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Address at the Labour Relations Commission’s Symposium:“Meeting the Challenge of Change – Irish Labour Market Issues in a Global Economy”


I am delighted to join with you here in Croke Park this morning as you begin your discussions on "Meeting the Challenge of Change."  Croke Park has been the venue for many a challenge and has itself undergone tremendous change - although one long overdue change would be a Dublin captain lifting the ' Sam Maguire'!

This Symposium is very timely. Continuing change is a certainty in today's world, and we all need to think about how we can best deal with it.  In response to the fundamental changes that are emerging in the global business environment, the Enterprise Strategy Group recently mapped out the road ahead for Irish industrial policy. We have the annual report of the National Competitiveness Council to guide us. 

We also have a national Forum looking at the Workplace of the Future. That Forum, which will report early in the New Year, is looking at the contribution that an innovative and flexible workplace can make to improved competitiveness, product innovation and service delivery.  The various elements of a broad vision of how the Irish economy should develop in the medium term are now coming together.  Your discussions today have an important role to play in the development of that vision.

The issue of the last decade namely job creation - has to a large extent been addressed.  Our efforts to provide our citizens with the dignity of work and with a route out of poverty and disadvantage have been highly successful.  Our focus now is less on the employment intensity of new enterprises, and more on the job quality and skill content of new jobs.

Of course, I would not like to paint too rosy a picture.  We still have issues of labour supply skills demand - and costs to manage.  We have to continue to address the retraining of older workers and of workers in declining industries, and the funding of lifelong learning.  We still have to do better in relation to work-life balance to encourage more people, especially women, into the workforce, and to encourage workers to stay in the workforce for longer.  This will inevitably see a continued focus on our childcare and eldercare policies, and there will be an ongoing need to redesign work so as to allow for an increased variety of flexible work patterns.

The fact that we are now debating issues like work - life balance is in itself a measure of the enormous change for the better in this country in the recent past. As I said at a conference on work - life balance last week, it's not so long ago that this would have been a luxury item on many people's agendas. At that time, finding a job and holding onto a job were the priorities of the day.

In the European context, I have emphasised that the Unions ability to anticipate and manage all of these issues creatively offers Europe the potential to win competitive advantage relative to other trading blocks.  Equally, I am convinced that if we can adopt progressive labour market policies in Ireland, we can create a competitive advantage over our EU counterparts.

Of course, we dont just want a sound economy, we also want a sound society.  Fundamental to both is a well functioning labour market. That means a market where appropriate worker protections are in place and where there is an appropriate mix of redress, arbitration, mediation and advisory bodies.

At the end of last year, on foot of a commitment in our Programme for Government, we set up a review group to examine the coherence and user friendliness of our employment rights procedures. The review was prompted by the fact that, since the establishment of the Labour Court almost sixty years ago, structures and systems have evolved in an ad hoc way, in line with changing domestic needs and the evolving EU legislative framework.  There are now 25 Acts relating to employment rights and industrial relations, and eight bodies - the Labour Court; the Rights Commissioner Service; the Conciliation Service of the LRC; the Employment Appeals Tribunal; the Equality Tribunal; the Employment Rights Enforcement Unit of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; the Equality Authority and the National Implementation Body, which is chaired by my own Department.  This is to say nothing of amending legislation and the various Statutory Instruments.  Whatever chance practitioners have of navigating their way around this maze, the average citizen has very little. In my view, this whole area is a prime candidate for the application of regulatory reform techniques, including:

  • the reduction of the number of Acts through consolidation
  • simplifying the language wherever possible, and
  • providing user friendly guides and information to help people.

Let me stress, that the objective is by no means to reduce worker protections in any way.  The Governments aim is to help the public and the expert practitioner to decode the system; to help them have a better appreciation of their rights, and the means of redress and dispute resolution open to them. It may not sound like very glamorous work, but it is very important.  Even putting in place an improved employment rights system covering both rules and bodies can make Ireland a better place in which to work and employ people. 

A preliminary report on the way forward has been developed as a basis for discussion with the social partners and the various employment rights bodies themselves.  I know that the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Micheál Martin, and his colleague, Minister Tony Killeen, see close consultation as pivotal to success in mapping a new way forward.  They are also very conscious - as am I - that the voluntarist aspect of our system is a particular strength, giving us a unique agility and responsiveness. In seeking to improve coherence and user friendliness, we should not do anything that would diminish this.  Whatever comes out of this process, it should make things better, not worse!

The Government looks forward to a successful outcome to this work.  In the meantime, I would urge people to renew their commitment to the existing employment relations system, and not to say or do anything that would undermine respect for its determinations.  At the end of the day, our system of employment relations is based on trust and goodwill. It is important that we do everything we can, as employers, trade unions and employees, to maintain these core qualities of our system through respect for its institutions.

In closing, I would like to thank Maurice Cashell, the Chairman of the LRC; Kieran Mulvey, the Chief Executive; and their colleagues in the Commission for their invaluable work in helping to keep the industrial peace and in organising this Symposium.  I know that Olivia O'Leary will keep you all focused and I have no doubt that your deliberations will make an important contribution to our collective response to the challenge of change.

Thank you for your attention.