The Workplace Relations Commission (“WRC”) has published its 2016 Progress Report and Commentary (the “Report”). The Report outlines the progress made by the WRC during its first full year in operation and gives some insight into the types of cases being dealt with and how the WRC operates in practice.

Hot topics

The WRC Information and Customer Service dealt with over 62,000 calls during its twelve months. The Report indicates employment permit queries were by far the most popular type of query, accounting for 35% of the total queries received. Working time queries were second at 15%, with queries on unfair dismissal accounting for only 6% of the calls. 69% of the total inquiries were made by employees working in a range of different industries and sectors.

Conciliation service

The WRC Conciliation Service received a total of 1,124 referrals in the twelve month report period, of which 163 disputes were then referred to the Labour Court. The Report notes the Conciliation Service facilitated engagements between companies and employees, and/or their representatives, across a broad spectrum of public and private sector organisations.

High profile cases involved Irish Life, Irish Rail, Irish Water, Tesco and ERVIA.

Mediation

The Report notes that the take-up of mediation has not been at the level expected. Mediation was offered by the WRC in 1,119 cases, and in roughly 50% of these, both parties agreed to take part. There were only 52 direct requests for mediation, 41 of which have been resolved or withdrawn.

Adjudication

The Adjudication Service (the “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 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 three to four months (previously over a year), while determinations are being issued, on average six to eight weeks after a hearing;
  • standardisation in the format and quality of decisions issued; and
  • 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 has been meeting 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 for certain breaches of employment law, for example, breaches of the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 or of the National Minimum Wage Act 2000.

According to the Report, the WRC Inspection and Enforcement Services concluded 5,221 inspections, and held that 2,050 employers were in breach of employment legislation. Some 13 fixed-penalty notices were issued in the 12 month period, all in relation to failure by the employer to provide a written statement of wages, and over €1.5million of unpaid wages was recovered.

The Report notes the WRC is working closely with the Garda National Immigration Bureau (“GNIB”) on reporting potential immigration and human trafficking issues encountered during inspections.

Conclusion

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 during its first year 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 continued commitment to working with interested parties to improve the level of service offered.