Two grooms should be employed for each horse – Labour Court
O'Brien gives evidence in appeal against Working Time Act notice
Aidan O’Brien on Monday stressed the inappropriateness of horseracing training yards not meeting the criteria for being recognised as agriculture workplaces during a Labour Court appeal hearing in Dublin, at which senior counsel for the Workplace Relations Commission suggested there should be two grooms to care for each horse.
The ratio of two separate grooms per horse, to allow for adequate time off for all staff under legislation that covers working hours, was also a point pressed through the hearing’s chair by committee member Sylvia Doyle, who was sitting alongside chairman and barrister Alan Haugh.
Since February 2016, racehorse training yards no longer qualify for working hours exemptions that are allowed in agricultural workplaces, as defined by industrial relations law.
At an initial hearing last month, it emerged that Ballydoyle Racing, run by O’Brien, had been issued with a compliance notice by the WRC under the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 following an inspection last year that found some staff had worked 19-hour days and had worked 28 days without a day off.
In what is being perceived as a test case by the broader racing industry in Ireland, Ballydoyle is not challenging the WRC findings but basing its appeal on the belief racehorse training yards qualify as being exempt under the criteria for agriculture workplaces.
The 2015 Industrial Relations Act defines agriculture as "raising animals or crops for human consumption", but stud farms are exempt.
'Our thing is dealing with animals'
Earlier in Monday’s hearing, Clem Murphy, a senior Coolmore bloodstock consultant, sought to outline the intrinsic links between the Fethard stud and its sister training division at Ballydoyle.
And O'Brien told the hearing: “Our thing is dealing with animals, it's an everyday thing, and it's a very precise, complicated thing, training them. We used to be in agriculture and we were moved out of agriculture, and where we are now is unsuitable.
“When we were in agriculture we were totally compliant, but now we're not in agriculture we're not compliant.”
One of the criteria that allows certain sectors to be exempt from elements of industrial relations law is the requirement for a continuity of production and service.
That was another area focused on by O’Brien, who spent a large part of his near two-hour stint giving evidence explaining how relationships between highly strung and sensitive thoroughbreds and their grooms and work-riders is of critical importance to optimising their performance on the track.
“It’s all about knowing your partner,” he explained. “If you have two working together over a period of time, it becomes telepathic – a horse doesn’t have to be told and the person doesn’t have to ask. The horse becomes that person’s best friend.
“It becomes so much a part of these people’s lives; to stop them coming in on their Sunday off, it's offensive.”
'Horses are different'
O’Brien and one of his head grooms, Robbie Manton, gave evidence to the effect that often staff will voluntarily come in on their day off to ride one of their horses or as Manton put it, “to receive congratulations if one of their horses had enjoyed a big win”.
Doyle stressed that the compliance notice was issued because of alleged breaches of legislation enshrined in European health and safety law.
“I’m concerned with your obligation as an employer to provide the requisite rest periods; I’m not concerned with their love for the horses or how they love to go off to the races,” she said in relation to the long hours.
“The obligation is on the employer, not to tell them that they have these rest periods but to ensure they take them.”
O’Brien countered that “horses are different” and that these were “athletes getting ready for big races, so continuity is vital”.
Two grooms per horse
Much of the session was spent outlining the minutiae of the roles played by the various staff at Ballydoyle, with Manton noting that each groom looks after between four and six horses.
It was evident from the outset there is a considerable gulf in what the WRC expects under basic industrial relations legislation and the reality of life in a yard.
Doyle and Noel Travers, senior counsel for the WRC, both proposed employing two staff per horse would solve the issue in hand, suggesting a principal and subordinate rider.
Travers, who repeatedly referred to Ballydoyle as Ballymore, said: “If you had two grooms per horse, everyone could have their statutory leave. What is the huge difficulty with the number of personnel?”
Doyle used the analogy of the Health Service Executive, noting there is a 'changeover hour' in hospitals for doctors and nurses.
In response, Manton observed that when his twin daughters were born in University Hospital Waterford, the doctor on duty didn’t go home when his shift ended because he wanted to deal with a complication pertaining to one of the newborns.
Doyle suggested that at Ballydoyle, “it is about the success of the horse,” but O’Brien repeatedly insisted that “people are first, always”.
The case continues on Tuesday.