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Change is coming – and employment law will be affected

A PERIOD of "unprecedented change" is currently affecting employers and employers – and the biggest will be brought about by Brexit, according to Belfast leading law firm, Carson McDowell.

Partner in the award-winning firm, Orlagh O'Neill, said foundations which had long supported the traditional employment relationship were now shifting and, while this had empowered some, others were concerned by the associated uncertainty.

With this in mind, she said it was fitting that 'change' is the theme of this year's Irish News Workplace & Employment Awards with which Carson McDowell is involved as business partner.

"Perhaps the potential for the biggest change in employment law will be brought about by Brexit," Ms O'Neill said.

"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 40 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."

Whatever form Brexit takes, Ms O'Neill said it was important for employers and employees to have "stability and clarity", particularly surrounding access to EU markets and addressing any potential skills gap.

"Pay and wages is another hot topic in 2017," she said. "The introduction of new legislation to help close the gender pay gap has divided employers – some consider this development is long overdue, while others believe the measures are much too simplistic an approach for such a complex issue.

"Regulations will come into effect in Britain on April 6, but these cannot yet be introduced in Northern Ireland because of our Stormont impasse."

Ms O'Neill said many of Carson McDowell employer clients welcomed 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"

She added: "We have known for some time that gender balance can bring a myriad of benefits to a business, such as driving profitability and 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, she said, would be for government and the courts to tackle "unscrupulous employers", while still allowing businesses to remain sufficiently lean and efficient so they could "flex" to meet the peaks and troughs of client/supplier demand.

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

:: The 2017 Irish News Workplace & Employment Awards take place in Titanic Belfast on Thursday June 8. For entry pack and awards information visit www.irishnews.com/wea


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