Future workers rights legislation in Northern Ireland

Conor Murphy, Economy Minister, answered questions in the NI Assembly on the intended way forward for employment law

4 Mar 2024| News

On 26 February 2024 the Economy Minister for Northern Ireland, Conor Murphy, answered questions in the Assembly providing a further insight into the intended way forward for employment law.

Murphy told the NI Assembly that he intends to bring a ‘significant employment Bill’ through over the course of this mandate.

In the session, four key points emerged (via the Employers Federation):

  1. Significant Employment Bill

In response to a question on whether he will bring forward legislation to enhance workers’ rights he said his officials were developing policy options for a ‘wide-ranging’ and ‘broad’ Employment Bill.

The Minister confirmed that some particular elements or provisions of legislation are ready to go, and that the Department of Economy intended to move forward with those.  We would expect those to include the provisions relating to gender pay gap reporting and the expansion of Statutory Parental Bereavement Leave to include miscarriage, as well as Statutory Parental Bereavement Pay to become a Day 1 Right.

Commenting on the Employment Bill, Minister Murphy confirmed that it will be a substantial piece of legislation. The time frame could take year, and more likely 18 months, before such legislation can be drafted, consulted on and brought to the Assembly.

Departmental Officials are currently engaging with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to discuss how that Bill could strengthen workers’ rights in recognition that the Minister believes that Trade Unions have a vital role to play in improving worker’s pay and conditions of workers.

  1. Zero Hour Contracts

In response to a question on zero-hour contracts, Minister Murphy confirmed his intentions to introduce legislation to bring an end to zero-hours contracts (ZHC). This would be departure from the position in Great Britain where ZHC are lawful but there is a ban in the use of exclusivity clauses in such contacts. However, in Republic of Ireland ZHC have been banned since 2018.

The Employment (Zero Hours Workers and Banded Weekly Working Hours) Bill, a private members’ bill introduced by Sinn Féin MLA Jemma Dolan could well be how ZHC are addressed. This is similar to the banded hours contract provision in the Republic of Ireland.

  1. Unpaid Career’s Leave

The Minister confirmed that Career’s Leave be part of the broader consultation on what it is included in an Employment Bill.

He invited those with specific interest in this area, to come to the Department with their suggestions and views.

In Great Britain, from 6 April 2024, employees will be entitled to 7 days unpaid leave every 12 months to give or arrange care for a ‘dependant.’ This contrasts to the position in the Republic of Ireland where employees with 1 years’ service are entitled to unpaid career’s leave for a minimum of 13 weeks and up to a maximum of 104 weeks. It could well be that more favourable provisions that due to come into force In Great Britain could be considered for Northern Ireland.

  1. Engagement Forum

The Minister has emphasised that he always follows principle of ‘co-design, consulting and engagement’ with relevant stakeholders.

The Minister has stated on a number of occasions that he wants to strengthen the role of the trade unions, as he sees them playing an important role in protecting the most vulnerable workers which included younger people, women and disabled people.

He heralded the benefits of having a Forum for Engagement when discussing how the Department is doing, obtaining people views on the areas the Department is dealing with and what people think the Department’s priorities should be. He said forums allow ideas to be tested and sharing analysis & opinions is beneficial to the Executive as a whole and make for much better policy and legislative development.

The Engagement Forum (chaired by the The Labour Relations Agency) already exists as it was set up by Department of Economy during Covid. That Forum had representation from all the social partners (business and trade unions) and will be the vehicle for ongoing engagement. The Ministers held his first meeting with the Forum on 22 February 2024, the first of what is expected to be quarterly meetings.