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Clarity sought after 'Registered Employment Agreements' deemed unconstitutional

Government has been called on to outline the impact that today’s Supreme Court decision will have on both employees and employers.

Minister for Jobs, Richard Bruton (file photo)
Minister for Jobs, Richard Bruton (file photo)
Image: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

AGREEMENTS THAT SET pay rates for several Irish sectors have been deemed unconstitutional in the Supreme Court.

Put in place under the 1946 Industrial Relations Act, Registered Employment Agreements (REAs) essentially sought to make minimum pay and conditions within a given sector legally-binding.

These would then apply to every worker of the particular class, type or group that was outlined in the agreement, regardless of whether any such worker or employer was party to the agreement or not.

Responding to today’s judgement, a statement by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton said that government would study the decision and take legal advice on it before commenting in detail.

The statement did say, however, that the existing contractual rights of workers in the affected sectors would not be impacted by today’s ruling, saying that these could only be altered if the two parties reached agreement.

Decision

While a High Court challenge that was brought by a number of electrical contractors in 2010 – related to an employment agreement that was registered in 1990 – was dismissed, the Supreme Court today found that these agreements essentially allowed parties to make any law they wished in relation to employment which, once in place, sought to bind all to whom it applied.

Reaction

The Unite trade union said that today’s decision had heralded a new age in industrial relations.

Unite construction official Tom Fitzgerald said that “while today’s news will understandably come as a shock to thousands of construction workers who fear their conditions of work may be under threat, the fact is that current terms and conditions continue to apply until re-negotiated.”

In that context, today’s judgement releases not only employers but also the trade union movement from certain constraints which have co-existed with the benefits of Registered Employment Agreements. Employers would be very ill-advised to greet today’s decision with complacency.
On the contrary, today’s ruling heralds a new age in industrial relations, and Unite will now consider itself free to lodge pay claims following consultation with our members.

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IBEC described today’s ruling as a “devastating blow to all REAs made prior to 2012″, saying that it left “major question marks” over the legal status of REAs agreed after the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2012

Unsure as to whether new REAs could be agreed under the 2012 legislation, the business and employer association called on the government to provide legal clarity for employers in light of the judgement.

Despite the uncertainty that now existed, the organisation said that they were broadly supportive of the government’s efforts to reform the REA system.

Sinn Féin Deputy Peadar Tóibín said that the rights of low paid workers had to be protected as a result of the judgement. “This government has not hidden its disregard of low paid workers or its support of high earners,” he said.

The Minister needs to respond to today’s judgement and the proposals of the labour court. It is imperative that he moves quickly to provide clarity and safeguard the rights of low paid workers.

Similarly, Fianna Fáil’s Dara Calleary said that government needed to provide clarity on the pay and conditions of workers currently covered by Registered Employment Agreements.

I welcome a move beyond outdated employment agreements that were set decades ago, in the absence of other protections for workers. However, we cannot allow a free-for-all for employers as a result of this ruling.
I am seeking confirmation from the Government that there will not be a surge in employers suddenly moving to unilaterally slash the wages of workers who have been covered by REAs until now.

Read: Bus Éireann workers to strike from Sunday >

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Paul Hyland

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