This morning’s Morning Ireland carried a report that some private hospitals are planning to cut the pay of nurses employed by them in 2010. This is not a surprising development, coming immediately after the State has cut the pay of publicly-employed nurses.
Liam Doran of the Irish Nurses Organisation was on the show and was understandably dissatsified that this cut might happen without any consultation or discussion with unions or employees. However, the increasingly bellicose Doran went on to say that the employers, in doing so, would be acting “illegally” and would be “breaking the law”. Is this correct?
Not in my understanding of what the phrases “illegal” and “breaking the law” mean. Murdoch’s Dictionary of Irish Law defines “illegal” as follows:
illegal. Unlawful; contrary to law; in violation of a law or a rule which has the force of law.
The definition of law is, to summarise, the body of rules which are binding on persons but that definition does not encompass private contracts.
Varying an employee’s terms and conditions of employment is a matter of contract between employer and employee. This means, of course, that to vary a core aspect of that contract, such as pay, the agreement of the employee is necessary and unilateral pay cuts are not generally possible.
In reality, many private sector employees (including thousands of solicitors) have had their pay cut, yet we do not see any rash of litigation on the issue. Perhaps some have agreed to the cut as part of a renegotiation package; many others have accepted the necessity of cuts and have acquiesced to unilateral changes.
By imposing a unilateral pay cut, an employer may have breached their contract with the employee. That employee has a range of options available to them (outlined here by Aoife Sweeney of Mason Hayes+Curran). But unliaterally changing the contract does not constitute “breaking the law” or acting “illegally”.