The Workplace Relations Commission (“WRC”) has published its 2016 Progress Report and Commentary. The report outlines the progress made by the WRC during its first six months and gives some insight into the types of cases being dealt with and how it operates practice.
The WRC Information and Customer Service dealt with over 31,000 calls during its first six months. The report indicates employment permit queries were far and away the most popular type of query, accounting for 31% of the total queries received. Working time queries were second in line (17%), with queries on unfair dismissal accounting for only 5% of the calls. 71% of the total inquiries were made by employees working in a range of different industries and sectors.
The WRC Conciliation Service received a total of 523 referrals in the six-month report period, of which 79 disputes were then referred to the Labour Court. The report notes the Conciliation Service assisted in a broad range of HSE industrial relations disputes. It also facilitated engagements between companies and employees, and/or their representatives, across the entire transport industry – including aviation, bus, train and tram services.
In the private sector, the Conciliation Service was particularly involved in resolving issues around company restructuring in an increasingly competitive economy. High profile cases involved Irish Life, Irish Rail, Irish Water and Tesco.
The report shows that mediation was offered by the WRC in 620 cases, and in roughly 50% of these, both parties agreed to take part. Interestingly, there were only 16 direct requests for mediation in the six-month report period.
Typical issues included interpersonal workplace relationships, equality mediations, and grievance and disciplinary matters.
The Adjudication Service has received a mixed response from practitioners, with concerns raised around administrative difficulties, late notifications and inconsistency in how hearings are being conducted. Some Adjudication Officers favour an informal approach akin to the old Rights Commissioner hearings, while others adopt a more formal structure, similar to how EAT hearings are conducted. The report acknowledges that the service has faced many challenges, some of which are being addressed.
In terms of positive steps, the report highlights:
- A significant reduction in waiting times, for both hearings and determinations. The average waiting time for a hearing is 77 days, previously over a year, while determinations are being issued, on average, 39 days after a hearing.
- Standardisation in the format and quality of decisions issued.
- A significant reduction in the backlog of cases. The number of legacy employment rights cases has fallen from 2,400 at 1 October 2015 to just over 1,000, while the backlog of equality cases has been reduced by a third.
With regard to ongoing challenges, the report notes the WRC intends to meet with stakeholders to review the WRC procedures and service issues, with a view to achieving consistency and improvement in the service.
Inspection, Enforcement and Prosecution
The WRC Inspection and Enforcement Services (whose functions were formerly carried out by NERA), monitors employment conditions to ensure compliance with, and where necessary, enforcement of, employment rights legislation. The Workplace Relations Act 2015 introduced new enforcement mechanisms, including compliance notices and fixed-penalty notices, which can be issued by WRC inspectors in respect of certain breaches of employment law, for example, breaches of the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 or the National Minimum Wage Act 2000.
According to the report, three fixed-penalty notices were issued during the relevant six-month period, with a higher, but unspecified, number of compliance notices also issued. However, the report suggests that it is too early to measure any specific or reliable trends in this regard.
The WRC has received some criticism from employment law practitioners and stakeholders since its establishment in October 2015. However, the report sheds light on the progress made in its first six months in operation, and on the considerable volume of inquiries which the WRC is receiving. The reduction in waiting times for hearings and determinations is a welcome development, as is the WRC’s commitment to working with interested parties to improve the level of service offered.