Just under a quarter of employees in Ireland are union members. There is only one union confederation, the ICTU, but individual unions, in particular the larger ones, have considerable power and influence.
Figures from the unions themselves indicate that there are around 518,000 trade unionists in the Republic of Ireland, although the official quarterly Labour Force Survey of 2018 identifies only 461,000 union members as employees. This difference is explained, at least in part, by the fact that the union figures include members who are unemployed, retired or self-employed and therefore not included in the Labour Force Survey figures. They may also count twice individuals who are members of two separate unions.
On the basis of the Labour Force Survey figures, just under a quarter of employees (24%) were union members in 2018.
Unions organising workers in the island of Ireland belong to a single trade union body, the ICTU, with 43 individual affiliated trade unions. The ICTU covers both the Republic of Ireland, where there are 517,830 members, and Northern Ireland (part of the UK), where there are 196,024, giving a total of 713,854 (figures for 2018). The affiliated unions include unions based in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland as well as 19 British-based unions. There are only a handful of unions outside the ICTU. The largest is the National Bus and Rail Union with 3,012 members (as at 31.12.2014).
Although the ICTU plays an important part in relations with government, it is a grouping of independent and autonomous unions rather than a confederation dominating and directing the unions which belong to it.
By far the largest union affiliated to the ICTU is SIPTU, a general union, with membership in many industrial sectors. SIPTU has 173,000 members in the Republic of Ireland, a third (33.5%) of the ICTU’s membership in the Republic, and 7,000 members in Northern Ireland. The next largest unions in the Republic of Ireland are the public services union Fórsa, with 89,401, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), with 39,150, the technical and construction union Connect, with 39,000 members and the retail workers' union MANDATE, with 33,462. The membership of all these unions is exclusively in the Republic of Ireland. The UK-based union Unite is the ICTU’s third largest affiliate, with 54,778 members, but only 21,440 are in the Republic of Ireland, with the rest (33,338) in Northern Ireland (all figures as at 31 December 2018).
Both Fórsa and Connect are the result of recent mergers. Fórsa was created when three previously independent public service unions, IMPACT, CPSU and PSEU merged in January 2018. Connect resulted from the merger of the technical, engineering and electrical union TEEU with the Republic of Ireland membership of the former UK building union UCATT, also in January 2018.
The ICTU is not affiliated to any political party, and it and its affiliated unions cooperate with governments irrespective of their political composition. However, there are historic links with the Irish Labour Party which was founded following a motion at the ICTU conference in 1912.
In the past a handful of unions, including the largest, SIPTU, were directly affiliated to the Labour Party. However, in April 2017, the Labour Party changed its constitution ending organisational affiliation, but creating a separate section – Labour Trade Unionists – for union members in the party. SIPTU continues to provide financial support to its members running for political office, but this is no longer limited to Labour Party candidates but available to members standing for any party, or as independents, provided that they pledge to support the union’s policies.
Union density – the proportion of employees who are union members – has been as much affected by the changes in overall employment in Ireland as by changes in union membership itself. The figures from the Central Statistical Office show that during the employment boom in the late 1990s and the early 2000s the number of union members rose by about 100,000, but union density fell – from 46% in 1994 to 30% in 2007 – as unions found it difficult to break into many of the growing sectors of the economy.
In the economic crisis that began in 2008, union density initially went up – rising to 32% in 2010 – as union membership fell less rapidly than overall employment. However, from 2011 to 2016 both union membership and union density fell, with membership dropping from 498,000 to 416,000 while density fell more sharply from 32% in 2011 to 23% in 2016.
In the most recent period, union membership has again risen – to 461,000 in 2018, but density has increased only slightly to 24%, as overall employment has also grown.
The ICTU figures reflect this change as its membership in in the Republic of Ireland grew gradually to a peak of 612,676 in 2009 but has since fallen by 15.5% to 517,830 in 2019.
The Labour Force Survey does not break down union membership between the public and private sectors. However, figures from the ICTU show that union density is much higher in the public sector than in the private sector. Almost half of the ICTU’s membership in the Republic of Ireland (47.5%) is in the public sector. However, the public sector, including what are described as semi-state bodies, only amounts to around a fifth (20.5%) of all employees. .
Union density, at 26%, is higher in services, which include public services, than in manufacturing, where it is 17%, and much higher than in agriculture, forestry and fisheries, where it is just 4%.
The Labour Force Survey figures show that union density is higher among women (27%) than among men (21%) and there are 256,000 women in unions, compared with 206,000 men. The ICTU membership in the Republic of Ireland is also majority female, with 273,201 women members recorded and 244,629 men. As a result women account for 52.8% of total ICTU membership in the Republic of Ireland.
 Labour Force Survey, Quarter 2 2018; CSO, Ireland
 Report of the Executive Council 2017-19, ICTU, 2019
 Report of the Executive Council 2017-19, ICTU, 2019 and Report of the Executive Council 2007-09, ICTU, 2009
 CSO figures show that there were 1,996,800 employees in Q1 2019 but public sector employment, including semi-state bodies in Q1 2019 was only 403,100 CSO EHQ10: Public Sector Employment and Earnings
 CSO Labour Force Survey: Employees aged 15 years and over who are members of a trade union by broad NACE Rev. 2 Economic Sector, Quarter 2
A series of National Partnership Agreements provided a non-binding framework for pay bargaining from 1987 to 2009. However, this system collapsed as a result of the economic crisis, and the country returned to company level bargaining in the private sector with a relatively low level of coverage, although the public sector continues to be covered by national bargaining.
From 1987 to 2009 collective bargaining in Ireland took place within the framework of a series of national agreements (National Social Partnership Agreements), between the union confederation, the ICTU, the employers’ association IBEC, the government and other groups. These agreements dealt with pay but also tackled broader economic and social issues. They did not have legal force, but unions and employers' organisations were expected to exert discipline on their own members to ensure they kept to the terms of the agreements. Disputes related to their implementation at industry or local level could be referred to two state bodies the Labour Relations Commission (LRC) and, in the case of a failure to reach agreement, to the Labour Court.
This system broke down under the impact of the economic crisis, and finally ended in December 2009, when the government announced it intended to impose pay cuts in the public sector, and IBEC formally withdrew from the last social partnership agreement (signed in 2006 and updated in the light of the crisis in 2008). Even before this date many private sector companies were not implementing the pay element of the deal.
Since then pay in the private sector has been set primarily at company level, either through negotiations in unionised companies or through a unilateral decision by the employer where unions are not present. Initially negotiations were conducted within the framework of a voluntary protocol “for the orderly conduct of industrial relations and local bargaining in the private sector” signed by the ICTU and IBEC in 2010. This did not set any pay norms, but it did state that both sides would encourage their members “to abide by established collective agreements” and ensure that “local negotiations … take place on the expiry of existing agreements.” The protocol was initially only valid during 2010 but it was extended in February 2011 and again in October 2012.
At the start, a majority of private companies covered by collective bargaining maintained pay freezes. However, a study looking at pay increases after 2011 found that unions were able, through a coordinated strategy, to achieve increases of around 2% a year in most companies where they negotiated. More recently pay increases have been higher, with the annual CIPD/IRN pay surveys showing an average basic pay increase of 3.0% in 2016, 3.1% in 2017 and 3.0% in 2018.
However, the surveys also make clear that only a minority of private sector employers are covered by collective bargaining. The 2019 survey states that “Less than one third of companies in the survey engaged with trade unions for collective bargaining”. The survey indicates that the proportion of employees covered may be larger, as “these [companies covered by collective bargaining] tended to be large employers with over 250 employees, 68%, compared to only 8% of organisations with less than 50 employees”. However, on the other hand, those completing the survey, members of CIPD in Ireland, the body for HR professionals, and subscribers to IRN industrial relations news service, seem more likely to be covered by collective bargaining than other employers.
As well as company level bargaining, in some industries terms and conditions are set at industry level with statutory support.
There are two statutory mechanisms for setting minimum rates at industry level:
- Employment Regulation Orders (EROs); and
- Sectoral Employment Orders (SEOs).
Both are the result of relatively recent legislation that was introduced to take account of court decisions which declared the previous legislation to be unconstitutional. It is also important to note that the impact of these two provisions, in terms of the industries covered is relatively limited.
Employment Regulation Orders are regulations drawn up under the terms of the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2012. This provides for Joint Labour Committees (JLCs) to be set up to fix pay rates and some contractual terms for employees in specific industries. The JLCs consist of equal numbers of employer and employee representatives plus an independent chair and vice chair and “operate in areas where collective bargaining is not well established and wages tend to be low”. In drawing up the recommendations on pay rates the JLCs must take specific account of the interest of employers and the need to maintain competitiveness. The recommendations are adopted by the Labour Court and then given statutory force by the government. The legislation also allows employers to be exempted from the rates in the case of financial difficulties.
There are now seven industries with JLCs covering:
- agricultural workers;
- contract cleaning;
- hotels (excluding Cork);
- retail, grocery and allied trades; and
- the security industry.
However, in practice only two of the JLCs, those for contract cleaning and the security industry, are functioning as intended, and setting minimum terms and conditions. The others have not drawn up proposals for minimum pay rates, which can only be done on the basis of a joint proposal for the employers and worker representatives. In the view of the ICTU, this means that the intention of the law has “been subverted by the concerted actions of employers in refusing to nominate employer members to those Committees”. With only two industries (contract cleaning and security) covered by EROs many fewer employees are benefitting from their protection than was the case before the system was successfully challenged in the courts by the employers in 2011.
The second mechanism for setting minimum pay levels in particular industries is provided by Sectoral Employment Orders. In contrast to EROs, which cover industries with low levels of bargaining coverage, SEOs are for industries where a high proportion of employees are covered by collective bargaining and they are similar to the extension mechanisms found in other countries.
The legislation under which SEOs can be introduced is the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2015 which came into force in August 2015.As well as improving the situation where unions are not recognised (see section on employee representation), the 2015 legislation allows unions and/or employers’ associations to ask the Labour Court to review the pay and key conditions of employees in a specific industry. However, in order to be able to make this request the unions or employers’ must be “substantially representative” of the workers or employees in that industry. They Labour Court will then review the situation and may make a recommendation to the minister that an SEO should be made, setting levels of pay, overtime pay, sick pay and pensions that all employers in that industry must observe. In deciding whether or not to make a recommendation, the Labour Court must, among other things take account of “the terms of any relevant national agreement” and the potential impact of the SEO on employment and competitiveness. The Labour Court is able to exempt individual companies from complying with the terms of an SEO, but only where the business is facing “severe financial difficulties”.
In fact only three industries are covered by SEOs: construction, mechanical engineering and electrical contracting.
These SEOs replace what were formally known as Registered Employment Agreements, where the two parties to an agreement could make a joint request to the Labour Court to makes its terms binding on all the employers in the industry. However, this practice was ruled to be unconstitutional in 2013. Registered Employment Agreements continue to exist as a way of giving legal force to the terms of a collective agreement, in a way that normal collective agreements, which are not legally binding, do not. However, they are only binding on the company that signs the agreement and do not have industry-wide application. By mid-2019 three of these new-style Registered Employment Agreements had been registered with the Labour Court.
In the public sector, such as in the health service or the civil service, bargaining on pay continues to be at national level. Following the imposition of pay cuts on the public sector during the crisis, the government reached agreement with public sector unions on pay cuts in June 2010, and in a follow-on agreement, which involved further pay cuts for higher-paid employees, which was finally accepted in July 2013. The agreements which have followed have started to restore pay to its pre-crisis levels.
There are no national statistics on the coverage of collective bargaining. Overall, the OECD, using the figures from the ICTWSS database, estimates that a third of employees (32.5 %) were covered by collective bargaining in 2014.
Who negotiates and when?
The national partnership agreements, which were in place between 1987 and 2009, were negotiated between the ICTU for the unions, IBEC for the employers, and the government, with other groups, such as farming and voluntary organisations also involved. These negotiations no longer take place.
Currently negotiations in the private sector are normally between unions or groups of unions and individual employers or employers' federations. Trade unions and employers’ organisations must be registered with the Register of Friendly Societies and need a licence to negotiate. This system aims to exclude bodies which are very small or financially unviable.
Negotiations at company level are typically undertaken by shop stewards (workplace union representatives), although often with the support of a full-time union official. It is also possible for negotiations to take place with an “excepted body”, a group of employees in a single employer who come together to negotiate their own pay and conditions and must be independent of the employer. (The rules on excepted bodies’ right to negotiate were tightened in 2015 – see section on workplace representation.)
In the public sector, negotiations are between the government and the Public Services Committee of the ICTU.
There is no obligation on employers to negotiate with unions, irrespective of the level of their membership in the company concerned. However, legislation (the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2015) can compel companies to provide terms and conditions similar to those in other companies (see section on workplace representation).
Collective agreements can be signed at any time during the year and usually last between one year and three years.
The subject of the negotiations
The national partnership agreements used to set pay increases, but they also dealt with a wider range of other social topics. This has ended, and the range of topics covered by collective bargaining is now substantially reduced, even in the public sector, where national level bargaining still takes place.
Negotiations at company level cover pay and a wide range of conditions issues, including pensions, sick pay, maternity and paternity arrangements and other conditions issues like leave. The SEOs are obliged to cover pay, sick pay and pensions.
Ireland has had a national minimum wage since 2000, which is set by the government. The 2000 legislation gave an explicit role to national partnership agreements in fixing the rate, although the final decision remained with the government. Following the collapse of the national partnership agreement in 2009, the minimum wage remained unchanged at its 2007 level until January 2016. (The one exception was the six months in 2011, when it was cut by 12%. However, this cut was reversed following a change of government.)
New legislation in 2015 set up a Low Pay Commission, made up of representatives of unions, the employers and independent academics, whose main role is to make recommendations on the level of the national minimum wage. Starting in January 2016 it has gone up each year since then. Figures from the CSO indicate that 7.6% of employees earned the National Minimum Wage or less in the fourth quarter of 2018.
 According to a survey by the employers’ association IBEC, 57% of respondents were freezing pay and 10% cutting it at a time when the Transitional Agreement provided for a three month pay freeze followed by a 3.5% pay increase. IBEC Business sentiment survey May 2009 – Quarter 2,2009
 The durability of coordinated bargaining: Crisis, recovery and pay fixing in Ireland by William K Roche and Tom Gormley, in Economic and Industrial Democracy, 2017
 CIPD-IRN private sector pay surveys 2017 to 2019, https://www.cipd.ie/knowledge/hr-fundamentals/pay/survey (Accessed 15.08.2019)
 Workplace Relations Commission https://www.workplacerelations.ie/en/what_you_should_know/hours-and-wages/employment%20regulation%20orders/ (Accessed 16.08.2019)
 Realising the Transformative Effect of Social Dialogue and Collective Bargaining in Ireland, ICTU, July 2019 https://www.ictu.ie/download/pdf/156283954032063131.pdf (Accessed 18.08.2019)
 Public Service Agreement, 2010-2014 (known as the ‘Croke Park Agreement’), June 2010 and the Public Service Stability Agreement, 2013-2016 (known as the ‘Haddington Road Agreement’), May 2013
 Public Service Stability Agreement 2013-2018 (Known as the’ Lansdowne Road Agreement’, May 2015) and the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018 – 2020, June 2017
 OECD Stat: Collective bargaining coverage https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=CBC (Accessed 16.08.2019) and J. Visser, ICTWSS Database. version 6.0. Amsterdam: Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labour Studies (AIAS), University of Amsterdam. June 2019
 Ireland: life after social partnership by Vicenzo Maccarrone, Roland Erner and Aidan Regan in Collective bargaining in Europe: towards an endgame, edited by Torsten Müller, Kurt Vandaele and Jeremy Waddington, ETUI, 2019
 LFS National Minimum Wage Estimates, Q4 2018
There is no statutory system for permanent employee representation in Ireland. Those who work in unionised workplaces have representation though the union. New procedures have been introduced as a result of the EU directive on information and consultation, but they have not made much difference.
In most cases in Ireland, employees are either represented through their unions, or not represented at all.
Some public agencies and state-owned companies have statutory works council type bodies for information and consultation – so-called sub-board structures – as part of a general framework of participation, and in the private sector, some organisations have set up works council type bodies on a voluntary basis. However, these bodies are not very common and are often in addition to union representation. There are also so-called “excepted bodies”, which have a right to negotiate but whose members must all be employed by a single employer. (The rules on an excepted body’s right to negotiate were tightened in 2015 – see below.)
The current primacy of trade unions as the channel for employee representation is outlined by the official Code of Practice on employee representatives published by the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), which replaced the former Labour Relations Commission in 2015 . The Code, which is not itself legally binding but whose provisions can be taken into account by the courts, defines employee representatives as individuals "employees of an undertaking or establishment who have been formally designated employee representatives for that undertaking or establishment by a trade union...” and who participate in negotiations. However, the Code also makes clear that the term union also includes excepted bodies.
Union representatives are elected by their trade union colleagues at the workplace or appointed by the union in line with the rules and practices of individual unions and agreements between companies and unions. These elected representatives are often called shop stewards, particularly in manufacturing industry, but there are also a range of other names such as union representatives or office representatives.
Representation through the union depends on the attitude of the employer. While employees have a constitutional right to join a union, it has been determined by the Irish Supreme Court (in 1946) that the employer also has a constitutional right to decide whether or not to deal with them – whether to “recognise” the union as representing the workforce. There is, therefore, no mechanism to compel an employer to recognise the union or to deal with employee representatives.
In 2001, procedures were introduced (and improved in 2004) which, although they could not compel employers to recognise a union, were intended to require them to improve their employees’ terms and conditions where it could be shown that the union wanted to negotiate but the employer refused, and there was, therefore, no collective bargaining. However, the victory of the airline company Ryanair, in the Supreme Court in 2007, using the argument that collective bargaining had taken place with a committee of employee representatives, made the legislation unusable for the unions.
Under pressure from judgements on collective bargaining from the European Court of Human Rights, the government introduced new legislation (the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2015), which includes a definition of collective bargaining for the first time. To be accepted as collective bargaining under the terms of the Act, it must take place between an employer and a trade union or an “excepted body”. However, an excepted body has to be genuinely independent of the employer, and in judging whether this is the case, the Labour Court can take account of how its members are elected, the frequency of elections, the financing of the excepted body and the length of time it has been in existence. Where the employer cannot demonstrate that collective bargaining either with a union or a genuinely independent excepted body has taken place, and where a union can prove that there is a dispute at the company and that a “not insignificant” number of workers wish to be represented by the union the Labour Court can act to impose appropriate terms and conditions on the employer. However, in assessing the terms and conditions to be imposed the Labour Court must consider the position at unionised and non-union companies and in comparable companies outside Ireland.
However, although this legislation means that employers may be required to improve the terms and conditions of their employees as a result of a dispute with a union, it does not change the fact that there is no requirement for employers to recognise a union, if they do not wish to do so.
The EU directive on information and consultation (2002/14/EC), which gave employee representatives in companies with at least 50 employees the right to be informed and/or consulted across a range of economic and financial issues does not seem to have had a major impact. The Irish legislation implementing the directive, adopted in 2006, does not require all companies covered by it to establish employee bodies for information and consultation. The process only begins if 10% of employees, with a lower limit of 15 and an upper limit of 100, ask for information and consultation rights, or the employer takes the initiative.
Negotiations then start between the employer and employee representatives, who automatically include union representatives if the employer recognises unions and they represent at least 10% of the workforce. They have six months to negotiate an agreement, which they can agree to extend for another six months, with fall-back arrangements if the negotiations fail. These provide for an information and consultation forum, elected by all employees, which should meet the employer at least twice a year (see below for the issues to be covered).
Where there were already agreements on information and consultation signed before the legislation came into force, they can continue, provided they meet some basic conditions.
This fairly complex procedure, in particular the requirement that 10% of employees have to ask for their rights before the process can start, means that the legislation appears to have had little impact. There was no change in the proportion of employees in workplaces with formal partnership arrangements, between 2003 (before the legislation) and 2009 (after the legislation). In both years the National Workplace Survey estimated it at 16%.
There are no recent figures on the extent to which employees are represented at work by unions. The 2009 National Workplace Survey, looking at employee responses, found that just under half of all employees (47.3%) were in workplaces where there was a union or staff association presence: 36.3% in the private sector and 87.2% in the public sector. However, these figures relate to 2009, a time when a third of employees (32%) were in unions compared with a quarter (24%) in 2018. It is likely that the proportion of employees in unionised workplaces has fallen to reflect the decline in the number of union members, but there are no statistics to confirm this.
Figures from Eurofound’s 2013 European Company Survey show that at that point 28% of establishments in Ireland with at least 10 employees had some form of official employee representation, either through the union or in some other way. The Irish figure is somewhat below the EU28 average of 32%. As elsewhere in Europe, larger organisations were much more likely to have such a structure than smaller ones. The survey shows that 80% of establishments with more than 250 employees had representation, and 52% of those with between 50 and 249 employees. In smaller workplaces in Ireland, those with between 10 and 49 employees, a quarter (25%) had employee representation.
Numbers and structure
There is no set relationship between the number of trade union representatives and the number of employees. However, the Workplace Relations Commission’s Code of Practice on employee representatives states that the number of employee representatives should be "reasonable" in the light of a number of factors, such as the size of the workplace, the number of union members and the number of separate unions involved.
The Irish trade union structure means that there may sometimes be more than one union in a single workplace, dealing with different grades or occupations. Where this happens, there is usually a joint union committee, with an elected chair or convenor. This is particularly the case in larger state-owned companies.
The information and consultation legislation, passed in 2006, also allows the size of any body set up to deal with information and consultation to be negotiated. But under the standard rules, which come into effect if there is no agreement, the information and consultation forum should have between three and 30 members.
Tasks and rights
The lack of a statutory framework means that there is no precise schedule of the tasks and rights of employee representatives, which applies across the country. Typically a shop steward will have at least two roles: representing the union to members and potential members at the workplace; and taking up members' concerns with the employer both on an individual and collective basis.
The work on behalf of the union includes distributing union material, putting up notices on behalf of the union, collecting union subscriptions (if they are not collected by the employer) and recruiting new union members.
A second key part of the work on behalf of the members is taking up individual grievances and representing employees in difficulties with the employer, for example in disciplinary cases, although in particularly complex or serious cases the local representative will often be helped by a full-time official of the union.
Union representatives may also be involved in collective bargaining, particularly in the private sector (see section on collective bargaining).
The extent of information and consultation rights, under the 2006 legislation, is initially a matter for agreement between the employer and employee representatives. However, the fall-back provisions if there is no agreement require the employer to provide information on the “recent and probable development” of the company’s business and to inform and consult on issues connected to employment, particularly where jobs might be threatened. This includes current redundancies and transfers. If there is no information and consultation agreement, and no information and consultation forum has been set up under the fall-back procedure, then the union should be consulted on these issues. If there is no union, those facing redundancy or transfer are instead represented by “a person or persons chosen by such employees from among their number to represent them”.
Election and term of office
The procedures for the selection of trade union representatives are regulated in union rulebooks and in the agreements reached between the company and the union. The rules of the largest Irish union SIPTU provide either for election by members at the workplace or appointment by a union official (Sector Organiser). The official Code of Practice recommends that employee representatives should normally have a minimum of one year's service with their employer before being elected and that their appointment should be confirmed in writing "by the union to the employer".
The arrangements for choosing employee representatives to receive information and be consulted under the 2006 legislation are, in the first instance, to be agreed. If there is no agreement, then the fall-back procedure provides for an election where all employees vote. All employees with at least one year’s service can stand as candidates, and candidates must be nominated either by a recognised union or at least two employees.
Protection against dismissal
The Code of Practice says that employee representatives should not be dismissed, be unfairly selected for redundancy or suffer other discrimination because of their status or activities, unless the union has been consulted in advance. If they are dismissed under these circumstances without consultation with the union the courts will normally order their re-instatement.
An employee exercising information and consultation rights under the 2006 legislation also has protection against unfair treatment.
Time off and other resources
There is no legal entitlement to a set amount of time off for employee/union representatives to undertake their duties. However, the Code of Practice says that they should be given the time off "necessary ... for carrying out their functions" and "reasonable limits may be set". Often time off arrangements will be regulated in an agreement with the employer, but where this is not the case employee representatives should ask for permission beforehand. Time off should include time for trade union meetings which relate to their activities as employee representatives. The Code of Practice also says that pay for time off should be agreed with the employer in advance.
In practice the extent of paid time off varies greatly from organisation to organisation. Where there are a large numbers of employees, and the union is well organised, one or more trade union representatives may be completely released from normal duties. But in other cases time off may be very limited.
On facilities, the Code of Practice recommends that employee representatives should have "reasonable access" to workplaces where they have members, a place to put up trade union notices, an opportunity to collect subscriptions from members and to distribute union material to members. They should also have access to the appropriate level of management. How this works in practice will vary from workplace to workplace. The Code recommends that management and unions should try to reach agreement on exactly what facilities are necessary.
An employee exercising information and consultation rights under the 2006 legislation also has the right to “reasonable facilities, including time off”, although this is subject to the “needs, size and capabilities of the organisation concerned”.
The Code of Practice states that, when a representative is appointed, the union “should provide relevant information, advice and training to employee representatives on their principal functions and duties”, and that the employer can provide additional training. It also says that employee representatives should be given “reasonable time off for … training courses which relate to their activities as employee representatives”. However, here, as elsewhere in the Code, no set amounts are stipulated.
Representation at group level
Just as there is no statutory structure for employee representation at workplace level, so there is no structure at higher levels of the group. Meetings of employee representatives at group level are on a voluntary basis at the initiative either of the union or the employer. The situation varies from case to case, but they will almost certainly meet if collective bargaining is conducted at a group level.
 Code of Practice on the duties and responsibilities of employee representatives Workplace Relations Commission
 Industrial Relations (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2004
 The National Workplace Surveys 2009, Volume 1, The Changing Workplace: A Survey of Employers’ Views and Experiences by Dorothy Watson, John Galway, Philip J. O’Connell and Helen Russell, National Centre for Partnership and Performance, 2010
 Eurofound (2015), Third European Company Survey – Overview report: Workplace practices – Patterns, performance and well-being, Figures for Table 44
Employee representatives in Ireland’s single-tier boards are only found in the state-owned sector, where they normally account for a third of the total.
There is no statutory requirement for board level representation in the private sector – Ireland has a single-tier board system. Some parts of the public sector are, however, covered by legislation that gives employee representatives a right to seats on the board of state-owned enterprises and agencies. The representatives are normally known as worker directors. As well as public bodies, such the Courts Service, there are a number of state-owned businesses with employee representatives at board level. They include: the national postal service, An Post; Dublin airport, DAA; the national transport group, CIE; the peat processing company Bord na Móna; the Electricity Supply Board; Dublin Port; the gas and water company, ervia; the Shannon Group (including Shannon airport); and the forestry company, Coíllte.
In the larger companies, An Post, DAA, CIE, Bord na Móna and the ESB covered by legislation passed in 1977 and 1988, employee representatives have a third of the seats on the board (usually four out of a board of 12 directors who also include the chief executive, although An Post has five out of 13). Candidates are nominated by the unions, who have sole nominating rights, but elected by the whole workforce. The relevant minister then appoints the successful candidates. Individuals serve for four years. 
In other companies, including Coíllte, the Shannon Group, ervia and Dublin Port, where the legal basis for employee board-level representation is different, there are only one or two worker directors.
The extent of employee representation at board level has to some effect been affected by the privatisation of previously state-owned companies, of which the best example is Aer Lingus, the former state-owned airline. This began to be privatised in 2006 , and is now part of the International Airlines Group, which owns British Airways and Iberia. However, important companies remain in state hands and have retained employee representation at board level.
 Board-level employee representatives – impact and future by Kevin P O’Kelly, NERI Labour Market Conference, May 2017 https://www.nerinstitute.net/download/pdf/20170519135936.pdf (Accessed 16.08.2019)
With no universal statutory structure of employee representation, Irish members on European bodies are normally elected by the workforce as a whole in a special ballot. However, the situation is different for some of the structures of the European Company.
European Works Councils
Irish members of the special negotiating body (SNB) for an EWC are either elected by the employees; or appointed by the employees; appointed by central management on a basis agreed with the employees. Both employees and full-time trade union officials can be chosen.
The situation is the same for Irish members for an EWC established under the fallback procedure, as set out in the annex to the directive. However here they must be company employees.
Irish members of the special negotiating body (SNB) for the European company are elected by the employees and both employees and full-time trade union officials can stand as candidates.
It is the SNB that decides the method for appointing or electing members of the SE representative body, set up under the terms of the annex to the directive.
Irish employee representatives at board level, under the fallback rules, are chosen by the Irish members of the SE representative body from among themselves.
Further information on the national SE legislation can be found here.
Safety representatives, chosen by the employees, are the main channel for representing employees in the area of health and safety in Ireland, and it is up to the employees at the workplace to decide how their representatives should be chosen. It is also possible to set up joint employer/employee safety committees, provided the employer agrees.
Basic approach at workplace level
It is the duty of the employer to “ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the safety, health and welfare at work of his or her employees”. However, employers must also consult employees and/or their safety representatives to promote and develop the means to do this.
Employee health and safety bodies
The main structures for representing employees in the area of health and safety are safety representatives, selected by the employees, and safety committees, which are joint employer/employee bodies. However, safety committees can only be set up with the agreement of the employer
Numbers and structure
The legislation permits all employees to select one safety representative to represent them in consultations with their employer in the area of health and safety. However, if the employer agrees they can select more than one. Guidance produced by the Health and Safety Authority in Ireland suggests that the number of employees, the type of work, shift arrangements and the number of workplaces should all be taken into account in deciding on the number of safety representatives, but there is no legal right to more than one.
Where a safety committee is set up, it should have at least three members but no more than one for every 20 employees, up to a maximum of 10. It is a joint employee/employer body and, as the safety representative has a key role in representing employees in this area, at least one of the employee members should be a safety representative. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of safety committee members should be appointed by the employer. The number of employer-appointed members in relation to the overall size of the committee is set out in the table. In addition, the employer or someone nominated by the employer is also entitled to attend.
Total size of safety committee
Number of members appointed by the employer
3 to 4
5 to 8
9 to 10
Research by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work in 2014 found that 67% of workplaces in Ireland had health and safety representatives and 30% had a health and safety committee. These are both above the EU-28 averages, which are 58% for health and safety representatives and 21% for health and safety committees. (The figures are for workplaces with five or more employees.)
These figures are well about national estimates, which suggest that only around a fifth of workplaces have safety representatives. In its annual report for 2016, the official Irish health and safety body, the Health and Safety Authority, noted that “21% of all inspections for 2016 found that a safety representative was present at the place of work”.
Tasks and rights
The main function of the safety representative is to represent employees in consultations with the employer on health and safety matters.
Specifically, safety representatives must have access to information on:
- risk assessments;
- accidents, occupational illnesses and dangerous occurrences; and
- the results of the application of protective and preventive measures required under safety and health legislation.
They should be informed, by the employer, when a safety inspection is taking place must also be given copies of any notices (instructions to take action) served on the employer by the inspector, as well as of any letters from the employer to the safety inspectorate confirming that the employer has complied with any health and safety instructions received from the inspectorate.
In addition, safety representatives have a right to:
- inspect the workplace – the frequency of the inspections should be agreed between the safety representative and the employer, in the light of the hazards present and the size of the workplace;
- investigate accidents and dangerous occurrences (as long as this does not interfere with an investigation being carried out by a safety inspector);
- investigate complaints made by employees (after giving reasonable notice to the employer);
- accompany an inspector carrying out an inspection at the workplace;
- attend interviews between employees and an inspector, following an accident or dangerous occurrence – at the discretion of the inspector; and
- make representations to and be given information by the inspector in relation to health and safety at the workplace.
Safety representatives are also entitled to consult and liaise with other safety representatives in the same company.
Safety representatives have the right to make representations to the employer on any matter relating to health and safety or welfare at the workplace. The employer must consider these representations and “as far as is reasonably practicable” take the appropriate action.
The employer is specifically obliged to consult “in advance and in good time” on the following issues:
- any risk-protection and prevention measures;
- the appointment and duties of staff with safety and health responsibilities;
- the outcome of risk assessments on workplace hazards;
- the preparation of the safety statement;
- safety and health information to be provided to employees;
- reportable accidents (those involving at least three days’ absence) or dangerous occurrences;
- the engagement of safety and health experts or consultants;
- the planning and organising of safety and health training;
- the planning and introduction of new technologies, particularly their impact on working conditions and the working environment.
This consultation can be with the safety representative, or with the safety committee.
Unlike in some other countries, in Ireland, there is no specific right for safety representatives or members of the safety committee to interrupt work if there is a serious and imminent danger.
Frequency of meetings
Where there is a safety committee, it should meet at least once every three months for no more than an hour and the meetings should be held during working time. (The precise arrangements should be agreed with the employer.)
Election and term of office
The legislation does not set out any specific rules for the selection of either the safety representatives or the employee members of the safety committee. This is left to the employees at the specific workplace to decide. The same is true of the period of office.
Guidance from the Irish Health and Safety Authority suggests that employees could either use their normal processes for choosing a safety representative or elect him or her through a ballot of all employees. It also suggests that a three-year period of office would be appropriate. However, none of these suggestions are legally binding.
Resources, time off and training
Safety representatives should, according to the legislation, have “reasonable” time off with pay in order to carry out their functions and also acquire the “knowledge and training necessary” to do so. The training should be paid for by the employer. However, the legislation does not define a specific length of time to be provided for either carrying out the functions of a safety representative or being trained.
The same rules apply to the members of the safety committee.
Protection against dismissal
Safety representatives may not be penalised for carrying out their functions.
Other elements of workplace health and safety
Irish health and safety legislation is not prescriptive on the numbers or qualifications of health and safety experts or occupational physicians required to ensure a safe and healthy working environment. The legislation (the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005) states only that the employer must “appoint one or more competent persons” to carry out the necessary health and safety functions.
The number of individuals appointed and time spent on the tasks must be “adequate” having regard to the size of the workplace and the nature of the risks. The legislation also gives preference to direct employees over external experts, except when the external experts have greater knowledge. But there are no set numbers of experts who must be appointed or fixed amounts of time that they must spend on these tasks. A “competent person” is defined as someone with “sufficient training, experience and knowledge appropriate to the nature of the work”.
The ministry responsible for health and safety at work is the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation (DBEI). The Health and Safety Authority (HSA) is a statutory body responsible both for developing elements of health and safety policy and for monitoring compliance with health and safety law.
Trade unions and employers are able to influence health and safety policy through their presence on the board of the Health and Safety Authority. Both the unions and the employers have three seats, while the remaining members are appointed by the government to provide expertise and other perspectives.
There have been no changes to legislation in Ireland to take account of psychosocial risks. However, in guidance provided on its website the Health and Safety Authority states: “The Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005, requires employers to put in place systems of work which protect employees from hazards which could lead to mental or physical ill-health. There is an obligation on employers to risk assess all known hazards including psychosocial hazards, which might lead to stress.” It has also published a tool to help employers recognise stress factors.
Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005
 Second European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks, European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, 2016
 Health and Safety Authority: Annual Report 2016
 For more information on the national context see OSH system at national level – Ireland by Ceri Jones, Juliet Hassard, Tom Cox and Patricia Murphy, OSH Wiki https://oshwiki.eu/wiki/OSH_system_at_national_level_-_Ireland
The measures taken by the Irish government in the 1990s to develop and improve the statutory and fiscal regulations governing employee financial participation initially led to an increase in the number of profit-sharing and share ownership schemes, though the number later dropped. The current incidence of profit-sharing schemes in private-sector companies with 10 or more employees is currently 11% (according to the “European Company Survey”). The same survey shows that employee share ownership schemes exist in ca. 6% of Irish companies.
In Ireland, there has been a development towards more elaborate government support for financial participation schemes which started in the 1980s, resulting in employer and trade union organisations becoming involved in the discussion. Both unions and employee representatives have welcomed these schemes as a form of financial involvement and a support to partnership initiatives at the enterprise level.1 var obj = document.getElementById('note_hidden'); obj.value = obj.value + '1
1. Tuthill, G. (2001): Employee Share ownership in Ireland
The Finance Act of 1982 mark the entry of government into the field of financial employee participation. This legislation was intended to encourage the voluntary and widespread adoption of share-based profit-sharing. Finally, government offered tax concessions for companies and their individual employees. Indeed, such concessions would only be granted to companies establishing approved schemes.
In the 1984, 1986 and 1995 Finance Acts the government introduced a series of amendments considered to make the schemes more attractive to companies and participants.1 var obj = document.getElementById('note_hidden'); obj.value = obj.value + '1
1. Lavelle, J. et al. (2012): The determinants of financial participation schemes within multinational companies in Ireland. In: The International Journal of Human Resource Management, Vol. 23 (8), April 2012, 1590-1610.
In Ireland up to the economic and financial crisis there were favourable legal and tax conditions for financial participation models. The favourable legal framework is reflected in the relatively high number of participation schemes.
Generally, approved schemes operate as follows: First a trust is set up and trustees appointed. Then the involved company passes a sum of money, its profit-sharing contribution, to the trust. This money can be used by trustees to purchase shares in the company on behalf of all eligible employees. In order to seek approval for its profit-sharing / employee shareholding scheme a company must first apply in writing to the Revenue Commissioners, including relevant details. Approval will be forthcoming if the scheme meets specific requirements concerning the trust, participant eligibility and participant shares.1 var obj = document.getElementById('note_hidden'); obj.value = obj.value + '1
1. For further information see D’Art, D. and Turner, T. (2006): Profit Sharing and Employee Share Ownership in Ireland: A New Departure?, In: Economic and Industrial Democracy, Vol. 27 (4), 543-564. Lowitzsch, J. et al. (2012): Employee Financial Participation in Companies` Proceeds. Study requested by the European Parliament`s Committee on Employment and Social Affairs.
Trade union interest in the establishment of financial employee participation is mainly focussing on ensuring that workers receive a fair share of the gains emerging from the increases in productivity and profits. Trade unions do not just see financial participation as a means of securing a more equitable sharing of rewards, but also as an essential means of developing a broader employment relationship, for example, through a better partnership culture in the workplace and better participation of employees in enterprises.
At the end of 1984, in response to the Minister’s request, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) outlined its position on profit-sharing and employee shareholding. Reviewing schemes already established, Congress was critical of many aspects of their operation. After a series of amendments this position has been substantially modified and the trade unions took a more pragmatic approach. The Irish employers’ organisations are generally favourable towards workers’ financial participation.1 var obj = document.getElementById('note_hidden'); obj.value = obj.value + '1
1. Lowitzsch, J. et al. (2012): Employee Financial Participation in Companies` Proceeds. Study requested by the European Parliament`s Committee on Employment and Social Affairs.
- PPF, Programme for Prosperity & Fairness (nationale Partnerschaftsvereinbarung).
- European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (2007): Financial participation of employees in the European Union: Much ado about nothing? Background Paper.
- European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (2001): Employee Share ownership in Ireland (Tuthill, G.).
- European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, (2000): „New forms of employee financial participation“ (Dobbins, T.).
- Lowitzsch, J., Hashi, I. & Woodward, R. (2009): The PEPPER IV Report: Benchmarking of Employee Participation in Profits and Enterprise Results in the Member and Candidate Countries of the European Union. Country Profile Ireland.
- European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (2010): European Company Survey 2009. Overview. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.
- National Centre for Partnership and Performance (2009): The Changing Workplace: A Survey of Employees’ Views and Experiences. The National Workplace Surveys. Volume 2: Employees.
- Lavelle, J. et al. (2012): The determinants of financial participation schemes within multinational companies in Ireland. In: The International Journal of Human Resource Management, Vol. 23 (8), 1590-1610.
- McGrath, N., Collins, E. (2011): Employee Share Plans: Ireland. A Q&A guide to employee share plans law in Ireland.
- European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (2012): Fifth European Working Conditions Survey, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.
- Mathieu, M. (2012): Annual Economic Survey of Employee Ownership in European Countries 2012. European Federation of Employee Share Ownership.
- Lowitzsch, J. et al. (2012): Employee Financial Participation in Companies` Proceeds. Study requested by the European Parliament`s Committee on Employment and Social Affairs.
- Clifford Chance (2010): Employee Share Plans in Europe and the USA.
ICTU and affiliates
- ICTU - Irish Congress of Trade Unions
- AHCPS – Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants
- Unite (covers UK and Ireland)
- BATU - Building and Allied Trades Unions
- CPSU - Civil, Public and Services Union
- CWU - Commmunication Workers' Union of Ireland
- IBOA - Irish Bank Officials' Association
- IFUT - Irish Federation of University Teachers
- IMO - Irish Medical Organisation
- IMPACT - public sector trade union
- INMO - Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation
- INTO - Irish National Teachers' Organisation
- MANDATE - Union of Retail, Bar and Administrative Workers
- NIPSA – Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance
- PSEU - Public Service Executive Union
- SIPTU - Services Industrial Professional Technical Union
- TEEU – Technical, Engineering and Electrical Union
- TUI - Teachers' Union of Ireland
- UTU - Ulster Teachers’ Union
- Veterinary Ireland
- Veterinary Officers’ Association
- IBEC - Irish Business and Employers Confederation
- CIF - Construction Industry Federation
- IFA - Irish Farmers' Association
- SFA - Small Firms Association
- ISME - Irish Small & Medium Enterprises Association
- IHF – Irish Hotels Federation
- IPU - Irish Pharmaceutical Union
- ISA - Irish Software Association
- IEA - Irish Exporters Association
- SIMI - Society of the Irish Motor Industry
- Industrial Relations Research Trust
- LRC - Labour Relations Commission
- Labour Court
- FÁS - Training and Employment Authority
- HSA - Health and Safety Authority
- IDA - Industrial Development Agency
- CSO - Central Statistics Office
- Equality Authority
- ODEI - Office of Director of Equality Investigations
- National Disability Authority
- National Economic and Social Council
- ESRI - Economic and Social Research Institute
- IPC - Irish Productivity Centre
- IRN – Industrial Relations News