The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) recently published its 2020 annual report which includes details of its response to the impact of COVID-19.
Despite the challenges of COVID-19 restrictions, the WRC reported high levels of activity in the areas of dispute resolution, workplace inspections, and employment law enforcement. A series of decisions in the area of age-related discrimination also suggests that employers need to tread carefully if staff are approaching retirement age.
Remote approach to dispute resolution
The WRC stated that its biggest challenge in 2020 involved moving its adjudication, mediation, and conciliation work over to online platforms. When the emergency legislation came into effect last year, the WRC Adjudication Service carried out an extensive consultation process with stakeholders seeking feedback on to how a remote approach could be delivered securely and without compromising the rights of claimants to fair procedures and constitutional justice.
After gathering feedback from this consultation, the WRC incrementally rolled out a new service delivery model comprising written procedures combined with a mix of virtual and face-to-face hearings. The report notes that 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. Likewise, the WRC’s conciliation, advisory and mediation services moved primarily over to a variety of remote platforms with in-person meetings scheduled if circumstances allowed.
The WRC noted the varied technical and practical problems associated with resolving disputes or holding a hearing when none of the parties are in the same room. Remote hearings deny the parties the chance to engage in positive one-to-one discussions that might take place in the informal surroundings of a conciliation or a mediation, or between the parties before a hearing. And, in terms of adjudication, the WRC conceded that the requirement to ensure that online hearings are carried out consistent with fair procedures is resource-heavy and time-consuming for all parties.
Inspection and Enforcement
The WRC reported that it equipped inspection officials with appropriate PPE to allow them to continue their inspection duties in compliance with the new public health guidelines and best practice. The inspection unit completed almost 7,700 workplace inspections with over 5,000 of these being unannounced. WRC inspectors also undertook on-site inspections in support of the national Return to Work Safely Protocol initiative that introduced mandatory measures for employers and employees to put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. It is also notable that the WRC recovered €1.7 million in unpaid wages as part of its employment law enforcement activity during 2020.
Increase in race-related discrimination
Finally, the WRC annual report includes details of notable employment law decisions that were handed down in 2020. Working time, redundancy, and unfair dismissal claims continue to cause problems for employers. Of most interest and concern for employers is an increase in Employment Equality Complaints regarding race discrimination.
The 15% increase on 2019 figures underlines the importance of having appropriate policies in place to deal with race discrimination and the need to seek advice on how to handle a race complaint at work.
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