Our crumbling infrastructure for equality is symbolised by the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC). There are other symbols, but this one still stands out. The Commission was a product of the economic crisis, the official turn against equality, and the disenchantment with public-sector bodies designated by a hostile media as ‘quangos’. It was created out of the merger of five different bodies, including the Equality Tribunal; though it has been more disappearance than merger for the Equality Tribunal.
The Equality Tribunal was a key part of a vibrant set of statutory institutions for equality during the 2000s. It was where cases under the Employment Equality Acts, prohibiting discrimination in employment; and under the Equal Status Acts, prohibiting discrimination in the provision of goods, services, education and accommodation; were heard and decided or mediated. The WRC was established to merge the National Employment Rights Authority, the Labour Relations Commission, the Rights Commissioner Services, and the complaints and referrals functions of the Employment Appeals Tribunal alongside the Equality Tribunal.
The problems started with the name for the new institution. Equality legislation stretches far beyond the confines of the workplace. Many of the more controversial cases pursued under equality legislation and dealt with by the Equality Tribunal related to the provision of services, in particular by the public sector. A concern for rights in accessing services is hardly reflected in a title of ‘workplace relations’.
The problems continued into the legislation for the new body in 2015. It was silent on issues of equality, diversity and discrimination where it set out the functions of the WRC. At best this focus can be implied in the general function to promote and encourage compliance with “relevant enactments”. Otherwise the functions are: promoting the improvement of workplace relations and maintenance of good workplace relations, providing guidance on compliance with codes of practice produced under the Workplace Relations Act 2015, reviewing and monitoring workplace relations, researching workplace relations, and providing advice to members of the public in relation to employment.
Inevitably the problems have now passed into the operations of the WRC. Civil society organisations have raised issues in relation to the visibility of equality in the work of the Commission, the accessibility of the Commission for those experiencing inequality, and the procedures of the Commission in cases of discrimination. These issues dominated a recent roundtable discussion convened by the Equality and Rights Alliance, the Independent Law Centres Network, the Employment Lawyers Association of Ireland, and SIPTU’s Workers Rights Centre.
WRC publications make little mention of equality cases and equality legislation. Its website, until recently, offered inadequate information and guidance on equality legislation, and continues to be difficult to use. The monthly reporting of the Equality Tribunal on equality cases decided or mediated – a valuable resource for tracking developments in implementing the equality legislation, has not been continued. There is no breakdown provided in Commission publications of cases by ground or field of discrimination and outcome.
Access to justice has, in effect, been diminished with the establishment of the WRC. The demands made on people experiencing discrimination, when lodging a claim, are impossibly onerous unless they get legal assistance. The right to mediation is illusory and rarely granted, apparently for lack of resources. There are only limited concessions in the operations of the Commission to reasonably accommodating diversity, in particular for people with disabilities.
There is no clarity offered as to the procedures to be followed in equality cases. Officers hearing cases appear to take different approaches. Legal practitioners openly express a loss of confidence in the competence of officers dealing with cases. The demands on complainants in making submissions take no account of the barriers faced by people experiencing inequality and discrimination and the limited resources they might have access to.
New leadership recently appointed to the WRC offers some hope that change in this sorry scenario might still be possible. There have been positive indications with feedback now encouraged, changes being made to the website, and meetings held with relevant civil society groups. Change, however, must be vigorously pursued if equality and non-discrimination are to be asserted as core functions in the practice of the Commission. The civil society roundtable agreed that a time-limited problem- solving working group should be convened by the Commission to bring the relevant stakeholders together to secure such an outcome. The convening of such a working group will be a key test of the willingness to change.
By Niall Crowley