Bosses can force workers to return to work if contracts oblige, says Tánaiste

Varadkar believes phased return from Monday will be agreed in a ‘very sensible way’

Employers can force people to return to work following the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions if they are contractually obliged to work from a particular place, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said.

Government has said a return to the workplace can start from Monday on a staggered basis “appropriate to each sector”. Mr Varadkar told reporters Government wanted employers and workers, along with business representative groups and trade unions, to work out an “appropriate phased return” to the workplace between now and the end of February.

Asked if workers can refuse to return if requested by employers, Mr Varadkar said this depended on each employee’s contract of employment.

“Employers can require people to return to work if their contracts provide for that, but I think this will be done in a very sensible way,” he said.

Mr Varadkar said a return to work was “half under way” last autumn prior to the arrival of the Delta and Omicron variants, leading to further restrictions being applied.

“We don’t think that it should be prescribed by government. Every workplace is different, and it’s best to work that out at workplace level,” he told reporters.

The Government wants the phased return to take place while it continues to implement a strategy to allow remote working before a more prominent and permanent feature of work.

Mr Varadkar said he plans to publish proposals on new legislation next week that will give workers the right to request remote, hybrid or home working, and set out a procedure to be followed as well as a right of appeal if an employer turns a worker’s request down.

He said he knows “loads of people who are dying to go back to the office” while others would prefer hybrid working, working partly from home and partly from the office.

He met with trade unions and employers representatives through the Labour Employer Economic Forum on Friday night to set out the guidance.

More staff

Danny McCoy, chief executive of employer group Ibec, said companies would likely replicate plans they had in place last autumn for a phased return to work, but the removal of the two-metre social distancing rule could now accommodate greater capacity and more staff.

He said he did not expect a “one-blanket-fits-all” plan for all companies.

Patricia King, secretary general of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, urged employers to ensure they continued to take the necessary steps to keep workplaces safe, noting the comments of WHO special envoy David Nabarro that the pandemic was not over.

“Remote and flexible working must now become a mainstream feature of future working arrangements,” she said.

Sven Spollen-Behrens, director of the Small Firms Association, said a phased return to offices would be a “great boost to many businesses who have found it difficult to transition to a remote form of work and to those many small businesses who rely on trade from office workers”.

Brian Hayes, chief executive of the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland, which represents financial institutions, said there would be "a lot of dialogue with staff to make sure we get this right", and that the high demand for staff meant businesses would have to allow hybrid working to attract employees.

“I don’t think people are expecting this to go back to the way it was,” he said.