Employers have warned that implementing reforms to govern low hours or precarious employment contracts could have serious consequences for employers, employees and the Exchequer.

The warnings were highlighted in submissions to the consultation process on low-hour contracts being overseen by Minister of State for Business and Employment Ged Nash.

This follows publication of last year's University of Limerick investigation of such contracts. Today is the final date for submissions.

The UL researchers investigated the prevalence of zero or low-hour contracts.

They found that while zero-hour contracts were not prevalent, up to 5.3% of the workforce were on variable-hours contracts, which delivered no certainty for the worker regarding hours of work or income.

Among its recommendations, the UL report proposed that people on so-called "if and when" contracts should be paid time and a half if they did not get at least 72 hours notice of working hours and should also be paid the normal rate where hours were cancelled at short notice.

In its submission, the Department of Education warned that the cost of hiring part-time teachers could rise significantly if recommendations to address issues surrounding low-hour contracts are implemented.

Employers group IBEC echoed the Department of Education concerns, describing some of the UL proposals on low-hour contracts as illogical, grossly unfair, punitive and disproportionate.

It also says the report does not adequately reflect evidence of demand from employees themselves for flexible and part-time work - and failed to analyse the potential impact and cost of its recommendations.

It says better data should be obtained through further research before legislative change is considered.

Meanwhile, the Restaurants Association of Ireland described the UL recommendations to address zero and low-hour contracts as a bridge too far which would add huge costs to running a restaurant.

The RAI said it disputes the term "if and when" contracts which it regards as part-time contracts.

It submitted that part-time contracts are used in the restaurant, hospitality and tourism sector where there are seasonal fluctuations in work, where it is difficult to predict the minimum level of staff required or where the need for urgent cover can arise.

The Irish Small and Medium Enterprises submission described many of the proposals as totally unworkable, unreasonable and unrealistic.

It said many employers required flexibility of working hours to meet fluctuating workload, while some employees would prefer "if and when" contracts  to facilitate childcare or educational obligations.

In these cases, "if and when" contracts were mutually beneficial, it added.

Unions welcome UL recommendations

The country's largest union, SIPTU, said the data reflected its experience of "creeping casualisation" in the labour market through variable-hours contracts.

It said it supported the recommendation that workers should be entitled to a legal right to a minimum number of working hours per week and called for even stronger standards than those outlined in the UL report. 

It also called for a robust system of enforcement to ensure compliance by employers.

SIPTU also acknowledged that certain sectors had particular requirements, and said it saw scope within collective bargaining arrangements between employers and unions to negotiate provisions to meet those requirements.

The submission of the Mandate trade union, which represents 45,000 low-paid retail and hospitality workers, welcomed most of the UL recommendations.

Mandate, which has led the campaign against precarious contracts particularly in its dispute with Dunnes Stores, notes that during the recession there has been a "hollowing out" of good jobs, which have been replaced by precarious, low-paid insecure contracts.

It denied that the proposals would add to the employers' costs burden.

The Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed said it generally welcomed the UL proposal to improve security for workers on low-hour and "if and when" contracts.

However, it warned that if people remained uncertain about their hours of work and income, it would make the route from welfare to work even more difficult - particularly once the additional costs of travel and childcare were factored in.