‘Toothless tiger’: Remote working legislation sowing ‘angst and confusion’

Proposed legislation to come under scrutiny at Oireachtas committee on Wednesday

Proposed new laws regulating the rights of employees to request remote working into the future are a “toothless tiger” that have wreaked angst and confusion among workers, it has been claimed.

The draft legislation – the Right to Request Remote Work Bill 2021 – introduced last month by Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Leo Varadkar, is to come under scrutiny at an Oireachtas committee on Wednesday.

Two officials from his department are expected to be cross-examined by TDs and Senators.

Ahead of the hearing, Congress, the umbrella organisation for trade unions, said the Bill favoured employers over employees, giving them too many options to refuse a worker's right to continue working from home after the pandemic, and needs to be radically overhauled.


Laura Bambrick, head of social policy and employment affairs at Congress, said there was a "big appetite in Ireland" for a hybrid model of working, whereby hundreds of thousands would opt for remote working – at home or a rural hub – a few days a week and then a couple of days in the office.

"This legislation as it stands is a toothless tiger that needs to be radically amended," she said. "There is support in Government for remote and hub working, and money has been invested in rural hubs, in towns and villages, converting old Garda stations or old Bank of Ireland outlets into hubs, but the Bill flies in the face of that, and is contrary to other Government policy."

Get-out clauses

Unions are opposed to the number of reasons an employer can refuse an employee’s preference to work from home. Under the current draft legislation, there are 13 get-out clauses, including concerns about internet connectivity, health and safety grounds, and data protection reasons – and the list is not exhaustive.

Appeals can be brought internally or to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) or both.

However, Dr Bambrick said appeals to the WRC could only be brought on procedural grounds and that employers had too much time – three months – to consider a request for remote working.

“There are no parts of the legislation where the needs of the employee are taken into account,” she said.

Despite this, she said unions were “cautiously optimistic” that “significant improvements” could be made to the draft legislation.

Ciaran Rohan, general secretary of the Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants, which represents 3,500 senior civil servants and public service managers, said he shared the concerns of Congress.

“There is too much of an opportunity to say no but it’s probably the case that that will be a bigger issue outside the public service,” he said.

“The policy is coming from the Government, so it would be unusual for the Government to turn around to its own employees and say ‘It’s not for you’, or make it difficult to have it.”

‘Horrendous commutes’

Having spoken with secretaries general of government departments, Mr Rohan predicts a "seismic" change in the way Ireland works in future, reducing often "horrendous commutes" for many workers.

He estimated that about 60-70 per cent of senior public and civil servants would opt for a blended model, splitting work between the home and office.

With fewer people going in to work on any given day, Mr Rohan predicted that the public sector would need only about 40 per cent of the office space compared with pre-pandemic needs.

“That means huge efficiencies for the Government,” he said. “The biggest client for commercial property in Dublin is the Office of Public Works. They won’t need as many buildings and as leases come up for buildings, they probably won’t renew them.”

Maurice Quinlivan, chairman of the joint Oireachtas committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment , which will quiz department officials on Wednesday, also cautioned there were "huge concerns about clauses that allow employers to refuse the right to work from home".

Mr Varadkar’s announcement of at least 13 grounds for refusal had sown “angst and confusion among workers”, he said.

“I firmly believe workers are more productive with hybrid arrangements, so employers shouldn’t be allowed to refuse that unless they have a really good reason,” he said. “Productivity has improved, it allows a better quality of life, and it deals with the climate issue, with reduced transport emissions.”

Mr Varadkar has said he is open to amendments to the Bill and would take suggested changes seriously. The Government hopes to have the legislation enacted by the summer.

Mr Varadkar said in a statement: “I want workers to be able to work from home or remotely or hybrid if they want to. So long as the business get done and services are provided, employers should facilitate it. That’s the Government’s objective with this new law, and with all the other things we’re doing, such as investing in remote working hubs across the country and giving workers the right to disconnect.

“We’ve published the General Scheme of the Bill. There’s still a way to go before it becomes law and I have said throughout that I am open to hearing realistic ways we can strengthen it. We are creating a new employee right and it has to be done carefully.

“Opposition calls for an automatic right to remote working are not realistic. There are some jobs, such as bus drivers, waste management workers, doctors, nurses, etc which simply can’t be done remotely. However, if the work can be done remotely and employees want to do so, they should be allowed to.

“There will be a right of appeal through the WRC and it will be necessary to give a solid reason that stands up, it won’t be just a procedure right, it won’t be just enough to just give a reason, that reason will have stack up and be solid.”