Brief Description of Employees’ and Employers’ Associations
Ireland operates a voluntarist system on industrial relations matters. Generally speaking, trade union membership in Ireland is relatively low (particularly amongst multinationals). Unions are generally more prevalent in the public sector than in the private sector.
While employees in Ireland have a right of association/are entitled to join a trade union, there is no corresponding obligation on an employer to recognise or to negotiate with any such trade union in relation to employees’ terms and conditions of employment. Employers in Ireland are also not obliged to engage in collective bargaining per se.
Separately, while specific legislation allowing for the establishment of European and local level works councils in Ireland, works councils are rare in practice.
In the absence of a trade union, staff association, etc., employee representative bodies are typically established for certain specific purposes e.g. for the purposes of an employer complying with their statutory information and consultation obligations under TUPE or, separately, in the context of a collective redundancy.
Rights and Importance of Trade Unions
While there is no statutory obligation to recognise trade unions in Ireland, trade unions can and do pursue recognition as a valid ‘trade dispute’ and potentially force an employer, by way of industrial action, to recognise and negotiate with the union. The degree to which a trade union may embark on industrial action (either to obtain recognition from the employer or for any other reason) is regulated mainly by the Industrial Relations Act 1990.
An employer is said to ‘recognise’ a trade union where the employer accepts that it has acquired a certain status within the company and where the union may have certain rights for negotiating terms and conditions of employment, and representation rights. Provisions for the registration of trade unions and the granting of a licence (which authorises negotiation on terms and conditions of employment) are prescribed in statute.
Trade unions generally seek to protect the rights and interests of its members, provide information to members, provide protection to members on employment issues/basic employment rights, represent/give advice to members in the context of disciplinary or grievance matters, and negotiate with the employer for better pay and working conditions through collective bargaining.
The action that employers can take against employees as a result of trade union activity, trade union membership, a strike or other industrial action is limited. For example, it is considered an automatic unfair dismissal under the UDA if an employee is dismissed on the grounds of trade union activity or membership.
Other Types of Employee Representative Bodies
The Transnational Information and Consultation of Employees Act 1996 (as amended) applies to European Works Councils (“EWC”) operating in Ireland. Under this legislation, companies which have:
- at least 1,000 employees in the EU/EEA; and
- at least 150 employees in each of two EU/EEA states; and
- “Central management” located in Ireland as opposed to another state in the EEA (the management that can assert control over an undertaking or group, or which acts as the representative agent of such management where the central management is located outside the EEA) must establish an EWC upon receipt of a written request from at least 100 employees in 2 (or more) countries. A company may also establish an EWC upon its own initiative.
The Employees (Provision of Information and Consultation) Act 2006 does not require an employer to establish a works council. However, it does require undertakings with more than 50 employees to enter into a written agreement with employees/employee representatives setting down formal procedures for informing and consulting with the employees. This obligation will only apply where a written request is made by 10% of employees (but not less than 15 or more than 100 employees) to the employer or to the Labour Court to enter into negotiations to establish information and consultation arrangements.