The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection has said legislation aimed at improving security of working hours for people with insecure employment contracts will strike a fair balance between the rights of employees and employers.
Speaking in the Dáil, Regina Doherty said the Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2017 will improve the security of working hours for people working unpredictable hours, amid rising casualisation of work.
A 2015 University of Limerick Report revealed that zero-hour contracts - where workers have to make themselves available for work without any guarantee of hours - were not widespread in Ireland.
However, the authors highlighted the rising prevalence of insecure so-called "if and when" contracts. The new bill is intended to address these contracts.
Ms Doherty told the Dáil the legislation will apply to all employers across all economic sectors - but where new rights are granted to employees, the measures would be proportionate and balanced.
She said the vast majority of employers who met their responsibilities under employment law would have nothing to fear from the new legislation as it aims to tackle exploitative employment arrangements.
She stated that the Bill addresses five key issues where employment law should be strengthened for the benefit of employees, without imposing unnecessarily onerous burdens on employers.
She said the Bill will oblige employers to give better information about their core terms of employment with a shorter timeframe.
Failing to do so will be an offence punishable with a fine of up to €5000 and/or 12 months in prison.
Ms Doherty added that the Bill would also strengthen the provisions around minimum payments for low-paid vulnerable employees who may be called in to work for a period, but are not provided with that work.
In such circumstances, that employee would be entitled to three times the minimum wage (totalling €28.65) on each occasion.
She said this was intended to discourage the unscrupulous practice of calling employees into work and then sending them home without work or more meaningful compensation.
Zero hours contracts will be prohibited except in "specific limited circumstances" involving cases of genuine casual work, emergencies or short-term relief work to cover routine absences.
The legislation will also ensure that workers on low-hours contracts who consistently exceed their contracted hours can be placed in a band of hours that better reflects the reality of their working hours over a period of 18 months.
However, the employer will be entitled to refuse the request for banded hours if the facts do not support the employee's claim, significant adverse changes have impacted on the business, emergency circumstances, where the hours worked by the employee were due to a genuinely temporary situation.
It will also strengthen the anti-penalisation provisions for employees who try to invoke a right specified in the legislation - with recourse to the Workplace Relations Commission, and potential compensation of up to two years gross salary.
Ms Doherty stressed that the legal definition of an "employee" will not change as a result of the new Bill - which will cover all workers on contracts of service.
She said the Bill is intended to exclude genuinely self-employed people - adding that any individuals who believe they are being denied employment rights appropriate to an employee will still be able to pursue a case to the WRC.
She also rejected opposition criticism that the Bill would not help people on so-called "if-and-when" contracts.