The Irish Women Workers Union

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Landmark Legal Decisions

Best form of Interpretation for Judges – Mary Murphy & Others V Bord Telecom Eireann
1988 IRLR 267
Murphy V Bord Telecom Eireann is a significant case for law students and is studied in college today. It is used as the one of the best examples of how judges can interpret the legislation put in front of them.

The legal practitioner is a hostage to the interpretation of law where a judge can take a literal or harmonious interpretation. Now that EU law is precedent in Ireland most legal practitioners can now consider the harmonious approach instead if the literal interpretation results in an ‘absurdity’ of the law. The harmonious approach will always endeavour to encompass the intention of why the legislation was created. The Murphy case is a good example where the harmonious approach was favoured over the literal interpretation.

In the case of Murphy V Bord Telecom Eireann, a discrimination case regarding equal pay for equal work was taken initially to the Irish High Court. Mary Murphy and 28 other appellants were factory workers employed by Bord Telecom Eireann. They were engaged in tasks such as dismantling, cleaning, oiling and reassembling telephones and other equipment. The plaintiffs were women who were performing more work and yet earning less money than the men in their unit. The equality officer and the judge took a literal reading of the legislation insisting that they were performing work of a different duty and stated the plaintiffs were not performing ‘like work’ and dismissed the case based on the literal rule. However a harmonious approach in the ECJ (European Court of Justice) was used when the case was appealed and the plaintiffs won.

In the original case the Judge taking the literal rule ruled against the plaintiff stating it was completely different work and in fact it was recognised that the women were performing work of a higher value and could not be judged against the men in their unit. In contrast, the ECJ ruling promoted the harmonious approach encompassing the intention of the legislation i.e. equality of payment for same work completed. The ECJ also highlighted that Article 119 of the EEC should also cover work of a higher value completed by a person earning less than that of the person with whom a comparison is to be made and that to adopt such a contrary interpretation would be ‘ineffective and nugatory’.

Later the case returned to the High Court where J Keane also applied the harmonious approach and agreed with the ECJ ruling.Recently the LRC (Law Reform Commission) have recommended that the literal interpretation can give way to the harmonious if the literal interpretation conjures ‘absurdity’ in its reading. They have therefore recommended an allowance to depart from the literal meaning if such a literal reading is unable to faithfully reflect the true intention of the Oireachtas. Cases such as Murphy & others have influenced legal interpretation over the years.

Breda Nathan V Bailey Gibson Ltd and V Irish Printers Unions
Full Recommendation – 1997, AEE/96/13

Breda Nathan was a member of the IWWU and worked in a printing company Bailey Gibson ltd and had applied to the position of the carton folder/gluer. She had acted as assistant to the operator of the carton folder/gluer for ten years previously and he had retired due to ill-health.
However the company had a closed shop agreement with the IPU (Irish Printers Union) where people applying for certain positions had to have IPU membership.
Ms Nathan took a case against the employer as the IPU were able to obtain an unemployed male member of the IPU who had not worked for the company previously to the position she applied for.

Breda Nathan took a case against the employer stating three reasons:
The company had directly discriminated against her due to her sex and they had employed a man.
The IPU had directly discriminated against her as she could not obtain IPU membership.
That the company had indirectly discriminated against her as they had made it a requirement that the holder of the position had to have an IPU membership.

Ms Nathan did not win on the first two issues however she had a claim on the indirect discrimination case of point 3.
Researching the company statistics and the breakdown of union members, it was discovered that 21 out of 61 male members were eligible for the post but shockingly no female members were eligible. The percentage figures are then stated that 31% of men could apply and 0% of women members could apply from the existing pool of employees in the company. It was also discovered that the IPU had membership figures of 82% male and women 18% therefore women would substantially be more affected than men as an attribute to their sex when applying for such positions.

Ms Nathan’s claim for indirect discrimination was recognised and she received a monetary award to the value of £700.00. Both Ms Nathan and the company then appealed to the High Court and then to the Supreme Court. At this time, Ms Nathan was still unable to apply for the position.

The SC stated that the decision should be allowed for the appellant to prove that the practice bore significantly more heavily on women than on men and referred the matter back to the Labour Court .

In its final decision, the Labour Court stated that there was no casual link between obtaining an IPU membership card and the sex of the appellant but there had been an historical link i.e. that there had been more male craft members over the years than women. The Labour Court were also able to counter argue the findings of the Equality officer by stating that the Closed Shop agreement of the IPU had over the years affected more male members (who could not avail of IPU membership) of the company than women members as there were more male members in the company than women. In conclusion the Labour Court said that Ms Nathan had no case for discrimination and allowed the appeal by the company.

[Due to unions being organised by gender, this case could have also been seen as influential for the need for the IWWU to amalgamate with the ITGWU in later years.]