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Worker-dispute conciliation is stifled by remote hearings – WRC
Liam Kelly of WRC

26 Apr 2021 / employment Print

Dispute conciliation stifled by remote hearings – WRC

The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) has published its sixth annual report, covering 2020.

The annual report says that there were considerable technical and practical problems associated with resolving disputes remotely, where, in most instances, no person involved is in the same room.

“The positive one-to-one engagement that might take place in the margins of a conciliation or a mediation, or between the parties before a hearing cannot happen as easily,” the report points out.

Hybrid

The WRC will examine whether the lessons learned over the past 12 months can be built upon in the context of a “hybrid” model of conciliations, mediations and adjudications.

This will combine the utility of virtual platforms with the “undeniably more efficient and effective in-person interactions in what is, at its essence, a person-centred service,” the report says. 

The WRC received 688 requests for conciliation involving a range of issues which required 735 conciliation conferences. The resolution success rate remained high (+80%).

However, gauging the relationship between parties, and possibilities of settlement, has proved much more difficult, the report says. 

Technical difficulties added an “unwelcome layer of complexity”. This was reflected in the reluctance by some parties to engage in the virtual process, at least initially.

The main topics for conciliation were:

  • Pay issues (39%),
  • Organisational structure such as shift work, staffing, restructuring, rosters, hours of work, change in work practices, redeployment and recruitment (22%),
  • Redundancy (5%),
  • Pension issues (2%),
  • Types of leave (3%),
  • Benefits such as bonuses, profit sharing, service pay, sick pay, staff incentives, expenses and so on (4%),
  • Industrial-relations issues, such as changes to conditions of employment, new technologies, union management agreements, grading, productivity, outsourcing, and so on (25%).

Decrease indiscrimination claims

There was a notable decrease in claims relating to discrimination, with 1,331 specific complaints (-27%). This was the lowest number of complaints in this category received in any one year since the establishment of the WRC.

A total of 64 cases were referred to the Labour Court.

The WRC completed 3,942 cases from the wholesale and retail-trade sector, with 645 (16%) in breach, and unpaid wages cases amounting to €334,633.

There were 1,536 food-service activities cases completed, with 492 (32%) in breach, and €327,067 in outstanding wages. 

The WRC carried out 61 inspections of meat-processing plants in the period 2015-2020. Of these inspections, 29 (48%) detected breaches of employment law to some extent, such as: inadequate records, working time and pay issues, and employment permits.

Wages

The WRC recovered almost €184,000 in outstanding wages in the sector.

In 2020, 11 inspections were carried out and five employers were found to be in breach of employment law. 

Minister of State for Business, Employment and Retail Damien English said the WRC faced unprecedented challenges last year but adapted quickly.

The development and implementation of certain relevant provisions of the Civil Law and Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020 enabled the WRC to make remote adjudication hearings the default, subject to a fairness and interests-of-justice test.

The WRC is staffed by just under 200 civil servants of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

Its work is supplemented by a further 44 adjudication officers who are contracted on a case-by-case basis.

Last year, the WRC recovered a total of €1.7 million in unpaid wages for employees.

Mid-west office

A new mid-west regional office was opened in Ennis, Co Clare, and work on the southern region office in Cork city also proceeded.

Board chair Dr David Begg said: “The year’s positive outcomes reflect very much the ambition of the board to maintain dispute resolution, adjudication, advisory, and inspection services to a world-class standard even in the most challenging circumstances.”

Director general Liam Kelly said that the WRC had successfully re-shaped its adjudication service to a position where it is now scheduling hearings at a level that is over a third higher than were scheduled, pre-pandemic.

Operating remotely, the WRC’s information line dealt with 53,000 calls last year, broadly consistent with 2019 levels of 55,000 calls. There were 2.6 million website views. 

In 2020, the WRC carried out 7,687 inspections over the period.

A new case-management system for mediation services was developed last year, while a similar system for the conciliation service will be rolled out this year.

The WRC has a total budget of €14,954 million, with pay covering €12,340 million, and non-pay items €2,614 million.

Legal division

Within the legal division, new structures and policies were embedded in relation to knowledge management, quality assurance and strategic planning.

The division produced a comprehensive handbook for staff of the WRC on employment law.

It also carried out a comprehensive analysis of the previous years’ jurisprudence, and a detailed report will be published later this year.

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland