While Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party have now agreed a draft Programme for Government (PFG), it remains to be seen if the document will be approved by the members of each party. As we wait for the voting process to conclude, there are some interesting proposals in the document which might indicate what employers can expect from an incoming Government.
Work-life balance and flexibility
As the pandemic has led to a shift toward remote work, the PFG commits to bringing forward a right to disconnect in 2020 and possibly asking the Workplace Relations Commission to draw up a code of conduct to regulate the area. We would question the merit of a specific right to disconnect when the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 (OWTA) already regulates the amount of hours an employee may work. Furthermore, implementing a right to disconnect may have negative consequences in respect of flexible working opportunities for some employees. If truly flexible working hours are what is envisaged, the working time and compensatory rest provisions in the OWTA require a total overhaul.
The PFG document also commits to increasing remote, flexible and hub working arrangements to promote better work-life balance, higher female labour market participation, a reduction in commuting and greater regional balance. Paid parental leave during the first year of an infant’s life (currently two weeks) is also to be extended.
Redundancy protections for workers
The document questions whether the legal provisions surrounding collective redundancies and the liquidation of companies do enough to protect the rights of workers. Amendments that have been mooted in the past include increasing sanctions, introducing a statutory injunction cause of action, and to strengthen the application of collective redundancy rules in respect of insolvent companies.
Income tax and USC
The PFG does not propose increasing either income tax or USC rates although the 3% USC surcharge on self-employed income may be reviewed.
Green Party influence
The Green Party input in the PFG is illustrated by various proposals that would impact the workplace. The green measures include widening the eligibility of the Bike to Work scheme and increasing the allowance for e-bikes and cargo bikes, decarbonising the transport fleet which will likely impact on company car policies and perhaps most interesting the promotion of road safety through enabling schools, workplaces and other institutions to stagger opening and closing times.
As part of a ‘Jobs-led Recovery’ to boost the economy in July, a Recovery Fund will be made available and supported by a National Economic Plan to be included in next year’s Budget. SME’s, hospitality, retail, entertainment and arts will all continue to receive support through this proposal. The Recovery Fund will be available for 2020, 2021 and 2022 and has three primary aims, infrastructure development, reskilling and retraining and supporting businesses with accessing credit. Many of the training proposals set out in the National Economic Plan were developed by the National Training Fund Advisory Group on which Peninsula’s Alan Hickey sits.
The PFG proposes tackling rising insurance costs by taking measures to kerb personal injury claims and enhancing the role of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board.
Social welfare and pensions
The PFG envisages the continued provision of a safety net to those most severely impacted by COVID-19 while increasing incentives and access to reskilling to enable people to get back working. In achieving this balance, core weekly social welfare rates will be protected, a living wage will be introduced during the Government’s lifetime and jobseeker supports for those aged under 24 will be improved.
The State pension age will remain at 66. The increase to 67 years is deferred and while the PFG remains committed to introducing a pension auto-enrolment system, it may take a more gradual approach than what was originally envisaged.
Notably, the Low Pay Commission will also be asked to examine the viability of Universal Basic Income and to include the experiences of previous international pilots. A pilot Universal Basic Income scheme is proposed in the lifetime of the Government.
‘Returnships’ in partnership with employers are included as a pathway for women who have taken time out of work to re-enter the labour market through new education, training and personal development programmes. The PFG also commits to responding to the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on gender equality. The much-heralded gender pay gap reporting legislation has made no progress and remains on the to-do list.
As part of greater inclusivity in the workplace, the gender ground in the equality legislation is to be amended to ensure that someone discriminated against on the basis of their gender identity is able to avail of this legislation. In addition, a new ground of socio-economic disadvantaged status may be introduced as a new protected characteristic under employment equality legislation.
A number of initiatives to help people with disabilities participate in the workforce are also envisaged. A support programme for employers aims to increase the recruitment and retention of people with disabilities. Other supports include facilitating remote work, adjusting the Wage Subsidy Scheme and Ability Programme along with an audit of the number of people with disabilities accessing further education and training.
Can the Government deliver?
Much of the language in the PFG is non-committal. While many of these policy options outlined above will be examined or considered by the next Government, it isn’t clear (and never is) what an incoming Government might actually deliver. What is certain is that the country and the SME sector, in particular, need a stable Government in place to manage the recovery from the pandemic and lest we forget to handle the impact of Brexit at the end of the year. Government supports will be vital to ensure the SME sector recovers from this crisis and the sooner a jobs-led recovery can begin, the better.