We must act now on remote workers rights

Ireland is one of only nine EU member-states that does not recognise remote working in our employment code

 

Covid-19 has marked a sudden and dramatic change in the world of work. At the start of this year, just one in five  of us spent some or all of our working day at home.* By the height of lockdown, that number had grown to a third of the total workforce: 696,000 people. It is now close to 800,000. All the indications are that the increase in remote working will outlast the pandemic and is likely here to stay, whether we have a vaccine or not.

The reality is that working from home has brought benefits for many workers; long hours commuting eliminated, more time with children and less childcare costs. But it has also exposed many challenges; inadequate workplace provision, people having to work from the edge of the bed, and a failure by some employers to make proper provision. Research conducted across the EU by Eurofound - the EU Agency for the improvement of living and working conditions - also tells us that remote working has led to “longer hours and fewer rest periods”, and that there is a corrosive mental and physical health impact of feeling like you are “always on”.

There is a raft of very detailed and extensive Health and Safety legislation in this country which sets out the responsibilities of employers towards their employees in terms of their place and conditions of work, but there is little or no enforcement of these, and particularly when workers are operating from home.

The 2007 legislation sets out ergonomic standards covering the positioning of the screen, keyboard and chair and the reflective glare from computer and worksurface- workstations that bear little resemblance to what most remote workers have today. The reality is that providing for workers has been at the discretion of the employer and while some employers have been very good to their workers, many others have not.

The issues here also extend into covering the costs of working from home - an effective shift in the cost of operating a physical office from the employer to the worker when the worker is working from home. At present, employers can make a tax-free payment of up to €3.20 per day or if not, employees can claim from the Revenue Commissioner some relief against their taxes - but they have to go through the cumbersome process of getting a letter from their employer, producing copies of utility bills, and then will get only 10 per cent of the heat and light bill, or 30 per cent of broadband.

As one worker told a recent Labour Party online survey of 305 remote workers : “the current arrangement of asking your employer to give you the available allowance is hard to push for” and this was an experience articulated by many respondents.

Other issues highlighted were frustration at the lack of adequate home workspaces and a lack of supports from employers. A really important finding from our qualitative survey was that renters were almost twice as likely as owner-occupiers to say they would not like to continue remote working into the future; a clear reflection of the obstacles facing younger and less economically secure workers.

The issues associated with remote working affect workers of all ages, but there is particular concern for younger workers. This is particularly true when we look at the sectors that had some of the strongest employment growth over the past five years, and which now have very high levels of remote working. We know from the CSO Labour Force Survey that well over half of all workers in ICT, financial, insurance and professional services are working from home and it was in these sectors that we saw employment numbers grow by over 50,000 over the past five years to end-2019.

Ireland is one of only nine EU member-states that does not recognise remote working in our employment code. Over recent months, we have seen important developments with Spain issuing a royal decree that employers must cover the costs of working from home, while the German labour affairs ministry has published its own draft legislation to better protect remote workers.

Similarly, we know that there are growing concerns about work-life balance and the mental and physical health impact of unpaid overtime, feeling the need to respond to emails after hours, and the duress of never quite making the break from “work”. Between 2016 and 2018, France, Belgium and Spain have all introduced “right to disconnect” legislation.

It’s high time that Ireland catches up. The reality is that remote working will become an increasing feature of people’s work lives and the right to request flexible working will be foisted upon this Government as it must transpose an EU Directive on Work Life Balance by the middle of 2022. This directive will give a right to request flexible working conditions for parents and carers.

Rather than wait, we should seize the opportunity to get ahead of the issue and develop secure, sustainable remote working rules for all. While the Government set up a consultation on remote working during the summer, we have little reason to believe this will deliver anytime soon. We have already seen the lack of urgency this Government attaches to worker’s rights in their baffling decision to delay the introduction of statutory sick pay during a pandemic.

The Labour Party is bringing forward a Bill which ensures employers adequately provide for their employees, that they must pay a flat rate payment to cover the costs of utilities, and that they provide the right equipment. And that they provide the right to switch off

By acting now and implementing Labour’s bill, we can put a stop to the corrosive impacts of unregulated remote work and ensure that greater flexibility and stronger safeguards for worker wellbeing go forward hand in hand.

Marie Sherlock is a senator and former SIPTU economist. She is Labour Party Spokesperson on Employment Affairs.

*This article was amended on November 18th, 2020

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