Thursday, 15 October 2020
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Flexible Work Practices
3. To ask the Minister for Trade, Enterprise and Employment if he will undertake the necessary legislative and tax changes to ensure that remote working and-or home working are recognised as forms of work that require specific safeguards, protections and allowances for workers. [30001/20]
I apologise for being late this morning. One of the delights of living in Dublin and in the country is occasionally getting stuck behind a tractor. My question is fairly straightforward. It relates to the explosion in the number of people working from home. Will the Minister consider putting in place recognition for remote working as a protected form of work, with particular safeguards, protections and allowances for these workers?
Having had the experience of being a member of Fingal County Council and being stuck behind a tractor not too far from Skerries I can understand how sometimes it can delay journeys.
As our country continues to navigate Covid-19, remote working has become more important than ever before. This is reflected in the programme for government, which contains commitments aimed at facilitating remote work across Ireland. The programme for government recognises that remote work can provide benefits in terms of regional development, climate action, work-life balance and female entrepreneurship.
As a response to Covid-19, my Department launched a new web page dedicated to providing guidance for working remotely. This web page is a central access point for all of the Government guidance currently available on remote working. It allows employers and employees to navigate the existing guidance and legislation relevant to remote working and provides information for people working from home during the course of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In July, the Department launched a public consultation on remote work. We received 522 submissions from employers, employees, representative bodies and special interest groups. Based on the analysis of the submissions, my Department is using the insights garnered to enhance and refine further the current remote working guidance and the forthcoming strategy. The web page will be updated regularly to reflect any changes made in response to the consultation, with the first update before the end of this year.
My Department will publish a remote working strategy before the end of the year and this work is taking place under the guidance of an interdepartmental group. The strategy will consider what changes are needed to develop an environment that encourages remote working solutions.
The programme for government contains a commitment to bring forward proposals on a right to disconnect, with consideration being given to a role for the Workplace Relations Commission in this regard.
In relation to taxation, there are already arrangements in place that allow remote workers to claim certain allowances to cover costs incurred due to working from home. As outlined in budget 2021, these arrangements have been extended to include the cost of broadband and claims for any other vouched expenses occurred wholly, exclusively and necessarily in the performance of the duties of their employment.
I thank the Minister. Technology now allows people to work from home and remotely work in a way that has never been possible before but there are a number of issues, chief among which is one to which the Minister referred. If people are working at home they are always at work and always at home. There needs to be a clear definition of remote work as a protected form of work. We have seen, and it should be encouraged, that people have the right to work from home. I worked for a union and we often fought for the right for people to be able to work from home and access remote working. Now we find it is almost an imperative and people are being encouraged to do it. It requires very specified legislation to ensure these protections are in place. We also need to be cognisant of the fact that many people live in overcrowded or unsuitable accommodation. For them, working from home is not necessarily an option but remote working in a hub or similar would be an option. This is something the Minister should also be looking at.
There are many ways in which the pandemic will change our world. One of these is how it has turned the world on its head when it comes to remote working and home working. What has happened over recent months as a consequence of the pandemic probably would have taken us ten years as a planned strategy. When we were writing the programme for government we were thinking about how we would retain what we have gained in terms of home working and remote working. Within a few months, we were wondering whether we would ever get people back to the offices because our city centres are in real trouble because of the lack of footfall.
What we are getting back from staff surveys is that approximately 10% or 15% are dying to get back to the office. These are often younger people, people working out of a bedroom while somebody else works out of the sitting room and people in apartments. Another 10% or 15% want to work from home forever and approximately 70% are in between and want blended working. This is the way to go and what our policy should try to facilitate, whereby people might spend a few days in HQ, a day or two at home and one day perhaps in a remote hub near where they live.
That is grand if there is a remote hub near where the person lives or if he or she has access to broadband, which many people do not. There needs to be a focus on establishing hubs. I would like to see some in my area, Balbriggan. There is a small, privately run one in Skerries but there is definitely scope for more in Balbriggan and other areas of north County Dublin, as well as across the board, to ensure that people can have the option. It needs to be a realistic option. The response from the Government has to focus on the needs of workers and employers and recognise there will be additional requirements from both parties - workers and employers. The employer has to ensure that the person will not lose out because he or she is remote working, while the employee has to ensure that he or she is able to perform all his or her duties. That will require a legislative change and particular protections because remote workers could turn out to be some of the most vulnerable workers as this issue progresses, and now is the time to have that conversation and to learn from the recent experience.
The Deputy is absolutely correct. The kinds of legislative change we need to think about include the right to request remote working or homeworking; the right to disconnect, so that the employee is not always at work when at home, which could be oppressive for people; and the risk to the country of losing people who currently live and work in Ireland to remote working from, perhaps, the Canary Islands, Ibiza, Poland or India. That is a risk to us in terms of losing jobs and revenue, so we need to be wise to it too.
Access to broadband is improving. The national broadband plan is happening now and is very much a reality on the ground. Hopefully, it will take four or five years, not six or seven. I am glad that as leader of the previous Government, we pressed ahead with it. We got almost no support from any other party but I do not think anyone would wish to cancel that contract now.
There is funding, both from my Department and that of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, to develop remote hubs over the next couple of years. I have seen some great ones throughout the country, particularly where an old heritage building, such as an old bank or an old post office, in the middle of a village or town has been brought back to life. There are great opportunities in that regard.