Labour Bill will protect people working from home
Speech by Labour Party Leader Alan Kelly on Second Stage Working from Home (Covid-19) Bill 2020
Check Against Delivery
12 November 2020
Thank You Ceann Comhairle,
Sometimes Governments, and indeed all politicians, are accused of being out of touch, and behind the times. Sometimes this criticism is merited, and sometimes it is not. But when it comes to this topic, the issue of the rights of workers working from home, that criticism is very much merited and accurate. Current Irish law as it relates to working from home is either outdated, unworkable or non-existent.
2020 has been a year like no other. All of our lives have been transformed by the pandemic, and its knock-on effects, and the impact on the working lives of hundreds of thousands of Irish workers who are now working from home has been immense.
At the start of this year, there were around 200,000 Irish workers working from home on a regular basis. As a result of the pandemic, that number more than trebled to 700,000, which must represent the single greatest change in working life in a single year in Irish history. The implications in the long run, even if a vaccine is rolled out and we defeat this virus, could be enormous for Irish society, for everything from transport and commuting, to regional development and industrial policy.
According to a survey conducted earlier this year by Mental Health First Aid Ireland, we are facing, and I quote, “significant and varied challenges due to the mass shift to remote work. Survey respondents reported negative physical ramifications as a result of working from home, as well as issues relating to mental health and wellbeing. Over a third of respondents reported that they were not happy with their work-life balance”.
The reports concludes that, and again, I quote “As boundaries are blurred between work and life, workers have found it hard to switch off mainly due to the removal of the commute to a physical office location as the time and space to move into work mode has been removed. 42% of those surveyed agreed that they found it difficult to maintain the boundaries between home and work life and almost half of respondents (49.3%) worked over their contracted hours.”
In the context of the huge shift to remote working that has taken place this year among Irish workers, these are very significant findings.
While the nature of work may be changing at a rapid pace, the need to protect the rights of workers will never change, nor will the determination of the Labour Party, and all its members, and elected representatives to protect and advance those rights.
However, the laws regulating working from home in Ireland are either non-existent, unworkable or else completely out of date. The Government is, once again, miles behind the curve when it comes to adapting to changes in our society.
We are 8 months into this pandemic now, and whatever excuses the Government may have had for not bringing Irish law up to date when it comes to working from home at the start of the pandemic, they have no excuses now. The law as it relates to working from home is badly in need of being reformed.
For these reasons, and as the responsible opposition party, the Labour Party has introduced the Working from Home (COVID-19) Bill 2020, in order to protect the rights of workers who are working from home.
We are proposing two new protections for workers working from home. The first is giving all workers the Right to Switch Off. This is a very important protection that ensures that workers are not being put under pressure to work all hours. I think we can all acknowledge that the higher levels of connectivity made possible by advances in IT and mobile technology in recent years have been a double-edged sword for workers.
While it is now much easier for people to stay connected with one another, it is now much more difficult for workers to take a break and get away from dealing with issues in work. This can and indeed does lead to workers being pressurised into working very long hours and responding to messages late into the night, particularly younger and more junior workers.
This “always on” culture can have very negative impacts on the physical and mental health of workers, and on family life. More time spent on laptops, and mobile phones late into the night means less time to spend with loved ones, and children, and family. And this can lead to more stressed, harried and pressurised workers, and all the knock-on emotional effects this can have in families.
It is time to put an end to the always on culture. Workers deserve the Right to Switch off.
The Bill requires employers to inform their employees what their policy is in relation to out of hours communication, and it also gives protection to employees from being punished for failing to respond to emails or other communication out of hours.
We would not be the first country in Europe to do something in this space, as France, Italy, Spain and Belgium have all passed legislation to tackle this issue. Ireland is also one of the only EU countries without any modern protection in our employment law for remote working.
The second key protection which the Bill offers is to make sure workers have a workstation in their home which is suitable for their working needs, and to make sure that the cost of running the office is not being transferred from employers to workers, by requiring employers to pay a fixed tax free amount to cover the costs of working from home, such as higher heating and electricity bills.
The current law in this area is a complete dog’s dinner. Under current law, employers are effectively required to inspect the homes of their employees to ensure that the home is suitable for working from home. This is a ludicrous requirement, and one that cannot be enforced.
We have proposed a pragmatic solution to this issue, which is that an employer be required to provide the equipment that an employee needs but does not have, and pay a fixed amount to cover the costs to the worker of working from home. This is particularly important for people working in low paid employment, and those renting.
If the employer adopts these two measures, then their legal obligations are considered to have been complied with.
We as legislators need to act on this issue, and the law needs to catch up with the lived reality of 700,000 workers in Ireland, now, as we speak here, working from home in often cramped and unsuitable spaces. There is no time to waste here, as to be frank, this issue should have been dealt with by the Oireachtas years ago.
This is not a time to do what this Government has repeatedly been doing, which is to kick the can down the road repeatedly on positive, sensible legislation which we have introduced, most notably on Sick Pay. Do not kick the can down the road, do not delay, because action here is long overdue.
We in the Labour Party are calling on the Government and indeed, on all parties to support this legislation, and to bring our laws on remote working into the 21st Century. Irish workers deserve nothing less.