The Workforce Relations Commission faced unprecedented challenges last year due to the pandemic, but recovered almost €1.7m in unpaid wages for employees, according to its 2020 annual report published today.

During 2020, the WRC Inspectorate carried out 7,687 inspections, of which 5,202 were unannounced.

It detected 1,760 employers who were in breach of employment law, and recovered unpaid wages totalling €1.66m.

The WRC report notes that inspections are generally focused on sectors "where non-compliance is suspected or as a response to complaints received regarding alleged non-compliance by specific employers".

The report states that 147 joint inspections were carried out with An Garda Síochána and other regulatory bodies of the State - and 81 prosecutions were completed, with a 90% success rate.

Between 2015 and 2020, the WRC carried out 61 inspections of meat plants, almost half of which (48%) revealed breaches of employment law on issues including pay, working time, and employment permits.

Outstanding wages totalling almost €184,000 were recovered.

Of the 11 inspections carried out during 2020, five employers were found to be breaking the law.

Between 2015 and 2020, 380 inspections were carried out in the agriculture and horticulture sector.

The average overall "breach rate" came to 48% - largely due to inadequate record keeping resulting in working time and unpaid wages issues. Wages recovered for employees in this sector came to almost €406,000.

Following 41 inspections last year, 17 employers were found to be non-compliant.

In the fisheries sector, during 2020 the WRC conducted 31 "desktop" inspections and two on-board inspections covering 37 of the 180 vessels covered by the Atypical Work Permit Scheme for non-EEA fishers.

Thirty-six contraventions of employment rights or work permits legislation were detected, relating to 19 vessel owners.

This brought to 313 the number of breaches detected since the 2016 establishment of the Atypical Scheme.

Five cases were detected where fishers did not have permission to work in the State.

According to the WRC, the greatest challenge to service delivery triggered by the pandemic involved moving adjudication, mediation and conciliation services online.

Launching the report, the Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment acknowledged the recent Supreme Court finding that elements of the WRC's operations - including a blanket ban on public hearings and the failure to administer an oath to encourage truthful testimony - were unconstitutional.

It said both the department and the WRC are considering the judgment and necessary actions arising from it.

Since the ruling, hearings are being held in public, and hearings involving a conflict of evidence or facts are being adjourned until legislation is passed to permit the swearing of an oath or affirmation.

The report also reveals that in 2020, the WRC handled 53,000 calls - down from 55,000 in 2019 - and highlights its role in operating the Return to Work Safely Protocol, brokering a new public service agreement, and developing Codes of Practice.

Minister of State for Business, Employment and Retail Damien English noted that after the pandemic struck, the WRC had faced unprecedented challenges, but had acted quickly to adapt its services and continue to offer "fairness and good work practices for employers and employees across the country."

He said the WRC would continue to play a "pivotal" role in assisting employees and employers in Ireland in the move towards a jobs-led economic recovery post-pandemic.

WRC Director General Liam Kelly said that the WRC had successfully reshaped its adjudication service to allow the scheduling of hearings at a level more than a third higher than prior to Covid-19.

He said the WRC had also provided an uninterrupted information service, continued to mediate and conciliate disputes, monitored and enforced compliance with employment standards and assisted in the safe opening of work for staff and the public generally.

WRC Chairperson Dr David Begg described the 2020 outcomes as "positive".