Wednesday, 18 November 2020
Working from Home (Covid-19) Bill 2020: Second Stage [Private Members]
I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
I am sharing time with my colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin. Sometimes Governments and all politicians are accused of being out of touch and behind the times. Sometimes the criticism is merited; sometimes it is not. When it comes to this topic, the rights of workers working from home, that criticism is very much merited and accurate. Current Irish law as it relates to working from home is either outdated, unworkable or non-existent. I am thankful that other parties and the Government are now following the Labour Party's lead in addressing this issue.
This year, 2020, has been like no other. All of our lives have been transformed by the pandemic and its knock-on effects. The impact on the working lives of hundreds of thousands of Irish workers who are now working from home has been immense. At the start of the year, there were around 200,000 Irish workers working from home on a regular basis. As a result of the pandemic, that number more than trebled to 700,000, which must represent the greatest change in working life in a single year in Irish history. The implications in the long run, even if a vaccine is rolled out and we defeat this virus as I believe we will, could be enormous for Irish society, for everything from transporting and commuting to regional development, industrial policy and everything else.
People's priorities have changed. Covid has been a disruptor. According to a survey conducted earlier this year by Mental Health First Aid Ireland, we are facing significant and varied challenges due to the mass shift to remote work. Survey respondents reported negative physical ramifications as a result of working from home, as well as issues related to mental health and well-being. Over a third of respondents reported that they were not happy with their work-life balance. The report concludes that as boundaries are blurred between work and life, workers have found it hard to switch off, mainly due to the removal of the commute to a physical office location as the time and space to move into work mode has been removed. Some 42% of those surveyed agreed that they found it difficult to maintain the boundaries between home and work life and almost half of all respondents, 49.3% to be exact, worked over their contracted hours.
In the context of the huge shift to remote working that has taken place this year among Irish workers, these are extremely significant findings. While the nature of work may be changing at a rapid pace, the need to protect the rights of workers will never change, nor will the determination of the Labour Party, which I have the privilege to lead, and all its members and elected representatives in this House, the Seanad and across Ireland, to protect those workers and advance those rights. However, the laws regulating working from home in Ireland are either non-existent, unworkable or completely out of date. The Government is, once again, miles behind the curve when it comes to adapting to changes in our society. We are eight months into this pandemic and it will go on. Whatever excuses the Government may have had for not bringing Irish law up to date when it comes to working from home at the start of the pandemic, it has no excuses now. The law as it relates to working from home is badly in need of being reformed.
For these reasons, and as a responsible Opposition party, the Labour Party has introduced the Working from Home (Covid-19) Bill 2020, in order to protect the rights of workers who are in mass numbers working from home. We are proposing two new protections for workers working from home. The first is giving all workers the right to switch off. This is a fundamental and very important protection that ensures workers are not being put under pressure to work all hours. I think we can all acknowledge that the higher levels of connectivity made possible by advances in IT and mobile technology in recent years have been a double-edged sword for workers. While it is now much easier for people to stay connected with one another, it is now much more difficult for workers to take a break and get away from dealing with issues in work. This can and does lead to workers being pressurised into working very long hours and responding to messages late into the night, particularly younger and more junior workers. Dare I say it, we could all learn about that ourselves in these Houses.
This always-on culture can have very negative impacts on the physical and mental health of workers and on family life. More time spent on laptops and mobile phones late into the night means less time to spend with loved ones, children and families. This can lead to more stressed, harried and pressurised workers, and all the knock-on emotional effects this can have in families. It is time to put an end to this always-on culture. Workers deserve the right to switch off. The Bill requires employers to inform their employees what their policy is in relation to out-of-hours communication and gives protection to employees from being punished for failing to respond to emails or other communications out of hours, which is completely unacceptable. We would not be the first country in Europe to do something in this space, as France, Italy, Spain and Belgium have all passed legislation to tackle this issue. Ireland is also one of the few EU countries without any modern protection in our employment law for remote working.
The second key protection which the Bill offers is to make sure workers have a workstation in their home which is suitable for their working needs and that the cost of running the office is not being transferred from employers to workers, by requiring employers to pay a fixed tax-free amount to cover the costs of working from home, such as higher heating, electricity and broadband bills.
The current law in this area is an absolute dog's dinner. Under it, employers are effectively required to inspect the homes of their employees to ensure that they are suitable for working from home. I do not believe this fact is well known, but I am sure the Tánaiste would agree that it is completely and utterly ludicrous. It is a law that is not acceptable; it is unenforceable and simply wrong.
We have proposed a pragmatic solution, namely, that an employer be required to provide the equipment that an employee needs but does not have, and pay a fixed amount to cover the costs of the worker of working from home. It is a particularly important issue for people who are working in low-paid employment and those who are renting. If an employer adopts these two measures, then the legal obligations are considered to have been complied with.
However, we, as legislators, need to act on this issue and we need to act now. The law needs to catch up with the lived reality of 700,000 workers in Ireland who are, as we speak, working from home, often in cramped and unsuitable spaces. There is no time to waste. To be frank, this issue should have been dealt with by the Oireachtas years ago.
This is not a time to do what this Government has repeatedly been doing. I respectfully ask the Taoiseach to consider this. The Government has kicked the can down the road repeatedly on the positive and sensible proposed legislation we have introduced. It then regurgitates and positions it as some form of Government initiative, such as our proposal on sick pay.
I ask the Tánaiste not to kick this can down the road and to not delay, because action is long overdue. We, in the Labour Party, are calling on the Tánaiste, the Government and, indeed, all parties in the House to support this Bill and bring our laws on remote working into the 21st century. Irish workers deserve nothing less.
The very point of the existence of the Labour Party is to protect the worker against exploitation. Protecting the worker means that, at times and circumstances change, legislation has to change. Things do not stay the same. That is why when we bring forward proposed legislation in the House it is always with an eye on the worker, the reality of the vulnerability of many people who are at work and that often employees can be exploited.
There is no greater exploitation than to insist that workers never stop working, always have to be switched on and are constantly under some kind of employer surveillance and must answer emails, be at the end of the phone and be constantly contactable and have to second guess whether they can spend free time with family, children, leave the house or even go on holiday, which, it is to be hoped, can happen again soon. This always on culture is incredibly corrosive. It is very difficult for people to manage the terms of the mental health.
It means people are never free of their employer. They cannot really have a work-life balance. Rather, they work and work and work from the moment they wake up. In the modern world the first thing people probably do before they even turn to their partner is look at their phone. For many people in work, a message will be waiting to be answered. When an email comes in in the evening, there is an expectation that it will be answered.
If people do not answer a call or an email or respond to communication from an employer there are consequences. The chances of advancement in a job will be curtailed. The feeling is that people have to be responsive and always be in a position to answer. That is not good for anybody's productivity, work-life balance or a society or a country that is trying to raise a society that is at ease with herself. It is not good that all people who are trying to have a fully rounded existence do is work.
This is not just a Monday to Friday phenomenon; it is all the time. It involves weekends. If emails, messages or phone calls come in on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday the expectation is that they must be responded to. Junior employees on low wages want to protect their jobs and career advancement. There has to be an absolute right in legislation to switch off. Only a few countries in the European Union have this right, but Ireland has to legislate for the right to switch off.
Workers have a right to not always have to be working. Workers have a right to free time. They should be able to put a phone or laptop away or closed down a computer without feeling that they will lose out in terms of their employment advancement prospects.
We can have legislation, but employers will know that while there may be a right not to answer an email an employee will feel that he or she has to. Employers have to have policies laid down by legislation to ensure that employees can point to the policies and say that they were working within company policy and they did not respond to an email or phone call. If people were to respond to an email or phone call, that would be designated as work and people would be paid for it accordingly. We could have a much more productive society that would work better for employees and employers if there was a basic right to switch off.
In terms of remote working, we are again lagging behind many of our EU colleagues in not having legislation to cover this area. As stated by my party leader, Deputy Alan Kelly, the number of people working from home has grown from 200,000 at the beginning of year to 800,000 at this point.
It is the more vulnerable workers who we are worried about, namely, people who are working at the end of a bed, in a bedroom that they may share with a sibling or in an overcrowded space. Socialisation in work, workplace mingling, sharing stories and coffee culture will be important for many people as they go out into the world. They are losing out on that, which is very unfortunate.
We have to have protections for younger workers. Employers have to step up and ensure employees are protected or have the resources within their homes in order to do their work to a sufficient standard. Far too many children in this country do their homework at the end of stairs or lying on their stomachs in front of the television due to overcrowding. That is also the reality for many of our workers.
As we move forward, try to battle our way through this pandemic, rebuild our economy and consider a post-Covid Ireland, that is where the attention of the Government needs to turn in terms of how we will reconstruct our society and economy once the pandemic has subsided.
Are we just going to revert back to where we were? One of the tragedies of the last crisis was that we just went back to where we were, which was certainly the case with the housing market. I plead with Government not to make the same mistake again. Huge societal issues have been exposed by this pandemic that need to be rectified and a radical approach to this is going to be necessary. It may be desirable in the future that many people will work from home. This would ensure that many of our rural towns will keep their young people, will ensure that this drift to large urban centres is not necessary, will ensure that we do not have this crazy traffic gridlock every day in many other urban centres and if it is their wish and their wont workers can legitimately work from home in the future. This is something that may be desirable from an environmental perspective but we have to have laws, regulations and legislation laid down in order to protect and encourage workers and to also encourage employers in that scenario.
We ask that the Tánaiste might instil some vision into Government policy to look forward into this post-Covid-19 space about how our economy and workers might work.
In summary, the Labour Party wants, as always, to protect the worker. As work and employment practices change we want to protect those employees. We cannot have a situation where the only way people can live their lives effectively and earn a salary is never to stop working. We cannot stand over that. Unfortunately, in our party, we view the potential for employers to exploit is very high which is not something that we say lightly. It is our experience and the experience of many people on our side of the argument that employers have a chequered history of exploitation when it comes to the worker if they are allowed get away with it. This new phenomenon of always being “on” is a classic example of where an employer has an opportunity to squeeze more and more out of a worker. The only chance outside of a trade union - we know that we have restricted trade union and collective bargaining rights in Ireland - is that the State would do something in order to protect workers. The Labour Party exists in order to provide a legislative backing to the trade union movement. It is why we are here, is why we introduce legislation like this and why we hope the Government will look at it in a positive manner, unlike other legislation we have brought forward. Workers have the right to switch off and to have protections under law when they work from home.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle agus leis na Teachtaí. I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important issue and I thank the Labour Party for using its time to discuss it today. The Government wants remote working, homeworking and blended working to become part of the new normal based primarily on choice. If done right the benefits will be significant in reduced business costs, better work-life balance, more balanced regional development, less traffic, fewer greenhouse gas emissions and time saved on the commute been used for a better purpose. Surveys done so far indicate that perhaps 10% or 20% of employees are keen to get back to the office as soon as possible. Another 10% to 20% would like to work from home permanently. The majority of employees want blended working, working some days in the office and some days at home or some days in a remote hub. That is what we should try to strive to facilitate.
We all know that the overuse of phones and digital devices has been linked to everything from stress, burnout and sleeplessness as well as to strained personal relationships from that device that is always on and never more than a few metres away, buzzing, flashing and beeping. This is an experience that all of us are familiar with given the jobs that we do. Many people admit that they are glued to their phones and laptops late into the evening. This phenomenon predates the pandemic and the creeping intrusion of electronic communications far beyond the normal working day, even into mealtime, is not just about remote working, nor is it new. While there are clear advantages to flexible working and working remotely, a long-acknowledged potential downside to the use of mobile and other electronic communications devices is the expectation that we are always switched on, always contactable and always available. That is not how it should be.
I welcome the Labour Party Bill as an important contribution to the debate in this area and the Government will not be opposing the Bill this morning. I agree that we need to reduce the intrusion of work-related digital devices after working hours in order to balance workers' professional and personal lives and we need to discuss how best we do that.
The Bill proposes to amend the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 to provide employees working remotely with the right to switch off from work-related electronic communications out of working hours and to disapply certain provisions of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005. While supporting the central premise of this Private Members’ Bill, the proposed amendment to the Organisation of Working Time Act is quite rigid. It is important to consider the value that many workers place on workplace flexibility. Electronic communications play a central role in enabling that flexibility. Any new arrangements would need to consider the specific needs of the company and also the personal needs of the staff member, both of which are important. For instance, it would be meaningless and counter-productive to prevent an employee systematically from connecting after 7 p.m. when he or she is part of an international team that needs to communicate with people in different time zones. Similarly, later evening access would be useful for an employee who wants to stop working between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to take care of children and then reconnect in the evening when the children have gone to bed. People also often use their daily commute on a train or bus to get ahead of things before they arrive in the office. Being contactable and connected might actually allow that person to take that weekend away which might otherwise not be possible or to make it to children’s match or school play.
At the company level, new business models and global value chains with just-in-time production require increased flexibility. That flexibility for businesses and workers is important and we need to ensure that we safeguard it but we also need to ensure that it is not abused and that the proverbial baby is not thrown out with the bathwater to make remote working harder not easier. The challenge perhaps lies in differentiating between the misuse and abuse of digital tools and legitimate working arrangements that permit connections outside of standard working hours, which is sometimes for the employees convenience as much as it is for the business’s productivity.
Ireland also has a comprehensive body of employment legislation including the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 which already sets out maximum working time and minimum rest periods for employees. Apart from a few limited exceptions, the terms of the Act apply to all employees regardless of whether they are based in an office, at home, or working remotely. The Act places an obligation on employers to ensure that their employees take regular rest breaks and do not work excessive hours. Under section 25 of the Act, an employer is obliged to keep records of working time of their employees. These records are subject to inspection by the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. In practice, however, they still tend to operate on the old model in which work is done in a single designated workplace. We all know that has changed a great deal over the years.
That being said, I know that the right to disconnect has been a significant topic of debate both in Ireland and throughout Europe in recent years. There are several work strands to this issue which are already well underway. I should point out that commitments on remote working and indeed sick pay were made in the programme for Government published last June, none of which should be seen as a response to this Bill which came after that.
First, I will publish a remote working strategy before the end of the year. It will include proposals on a network of digital hubs to be built around the country, some of which are in place already, tax and expenses arrangements to facilitate remote working to ensure that the cost is borne fairly and benefits shared, the right to request work remotely and to have that considered properly and fairly, proposals on the right to disconnect and supports for businesses to make the digital transition.
Second, my office is currently examining the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 in the context of the right to disconnect to consider deficiencies in the legislative framework that should be remedied. I recently asked the WRC to examine what can be done through the development of a new code of practice or set of guidelines to ensure that both employers and employees are aware of their existing requirements and entitlements under the Organisation of Working Time Act.
It is important that employers and employees alike understand the existing requirements and entitlements as they relate to the right to disconnect, including in a remote work scenario. I am conscious that any changes in this area need to strike a balance and to be based on consultation between employers and employees. That is how the best laws are made. I will discuss the national remote working strategy and the issues arising from it, including the right to disconnect, with unions and employer bodies this afternoon at a meeting of the leave subgroup which I chair in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.
I turn to the proposals for safety and health legislation. The underlying principle of the occupational safety and health legislation in Ireland is that workers enjoy the same basic entitlement to a safe and healthy work environment regardless of their status. Equally, all employers have the same basic duty of care to provide a safe and healthy work environment and to ensure work practices are conducted in as safe a manner as possible. While I accept the good intentions behind this Bill, my officials and I have some concerns that the proposed amendments could disapply aspects of the occupational safety and health legislation, may have the effect of compromising our robust legislative protections and could compromise the employer-employee relationship. It could actually diminish workers' rights in some circumstances and create new inequality between public and private sector workers, which we believe is undesirable. I appreciate that neither of these things is the intention of the Bill. Perhaps they can be teased out at the committee in pre-legislative scrutiny.
If people have difficulty or concern relating to the provision of a safe working environment when working from home, these concerns should be brought directly to the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, in the first instance because it can provide tailored, practical advice. I am confident that many genuine concerns can already be resolved within existing legal protections and we are keen to see more real-life cases being examined by the HSA and the WRC to test the effectiveness of existing laws and procedures.
One of the positive effects of our debates on our upcoming remote working strategy will be to encourage conversations between employers and their staff, with people working together to explore and agree what their expectations are, and, more importantly, to understand what their obligations are. At the very least, I believe every workplace should have a remote working policy dealing with matters such as the right to disconnect.
I think there is strong agreement across the House that remote working is a positive thing in the round and a general agreement on the issues we need to work on. 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. I am keen to move ahead as quickly as possible, starting with the publication of the remote working strategy next month, and I look forward to working with colleagues on these issues over the coming months.
I welcome the Tánaiste's statement to the effect that the Government will not oppose the Bill on Second Stage. That is a welcome move. We welcome the fact that the national remote working strategy group will meet today. That is important. What we want to do with this Bill is ensure we enshrine the right to switch off in law while at the same time recognising that flexibilities need to be built in for individuals in their workplaces as befits their circumstances and in concert with their employers. Nobody is arguing against that flexibility. Working mothers, in particular, and commuters need to have that blend so that they can go to the office or work from home as needs be. Childcare is an essential component, especially for working mothers and working families. We have seen the evidence of the effects of the first lockdown for working mothers. Research from the National Women's Council showed that it was having a detrimental effect and leading to stressful situations for working mothers who were literally working all hours and, in the first lockdown, having to take care of children. It affected working mothers in the main.
We want the principle of the right to switch off to be enshrined in legislation. We want to improve the rights of workers by providing employees who work remotely with the right to switch off from out-of-hours work-related electronic communications. This is important for their mental health, for those caring for children and for other vulnerable people who need support. I note the points made by the Tánaiste in respect of the Organisation of Working Time Act. It is important to note that nobody is seeking to amend that such that every employee would not be entitled to at least 11 hours of rest in every 24 hours and every employer would not permit his or her employee to work for more than 48 hours in a week under that Act. Nobody is talking about amending that Act to the detriment of workers, lest the impression be conveyed that that is the case.
The Tánaiste referred to some concerns that he had in respect of the diminution of workers' rights, which is absolutely not the case in this legislation. We seek to strengthen the rights of workers; allow for a new paradigm to exist whereby people are, by necessity, working from home; and ensure we do not have a dystopian future. We have seen evidence of employers monitoring workers at home through the use of applications of Time Doctor, ActivTrak, Terramind and StaffCop, where surveillance applications are being applied to workers who work at home at all hours of day and night. We want to ensure that we as a Legislature legislate for the new phenomenon in a way that protects workers' rights and allows for some protection from the point of view of both occupational health and safety and ensuring the Organisation of Working Time Act is applied and strengthened.
The cost of working from home has shifted from the boardroom to the back bedroom. Many of the up to 800,000 workers who have done some or all of their work from home since late March can attest to this. Approximately 36% of the entire labour force is in this position. A recent survey by Taxback.com has shown that nearly nine in ten remote workers have seen an increase in household expenses in recent months. This includes broadband connection costs and more utility bills, such as the additional cost of home heating, which will further increase during the cold winter months. 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.
The home working tax relief was a little known rebate, known only to a few before Covid-19 hit our shores. For many, it is not an easy relief to navigate. Some people have told me that they have needed the support of friends who are accountants to get their claim in order. Even if they manage to get their claim in order, the meagre amount on offer is hardly worth their while as it fails to cover a fair fraction of the increased costs associated with working from home.
I heard calls this week from some Independent Deputies at the Select Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach, for enhanced tax credits to support those who are working from home to meet their additional costs and to help to purchase equipment. This proposal got very short shrift from the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, thankfully, and from me. Taxpayers, including those who cannot work from home, should not be supplementing the bottom line of large companies that shift the cost of remote working on to the employee and therefore, indirectly, on to the State. Legally, as the Tánaiste has outlined, the employer still has an occupational health and safety duty of care to the employee, as some significant working time cases have confirmed, and 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, whether they are working in the office directly, working from home or working in their local pub.
Companies have to pay their fair share and it must be made compulsory for employers to contribute to the costs of remote working.
As well as the clear financial costs, there are clear social costs to working from home, particularly for women, who still bear an unfair and disproportionate share of the unpaid domestic workload. Repeated surveys, with which the Tánaiste will be familiar, have shown the challenge of juggling childcare with work commitments for remote workers, which relates largely to the woeful inadequacy of affordable and accessible childcare provision in this country. This alone will not be enough. 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.
Our movement, as my colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, stated earlier, has fought long and hard for the right to, for example, a five-day week and paid holidays. Advances in technology were meant to liberate us from the workplace; instead, the technology enslaves us. 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.
I am sharing time. I thank the Deputies for introducing this legislation and providing the opportunity to have the discussion. Before I get into the substantive issue of the right to disconnect and the need to protect home workers, I must point out that for workers, the best defence against exploitation is to join a union and vote left. That was true in the 1940s, when my grandmother was a shop steward with the Irish Women Workers Union; in the 1950s, when my grandad was a shop steward with the Irish Transport and General Workers Union; and in the 1960s and 1970s, when my dad was organising with the National Bus and Rail Union. It was true when I was a shop steward and it remains true today. That does not mean we shirk our responsibility as legislators - it means that the best defence that working people have against exploitation, and the best chance they have of decent work, is to vote left. I refer not just to joining their trade unions but also to getting active in them, which is very important.
I will now address the issues raised by the legislation. Covid-19 has turned people's lives upside down. That is an established and unassailable fact for many workers, who may have been seeking for years the right to work from home and may have been engaging with their employers. As a former trade union official, I engaged with employers to seek remote working for workers, or a version of blended working, but it was resisted by employers. They felt that it would not work or that they would not get the same level of productivity out of a worker if he or she was off site. Overnight, people moved out of offices and had to work from home. That had a number of effects, one of which - I would say this, would I not? - was that it proved I was correct when I advocated for workers to be able to work from home, because productivity increased. We saw that an attempt at a work-life balance for workers was much easier to achieve.
Another effect of the move to home working was that it exposed the conditions that many people live in. It is all very well for the Deputies to say somebody should have the right to a desk, but if he or she lives in an overcrowded apartment, where will he or she put the desk? The policies of successive Governments mean that generations of one family live in one house. This presents an opportunity to reimagine work but also to examine the lived reality. One of the Deputies mentioned "the lived reality". For many, the lived reality is a trial because they just do not have the space, the facilities or perhaps the peace and quiet due to the presence of multiple generations in one home. We need to examine that and how workers can be supported.
The Tánaiste will be aware, because we have engaged on this on a number of occasions, that I think we need to consider providing remote hubs for people, not in industrial estates but in the main street, where people can avail of facilities such as broadband, which many people do not have at home, so that they can work remotely. It is not only about working from home; it is also about not commuting and the capacity to be able to work remotely. The Tánaiste does not disagree with me on this and I look forward to having a broader engagement with him and his Department about these hubs. They will form a vital part of the issue. Nobody wants to spend hours upon hours commuting. Covid-19 has shown that workers are productive, that the boss can get what he or she needs and that we can avoid the commute. To do that, however, we need to recognise that for many people, working from home is not an option. We know well that the rules on the minimum space allowed for an apartment were changed. Many people, therefore, live in tiny spaces. Where will they put their desks and how will they manage to work from home? They need to be accommodated.
I might just mention legislation I will publish later in respect of the carry-over of annual leave. Similar legislation was brought in by the British Government. The UK Organisation of Working Time Act is more or less the same as ours. It was brought in because it was deemed necessary and I believe it is necessary here. One thing we have learned because of the pandemic is what an essential worker really is. When I was growing up, if someone had asked me what an essential worker was, I probably would have said a nurse, a garda or somebody such as a firefighter or someone perceived to be on the front line in that way. The pandemic showed us, however, that supply chain workers, cleaners and people in retail are also essential workers and many of them have been working considerably more than their contracted hours. They have annual leave they may not be able to take because the pandemic has not gone and we still need them.
I hope that other parties will support our legislation when it is tabled because it is important to be able to carry forward annual leave if the person has not been able to take it in this leave year. While many employers might facilitate that, many will not. I do not think anybody in the House would like to think of people storing up annual leave simply because they cannot take time off, as essential workers, and are not able to get the benefit of the leave. The benefit of the leave is the time off, not necessarily the money in exchange for the leave. Many people will want the time, which is worth a great deal more to them. One thing the pandemic has exposed is the nature of essential work. Essential workers are not just the people who, traditionally, we would have assumed were essential workers. They are, in fact, the people doing the cleaning, the people in supply chains, the people in retail and all the others who kept us going during the pandemic.
The issue of remote working and the right to disconnect is one the Tánaiste and I have discussed previously. I acknowledge the work done by the Financial Services Union, the Communication Workers Union, SIPTU, Fórsa and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. There is no reason to delay. They have been working away on this and have the facts, the figures and the statistics. They can point to international examples and they know how easily it can be done, but they also know how important it is that it is done. If a worker cannot switch off and does not have the right to do so, he or she will be always in work. That will take a toll while the person tries to do everything else that he or she has to do. Workers need the right to switch off, to turn off their devices and to know there will be no comeback. A couple of wits responded to me on Twitter by saying workers could just switch off their phones.
It is all very well to say that, but without the right to do that there can be consequences.
It is important that we are having this debate. I welcome the Deputies tabling the legislation and I look forward to working with them to get it through the House because it is an extremely important tool that workers need.
As a former shop steward, I, too, thank the Labour Party for bringing forward this Bill. It is a Pauline conversion by the party that facilitated the imposition of austerity on ordinary workers and their families, but it is a welcome conversion nonetheless.
Last week, my colleague, the Sinn Féin spokesperson on enterprise, trade, employment and workers' rights, Deputy Louise O'Reilly, introduced a similar Bill to give workers a legal right to disconnect from work outside their working hours. Covid-19 has highlighted the huge change in work practices that has been gradually inching its way towards home working for those who can do it.
The number of people working from home regularly has more than trebled as a result of the pandemic. It may be one of the few positives from this pandemic that some of the thousands of employees who left Kildare and Laois for work every morning will no longer have to make that journey when all this comes to an end. That will have a major benefit on their work-life balance and on our planet. However, these developments, if left unregulated, can sometimes end up being damaging and stress inducing and may make jobs more difficult. Countless workers have spoken of how they are exhausted and stressed in their job due to their employers contacting them late at night and requesting a task be completed for an online meeting the next morning. Many have reported an always-on culture where workers are expected to be contactable and available to respond to work emails, calls and messages at every hour of the day, seven days a week. Reading emails and messages outside of our normal working day can make it difficult to let go of work-related stress, especially for those home workers who do not have the luxury of a separate work space as it can influence their mental health, affect their mood and sleep patterns and intrude on family time.
There has been a strong campaign among trade unions to deliver a right to disconnect for workers. I commend the work of the unions on highlighting that. Employers need to put in place a right to disconnect policy to establish the hours when employees are not supposed to send or answer work-related emails, texts or calls. We need to protect our workers and their mental health. They deserve nothing less.
As a former shop steward, I welcome this Bill. As the Minister has heard, working from home needs to be recognised as a specific form of work. For some people, working from home is great but for others it is a nightmare. We need to recognise that and put in place protections to ensure that those who are working from home do not lose out on rights and entitlements.
The labour market think-tank, Eurofound, found that Ireland had one of the highest rates of working from home in Europe during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic crisis. It also found that in terms of working from home, the work-life balance was particularly difficult for people who had children under the age of 17, and it was noted that it affected women more adversely. We all know that working from home has its challenges, but overcrowding in homes across this State has disadvantaged many people who are trying to work from home. That especially affects women.
As difficult as it can be to concentrate on work, and we all have those days, can we imagine how difficult it is for some people to concentrate if they are sharing a small home with their mother, grandmother or children? We expect people to work in conditions where there is noise and chaos, with everyone on top of each other in small rooms of a small house.
We are in the midst of the worst housing crisis in the history of this State, which has seen generations of families living together in overcrowded accommodation. We are also seeing young professionals being forced to live in battery cage, disgracefully cramped conditions. Some of them go to work to get out of that accommodation and we are now expecting them to work in it. It is not sustainable or feasible for those people to do that. When they can simultaneously cook their dinner, put on the washing and lie in their studio apartment, it is understandable that working from home presents unique challenges and sets of difficulties for different people.
Without ensuring that every person in this State has a proper home, we are putting people at a disadvantage. Their work and their prospects will suffer, and long-term harm will be done. People need a right to switch off. It is to be hoped this Bill will give people the right to do that.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill and I commend the Labour Party on bringing it forward. The fact that the Government will not oppose it is welcome.
I read the explanatory note on the Bill and in the crisis we are in, this is probably one of the times where we could use the common-sense approach. Many speakers referred to the stress of working, whether at home, in the office or travelling to and from work. There is a saying that a happy worker is a productive worker. There are many advantages in this legislation. The first section of the Bill, which provides the legal right to disconnect, is the vital component. As a politician, I try to switch off at the weekend but generally I do not because I feel I might let somebody down if they cannot contact me. "hen someone is contracted to work for a company, however, and it is their livelihood, there is a vital component in this in that having a happier, more family-friendly atmosphere should be of benefit to both the employer and the employee if they can work together.
Tweaks will have to be made to the Bill and it will go to the next Stage but the one aspect we have to address is that the majority of people who work from home use the Internet and we have a serious issue with rural broadband. Deputy O'Reilly spoke about hubs in towns, which is an excellent idea. It is about providing anything that can allow us move forward in that regard.
Section 2 refers to the Organisation of Working Time Act. That is vital because when people are employed, they feel obliged to answer the phone 24-7 to their employer, which should not be the case. It is about giving people boundaries. If people have some form of normality in life and they are happy in work, they are happy to do the work. When they are less stressed, hassled and there is less deflection, they can concentrate on what they are employed and paid to do.
There is an in-depth explanation of the Bill and I could speak about that for the next half an hour, but in terms of conditions and so on, I believe this Bill will be of benefit to both employers and employees. There are many other benefits to working from home such as less commuting, less hassle and a better atmosphere. Many years ago I worked in construction. My children were six and seven years of age. I was 16 years with the company but I left it because I was not seeing my children enough due to working away from home. There are huge benefits in this Bill. It is self-explanatory. I again commend the Labour Party on bringing forward the Bill. I hope to God it will come to fruition and benefit everybody in society at what is probably the worst time we have ever witnessed in the history of the planet, but we have come to the stage where we are planning for the future, and that has to be welcomed.
I thank the Deputies for bringing forward this legislation. The first part of the Bill, which aims to strengthen workers' rights within the current context of Covid-19, is very welcome. It is widely accepted now that work-life balance is fundamentally important.
With advances in technology and people being accessible more easily we must catch up in law and make sure a worker's right to disconnect from work is protected. Workers' rights are something I have long fought for as a member of Unite. I know all too well the importance of the power of collective bargaining, when ordinary workers come together to protect themselves and their working conditions.
As the Bill sets out clearly, any time spent by an employee in accessing, considering and responding to work-related electronic communications is working time. This is the message we must embed in this important legislation. It cannot be the case that employees are put in a position that phone calls or emails are extra work time, whereby the employer benefits from an employee's attention outside of working time and it should be considered as such. The issue of the right to disconnect is being examined at European level, with the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions stating it is important to get it right in terms of work-life balance and safeguarding workers' health and safety. It is my understanding that France and Italy have already legislated for this matter, which demonstrates that a legislative precedent is set.
My colleague, Deputy Louise O'Reilly, introduced a Bill to the House to deal with this matter and I commend her on her work on this. Her legislation would make it a requirement that employers put in place a right to disconnect policy to establish the hours when employees are not supposed to send or answer work-related emails, texts or calls. This would be put in place in consultation with the employees and, where applicable, the relevant trade union. It, therefore, would allow employees to waive the right to disconnect but only with their consent. This is a very important principle, as it means the employees and their unions should be at the centre of discussions on when they are available outside of working hours in times when they might be in need of flexibility. This principle should be remembered when we are debating legislation on workers' rights to disconnect. Flexibility is sometimes necessary but not at the expense of the employees' well-being and safety. I am happy to support the legislation in principle as it strengthens workers' rights. I hope we can continue to respond to our changing working environments due to this pandemic by keeping workers' rights, safety and conditions as core values in our society.
I thank the Labour Party for using its time to bring forward this legislation. In 2019, the CSO reported that 18% of people in Ireland were working from home, mostly one or two days a week. These people generally worked in large companies, with home working more prevalent in the multinational sector. The pandemic changed everything. Overnight, whole industries moved to remote working . In July, a survey conducted by Microsoft indicated that 72% of organisations had implemented remote working policies. The latest CSO labour force survey indicates that 36% of the workforce is working from home and while the figure will shift as restrictions change there is no doubt a significant proportion of the workforce will continue to work from home when we emerge from this pandemic.
An NUIG survey in October showed that 94% were in favour of working remotely on an ongoing basis for some or all of the time, which was an increase from 83% at the start of the pandemic. The number of people who want to work remotely every day is 27%, which is more than double the findings of the previous survey, which was 12%. A total of 23% of those asked said they would think of relocating due to the ability to work from home and 7% have already moved. We need to think about housing policy from this point of view. Covid has really raised even more serious questions about the whole issue of co-living than there were to begin with. Housing policy is part of what we need to consider.
We also need to bear in mind that there will be shifting attitudes on this as people change and get used to a different form of work. We have to take a long view on this and look at the data. There is a clear need for a suite of legislation in this area. Policies designed for an office environment will not always suit a home environment. Extending current policies to home creates many grey areas for workers and employers. Who is liable if a worker is injured at home if they develop posture injuries from poor seating? Many studies have examined the extent of remote working and its impact on workers and there are clear divides in the research. Research carried out by employers and employers' groups tends to be more positive towards remote working than research carried out by unions. We have to pay attention to this. Issues of people with neck strain and other such issues because of not having the correct type of equipment are very serious.
Fórsa carried out a survey in August, which indicated serious challenges. Its survey of 4,000 public sector workers revealed that more than 80% of those who favour home working want a hybrid arrangement, whereby people can work between home and the workplace. Just over a quarter, at 28% of those surveyed, said a manager had asked them about their home working set-up from a health and safety perspective. I would have thought that would be a standard practice. One third said their employer had not provided the necessary equipment and, significantly, a minority of 12% have no access to essential technology such as broadband. We all hear from people who have to drive to sit outside somewhere so they can work from their car.
Home working is not as popular among young workers aged under 30, which suggests where they live matters with regard to sharing or being in a family home setting. A survey carried out by the Financial Services Union, FSU, in April and May showed challenges for people working from home. This survey of home working staff revealed that 44% feel pressure to answer calls and emails outside of working hours and 56% have seen an increase in work intensity. A total of 66% reported an increase in work-related stress. Research carried out by the University of Limerick in 2019 for the FSU revealed that one in four workers in the banking and finance sector is expected to answer calls and emails outside of working hours. There really have to be controls on this.
New European research shows that almost 40% of EU workers started working from home during the confinement. The latest EU working conditions survey shows people regularly working are twice as likely to work 48 hours or more a week than those working in employer's premises. They are six times more likely to work in their free time and they are the groups of workers most likely to report waking up repeatedly during sleep. They are never able to shut off or differentiate between work and home.
Workers are entitled to security and safety at work. Safety at work must now extend far beyond the narrow parameters of the old. It must embrace positive mental health. No worker should be left feeling stressed and harassed by the demands of technology. Everyone is entitled to live their lives outside of the paid working day. There is also a presumption that workers are able to work from home and that they have the space, equipment, broadband and childcare necessary to do so safely. I do not know how many women I have spoken to, particularly young mothers, who feel their lives and entitlements have gone backwards. This is part of the reason many want a hybrid system.
We welcome the Bill but we want it to go further. We want to ensure that workers benefit from the power of technology and the increased flexibility it provides. This must include looking at options such as the right of workers to set their own hours. We also think a four day week is something that should be considered in this context. There is plenty of evidence to show it raises productivity. Burning out workers is the last thing that should happen. We want to ensure people have access to high-quality hubs based in local communities, which can provide a positive working environment and promote local investment. We must ensure the voices of workers and their communities are central in the shaping of the future of work. The Government has an opportunity to give workers a valuable forum through sectoral task forces and it should set out in the national economic plan how it intends to do this.
The model of excluding workers from task forces which will determine their future, as we have seen with the task force on tourism, is not satisfactory. We cannot leave economic policy to employers alone; it is too important for that. Ireland's way of dealing with the rise in remote working has been to continue the voluntarist model of industrial relations. Too often, the Government presents an opt-out model and employers opt out. If we are serious about giving workers a voice, we must introduce proper collective bargaining legislation and ensure that workers are represented at board level.
It is clear that in the best traditions of capitalism, many employers and firms in this current crisis have decided not to waste a good crisis. For them the pandemic is seen as an opportunity to wrestle greater productivity from workers. One study suggests that the productivity of workers working from home has risen dramatically, by up to around 13%. This change, from one end, avoids long commutes and expensive travel for workers, but that advantage has been wiped out by employers enforcing long hours and placing greater demands on workers to work for longer. The expense of that work, in terms of the work space and the electricity, heating and Internet costs, etc., are piled onto the worker. Even at this stage of the Covid crisis, we see that this may be a permanent change that many employers want, and many workers may want it, but it should be a choice for them. There is cost to it in terms of the physical and mental health of workers, their relationships and the impact it has on their families. Therefore, this Bill is welcome. The State has an obligation to regulate and put in place safeguards for workers, but there is a problem, because this State has never liked regulating any spheres of the workplace. Workplace safety and regulation were outliers in terms of enforcement and the impact of our regulatory bodies. This is especially true when it comes to the rights of workers. We pretend that there are two equal sides in the workplace, namely, the employer and the worker, and we talk about a voluntarist model of industrial relations. That really is code for the odds being stacked against workers. There is still no statutory right to union recognition, no statutory pay scheme or an obligation on employers to fund one, and we have one of the lowest rates of employer PRSI contributions in Europe. None of this is an accident. It is planned and it has been the outcome of policies of consecutive, conservative governments led by the two big parties and sometimes half a party in coalition with them - traditionally that has been Labour Party but currently, it is the Green Party. We face a problem. We are debating the need for real change to regulate the frontiers of exploitation in workplaces and the new workplace being at home for many workers, but we have a very poor record and have utterly failed to regulate many spheres for workers.
I want to return to the issue of productivity, because productivity growth is very obvious and there are benefits for the employer from the working from home model, but it is not surprising that this is not being passed onto workers. A recent study showed that in respect of the share of the national output in terms of wages, in 1995, 55% went to workers, and by 2015 that had dropped to 44%, and we have seen the biggest drop in the 37 countries surveyed by the OECD, which provided the data. Workers here remain some of the most productive in Europe, but according to the National Competitiveness Council, Irish productivity rates and levels have been above the OECD average and Ireland has had the bigger output among the OECD countries, but we have not seen that in terms of wages. If workers are to work from home, if decent legislation is passed to protect their rights, where, then does the increased productivity get paid back to them? There is a need for trade union organisation, for the recognition of trade unions and for the right to free collective bargaining, because all the benefits will all end up going one way.
We welcome the Bill, but do so with no illusions on the task ahead, that to turn the tide on the exploitation of workers in this country, we have to rebuild the trade union movement and rebuild parties so that workers are really represented in this House.
Workers want to live; they do not just want to exist and to live to work. They deserve not just decent wages, but also a proper work-life balance. In recent years we have seen big corporations trying to squeeze every last drop of energy and productivity out of their workforces, expecting them to be always on and always available. Instead of freeing people up to live their lives, new technologies are being used tighten the screws, to increase the control of the employer, to decrease the autonomy of workers and to chip away at workers' personal time. That has to stop.
Workers deserve a right to disconnect, to clock off and to leave their work at work. The unions have been fighting for this, and in other countries the right to disconnect has been won. However, the Irish bosses and their representatives in government have opposed such a right for any workers. Corporate lobbyist IBEC argued during the election that, "any legislative intervention on working time is likely to bring unhelpful rigidity to an increasingly flexible world of work." Of course, the bosses view any rights for workers or regulation on businesses as unhelpful rigidity. In their books, they miss the flexible world of work that existed 100 years ago, where workers had no rights, where they were picked off the docks by corporations and the corporations controlled their lives. Unfortunately, we know that when corporate lobbyists tell the Government to jump, they are asked, "How high?" To fight against it, we need a legal right for workers to disconnect, as proposed here today, but more, we need strong and fighting trade unions, and a left government with socialist policies willing to take on the corporations.
Workers' rights must also be put front and centre in the discussion around working from home. With Covid, we have seen many businesses that could and should allow employees to work from home, refusing to do so, instead insisting on their workers putting their health at risk by travelling into the office. Other companies are telling people to work from home, but are not providing the necessary supports for their workers to do that. Working from home means extra costs: desks, chairs, equipment, and let us not forget, light and heating bills. Instead of the company paying to heat the office, the worker pays to heat their own home. Keeping the lights on and the radiators warm all day adds hundreds of euro more to the cost of living, and too often that is falling on the shoulders of workers. Instead, bosses must be made to cover that cost. The €3.20 per day work from home payment will be welcome and should be mandatory for employers to pay, but even that will not cover the full cost, as it based on 10% of the cost of home bills, but if one is working from home for 40 hours or more per week, it is much more than 10%. It is time to protect workers and workers' rights, not just now during Covid, but in the long run, too. Proper supports for those working from home will be an important first step towards this.
Finally, I have a general point. The Covid crisis is likely to have massive long-term impacts on how people work and want to work. An idea whose time has come is that of moving to a four-day week, or a 30-hour week, without loss of pay. We have seen a massive increase in the productivity of workers, but wages have stagnated over recent decades while working hours have been increased. In other words, the surplus is being hoovered up by the bosses. It is time for workers to demand a shorter working week without loss of pay. A move to a four-day week would not just improve people's living standards and their work-life balance, but it would also have major environmental benefits in reducing emissions.
Prior to the pandemic, there were remote workers in roughly one in ten households, but today there are remote workers in four out of ten households. This is as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic. While Covid-19 and the resultant lockdowns will peter out over the next 18 months or so, remote working is now becoming mainstream. It is going to be a key part of our future working environment, as will the issue of blended working, where people will work at home for a number of days per week, may hotdesk for other days in the week and may go into the corporate headquarters of their company one day per week, one day per fortnight, or a couple of days per month.
All this is being brought about by the significant investment taking place as part of the national broadband plan and we have already seen the commercial investment that has been stimulated by the action of Government. We now have a situation where close to four out of five homes in this country have access to high-speed broadband and over the next couple of years the remaining cohort of the population will get access to high-speed broadband.
One particular issue is not getting the attention it should whereby some homes will be left behind and as a result those people will not be able to work remotely. Some are not able to work remotely now. Some will not be able to work remotely in the future because they will not have the capacity within their broadband network. The resale value of their house will be significantly undermined if they do not have access to a high-speed broadband network.
From next month, National Broadband Ireland, NBI, is rolling out fibre-optic cable to communities right across this country. People need to check their colour on the national broadband plan map on the Department's website at www.broadband.gov.ie. People in dark blue areas on that map who do not get a minimum of 30 Mbps consistently, day and night, need to report this to the Department and have the national broadband plan adapted so they are included in the State intervention element.
We are talking about 80,000 homes in towns and villages and even in the centre of this city that do not have access to high-speed broadband at the moment. We are currently dependant an operators reporting difficulties in connecting homes in order for those homes to be included on the State intervention element of the national broadband plan. Unless people check their colour code and report it along with their Eircode to the Department, they could end up being left behind.
I have had instances of people saying they are not getting 30 Mbps, but it is grand and it will do them fine. It will do them fine at the moment but in four or five years' time, when their neighbours on either side have fibre-optic cable and connect up all their devices - heating, lighting, audio and television systems along with working from home - those people will not be able to do the same. Those people will not be able to sell their home because they do not have access to that fibre and all because they shoved their hand in their pockets back in 2020 and said saying they would be alright.
It is imperative that people act now with regard to it. We have an ideal time during the lockdown to do that because significant demand is being put on fibre and on broadband capacity at the moment. If, therefore, people are going to have problems with their broadband, it will be now. I strongly urge every single home in the country to go onto the national broadband plan website at and check the colour code. If their area is dark blue on the website and they do not get a minimum of 30 Mbps day and night then they need to report that quickly. National Broadband Ireland is now beginning to pass homes and once it has passed it may not necessarily come back to those particular communities and those individuals could lose out. They could be left without high-speed broadband in the future and could be in a situation where they will be unable to sell their homes.
Those who find their home is in an amber area on the national broadband plan website need to do two things. They need to go to the National Broadband Ireland website and register their Eircode so they will be updated on when the broadband is coming to their home and community. They need to look at how that fibre cable is going to come from the nearest pole to their front door. The slowest element of delivery of the national broadband plan is connecting it from the pole to the door. People need to decide if it is coming via the pole and the existing line of sight from the pole to their house. If so, they need to make sure their trees are pruned back. They cannot prune those back between March and September so they need to do that work now rather than looking at the fibre-optic cable on the pole outside their door and waiting until September until they can be connected.
If they are connecting by duct, they should check a duct is in place or go onto the National Broadband Ireland website. The specifications are there for anyone who is building a new home or putting down a new driveway so that person can put the ducting in place now in advance the contractor coming. It is imperative that people do not sit back but that they act quickly and check their colour code on the national broadband plan website and ensure they get delivery of a high-speed broadband solution for their home. They will be able to work remotely in future and their family and the future generation will not be left behind. They will not be in a situation where if that property is disposed of in the future it will be unsellable because they do not have access to what will be a basic piece of infrastructure, that is, high-speed broadband.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk about working at home. To be honest, everybody's dream is to be able to work at home but, unfortunately, in my constituency it is not a reality. It is the type of country in which we live. Many other politicians have spoken to the Minister of State about communication and the need for a proper broadband service.
We do not have a proper broadband service in west Cork. We must ask many questions about how ComReg acts because there are many issues with regard to Eir. My office is inundated with issues regarding Eir. It is untouchable. Everybody is standing back and ComReg seems to be afraid in to take it on. It is a body which is paid a hell of a lot of money in this country and it has little answers for people who suffer great deals of anxiety around trying to work at home and who cannot do so.
There is a need for broadband whether it is in places like Sandycove in Kinsale, Kilmacsimon, around Inishannon and all the way back into Bantry. We have the same issue. We had a breakthrough, in fairness, for people who were trying to work from home in Gaggan. It became a national issue. They had to go to the local churchyard in Bandon to get a proper Internet service. I spent months with Three mobile and other operators to try to get that sorted and it took every bit of time we had. It took me six months but eventually, in fairness, Three mobile erected a mast that has given people maybe 100 Mbps of broadband in Gaggan, which is what they wanted. It was able to deliver that through this extra capacity being given out at present because of Covid-19. It is something we need to look at further.
I thank companies such as Digitalforge which has really given a fantastic broadband service. It is unfortunate it is up to a private operator to try to deliver a broadband service to the people of west Cork and most areas covered by Digitalforge. It provides a top class service to the best of its ability for a wireless operated company and gets little assistance from the Government. We need to focus on the wireless companies. Seeing as Eir and others cannot deliver broadband to the door, we need to look at those which can, such as Digitalforge. ComReg is paid by the State and needs to be answerable to the State.
In County Limerick, a person can look at the map and see the orange areas and all the different areas they say we have broadband.
Nineteen houses built by the local authority in Patrickswell, which is within walking distance of Limerick, had no broadband. A company called Imagine offered to give them broadband because Eir could not give them a connection and claimed it could take two or three years. My office is inundated with calls from people saying they cannot get connections.
My office has an Eir connection and we did a small study on Eir. For the past two months we have been trying to contact Eir over a small issue in our office. We have nine hours of office time given to Eir and we are going around in circles. This is where our problem is. There is no infrastructure within Eir, and we depend on companies like Imagine to provide broadband to people in our areas.
There are factories in Kilmallock. Fibre broadband is provided in the town, including as far as the mart in Kilmallock, but Celtic Engineering, 100 yd behind the mart in Kilmallock, does not have broadband. Irema which is making masks for us does not have broadband. It is in an industrial estate 100 yd off the main route. The statistics that National Broadband Ireland is giving us are absolute bull. It is provided to the main routes and not going off the side routes. It is doing townlands; it is not coming off the main roads. The statistics being given to the Government are false.
As Deputies, we get calls every day identifying where the faults are and we are trying to patch it in, but Eir is not answering our calls. It is sending us around in circles and not doing its job. It advised us that in certain areas in County Limerick it will be seven years before people will get broadband. We then need to go to other companies to see if they will fill that gap. This is not right that 100 yd from a fibre cable, a factory with 300 or 400 workers cannot get connected to fibre broadband. Companies like Eir should be held accountable and give the proper statistics to the Government.
I also support the Bill. It is fine and dandy, and admirable. However, like previous speakers have said, we cannot do it because we do not have the facilities. ComReg should be stood down because it is useless, toothless and fruitless. I met one of them recently. I was aghast. I pulled in on the way home to get some diesel. I saw this massive jeep with a 202 registration with fancy decals probably worth €50,000. That is not what we want. The people want service. They need to be out there to insist that Eir is not doing it. Eir has abandoned the people. Eircom and Telecom Éireann were proud-----
Someone has to say it and we are all saying it. My secretary often spends 50 minutes, an hour or more contacting Eir on behalf of unfortunate elderly people whose landlines are out for three or four months and they have no pendant alarm. It is a disgrace. That is the problem. I heard my secretary screaming down the phone, "Please do not switch me on to someone further." People are going around in a circle and it is all falsehoods and a waste of time. People out in the country now at this time of year when it is dark from 4 o'clock have no line for up to six months and they cannot get anyone at the end of it. It is a disgrace. It was the name of a service, but we do not have a service. It is a shame in 2020. We will be commemorating Michael Hogan and Bloody Sunday next week in the fight for Irish freedom. We are being raped and plundered by these companies which are getting millions. There is more talk about-----
I am talking about funding. I cannot use the word "pilfer" either, can I? I will sit down, so, and shut up. We have no service and it is a disgrace that people cannot get a basic service to work from home. They cannot even work in the towns where they cannot get broadband, never mind working from home. It is all nice and dandy to talk about it, and the people will go back to the country and live in the hovels where they were. This is supposed to be a modern country. Once a year I go to Medjugorje in a Third World country. It has the best of broadband, and the best of water, and we cannot have it here after all the millions spent on it. It is shocking. I do not want to use those adjectives, but that is what is happening.
The people are being hoodwinked and blinded. There is no need for ComReg because it is not doing its job. If any of us were not doing our job we would be sent off by the electorate and hunted, and rightly so. People in a company not doing their job are cautioned, go through disciplinary procedures and get dismissed. However, these people can just drive around in their big jeeps having a good time and to hell with the people.
I support this important and timely legislation. While the Labour Party brought the Bill into the Dáil today, it is a shame that when it was in power between 2011 and 2016 it could not have introduced similar legislation when it had the majority to get it passed.
Obviously the Covid pandemic has greatly increased the numbers of people working from home. Notwithstanding that, International Labour Organization figures show that just under 9% of the workforce were already working from home and it is a tendency that is likely to increase. It is a part of more flexible working arrangements, facilitated by the advancement in technology, the Internet, computers, smartphones and so on.
However, we have seen how flexible working arrangements, which might suit some workers, are increasingly used in a very abusive way by some employers. The use of zero hours, if-and-when contracts, part-time working and often a complete disregard of the Organisation of Working Time Act requirements for breaks both during and between shifts are major problems in the hospitality sector. The key area that is open to abuse in this situation is for employers to expect their workers to be permanently on call, which is already a reality for many workers. The right to disconnect is crucial. I know that Deputy O'Reilly has also introduced a Bill dealing specifically with that question. I urge Deputies to support that Bill, as I also do.
This Bill will ensure that the Organisation of Working Time Act, which provides a minimum of 11 hours of rest between shifts and a limit of 48 hours to the working week, and the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act will also apply to home workers. Legislation on workers' rights is extremely important and much more is required in this area. However, legislation is only one aspect of defending and advancing workers' rights. The question of enforcement is crucial as is the knowledge of those rights by individual workers. The key here is the right to be in a trade union and to have that trade union recognised by the employer. That trade union needs to represent the employee properly and be a fighting trade union.
Working from home can now mean workers being isolated, making it more difficult to interact with fellow workers and to act as a collective when negotiating with an employer. While supporting the Bill, I cannot overstate the importance of workers being in a union whether working in the employer's workplace or at home. I support the Bill.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the important Bill before us today, the Labour Party's Working from Home (Covid-19) Bill 2020. I am glad that the Government has accepted the Bill, but I am concerned that its intentions for it might be slightly different from those of the Opposition.
Firstly, having the Bill will probably create a more positive working environment for everyone here. The ushers, service officers, people working in the questions office, parliamentary reporters, cleaners, political staff and others as essential workers are required to be here very often until completely unreasonable hours. Employment and working standards here should be setting the benchmark to be reached in other workplaces across the island. Listening to RTÉ’s "Today with Claire Byrne" show recently, and talking to any of the many cogs in this big wheel, would make one wonder about how compliant the Houses of the Oireachtas Service is with our own obligations under employment legislation.
The issues of the right to switch off and the access that employers have to employees have become far more prevalent in this digital era. Having our work emails synced to our mobile phones or iPads or just the one mobile phone for personal use as well as work use, for example, have all blurred the lines of when someone is or should be available for work.
The all-important work-life balance has been steadily eroded over recent years with the capitalist society pushing us all to work longer hours and be more available to employers, clients and colleagues at all times of day or night even while on annual leave.
With Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael constantly pushing up the pension age, when do we think we will get the opportunity to relax and spend time with family? I am a strong advocate of the Four Day Week Ireland campaign and look forward to seeing it gain momentum. A four-day week would represent real change for workers.
Covid-19 has changed how we work. Overnight, people were asked to stay home and to work from home, while schools and crèches closed. People were expected to juggle their caring responsibilities while working a full, productive day from home. Many were also struggling with broadband connections, access to necessary IT infrastructure and the constant "sorry, you’re on mute there" refrain on Zoom calls. People’s normal working hours became skewed and I fear that this new flexibility and accessibility of employees will be abused by employers. Instead of this being a positive opportunity to address the benefits of remote working and flexible working hours, it has generally been used to squeeze as much productivity out of people while ignoring any negative impacts on their mental health.
There is a gender aspect to this also. Research this year has shown that even in cases where both parents are working from home, it is still the woman in the relationship who is taking on most of the unpaid work and caring duties. A recent survey by Eurofound, the labour market think tank, found that Ireland had one of the highest rates of employees working from home during the pandemic. Around 40% of paid hours worked by employees were undertaken at home, while the figure in Belgium was highest at 52%. The survey also showed that people working from home who had children under 17 were most likely to experience work, life conflict, with an article in The Irish Timesreporting that this conflict was most notable for women. The article noted that 22% of respondents working exclusively from home reported difficulty concentrating on work because of family obligations, compared to 8% of those working in other locations.
Working from home has the potential to increase participation in the workforce by people with disabilities and with caring responsibilities, as well as by those living outside of cities and urban centres. I welcome this Bill. It will not fix everything but it is a small step in the right direction. It will amend the 1994 Terms of Employment (Information) Act to include a new paragraph around work-related communications outside the hours of work, amend the 1997 Organisation of Working Time Act to insert a new section 17A on the right to switch off and apply the 2005 Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act to employees working temporarily from home. As Deputy Collins just argued, it is also important to encourage, if not oblige, workers to join a union. That would be significant in terms of looking after their interests.
I have not even mentioned other issues such as those living in overcrowded accommodation without access to workspaces and the myriad inequalities this pandemic has shone some much-needed light on. Let us take the awfulness of this year and make something positive for the future. Do we want to see people working from home or living at work?
I thank the Labour Party for initiating this debate today. The discussion on its proposed Bill is focusing our minds on the issue of remote working, the benefits of which we all understand. There is no doubt that working from home or working remotely, even in non-Covid times, when properly planned can provide significant benefits such as a better work, life balance for everyone, with reduced daily commutes and less negative impacts on the environment through reductions in traffic and air pollution. It also has great benefits for our regions and local economies, including our towns and villages. Our communities are strengthened by having people at home more often and not having to do long daily commutes. In my county, people can spend three or four hours in their cars going to and from work and that is true for many other counties. We all benefit from having people working closer to their home, whether they are remote working in their house or working in a hub that is provided privately or through the State.
We can make much progress here and build on the success of the past couple of years but I must stress that this must be done in a planned way. Covid-19 resulted in many people working from home in an unplanned way. They were trying to work, to survive and to manage everything, which was very difficult and put them under much pressure. The focus of today's debate on this Bill and of what all sides of the House are bringing forward should be on having a planned remote working strategy. That is what the Government is trying to achieve and facilitate to the greatest extent possible.
As recently as yesterday I had a very good discussion with the social enterprise and not-for-profit organisation, Grow Remote. It is very focused on this area and has been giving great advice to all stakeholders, including employers and employees, for the past few years. It is very focused on driving change and is a great organisation. We should all take heed of its advice and get involved in its work as much as possible.
A better work, life balance leads to higher employee retention. Digital technologies remove geographical barriers to recruitment as well as offering savings on office space and other facilities to the benefit of local areas. Of course, broadband plays a major part in aiding that. I am conscious that many of the contributors to this debate who were calling for more and speedier broadband are the same people who opposed the efforts of the last Government to improve broadband provision. Thankfully, we persisted and signed the national broadband plan contract. Approximately €100 million per year from the taxpayer along with other private money will ensure that we reach everyone's home with fibre broadband in the years ahead. I agree that the quicker that is done, the better. We should focus our minds on working with the contractor to see if we can do it quicker because we need it. That said, I would remind Deputies that they did not want the contract a year or two ago. I am glad they have come on board now and are buying into it and the importance of progressing it.
Covid-19 has certainly accelerated the move to working from home for a greater number of people and this has brought its own challenges for both employers and employees because of the speed with which it happened. I welcome today's discussion and, as the Tánaiste already advised, the Government is committed to facilitating and promoting remote working going forward. As a primary response to Covid-19 my Department launched a new web page dedicated to providing guidance for employers and employees on working remotely. This central access point provides all the current Government guidance available on remote working. In July my Department launched a public consultation on the existing guidance on remote work to understand how it could be improved. The consultation received more than 500 submissions from workers, employers, business groups, representative organisations and special interest groups. Some of the main topics arising in the submissions have been aired during this debate while others have not. They include the right to disconnect, tax and financial incentives for remote working, occupational health and safety issues, broadband provision, data protection, cybersecurity and training. We are working through all the submissions at the moment.
It is clear that any proposals for specific legislation on the right to disconnect would need to be carefully considered in order to avoid unintended negative consequences. Such legislation must be fit for purpose and enforceable and will be prioritised by the Government. Given the diverse range of sectors that avail of mobile technology and remote working, a one size fits all approach may not be appropriate. For example, some submissions received in the public consultation suggest that guidance on disconnecting and on working hours should be flexible in order to reflect that fact that Ireland is an open economy, trading in a global environment. The guidance must accommodate companies and employees who are operating across multiple time zones. Similarly, flexible systems for logging in and out of work over a longer period of time were suggested to accommodate employees with caring duties. We will have to put some work into this but we are committed to doing so. My Department will work with other Departments to bring forward a national remote working strategy which will be published in December. I am looking forward to everybody contributing to the discussion and debate on that.
There are issues of concern with this Bill relating to health and safety and the protocol from the HSA. We will have the opportunity at a later Stage to tease through some of the points with the Labour Party. There are some issues that need to be teased out further but time does not permit me to do so today. I am also concerned by the distinction drawn in the Bill between public sector and non-public sector employees and their employers. Our health and safety legislation which governs health and safety standards in workplaces must be consistent across all employers, regardless of their status. We do not differentiate between the public and private sectors in that regard but we can tease through these issues at a later stage.
As our country continues to navigate the global health crisis, remote working and enabling digital technology have become more important than ever. My Department is aware of the potential benefits that remote working offers to employers, employees and society in general. These benefits include increasing participation in the labour market, attracting and enabling talent, enabling balanced regional development, alleviating accommodation pressures, improving work, life balance, reducing the amount of time spent commuting and reducing carbon emissions. That being said, we need to strike a balance. I am conscious that so many people are working from home in an involuntary capacity to assist in our collective efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19. I want to thank them for their continued forbearance. Remote working can pose challenges to people's ability to socialise and to their mental well-being. If private homes are to operate as places of business, employees cannot be expected to respond to work-related emails or phone calls outside of their normal working hours. A work, life balance needs to be maintained.
I welcome the Labour Party's Private Member's Bill as an important addition to the debate in this area. The Tánaiste and the Minister of State, Deputy English, have given their views on the domestic situation.
I want to refer to what other countries are doing. The right to disconnect has been a significant topic of debate throughout the EU in recent years. Only four member states have introduced specific legislation giving a right to disconnect. There is a lack of consensus at EU level on the need for a specific directive in this area. The scope of legislation on the issue, and the way it is implemented and enforced, varies between countries. It should be noted that, in all instances, collective bargaining plays an important role. Under the French law, for example, companies with 50 employees or more are required to negotiate with employee representatives in order to determine the conditions of use of electronic communication tools. No legal definition of the right to disconnect is given under law. Instead, it requires employers to choose the most practical way to implement that right, taking into consideration the nature of their business. Under the French law, the right to disconnect must be included in mandatory annual negotiations with trade unions. While the provisions of the law impose an obligation to negotiate on the right to disconnect, they do not impose an obligation to reach an agreement. If no agreement is reached, the employer is still required to draw up a charter setting forth the terms and conditions under which employees can exercise their right to disconnect. It would be helpful to look at some of the best examples of what is being done in this area elsewhere.
The Labour Party's Private Members' Bill provides for employers to give their employees, free of deduction of tax, a flat-rate payment of such amounts as may be approved by the Revenue Commissioners to meet additional expenses incurred. I advise Deputies that there is already an administrative practice in place that is sufficiently flexible to allow for workers to have their expenses met by employers without giving rise to tax liability. The current value of the allowance in question is €3.20 day, which equates to €16 a week or €842 per annum. This is in addition to the fact that equipment may be provided without giving rise to a benefit-in-kind charge, including the provision of telephone lines and broadband facilities where private use is incidental. The tax issue raised more generally will be considered as part of the examination by the Department of Finance of the feasibility and merits of changing tax arrangements to encourage more people to work remotely, in line with the commitment in the programme for Government.
Even before the pandemic, the traditional nine to five was gradually giving way to more flexible and fluid ways of working. For many employees with customers and colleagues based in locations across the globe and in multiple time zones, working after 5.30 p.m. has become necessary as part of their day-to-day work. I am conscious that restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19 mean it is mandatory for many people to work remotely who otherwise would not be doing so. This underscores the need for a coherent strategy for remote working. The pressures of needing working space in the home, working and caring for children and limited social contact all demonstrate the need to continue to roll out more working hubs in every county and provincial town.
I am sharing time with Deputy Howlin. I thank Deputies for their contributions to the debate and the Government for its response. It is welcome that the Bill is not being opposed on this Stage, but there are a number of bridges we need to build between the Government's view of the legislation and where we want it to go.
There is one issue that I need to nip in the bud right away and it relates to the Tánaiste's contribution. I hope he did not misread the intent of our Bill. To be clear, its purpose is not to stifle flexible work. It is designed to put in place the health and safety infrastructure that is required for workers to work safely from home. We are very much aware of the flexible working arrangements that exist among the workforce. There may have been an intent by the Tánaiste to misrepresent what we are trying to do. In terms of the concerns he expressed, nothing could be further from the truth. We are saying that we need to put the protections for workers in place first and, after that, we can move on with the promotion of flexible work. It is important to state clearly that even if workers are working from home, the provisions of the Organisation of Working Time Act still apply in terms of breaks and rest periods. That point needs to be hammered home in response to the Tánaiste's contribution at the beginning of the debate.
A number of different issues were raised in the course of the debate, one of which was broadband provision. That particular discussion went off in a whole other direction and some Deputies used the opportunity of this debate to make their own points in that regard. Having said that, there is no doubt that broadband provision is an issue, both in rural Ireland and in the main cities. To give an example, the residents of a large new apartment block right in the centre of my town of Swords have no access to broadband. I am dealing with a person living there who is a nine to five worker, insofar as such an arrangement exists these days, and is working from home. This person is sharing the apartment with a shift worker who is working on the front line in the health service. The individual is trying to do the normal, everyday work, which used to be done in the office, from the end of the bed, with no space for a desk, chair or anything like that. When this person has to take a telephone call, there is the consciousness that, on the other side of a paper-thin wall, is a hospital shift worker who is trying to get some sleep during the day. That is the reality of working from home for many people at this time. Our Bill is looking to tackle that, not in a holistic way but in a very important way.
Several Deputies talked about taking a long view. Working from home is going to be a reality for the long term. As such, we need to look at the options for working within communities, which is a useful option for people who have to commute long distances, whether from the suburbs and hinterlands of our major cities or from even further afield. There are people who travel halfway across the country every day to work. We need to consider how we can provide workspaces in local communities, towns and villages. Such facilities would enable people to leave the house and engage in active travel, such as walking or cycling, to get to their workplace. This might be done via hot-desking or short-term lets of industrial and retail units in towns. It would help to regenerate towns as money circulates in local economies and is spent on main streets. It would be good for the environment and good for people's mental health because they would not be working from the end of their beds or in otherwise cramped conditions in their own homes.
There are many other aspects to this debate but I must pass over now to Deputy Howlin. I want to put on record my thanks, and the thanks of the Labour Party, to all the trade unions that have done Trojan work in getting the issue of the right to switch off into the space where we are debating it more regularly in the Chamber and bringing forth legislation that can effect real change. Ultimately, the best way for any worker to tackle precarious work in all its forms is to carry a union card. That message needs to go out loud and clear, not only from this side of the House but also from the Government side. Joining a union will help to protect workers, improve rights for all and help to move our country forward.
As the son of a trade union official, I begin by joining Deputy Duncan Smith in encouraging people to join, and be involved in, a trade union and to work towards the universal right to collective bargaining as a fundamental underpinning of workers' rights. I thank all Deputies who contributed to the debate. It is heartening that there was no voice against our legislative proposals. All the various perspectives and opinions within the House support the Bill.
I heard the contributions of the Tánaiste and the two Ministers of State, all of whom said they would not oppose the Bill on Second Stage. One of the Ministers of State talked about farming out aspects of the Bill to be considered by various institutions or organisations and thanked the Labour Party for contributing to the debate. I want to make the point that the Dáil is not a debating chamber outside the legislative process. This is the legislative process. The Bill we have brought before the House is specifically designed to address issues that are real for many hundreds of thousands of workers at this time. They need the measures we have outlined. I hope we will have goodwill from the Government to ensure our proposals are not just part of a debate but a means of moving towards legislative change.
"Working from home" was for many a phrase that was heard or something that was talked about rather than something they considered doing themselves. Covid-19 changed all of that in an instant. The nature of work post 2020 has changed permanently. Businesses and employees alike have discovered that, for many, it is possible to be productive, to achieve targets and not to have to face the daily commute to work. Employers, many of which had been sceptical, found that this was possible.
It is a point worth underscoring that what we have in mind is not a prescription for everybody. It must involve choice. Many contributors have said that this will not be possible for many people because of their living circumstances or their family or home situations. Nobody should be forced into a particular form of work. That is why collective agreement through a trade union is the ultimate way in which this should be handled. That does not mean, however, that we can abandon our fundamental duty to underpin in legislation the rights of workers not to be exploited in any way.
We always believed technology would come to liberate workers. I remember that, many years ago, the notion was that technology would get to a point at which we could all have endless leisure. The reverse is true. A new tyranny is often imposed by the ability to contact employees constantly and the expectation of bosses that one will respond at any time. That cannot be allowed to continue. I visited a very large technology company in this State in recent times. Allegedly, no one had fixed working hours but, in truth, they were constant slaves because they were all permanently logged in and online. Not only was their work being monitored at all times, but it was being benchmarked against all that company's workers across the globe. They did not even know whether they were doing well or not. We have to come to grips with that sort of tyranny now. The legislation before us is a small but really important step in that direction.
As has been said, other countries are ahead of us in understanding this issue and in enacting legal frameworks to begin to monitor and regulate the new work environment effectively. The Minister of State has said that only four countries have legislated in this way. Why can we not be in the vanguard? If four countries can do it, why not all countries? Why can Ireland not set the pace for the ideal working conditions for workers?
As I have said, a lot will have changed after the unprecedented year of 2020, much of it for the worse. Let us learn the best lessons. Let us provide a new work framework for those who want to work from home and who can do so. Let us deal with all the issues the many contributors have outlined which need to be dealt with. Let us start by enacting the measures we have set out to protect workers at home, to ensure that they are not out of pocket or under tyranny and to allow a different work pattern to prevail into the future.