Address by Minister for Labour Affairs, Mr Billy Kelleher TD at the publication of NERA’a Annual Review
Tuesday 10 February 2009
The National Employment Rights Authority - NERA - was established on an interim basis in March 2007 following the social partnership agreement Towards 2016 and against a backdrop of much disquiet about the inadequacy of enforcement of employment law standards.
NERA has the priority objective of securing increased public confidence in the system of compliance with employment rights legislation. Since its inception, it has made steady and substantial progress in achieving this objective.
Information and Awareness
I am particularly pleased and wish to acknowledge publicly NERA’s level of activity in terms of their information and awareness campaigns aimed at employers and employees. This focus is very necessary in helping to bring about a culture of employment rights compliance and giving employers the necessary time and space to fully comply with the obligations they undertake when employing staff.
Last year, NERA dealt with over 126,000 queries from people with queries about employment rights, not to mention the 1.8 million hits that their newly launched website received. Fulfilling this valuable information role is a key function of NERA and one that is evolving and developing to meet the changing needs of Irish employees and employers.
I believe that the best compliance regime that we can have is one where there is absolute clarity and maximum knowledge out there about workers rights and entitlements on the one hand and employers rights and responsibilities on the other. This means that individual employees, whether directly or through a representative, are empowered. Just as in the case of consumer rights, good quality information means better informed individuals and this can only enhance the dialogue between employers and employees.
It means also that employers are clear about what precisely the law is in any given area. I think everyone agrees that employment law can be complex and can appear daunting, particularly in small and medium sized enterprises which often do not have the luxury of a dedicated Human Resources manager. NERA's new publication "Employment Law Explained" is a valuable resource in this regard.
For its part, as an agent of the State, NERA must have regard to the challenges that face enterprise in this regard and to the current economic challenges that face all businesses. When you have a large number of frontline staff operating individually as NERA does, it is a challenge to ensure that there is a consistent approach taken in all interactions with customers. However, I know that NERA is alive to the challenge and is committed to ensuring that consistency of approach.
It is important also, no matter what agency of the State is involved, that we keep to the forefront the principles of Quality Customer Service (QCS) that apply to all of the Public Service. Both employers and employees alike are entitled to be treated with respect and impartiality and it was precisely for this reason that NERA is being established as a fully resourced, professional inspectorate. The principles of QCS means that full explanations in written and oral communications should be provided, along with information on appeals and options to allow the maximum possible choice.
NERA places a strong emphasis on customer service and professionalism in its interactions with employers and employees alike. I understand that this work is set to continue in 2009 through continued stakeholder consultation, enhanced focus on quality customer service, further training of inspectors and harmonisation of work practices across Inspection Services.
A further key issue, which I know NERA are conscious of because of its work on joint investigations, is that workplaces are subject to many different inspections from different arms of the State. Depending on what line of business you are in, you can have inspections from the Health and Safety Authority, Revenue Commissioners, Social Welfare, Environmental Protection, Fire Safety, Food Safety, Planning Officers and so on.
While each inspection is important in its own right, from the perspective of the ordinary business person, this number of visits can seem quite baffling. The Government has committed in its "Smart Economy" document to a more consolidated approach to workplace inspections and this is a challenge that my Department - as part of a wider whole-of government perspective - will address in the coming months and it will undoubtedly feed back into NERA's operational approach and indeed that of all front line inspectorates.
Better contact in advance of inspections
Of course, information alone will not bring about the compliance culture that we all seek to achieve but it is a tool NERA has deployed in its Inspection campaigns to good effect. NERA has provided advance briefings to employer bodies and representative groups ahead of inspection campaigns to give employers in particular sectors a chance to “get their houses in order” before an inspection. I know that NERA stands ready and willing to meet with any employer representative body that is interested in getting such a briefing from NERA or in making its particular concerns known to NERA.
Such briefings are designed to assist employers to comply fully with their obligations under Irish Employment Law, which is a fundamental part of the business environment, on the same footing as health and safety and tax compliance.
In certain sectors, which have regulated wages and other terms and conditions, I acknowledge that the findings of NERA's inspectors are presenting difficulties for small companies. I appreciate that for some employers, if wage rates have been out of kilter for some time, payment of arrears may be a problem, particularly in these challenging economic times.
However, as I’ve stated before, it is important to remember that payment of the correct rate is effectively "the law of the land" and applies equally to everyone. If the rates were not enforced, it would be very unfair on those employers who are fully compliant and have been paying wages at the correct rate all along and it could be tantamount to unfair competition.
I am also very conscious that the economic backdrop which prevailed at the time of concluding the social partnership agreement Towards 2016 contrasts sharply with the economic realities facing businesses today. As I have mentioned, it is very important that NERA inspections are conducted with full knowledge and understanding of the transformed and challenging circumstances in which very many businesses find themselves and that the impact that inspections can have in that environment.
I have just recently asked NERA to undertake an enforcement campaign in respect of compliance in the area of employment of Bulgarian and Romanian nationals employed on work permits. This follows initiatives taken directly by my Department aimed at ensuring that employers and nationals of these countries are fully informed of their obligations under the legislation.
I was pleased to appoint an Interim Advisory Board for NERA in 2008, under the able chairmanship of Mr John Dennehy and with representation from key stakeholder groups, including trade unions and employer representatives. The Board has already met on a number of occasions and I believe it will make an important and useful input to the development of NERA’s work.
The next key milestone for NERA will be its establishment on a statutory footing. I initiated the Second Stage reading of the Employment Law Compliance Bill in the Dáil last week and would expect Committee Stage and enactment to follow shortly.
At the heart of the Bill is a basic message: while recognising the economic challenges that exist for all businesses and the importance of retaining jobs, compliance with employment law is not something deliberately designed to be onerous on employers - it is about ensuring that there is a level playing field whereby responsible employers who give workers their full legal entitlements do not face even greater challenges because some competitors are prepared to short-change employees on their rights.
It only remains for me to wish the Advisory Body, the Director and staff of NERA a successful 2009 and to thank everyone concerned for their commitment in 2008.
Last modified: 10/02/2009