Change is on the horizon for today’s employers

23 March 2017

Practice Area: Employment Law


The world of work is experiencing a period of unprecedented change affecting both employers and employees. Businesses are focussing on technology in order to drive efficiencies and open up new markets.  The foundations which have for so long supported the traditional employment relationship are shifting and this has empowered some whilst others are concerned at what they perceive as an uncertain future. 

It is fitting therefore that change is the theme of 2017’s Irish News Workplace and Employment Awards, which Carson McDowell is proud to be involved in this year as business partner.

Perhaps the potential for the biggest change in employment law will be brought about by Brexit. Initial reactions to the Leave vote highlighted the fear of both employers and employees of the uncertainty which could result from wholescale repeal of our employment laws introduced over the last forty years.   As the dust has settled and the Government sets out it strategy for negotiations to leave the EU, there has been some comfort for those worried that a wholesale repeal is on the cards. This is because much of the employment law deriving from Europe has become enshrined into our domestic law over time and in many instances is now incorporated into contracts of employment. Unpicking forty years of EU employment legislation is an enormously difficult task and not necessarily in our best interests.

Secondly, Prime Minister Theresa May recognising that the greatest number of votes to Leave came from the working population, moved quickly to reassure people that employment rights will not only be guaranteed but will be enhanced.

Whatever form Brexit takes, what is important for employers and employees is that we have stability and clarity, particularly around ensuring continued access to EU markets and addressing the inevitable skills gap that will arise if the rights of EU workers currently employed in the UK are not guaranteed.

Pay and wages is another hot topic in 2017. The introduction of new legislation to help close the gender pay gap has divided employers- some consider this development is long overdue whilst others believe the measures are much too simplistic an approach to a complex issue. Regulations will come into effect in Great Britain on the 6th of April but these cannot yet be introduced in Northern Ireland because of our Stormont impasse. They are among a number of measures waiting to be introduced by the Employment Act (NI) 2016. The Department for Communities is required to publish draft Regulations by June 2017 but of course all will depend on the progress made at Stormont.

Many of our employer clients welcome the introduction of formal measures looking at the difference in gender pay across their organisation recognising that these will complement other important work they are doing to address the barriers to diversity and inclusion at work such as unconscious bias. We have known for some time that gender balance can bring a myriad of benefits to a business - driving profitability, helping retain and motivate talent - all issues that really matter to Northern Ireland businesses.  

In the years since we moved out of recession, many of our clients are focusing on how they retain talented employees in a competitive market. More and more of them are looking at revising their contracts for key staff to reflect better remuneration, encouraging flexibility and providing opportunities such as training to mark their investment in career progression for their staff.

Another big trend we are seeing in our employment market is the rapid rise in the number of people who are self-employed or engaged on zero hours contracts.

Much of the public discussion around this development has focused on the self-employed such as Uber drivers who earn very little in the so-called “gig economy”.

But economic think tank the Resolution Foundation has highlighted that the growth of self-employment in the UK has in fact been driven by people in higher paid rather than low paid work. These people are usually consultants in a variety of sectors who are not interested in the traditional employment contract preferring flexibility regarding when and how they work. The challenge for government and the courts is to tackle those unscrupulous employers who are exploiting vulnerable workers and still allow businesses to remain sufficiently lean and efficient so that they can flex to meet the peaks and troughs of client and supplier demand.

These are some of the biggest changes in our employment landscape for many years but others will follow. The employment landscape will continue to evolve and it seems that evolution is picking up pace.