By Rosemary Lundy, Partner, Arthur Cox

It was former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt who once said that “to reach a port we must set sail – sail, not tie at anchor. Sail, not drift.”

Employment law in Northern Ireland has been drifting for a long time, with the recent return of the Executive sharpening the focus on just how far the region lags behind the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of employment legislation.

The difficulties had set in before the Assembly ceased functioning in 2022, but there is no doubt that the problem was exacerbated by the two-year Stormont hiatus.

We are now entering an important period for employment law, with the UK Government making more legislative and policy developments that Northern Ireland will not want to fall even further behind on.

The challenges around backdated holiday pay attracted a lot of headlines towards the end of last year, but that issue is only one part of the tricky legislation landscape that employers have to navigate.

A number of private members’ bills have been introduced by the UK Government, including new rights to carer’s leave, neonatal leave, the introduction of new flexible working rights and the extension of redundancy protection to pregnant employees, and those who have returned from family leave.

For example, last week (April 6) saw flexible working become a day-one right for all employees, no matter their length of service, while previously it was only those with 26 weeks’ service who were eligible to apply.

Employers will need to be cognisant of the fact that their staff are no longer required to set out what effect their proposed flexibility would have on the business, nor suggest how any effects could be dealt with.

While some of these reforms included in the private members’ bills are intended to apply in Northern Ireland, employers – particularly those with operations in the UK – must remember that employment law is a devolved matter, meaning it will be the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly to implement them.

Indeed, legislation for gender pay reporting is in place in Northern Ireland but has not been implemented yet, despite being introduced in England back in 2017. If the Assembly does not take this forward, it will add further to the logjam and potentially pose problems for employers in the months to come.

Well-prepared employers will undoubtedly have in mind the looming prospect of a UK General Election in the autumn, along with the potential implications of a Labour party victory.

Given the momentum behind Labour’s reform agenda, this would certainly be a good time for employers to consider how to prepare for the proposed changes and the implications they may have on businesses, such as making unfair dismissal a day-one right (currently one year in Northern Ireland and two years in Great Britain), banning zero-hour contracts entirely and strengthening trade union rights.

Irrespective of what a potential election may bring, change is already upon us in employment law. If Northern Ireland does not shift the dial, it will continue to drift and the legislative logjam will keep mounting.