implications for thousands of workers.

Another legal ruling that could have implications for many companies was announced by the Workplace Relations Commission in December.

In what was considered to be a legal first, the WRC ordered telecoms company eir to reinstate a 65-year-old worker who had been forced into retirement and pay him for the time he was gone.

The worker, Thomas Doolin, won his age discrimination case but lawyers for eir had argued that Mr Doolin had accepted that the company had set a mandatory retirement age across the organisation.

eir worker Thomas Doolin

Declan Harmon, Barrister and member of the Employment Bar Association, said that in the future employers may need to give much more specific consideration to individual employees and roles when it comes to justifying mandatory retirement age policies.

RTÉ workers

RTÉ staff and unions reacted with disappointment and anger over the payments controversy at the broadcaster.

Staff meetings and rallies were held with worker representatives keen to stress that the vast majority of RTÉ employees are not earning the large salaries that were making the headlines.

Amid a sharp fall in licence fee revenue, RTÉ published a plan in November that included proposals to reduce the workforce by up to 400 by 2028.

SIPTU said it was a “slash and burn” policy and passed an emergency motion at its delegate conference vowing to fight against what the union described as a cost-cutting, outsourcing agenda underpinned by the slashing of jobs.

Delegates were told that ordinary workers were left carrying the can for poor governance and gross mismanagement.

The National Union of Journalists said the RTÉ proposals were “bleak” and added that it was gravely concerned at the scale of the proposed redundancies.

The payments controversy led to a restructuring at senior management level and the new bosses vowed to listen to the concerns of employees.

In December, RTÉ released details of staff surveys that showed workers wanted to see big improvements in the areas of staff wellbeing and governance.

Management said the findings of the surveys will be used to help guide future decisions in 2024.

The year ahead

Businesses have warned that they are facing big costs in 2024 to pay for a raft of new worker entitlements.

Increases in the national minimum wage, the introduction of the planned living wage, new sick pay entitlements, improvements to parent’s leave and benefit, the right to request remote working, hikes in PRSI and the new auto-enrolment pension scheme could push business costs up by 36%, according to recent analysis by Excel Recruitment.

Business group Ibec estimates that the annual increase in labour costs arising from the new measures will exceed €4 billion.

In December, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Simon Coveney announced €257m for an Increased Cost of Business (ICOB) grant.

The funding will be issued in once-off grants to small and medium businesses in the first quarter of 2024 to help meet some of the new costs facing employers.

While businesses have been expressing worries about the new worker entitlements, unions are quick to highlight the fact that they will benefit staff.

They are also keen to stress that in the cases of some benefits, Ireland is playing catch-up with our European neighbours, with many of the measures being introduced to comply with EU directives.

2023 will be remembered as a year when unemployment hit record lows and employment hit record highs and while those statistics are to be welcomed, they brought challenges for companies.

Skills shortages and a tight labour market meant many employers struggled to fill vacancies and retain staff.

Recruitment experts have warned that while there has been some softening in the labour market in recent months, the competition for talent is set to continue into 2024.

The New Year could also bring industrial unrest in the public sector after talks before Christmas failed to deliver a new public service pay agreement.

Unions have said they will meet on 11 January to prepare industrial action ballots unless a deal has been concluded before then.

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