The Government is expected to approve the establishment of a high-level working group to review collective bargaining rights and the industrial relations landscape in Ireland.
The proposal will be brought to Cabinet today by Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar.
The group, an initiative under the auspices of the Labour Employer Economic Forum, will be charged with examining the issue of trade union recognition and its implications for the collective bargaining process.
The topic has always been fraught for employers and unions, as there are two competing constitutional rights.
Employees have the constitutional right to join a union, but employers have an equal right to refuse to negotiate with them or to use alternative non-union employee relations fora.
Over the years, a number of key pieces of legislation intended to boost workers’ rights have been struck down following legal challenges.
The group will be expected to consider legal and constitutional impediments to reform, which may include looking at other models of employee relations in other EU member states.
The group will also assess the “adequacy of the workplace relations framework supporting the conduct and determination of pay and conditions of employment, having regard to the legal economic and social position in which it operates.”
Another mission will be to review the current statutory wage-setting mechanisms, such as Sectoral Employment Orders, which deliver legally binding pay and conditions for workers in employment sectors.
The constitutional status of these mechanisms is currently under appeal to the Supreme Court after the legislation governing them was struck down by the High Court almost a year ago as unlawful following a challenge by a group of electrical contractors.
That legislation had replaced a previous law on legally binding wage-setting mechanism which had itself been struck down in 2013 following a different legal challenge.
Some sources noted that one key factor in the timing of the initiative could be a sense of change in the United States, where President Joe Biden has indicated a new attitude on the part of the administration there towards collectivism and workers’ rights.
Others note that an impending Directive proposed by the EU Commission would force governments to provide for “adequate” minimum wages, along with a framework for collective bargaining to take place, where collective bargaining coverage stands below 70%.
Such a provision could affect Ireland, as collective bargaining coverage here stands at around 30%.
The Irish Government was one of nine member states which wrote to the European Commission seeking to dilute the force of that EU legislation, arguing that a recommendation rather than a directive would give member states more flexibility.
The group will be expected to report quarterly to the Tánaiste, with the first interim report due by the end of July.