Work Life laws must protect flexible work

Senator Marie Sherlock
23 April 2022

The government’s announcement of a Work Life Bill this week that solely makes accommodations for people with caring responsibilities totally misreads the changes in work over the past two years. Government’s bill will fall far short of meeting the very clear demand for a greater work life balance in this country. It neither addresses the gaps in current employment law nor paves the way for the new way of work brought around by the pandemic.

If you cast your mind back to 2019, mornings were spent running around, throwing a breakfast together, racing against the clock to put children’s shoes on and rush out the door before you hit rush hour traffic. The pandemic showed us that life doesn’t have to be that way, and thousands of workers in Ireland have discovered that the working day doesn’t have to be like that. For the government to publish a bill supposedly to make work life balance better, and omit flexible working laws, is a mistake. It shows a government totally out of touch with where people’s lives are in 2022.

Flexibility in terms of hours of work and place of work is a key demand of workers. Flexible work should not just be something granted for those with caring responsibilities and, as many parents point out, the need for flexibility does not stop when a child turns 12, as government plans suggest.

This is particularly an issue for women. Whether we agree with it or not it is still the case that women take on the lion share of caring responsibilities. It is also the case that while many have fought for years for improvements, we still have a massively expensive and often not readily available childcare services in Ireland. A right to flexible work is a right to make our every growing complained juggling of responsibilities that little bit easier for women.

The Labour Party intends to ensure that government accepts the new reality of the world of work by putting in place protections for flexible work. That in jobs, where it is possible, flexibility and the better work life balance which comes with it, will be a right for workers not a gift that can be sparingly dispensed by bosses.

Last month Labour launched a bill which would embed flexibility from day one for workers, rather than the Government Bill proposed by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, which in reality amounts to a right to refuse flexible work for employers. And what I mean by flexible work includes more family friendly hours, remote working opportunities for at least a few days each week and also the ability to log off once your tasks are completed.

In this, we are not trying to reinvent the wheel but rather implement the best practices which are already common in workplaces across Europe which have benefited from common sense legislation in this area.

Making it the law for workers to benefit from flexible working practices in settings where it is possible, is also good for the economy. It will enable tens of thousands of workers that, due to family circumstances or disability, are currently unable to play a full part in the workforce to bring their abilities and skills into play.

We stand confronted with a brave new opportunity for Ireland to be at the forefront of the new world of work. It is laughable for government to talk about Work Life legislation without paying attention to the biggest change in the world of work in decades. Flexible work has been the answer to many workers problems. Let’s grasp this opportunity for a better quality of life in Ireland – workers and employers together.

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