Tanaiste Leo Varadkar says the government will not oppose Labour’s new Working From Home Bill, introduced in Dáil Éireann on Wednesday, but says they will introduce their own strategy on remote working before the end of the year
It will include proposals on a network of digital hubs around the country and provisions for tax and expense arrangements. Speaking after the bill – which has been vocally backed by Drogheda-based Labour TD Ged Nash – was introduced, Mr Varadkar said the he wanted “remote working and blended working to become part of the norm, based primarily on choice.”
He told the Dáil that some provisions of the new Bill were “quite rigid” and suggested they could diminish employees’ rights, thus creating inequality between private and public sector workers.
“The sudden shift to remote working this year, prompted by the pandemic, means that what might have happened in ten or 15 years happened in the course of a few days. It means that we as policymakers must now play catch-up,” he said.
Labour say that that the “right to disconnect”, one aspect of the Bill, will mean employers have to clearly set out in writing their policy on out of hours communications, and this would provide workers with access to the protections provided under the Organisation of Working Time Act.
The new Bill also sets out that an employee is entitled not to engage with electronic communications outside of their normal hours of work but, if they choose to do so, this would count as working time and be subject to the aforementioned act.
The Covid-19 pandemic saw the numbers of remote workers more than treble from 200,000 early in the year to 700,000 now.
“Advances in technology were meant to liberate us from the workplace; instead, the technology enslaves us,” Deputy Nash said. “The machines were supposed to work for us, but for too many workers in 2020 Ireland and throughout the world, we now work for the machines.
“The time has come to clock out of the always-on culture, which is what the Bill is all about. This is the new frontier and we have to conquer it for the benefit of our society and citizens throughout the country.
“We need to ensure that parents have the time and mental space to be present with their children outside of their assigned working hours, and to do this we have to ensure that the lines between home and work life do not become so blurred that they simply merge into one.
“The right to switch off is a key tenet of our Bill. It will ensure that working parents have a better work-life balance and are never forced to choose between their work and family in their free time.”
The TD was critical of suggestions that those working from home could benefit from tax credits, laying the cost firmly at the doors of employers and not at the tax payer.
“Companies have to pay their fair share and it must be made compulsory for employers to contribute to the costs of remote working. In our view, the employer ought to provide the desk, the safe chair, the safe working space and the IT equipment to ensure that people can discharge their duties.”
He cited a recent survey by Taxback.com that showed nearly nine in ten remote workers have seen an increase in household expenses in recent months – including broadband connection costs and more utility bills, such as the additional cost of home heating.
“The question is who should shoulder the burden of this cost. It should not be the householder, whose home now doubles as his or her workplace.”