Employers could face criminal prosecution if they penalise employees for invoking their rights to certainty around working hours, under new legislation announced today.

The Minister for Employment and Social Protection Regina Doherty says the legislation is aimed at addressing the rise of precarious work, casualisation and zero-hour contracts. 

The legislation is intended to give better predictability and security of hours for workers on insecure contracts, and will ban zero-hour contracts "in most circumstances".  

It will also strengthen anti-penalisation protections for employees.

Under the legislation, employers must give employees five basic core terms of employment with five days of commencing employment.

These include the name and address of the employer, the expected duration of the contract, the rate or method of calculating pay, and what the employer reasonably expects the normal length of the employees' working day and week will be.

An employer who fails to do so within a month - or who deliberately misrepresents the required information - will be open to criminal prosecution under a new offence.

Zero hours contracts will be prohibited except in cases of "genuine casual work" - or where they are essential to provide cover in emergency situations or to cover short-term absences in areas like residential care settings. 

Regina Doherty said that while zero hours are not prevalent in Ireland, the Government wants to ensure that remains the position.

The Minister said the key objective of the Bill was to improve the security and predictability of working hours for employees on insecure contracts and those working variable hours - as well as improving employment protections for them.

She said it was not acceptable for employers to provide employment contracts so vague about the employee's working hours as to be completely meaningless. 

The bill also provides for a new minimum payment for low paid workers called into work but sent home again without the promised work or any meaningful compensation. 

That payment will be linked to the national minimum wage or to sectoral wage levels to ensure that it is focused on those most in need of stronger protections.  

The bill also contains provisions for banded hours to give better certainty regarding working hours and income.

Where an employee's contract provided for 15 hours per week, but they have actually worked an average of 30 hours over 18 months or more, they will be entitled to be placed in a weekly band of 25-34 hours to reflect the reality of their hours of work.  

Where an employer penalises a worker solely for invoking their rights under the legislation, the employee can pursue a penalisation case through the Workplace Relations Commission. 

The Minister described the proposals as balanced and fair to both employees and employers, adding that good employers would have nothing to fear from the legislation.  

She said the new legislation was aimed at tackling exploitative employment arrangements and unscrupulous employers who do not respect even the most basic rights of employees. 

The bill is being presented to the Dáil this week, and the Minister hopes to progress it as soon as possible in the new year. 

Employers who fail to deliver a day five statement of five core terms of employment - or who deliberately misrepresent that information - can face a fine of up to €5,000, and or imprisonment for up to 12 months. 

For less serious breaches, a Workplace Relations Commission inspector may issue a Fixed Payment Notice 
with a fine of around €1,500. 

At present there is no penalty for breaching a right under the Terms of Employment (Information) Act 1994 - but the new law will allow claimants to take a case to the WRC, where they can be awarded up to four weeks wages. 

Under the new legislation the WRC can award an employee up to two years salary if they are threatened with penalisation for invoking their rights under the Organisation of Working Time Act. 

Employers organisation opposes legislation

The Restaurants Association of Ireland has described the proposed legislation as a retrograde, populist step which would act as a disincentive to hiring staff.

Chief Executive Adrian Cummins said restaurant owners would be afraid to hire casual workers, and would be more inclined to hire one permanent person.

He said the real losers would be students and young people who needed flexible work.

However, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions described it as by no means perfect, but a step forward.

General Secretary Patricia King said they would be looking for amendments, including the definition of casual work, the 18-month look-back period, and the hourly rate of pay for those called in for work and then sent home.

Retail and hospitality union Mandate, which has led the campaign to tackle precarious employment, said any legislation aimed at protecting vulnerable zero and low-hour workers from exploitation should stay true to the recommendations made by the cross-party Joint Oireachtas Committee on Jobs report published earlier this year.

General Secretary John Douglas said they would continue to lobby TDs to ensure the bill reflects the minimum standard outlined in Mandate's Secure Hours = Better Future charter.

They include providing workers with secure hour contracts that reflect the reality of the average weekly hours worked, a maximum 'look-back' period of 12 months or less, and ensuring that the maximum width of all 'band of hours' is no greater than five hours per week