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Secretary General’s Opening address for the WRC Seminar
The World of Work: Shifting Landscapes
Dublin Castle, 6 February 2018
Can I firstly warmly welcome you all to the WRC Seminar entitled “The World of Work: Shifting Landscapes”. I would like to take this opportunity also to convey apologies on behalf of Minister Pat Breen who was originally billed to do the opening address for this seminar. Mr Breen has since been called away to other duties outside the State but has asked me to wish the event this morning every success.
It is a particular pleasure for me to open what is the inaugural Workplace Relations Commission Seminar or, as it is more commonly referred to as the WRC. In its new formation, the WRC is almost two and a half years old and I think it is fair to say that it has established an extremely credible track record of performance in that period. At the time of establishment in October 2015, the workplace reform programme was a major step forward and involved a significant integration project to bring the various employment rights bodies together and operating under one umbrella. The workplace as we know it certainly involves paradigm shifts and so the theme of today’s seminar “The World of Work: A Shifting Landscape” is very fitting.
We know that the landscape of the world of work is shifting. But Government cannot make policy in this area in a vacuum of information. A lot of the things that we hear about the changing landscape of work reflect developments in other countries or the particular perspectives of groups with a keen interest in the way in which employment policy is shaped. There is a lot of noise and heat, but not a lot of light.
That is why I very much welcome the fact that the WRC has taken steps to contribute to the policy debate by commissioning research, from the Economic and Social Research Institute, to help us understand how those shifts are playing out in this country. Is Ireland following the trends seen elsewhere or are we carving our own path?
The first session will examine this research to see if there has been a noticeable rise in “contingent” work, that is where workers either do not have a permanent work relationship with their employer, or are working part-time, or are working as freelancers in a particular sector. It will also look at the phenomenon of “gig” work where advances in technology means that companies use IT platforms to identify a service need and provide workers to address it.
I very much welcome that we will hear, possibly for the first time, from a company using this model here in Ireland. Liam Cox from Deliveroo will talk about how his company’s model operates both for the company and the many cyclists we see on our streets daily with a box with a kangaroo logo on the back.
Professor Michael Doherty will examine if this “gig” model is impacting on employment rights and look at whether policy responses should be considered.
In 2017 the Government made some changes in relation to Departmental policy responsibilities with the result that responsibility for employment rights policy now rests with the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Minister Regina Doherty. The enforcement activities of the WRC and the Labour Court in the area of employment rights remain with my Department. It is all the more important therefore that both Departments work closely together to ensure that the policy and the enforcement aspects work well together and I can assure you that both Departments are doing just that. This is particularly relevant currently in the context of the Employment Rights (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill which will shortly be making its way through the Oireachtas. It is crucial that employment rights policy and the practical enforcement of the law are operating in tandem and developed in a holistic manner.
This Bill seeks to deliver on the commitment in the Programme for a Partnership Government to address “the problems caused by the increased casualization of work and to strengthen the regulation of precarious employment”.
The Bill addresses key issues which have been identified as being areas where current employment rights legislation should be strengthened to the benefit of employees, particularly low-paid, more vulnerable workers, without imposing unnecessarily onerous burdens on employers and businesses. The key objective of the Bill is to improve the security and predictability of working hours for employees on insecure contracts and those working variable hours.
Work is fundamentally about people. If I may stretch the landscape metaphor a little, the shifting landscape of work is populated by a group of workers who are themselves changing. The inevitable consequence of our aging population will be changes to the people we expect to be in work. So, it is important that we discuss how longer working will impact on working in Ireland. We are healthier than previous generations, thankfully, and living longer. This means that people may wish to work longer than had been the case up to now and public purses and pension funds are finding it increasingly difficult to fund pensions in a time where it not at all unusual for people to live well into their 80s and 90s.
Professor Colm O Cinneide, from UCL, will give on overview of longer working in a European and human rights context. Professor Alan Barrett will throw some light on the Irish experience to date in terms of longer working while Tim Duggan from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection will outline some policy responses under consideration. Patricia King and Maeve McElwee will also contribute to what I expect will be a lively debate.
The landscape of the world of work is shifting – but largely for the better.
It was against this changing landscape that Mr. Pat Breen, T.D., Minister of State for Trade, Employment, Business, EU Digital Single Market and Data Protection recently enacted a new Code of Practice on Longer Working. This Code was facilitated by the WRC and developed in consultation with the social partners Ibec and ICTU as well as the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Human Rights and Equality Commission.
The Code sets out guidance and best practice for employers, employees and their representatives to follow during the engagement between employers and employees in the run up to retirement. It also considers the issue of responding to requests to work beyond the current retirement age in the employment concerned.
This development comes about in the positive context of people living longer and healthier lives. The Code will support employers and employees in the private sector in reaching mutually beneficial arrangements around retirement ages.
Looking at the employment picture generally, Ireland is in a very different place than it was 10 years ago. We are approaching full employment, and reports from our job creation agencies are indicating stronger domestic economic activity as well as increasing levels of employment in foreign owned companies.
Of course, challenges persist and maintaining the competitiveness of the Irish economy remains essential. The WRC together with the Labour Court continue to play a crucial role in this space. Robust employment rights and stable industrial relations create an environment where employers can plan ahead and grow their business and employees can look to the future with some degree of certainty about their employment.
As I mentioned earlier, the Workplace Relations Commission was established just over two years ago. Its creation can be seen as an institutional response to the way in which the landscape of work has changed and will continue to change over the coming years. We have seen a move from collective approaches to addressing problems in the workplace, to people taking individual claims about their legal rights.
By bringing the institutions together that collectively seek to resolve workplace disputes and achieve essential employment standards compliance and enforcement, the work of the WRC plays a vital role across all sectors of the economy. That role is set to widen over the medium term as more public servants are brought within the scope of the institutions. Oonagh is primed to talk to you about the good work of the WRC and its achievements over the last two years (you have a captive audience Oonagh!) so I will conclude at this stage by saying well done to Oonagh and her team for for putting together such a topical and interesting programme today and for gathering together so many experts and talented speakers in the one venue at the same time.
It should be a great morning and I wish you the very best in your discussions.