The Programme for Government and dispute resolution

Given the large scale problems facing Ireland, and the time pressures on writing the Programme for Government it would not be sensible to expect a great deal of specific interest to readers of this site in the new programme for Government.

But here is what there is.

 Public Sector Reform

 The Programme proposes to reduce public service numbers by between 18,000 and 21,000 by 2014 and by a further 4,000 by 2015.

 Obviously the big issue here is selection; it’s a voluntary scheme but do you let everyone who wants to go leave?  Also there’s a lot of ill informed comment about protecting ‘frontline’ staff. Just because you don’t see someone does not mean they aren’t in the ‘frontline’. At least the programme talks about frontline ‘services’, which is better.

 National Minimum Wage

 The reduction to €7.65 will be reversed. 

Joint Labour Committees 

The strangest thing here is the lack of any reference to the review being undertaken by Kevin Duffy and Dr Frank Murphy which is due to conclude in the not too distant future. And this can’t be dismissed as previous Government business as it was a commitment under the EU/IMF programme for Ireland and is not likely to go away. (And maybe that’s what makes it not strange at all! Why put it in the programme if the EU/IMF are going to require it anyway?)

 The new Government says it will ‘reform the Joint Labour Committee structure, beginning with the appointment of independent Chairpersons to JLC’s, who will retain a casting vote. Reform options will examine the rate of pay for atypical hours’.

 But this wording is odd, being a good deal less specific than either of the manifesto commitments of the parties, although a bit more ‘cut & paste’ from Labour than FG. 

The following is the wording from the respective manifestoes.  Fine Gael was quite specific and said it would; 

‘support the renegotiation of the Employment Regulation Orders (ERO) imposed on the hotel, restaurant, security, agricultural, retail and other sectors under the JLC system within six months under an independent nonvoting chairperson. We will also allow employers and workers in ERO sectors to negotiate enterprise-level collective agreements with their own staff which will make them exempt from the ERO’

Labour had said it would ‘reform the Joint Labour Committees (JLC) structure that dates from the 1940s, a time when employee rights and general labour law were much less developed. [and by]  appointing independent chairpersons to the Joint Labour Committees as an urgent first step in this reform process’.

As can be seen FG was going to tackle the Orders themselves by ‘renegotiating’ them. Also the final sentence clearly implied that ‘enterprise level’ agreements outside the ERO system would be permitted.

Even Labour’s wording seemed to suggest that the JLC system had outlived its usefulness being a ‘structure that dates from the 1940’s.’

So what precisely reforming the ‘structure’ means in practice we will have to wait and see but those who wished to see reform here will be worried for now. We will see what Messrs Duffy and Walsh have to offer.  Also gone is the six month deadline.

The emphasis on ‘independent’ chairpersons is interesting. Currently, these are appointed by the Minister for Enterprise etc and appear to be normally drawn from the Industrial Relations Officer corps of the LRC. They are hardly partisan so presumably ‘independent’ means from outside the system altogether.

Certainly, one hears anecdotal evidence from the employer side that they generally end up in a minority when push comes to shove and hard decisions are being made about increases.

Mediation & Law Reform

What we get in the Programme for Government is a cut and paste from the FG manifesto;

‘We will encourage and facilitate use of mediation to resolve commercial, civil and family disputes in order to speed up resolution of disputes, reduce legal costs and ameliorate the stress of contested court proceedings’.

And

‘We will prioritise a programme of law reform arising out of the recommendations made by the Law Reform Commission.’

Given that one of the most recent recommendations of the Law Reform Commission was its report on mediation (including a draft Mediation Bill) it might not be going too far to see this as the green light for that legislation. I believe the Directive can be effected by way of Statutory Instrument anyway.

Labour didn’t really have anything to say about this except in relation to driving professional costs down, in which ADR options might be seen as an option (and were so seen in the Four Year programme of the previous government.)

The Labour Party will support robust competition policy and enforcement and ‘structural’ reform in the professions to drive down the cost base for the traded sector’

It might however be taking it a stage too far to see this as a possible opening for reform of the Employment Appeals Tribunal along the lines that I have argued strongly for in detail in another blog on this site.

There is no reason not to introduce private mediation and arbitration into the employment law scene which is unable to cope with the current workload. (More here)

 Trade Union recognition

 Well buried in the ‘Equality’ section on page 54 of the document is a commitment to;

 ‘reform the current law on employees right to engage in collective bargaining (The Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2001) so as to ensure the compliance by the state with recent judgements of the European Court of Human Rights. 

This is a reference to the Demir and Baykara judgement in the European Court of Human Rights. (More here This links to my report of a lecture by Professor Keith Ewing on the case and its implications for the Supreme Court judgement in the Ryanair case. Professor Ewing’s opinion is that the Ryanair decision is incompatible with the new direction in European case law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU.

 This is a ‘biggie’ as constitutional rights form the basis of the Supreme Court’s ruling. Again we shall see. 

More significant is whether such a change will make any difference to declining trade union numbers. If I were a trade union leader I wouldn’t be counting on it. In the US which has a system for compulsory ballots etc on trade union recognition trade union membership in the private sector is down to 7%. Based on studies here I reckon that among young workers (say under 25) in the private sector in Ireland its not a million miles away from that now.