Wednesday, 9 March 2022
Flexible and Remote Work: Motion [Private Members]
That Dáil Éireann: recognises that legislation to promote a flexible working environment is in the public interest, in order to achieve:— an appropriate combination of paid work with caring responsibilities, and the enjoyment of a better work-life balance;rejects as inadequate the Government proposals in the general scheme of the Right to Request Remote Work Bill, on the grounds that they:
— the promotion of access to work, particularly for persons who face particular obstacles in taking up employment;
— a reduction in traffic congestion and carbon emissions caused by the commute to work;
— a rebalancing of the population and of amenities and resources between more densely and less densely populated regions; and
— the economic and social development of the State as a whole, in accordance with policies on proper planning and sustainable development;— fail to provide that access to flexible work should be the default entitlement and not the exception;calls on the Government, as an immediate priority, to produce or to support radical alternative legislative arrangements which ensure that:
— fail to include a presumption that if work has been done remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic it is reasonably practicable for it to continue to be done remotely; and
— confer a right on employers to refuse the entitlement to work remotely on grounds that are both manifestly unreasonable and unchallengeable; and— all workers have a right to request flexible work;
— there is a presumption in favour of flexible work; and
— a reason for refusal relied upon by an employer must be objectively justifiable, appropriate and proportionate.
Nowhere is the innate conservatism of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil more evident than in this Government's approach to the question of flexible work. We were told the pandemic had changed everything, that nothing would ever be the same again, that a new Ireland would emerge from the ashes of the epoch-shaping disrupter that is Covid-19, and that a new deal for working people, taking into account the lessons and experiences of the pandemic and the innovative ways that workers, the State and businesses responded, would be forged. Based on the evidence so far, in the Labour Party's judgment, the Government has failed its very first test. It is a case of back to the future, based on the toothless legislation presented in recent weeks. I genuinely wish we did not have to bring this motion to the floor of the Dáil today and we do so more in sorrow than anger.
For some years now, and well before the pandemic hit, my Labour Party colleagues and I have been debating in this Chamber and writing in the media about the next frontier of workers' rights. Before the 2020 general election, the Labour Party produced a document - Getting Ireland Moving: A Smarter Way to Work. It envisaged new opportunities for remote working, properly regulated within a statutory framework, which would help to cut the commute, bring about a better work-life balance, help our environment, sustain our communities and allow workers and businesses, at the same time, to be more productive and flexible. We also argued for evidence-based ideas around a shorter working week and a right to switch off, making the point that, far from liberating us from work, the devices we constantly have in our hands mean we are always on. Technology should work for us. Instead, it can and does enslave us.
The gains that workers, unions and the Labour Party have extracted over the past century and more are in danger of being lost as new ways of working take hold. The notion of the traditional employment model is fraying at the edges. We are not Luddites; we are progressives. Ireland and Irish-based firms are at the cutting edge of innovation and the 9 to 5 job does not suit everyone. The idea of a job for life spooks some. Society has changed, as have the expectations of workers and citizens, which is often no bad thing.
The ideas we have posited for years now were previously dismissed as the musings of lunatics and it was said we were seeking some kind of utopia, but then, two years ago this month came the lockdown. Overnight, hundreds of thousands of commuters set up shop at the kitchen table or the box room. There was an overnight revolution. Employees in companies, the Civil Service and public service who could work from home adapted and, by and large, did so very well. Flexible and remote work issues became the issue du jourand a mainstream real-world issue. Workers showed themselves to be as productive, if not more so, when working from home or working remotely from a hub. Citizens reported better balance in their lives, the Environmental Protection Agency reported fewer carbon emissions, workers were less stressed and those with caring responsibilities liked what they saw.
Remote working works and it works for everyone. What is more, the demand is there. In Ireland, the demand for remote working is among the highest in the OECD. Of those in employment who can work remotely, 88% of those who answered a recent Indeed survey said they would like to do so when all the pandemic restrictions are removed. I ask the Minister of State to consider that searches for jobs in Ireland permitting remote work were six times higher in December 2021 than they were before the pandemic. That speaks for itself. Employers I speak to daily, including those in large multinational corporations in my constituency and elsewhere, now tell me it is employers who provide structured, remote working opportunities who will win the war for talent in what is, as we know, a very tight labour market.
Yesterday, we celebrated International Women's Day. Too often, women in Ireland have been forced to choose between a family and career, which is simply not on. The under-representation of women in the labour force is a social travesty and a massive economic and fiscal problem. Greater access to the labour market for all citizens is crucial to our productivity and our overall economic and social success. Without the right to flexible work and the provision of affordable, universal public childcare, we are shamefully writing too many talented hard-working women out of our labour force. These figures do not lie. Over the two years that spanned the first phase of the pandemic, 2020 and 2021, full-time female employment increased by 7% or 56,000, while part-time female employment rose by 10% or 34,000. Almost 90,000 women were able to enter the workforce at a time when many citizens were losing their jobs. Many of these women were attracted into the labour force by the working from home arrangements forced on companies by the pandemic, which allowed women to balance their work with other responsibilities. If the Government's so-called right to request legislation goes unamended, once again, many of these women will in effect be forced out of the workforce. In a poll conducted recently by Ireland Thinks on behalf of the Labour Party, 81% of women surveyed believe workers should have a right to flexible work. Let us be in no doubt that the issue of remote work is a gender issue and it needs to be accepted as such by the Government.
I simply could not believe what I read when I saw the draft heads of the Bill from the Tánaiste that were published recently. It was, frankly, bizarre and quite extraordinary. No lessons whatsoever had been learned from the pandemic. The Government tries to sell this legislation as a right to request remote working framework. It is nothing of the sort. In fact, it is a charter for refusal. It is toothless and anaemic and it should be scrapped.
What made it worse was that this legislation came at around the same time as thousands of my constituents were dragged back into city centre offices. They were instructed to go back to the office at a time when the cost of filling the car went stratospheric.
Almost in the same week, the National Transport Authority responded to me saying it had decided now was not the time and it could not proceed with the promised flexible taxsaver ticket that would respond to the needs of workers in the situation in which we are at present.
Commuters who have successfully worked from home for two years told me that they felt absolutely cheated on so many fronts. The gains and the progress made over the past two years counted for nothing. The draft legislation the Government produced says, in effect, that you could ask to work remotely but you boss could tell you to go and whistle. You would have no right to challenge the grounds for refusal. That is, frankly, bizarre.
This proposed legislation was even more favourable to the unenlightened employer than the laws proposed by the Tory Party. That is an objective fact and legal academics have made that very point. Central to the success of a balanced legislative solution should be the idea that the recorded experience over the past two years should be considered when a request to work remotely is to be made.
With my own experience in this field, I know the concept of a defined reference period in employment rights legislation is well established. I want refer in particular to legislation that was recently passed in these Houses, the Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2018. It is a prime example. This was the culmination of a process the Labour Party initiated in 2014 to better regulate low- and uncertain-hours contracts. A key feature of this legislation is the averaging out of hours worked over a period of 12 months to establish which band of hours in which a person ought to be placed when his or her contract is being considered. This works very well. I say this for the reason that this approach also needs to be adopted in the context of the legislative and regulatory approach to flexible work, where a proven ability to work successfully from home over the past two years must inform this process. Without the consideration of those kinds of elements in a Bill, it will simply be toothless and will not work.
The gains from the past two years cannot be squandered. The Government would be better off giving this, frankly useless, Bill a decent burial, accepting this motion and the principles that inform it and adopting the draft legislation from my colleague, Senator Sherlock, if the Government is serious about making remote working work for everyone. As much as the Government seems to want it, the clock simply cannot be wound back to 2019. The people and many good employers have moved on.
Like Deputy Nash, I represent a constituency where we watch and are among tens of thousands of people who get up in the morning, get onto overcrowded trains or packed buses that go onto overcrowded and packed roads, or get into personal cars to get to work, school or college. Since the lifting of restrictions, workers throughout the country have been told to return to the office in their droves. Many people who had worked from home during the pandemic and had swapped their bus or car commute for a morning walk, some time with the family or indeed an extra, much-needed hour in bed, now find themselves taking to personal and public transport again at ungodly hours.
In practical terms, this means that the start and the end of thousands of peoples' days will be spent stuck in traffic or on overcrowded public transport, which erodes morale and, of course, damages our planet. Commuting was not working for workers before Covid-19. It was absolute chaos. For the thousands of commuters who leave Dublin Fingal everyday, counties Louth, Wexford or Kildare or any area around our major cities, this is a case of back to the future. The promise that everything would change and nothing would be the same has been absolutely obliterated by the past few weeks. One in ten workers spend more than an hour travelling to work daily, with commuters losing on average five hours every week stuck in traffic. Dublin was the third worst city in the world for congestion - the third worst. In my constituency of Fingal, alone, 30,000 workers commute from home to Dublin city.
We know that more investment is needed. However, this alone will not solve the underlying causes of this unsustainable commuter flow. A right to flexible and remote work is key to ending this commuter chaos once and for all. The development over the past two years in both information technology and the increased knowledge of how to use it has been a game changer, enabling many of us to work throughout the pandemic from our homes or local workplace hubs. These gains cannot be lost. They need to be built upon. That is why the Labour Party is demanding the right to flexible, secure and decent work.
Demand for remote and flexible work in Ireland is amongst the strongest in the OECD. Of those in employment who can work remotely, many would like to do so when all pandemic restrictions are removed. However, due to the Government's failure to enact a real right to flexible work, many have been hauled back to the office in recent weeks. These are the facts and the stories I get on the doors, from my office and, indeed, from my colleagues.
If we are serious about lowering our emissions and meeting our climate targets, the Government needs to give more workers the power and choice to work from home or in their local community. Among the key gains from a rights-based approach to flexible work will be the cutting of climate emissions, maintaining a better work-life balance, reducing the cost of living and transport congestion, and rejuvenating local communities.
The local coffee shops and convenience stores in my home town of Swords and constituency of Fingal spoke of how they no longer had to get by on just a couple of hours of peak time in the morning. They had a thriving lunchtime trade as workers who were working from home were able to nip down for their local coffee or sandwich and meet their friends in their own communities, as opposed to in an industrial estate or the city centre.
The Labour Party believes what is needed is a workers-first agenda, underpinned by job security and promoted by Government, because the gains from a right to flexible work can only be measured on a society-wide and global level. Our motion and legislation, which has been published by Senator Sherlock, will embed the right to this flexibility from day one of employment; not as a reward for good behaviour once probation is passed or as a perk. It would provide workers with the certainty of flexibility that is needed in order that we can build a workplace that works for people and reflects the demands of modern living.
The pandemic has shown us that a different work life is possible. Rather than a stressful commute, people can have flexibility to improve their productivity, work-life balance, air quality and everything else on the list of far-reaching benefits such an approach would bring. We have seen 15 years of change pushed into the past two years, but this Government's wrong-headed approach to essentially give employers the right to refuse requests to flexible work will be shown to be on the wrong side of progress. It represents a step back in time and a return and a rigid fixation on the previous status quo. This is after it has been proved over the past two years that there has been no decrease in productivity, that we have not lost tax revenues and have been able to keep the economy going and keep money flowing into the public purse to keep services going, all while remote work was forced upon us by a pandemic. This wrong-headed approach by Government to row this back and go back to the way it was is one of the most regressive moves by a Government in recent times.
That is why the Labour Party wants to create this right to flexible work, which is in the best interest of workers, families, local communities and our environment. The heart of our motion and our Bill is people's physical and mental health, workplace safety and job security. If workers are working from home, the provisions of the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 still apply to breaks and rest periods. This cannot change. Remote and flexible working will be a reality for the long term. It is the future. The future is here now. We cannot go back.
We need to look at the options for working within communities, which is a useful option for people who must commute long distances, whether from the suburbs and hinterlands of our major cities or from even further afield. People travel halfway across the country every day to work. This way of life burns people out long before their time. We need to consider how we can provide workspaces in local communities, towns and villages. While I acknowledge some efforts have been made by Government in this regard, it still seems piecemeal and led by the private sector rather than a proper State-led approach.
Such workspaces, work hubs and facilities would enable people to leave the house on foot using active travel measures and engage in their job in the centre of their local towns and villages. This might be done through hot-desking or short-term lets of industrial and retail units in towns.
The repurposing of buildings such as old Garda stations or credit unions are also options because much of the necessary infrastructure for modern work is already in place. This would help to regenerate towns and villages as money would circulate in local economies and continue to be spent on main streets, as has happened over recent years. 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 bed or in otherwise cramped conditions in their homes. Throughout the pandemic we have been raising the fact that working from home in and of itself is not the answer and that proper facilities have to be in place. We cannot have people working in cramped bedrooms. Some people are able to have a home office or to repurpose a shed or outbuilding, but many are unable to do so. People who are in house-sharing situations, for example, or who live with people who do shift work have to keep their voice down when they are on the phone, but such practical difficulties can be resolved if people have the option of community work.
A debate on flexible working arrangements is taking place all around the world and we cannot miss this opportunity to introduce strong flexible work legislation because there are enormous cost-of-living benefits in areas such as transport and climate. People being pushed back onto overcrowded buses and trains, with very expensive fares, or into their cars, with the increased fuel costs we have been discussing in recent weeks in the Dáil, is an example of regression. The Government has an opportunity here to make progress and I urge it to take it.
If flexible work arrangements are to be introduced in any fashion, a flexible work ticket for public transport will be required. I and Deputy Nash have been raising this since long before the pandemic reached its current point. That the Government has not stood up to the mark and produced a flexible taxsaver ticket is yet another example of not putting the worker or the people first. Half-price fares for those under 24 have been promised but have been held up by some nebulous technical difficulties.
Since the 2019 Fingal by-election, the Labour Party has been talking about flexible work and the need to put it on a statutory footing. The Government must develop a proper plan for commuters, workers and those working from home, for regenerating rural towns and villages and enabling people to work there. Flexible and secure work is the lifeblood of any such plan in terms of its success. I ask the Government to acknowledge the Bill produced by Senator Sherlock on this and to support the motion before the House today. I call on the Government to take a real lead in providing a real right to flexible and remote work.
The Government will not oppose this motion today. I welcome this opportunity to discuss the important matters of flexible and remote work and thank the Deputies for bringing forward this Private Member's Motion on same. I welcome the opportunity to speak on it myself and, more importantly, to hear the views of Members of this House.
The Government wants remote and flexible models of working to be a much broader part of life post Covid. It is a key consideration in Government policies such as the national economic plan, the climate action plan, the town centre living initiative and the smarter travel policy. The State is committed to increasing remote work adoption in Ireland through removing barriers and developing infrastructure. Last Friday I joined the mayor of Galway, Councillor Colette Connolly, in opening the PorterShed, a facility for 180 hot desks, with the opportunity to increase by another 250 if required. Such facilities are being supported by this Government with grant aid through Enterprise Ireland. The Government is also providing guidance, raising awareness and leading by example in this area.
Last year we published a remote work strategy, a core pillar or which centres on creating a conducive environment. A commitment was made to legislate to provide employees with the right to request remote work. This is one of the key actions of the strategy. Draft right to request remote work legislation proposals were brought forward by the Government in response to its commitment to make remote working a permanent feature of Ireland's workforce in a way that can benefit all, economically, socially and environmentally. These draft proposals are currently going through pre-legislative scrutiny and I would encourage all members of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment to participate in that scrutiny process because the Government is open to making constructive amendments to its original proposals.
While the adoption of remote work was already increasing in Ireland, Covid-19 has greatly accelerated this trend, making remote work a central part of the workplace today and into the future. It is one of the few positive legacies of recent years. In terms of today's discussion, it is important to address the distinctions between remote and flexible work. Remote work refers to an arrangement whereby work is fully or partially carried out at a work site other than the default place of work. However, the definition of flexible work is much broader than remote work and may include the possibility of starting or finishing work at different times, doing compressed hours, access to flexitime and shared working options.
Directive 2019/1158 of the European Parliament and the Council on working life balance for parents and carers contains provisions relating to flexible working arrangements. As the right to request flexible working arrangements under this directive extends only to parents and those with caring responsibilities, the required legislative amendments will relate to the Parental Leave Act 1998 and the Carer's Leave Act 2001. Responsibility for transposition of the directive rests with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman. This work is currently in train.
The motion proposes a presumption that if work has been done remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is reasonably practicable for it to continue to be done remotely. However, it is important not to conflate the experience of home working during the Covid-19 pandemic with remote working under a regular scenario. Employers facilitated workers to work from home because of a Government instruction in light of a global health crisis and a highly contagious and dangerous virus. It must be acknowledged that the sudden introduction of mass emergency home working often resulted in less than ideal working conditions for both employees and employers alike. Using this scenario as the basis for legally requiring employers to continue to allow all workers to work remotely would not be fair, balanced or proportionate. Again, we should not conflate the experience of home working during the pandemic with remote working under a regular scenario.
As I said at the outset, the Government wants remote working to play a greater part of life in Ireland. It can play a central role in enabling increased flexibility to support a better work-life balance. The Government is acutely conscious of this and of the significant long-term shift in attitudes to remote working among employers and workers throughout the country. Acceptance of remote work is high, and remote and hybrid working is very much here to stay.
Earlier this year, on 25 January, the Government approved the priority drafting of a right to request remote working Bill 2022, and pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of Bill by the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment began on 9 February. The Tánaiste and the Government have said on several occasions that we are open to changes, especially on the provisions relating to the number of reasons to reject a request for remote working and the mechanisms for appeal. It should be noted that the current proposals include provisions requiring, for the first time, that all employers have a policy on remote and hybrid working as well as a legal right for workers to request it. Currently, that is not the case. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is currently examining the legal issues relating to strengthening the redress provisions and the right of appeal and is taking legal advice on the matter. The Government's Bill will enhance the rights and entitlements of workers but it also needs to ensure a balanced approach that is fair and affordable for employers. Similarly, it must be acknowledged that not all occupations, industries or particular roles within enterprises will be appropriate or suitable for remote working, including construction workers, nurses and so on. Therefore, calls for an automatic legal right for all workers to be granted remote work are not realistic.
The legislation provides for the development of codes of practice to provide guidance to employers, employees and their representatives on the general principles that will apply in the operation of remote working and to aid with the implementation of new legislation. Information will also be provided in the form of templates for remote work policies to assist employers to develop their own policies and to help them to identify the types of information and procedures that should be outlined in them.
The intention remains that the Government Bill will be progressed through the Oireachtas as quickly as possible. Following the publication of the Oireachtas joint committee's report on pre-legislative scrutiny, any recommendations will be reviewed and considered by the Tánaiste.
It should be noted that remote working is a broader concept than home working and that there are a significant number of Government and industry-led initiatives and funding aimed at facilitating and promoting remote work in all regions, including the development of hubs and the provision of high-speed broadband.
New regional enterprise plans to 2024 are currently being launched by me, the Minister of State, Deputy English, and the Tánaiste, and there is a focus on remote working opportunities and infrastructures in each region. Funding of €9.3 million, under the regional enterprise transition scheme, RETS, was awarded to 24 projects in July 2021, including remote working hubs. In addition, €8.9 million in funding was announced by Minister for Rural and Community Development under the connected hubs scheme, a key deliverable of Our Rural Future. The Minister for Finance also announced an enhanced income tax deduction for remote workers as part of budget 2022. This amounts to 30% of electricity, heating and broadband expenses.
The positive impacts of increased remote work can be substantial and remote working has the potential to fundamentally change the nature of where, how, when and why people work. This, in turn, will bring about economic, spatial, environmental, cultural and societal change. While remote working should never be used as a substitute for any form of childcare, it provides families with more flexibility, around which they can base their early learning and childcare choices.
Multiple benefits can be derived from remote work. They have been highlighted by speakers already, and no doubt will be highlighted by many more speakers as the debate progresses. These benefits will help to achieve numerous public policy objectives. The benefits include increasing participation in the labour market, attracting and retaining talent, enabling balanced regional development, alleviating accommodation pressures, improving work-life balance, improving child and family well-being, reducing the amount of time spent commuting, and reducing carbon emissions and air pollution.
Before I finish, I again thank the Deputies for bringing forward the motion today. This is an important opportunity to discuss further the benefits of remote working and the consideration required to ensure it is a viable option for both employers and employees in the long term. I look forward to hearing the contributions of various Members during the course of the debate. I encourage all Members to participate in the pre-legislative scrutiny with the other key stakeholders to ensure the legislation that is proposed can be enhanced to the benefit of workers and employers alike.
Covid instantly changed everything. One would not think that from the Minister of State's remarks. What was impossible for all the reasons that we have heard for years became possible overnight: working from home, flexible working, working online, a new work-life balance. Things that were unachievable and undoable because of necessity not only were doable but worked. The discourse in recent months was that all has changed permanently because of what we have learned in the past two years about how we can do things differently and better.
There is no going back to what existed before, but listening to the Minister of State's comments today, that is clearly not the case. Options are to be provided but only where they suit the employer, otherwise not. That is at the core of the issue. We know only too well how easy it is to revert to the way things were always done. That is the convenient, simple way. Many of the changes that came about in banking after the economic crash, when we swore we would learn from our mistakes and never revert to them, are now being put back on the agenda. I refer to the structure of bank bonuses, performance pay and the oversight of banking activities. It is very easy for lessons to be unlearned and for important changes to be undone if it suits those who can influence policy in the State.
In my view and that of the Labour Party, it is timely now, before the important work lessons of Covid are unlearned, to establish those learnings in concrete terms in law. That is the objective of the motion before the House. It is set out in meaningful terms in the legislation published by our colleague Senator Sherlock. If work could be done remotely during the pandemic, surely it is reasonable to conclude that it can continue to be done in that fashion forever if that suits the workers concerned.
I accept that the fundamental change in work practices instantly brought about by the pandemic had to be instituted in many cases without proper preparation. I hear what the Minister of State says in that regard. We all know that. We needed preparation and to have supports. We needed equipment to be provided to do the job. How much better the outcomes would be - better than the successes of the past two years - if we now make proper and thorough preparations to ensure efficient broadband is available, for example, and access is offered across the nation to easily accessible work hubs in every county. Likewise, we should make proper preparation for those willing and able to work from home by providing basic equipment such as desks, chairs and suitable PCs. The Minister of State is correct when he says that people worked on an emergency basis using sideboards or even ironing boards in some instances, but doing it properly and preparing it properly would be transformational.
Our work patterns in recent decades have seen tens of thousands of commuters leaving counties such as my own to commute to Dublin. From as early as 5.30 a.m., the M11 and many other roadways see the daily commute with the obvious impact for hundreds of thousands of families. Men and women are getting up and leaving their children into crèches or childminders at the crack of dawn and do not see them again for most of the day. The human and family impact is readily understandable, and the environmental impact and carbon emissions are equally so. Why can we not change that? We have people needlessly spending hours daily in their cars, burning fuel and causing congestion, which adds to the cost not only for themselves but also for other road users and for the economy. We now face a new reality that has been instanced. Many of the people I am talking about simply cannot afford that commute. They cannot afford to put the fuel in their cars. The price of fuel is making work unaffordable. Few would predict that matters will improve any time soon. I will give way to my colleague. This motion is timely and important and I hope it will be accepted.
I commend my colleagues Deputies Nash and Duncan Smith on proposing this important motion. I am proud to speak in support of it. I also pay tribute to our colleague Senator Sherlock, who has done so much to enshrine a right to flexible working in law. I acknowledge how fortunate we all are to be able to stand here in a peaceful parliament debating this issue while bombs are raining down on the people of Ukraine. We stand in solidarity with them at their darkest hour.
As Deputy Howlin says, Covid has changed the nature of work for all of us in Ireland and we have seen a new way of working emerge. Pre-pandemic, many of us took for granted a form of work that emphasised presenteeism: the jacket on the back of the chair and the fact that people were expected to be in the office at all hours. That was accompanied by the awful daily ritual of the lengthy early-morning commute for so many, which was unpaid and was time taken out of people's lives and family time. The pandemic has offered us a great opportunity to reset priorities, to enshrine in law the right to flexible working that will benefit all of us: men and women, individuals, families and local communities.
I wish to emphasise the importance that a genuine right to flexible work would have for women.
Speaking on the morning after International Women's Day, we can all acknowledge that women in particular will stand to gain from a genuine right to flexible work. The Central Bank has noted that women's participation in the Irish labour force has increased by 3.5 percentage points since the pandemic began. While it is true to say that during the pandemic many women continued to bear the lion's share of caring responsibilities and unpaid domestic responsibilities in the home, it is also the case that the opportunity to engage in hybrid working or remote working enabled more women to participate in the workforce. Indeed, enabling men to work from home also enabled men to take up more responsibilities as fathers and as carers. This could have great feminist benefits too, not just for women but also for men.
We are all conscious of the benefit for the environment that a genuine right to flexible work can afford us. We saw a reduction in carbon emissions during the lockdowns. Many of us in Dublin city constituencies heard for the first time the clarity of birdsong on the street. While climate action of course requires a deal more than a right to remote working, genuinely more people being enabled to work from home will mean less traffic, fewer polluting cars on our roads and better air quality for all of us. At a time of serious concerns about energy security, it will also reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.
As Deputy Duncan Smith has outlined, the growth of local communities was greatly strengthened and enabled during Covid-19. Quality of life improved for many people who were able to move out of city centre locations and work from home in areas where perhaps they were closer to family and to their original local communities. All of these benefits are clear from a genuine right to remote work, as we are proposing in this motion and in our legislation that Senator Sherlock has drafted. Unfortunately, the Government's Bill, rather than providing for a right to request remote work, is more effectively a right to refuse for employers. As Deputy Nash has said, it is a toothless and anaemic Bill. The right to refuse effectively undermines and countermands that right to request which it is apparently supposed to provide.
The Government has failed to include within the draft Bill a presumption that if work that has been done remotely during the pandemic, it is reasonably practical to expect it to continue to be done remotely or at least to give employees and workers the option to work remotely and to work in a hybrid fashion. We know that the majority of people in Ireland wish to see this right to remote work and a more hybrid model of work enshrined into law and embedded in our policy going into the future. It should not just be seen as something that was unique to the pandemic. It should be seen as something that we can provide for permanently.
The Labour Party has a long record in working for workers' rights. Our working from home Bill in 2020 would have given workers a statutory right to switch off. That again must be taken along with the right to remote working. We have also pushed for a Donogh O'Malley moment in childcare to ensure a universal public scheme of childcare. That too must accompany a genuine package of measures to enable more women to take part in the workforce and in public life, and to enable all workers to have a better quality of life. This will benefit all of us: workers, families and communities. I urge the Minister of State to accept the motion.
I would like to say I was shocked, but I probably was not, at the remarks of the Minister of State indicating a belief that workers are going to accept that the past two years did not happen. They are not prepared to accept that. They have had the experience of not just working remotely, but working well remotely. They want that experience to inform the legislation, which it clearly does not. Nobody is going to stand in here and say the legislation is perfect or indeed adequate. Deputy Troy was very quick to emphasise that it is a draft at the moment, and of course it is. The word "draft" was used over and over again following the reaction of not only workers but also their representatives and politicians to the proposals which in effect amount to a charter for refusal to grant the right to work from home. The Minister of State can nod his head all he likes but I know what it is. I have read it. I have seen the reaction from workers and their representatives. They have read it too. They also have the experience of the past two years which the Minister of State and his Department are at pains to point out will not inform the legislation. It should of course inform the legislation because that has been their experience.
It is more than 20 years since I, as a shop steward, lodged the first claim for what we called "teleworking" at the time. We did not call it e-working, remote working or anything like that. We called it "teleworking". That was refused by the employer on the grounds that it did not suit the business, etc. That same workplace, some 20 years later, has now transferred in its entirety to remote working. Not only did it improve productivity, which it did, but it also improved the lives of the people who were working there, which has a consequent improvement in terms of productivity and how they are getting their business done. It was a really positive experience. Like many workers, they were not just surprised when they saw the legislation as published - they were angry because it falls far short of what they had expected.
I should have said at the start I want to thank the Deputies who have introduced this motion. I welcome the fact that the Minister of State is not opposing it. We all know that is not the same thing as supporting it. Saying you do not have an objection to something is not the same thing as saying you are actually going to do it. The report produced by the Tánaiste showed very clearly that workers want a hybrid model and that is their preferred mode for future working. Patricia King of ICTU said at the committee that the legislation will be judged on whether workers have confidence that it compels employers to be fair, reasonable and consistent in their considerations, and it does not. Therefore it requires substantial changes.
The reasons that the Tánaiste published in the draft Bill do not strike the necessary balance. It is not just that it is not in favour of workers - the balance is all in favour of employers. As someone with a considerable amount of experience in the trade union movement and a small amount of experience in politics I am not a bit surprised, coming from this Government, that this Bill is what we got. However, to dress this legislation up as a right that a worker can have and then to make sure to stitch in all the clauses to ensure that a worker can never access that right is actually quite cynical. To be honest with the Minister of State, workers see through that. They see what is going on here. They also see that they have successfully worked for two years remotely and they want to be able to do that again.
I will refer briefly to the right to disconnect and legislation that I introduced. I thank Gareth Murphy and the Financial Services Union for all of their work on this. They have been leading the charge. We know that in recent times the lines between work and personal time have been eroded. Some of that is due to technology but that is not an excuse. It may be a reason but it is not an excuse for it to happen. We know that the State is playing catch-up in terms of workers' rights and it is an extremely important workers' right to have the right to disconnect. People cannot be always on. For their own well-being and work-life balance, it is absolutely essential that the right to disconnect is given and granted to workers so that they have a legal right to switch off and a legal right to their personal time.
I commend the Labour Party on bringing this motion forward. If there is one thing that came out clearly from Covid-19, it is that workers are able to work from home and indeed that for many it gives a far better work-life balance. No sooner had the Tánaiste's right to request remote working Bill been introduced than the Tánaiste said it needed changes to be fit for purpose. I think describing it as not fit for purpose is actually too charitable. It should have been described as dead on arrival. This raises a simple question: why bother even introducing it in the first place? It kind of fooled us. It made us think that the Government was actually a supporter of remote working. Last summer, the Tánaiste wrote an op-ed in The Irish Timesin which he said "The benefits are obvious - less commuting, fewer transport emissions, better quality of life for workers, more time with family and friends." I do not think any workers would dispute those benefits. As has already been pointed, this Bill was not written with workers in mind - it was a Bill written for employers. It was about a right to refuse. It would have been better not to have been written at all because it was so evidently a smokescreen that it was really an insult to many workers' intelligence. It would have been better and more honest if it had just been said that they were fine with people having long commutes and that congestion on our roads is not of concern. Sure what can we do about more pollution? Sure who needs better work-life balance? Did the Tánaiste not say that he is for people who get up early in the morning?
Due to the weaknesses of this Bill, there will be many more people having to get up a hell of a lot earlier in the morning to catch the bus, train or DART or to beat the traffic on the M50, N40 or M6. It has to be said that people will get home much later in the evening as well. With the evenings getting longer, people will be spending more time commuting and there will be more traffic, more pollution and much more stress. It was astonishing to see so much anger in people when the Bill came out because people thought that one thing that came out of Covid was that they could see that things could be done differently. We could see that people can actually work from home and there can be a better work-life balance. However, all of that and all of those lessons that we learned from Covid were completely and utterly ignored. Rather than seeing this as an opportunity to do things differently, that, again, was completely ignored. The Government had an opportunity and it completely missed it. As my colleague Deputy O’Reilly said, there is a difference between not opposing and supporting.
At this moment in time in this State, we are being squeezed on all sides due to the rising cost of living, inaccessible healthcare, the mental health impact of a two-year pandemic and the stress of returning to the office. God forbid that a worker, couple or family might want to rent or buy a house of their own. I know the Government cannot solve all these issues overnight, but there are things it can do. I welcome that the Taoiseach appears to finally be listening to Sinn Féin and our proposals and is going to reduce the cost of petrol and diesel. Sinn Féin has solutions and has been putting forward housing solutions. We are willing to act quickly because our priority is ordinary people. Giving workers the right to flexibility is something that we and the Government can do. It can be done by this Government quickly to relieve some of the burden on workers.
For people with young families in particular, being able to work around their children improves their quality of life and makes them happier and more productive workers. That is what we should be looking to do, not keeping people in cars all day long, commuting for hours on end and coping with the cost of travel. People who are working all week and putting in hard hours to put food on the table are finding that their money stretches less and less each week. We are looking for ways to give those workers a break. I want to thank the Labour Party for bringing forward this motion, because that is what this looks to do.
For many people, working from home during the pandemic was the one silver lining in an otherwise dark two years. Therefore, it is very disappointing that the Government’s right to remote working legislation seems to be more focused on the Government’s right to refuse remote working. Workers and families are struggling. Everywhere we look, there are rising costs in food, fuel, heating, housing and clothing. We should now cut workers some slack and give people a right, where possible, to fit work around life instead of trying to fit life around work. All people are looking for is a chance and this Government should help to give them that.
The idea that people can work from home is, of course, something we have had for many years and some people have been doing it for a long time. However, in recent times, because of Covid, it has become one of the main things that people are doing. Many people find that it works well for them but many find that it does not work well for them. I am slightly out of breath because I was racing to get here. Perhaps I should have done the speech from home as well. I know about this because my son has been working from home for the past number of months and it has worked very well, but today he is in Dublin. He comes to Dublin one day a week. That is the kind of thing that people need to be able to do. They need to have flexibility. I think everyone wants to have flexibility and to be able to do this in a way that will work for them and their families. However, there has to be a way that we protect workers’ rights. It is important that people can have a system that ensures their rights as employees can be maintained. They have the right to be part of a union and they have the right to bargain. The employer cannot put pressure on them to do the things that have been so much of a problem in the past in the conventional way that we have worked. We do not want to see the rights that have been so hard fought for and won in the conventional workspace being lost because people are now choosing to work from home and using that particular model of work.
Another issue that I have come across and is an important part of it, as Deputy O’Reilly mentioned, is in regard to the salaries that people are offering. I have recently come across a situation where a young man looking for work and he applied for a job in a particular line of work and was offered it. However, when he got the contract, the salary scale on it, because he would be working from home or a hub, was dropped by almost €9,000 per year from what others were getting for doing the exact same work because he was not going to have to go to Dublin for the job, in this capital city, where most people have to go to work, particularly in the type of employment he is in. There needs to be some way of ensuring that we introduce legislation to prevent this from happening. Rates of pay have to be maintained and the rights that people have must be maintained. We must ensure the workplace, wherever it is, is a place where people are protected. People must know that they can have a proper means of delivering not just for themselves and their families, but also for the future of the whole community. Many communities depend on working from home and working in hubs to-----
I too want to commend the Labour Party on bringing forward this motion. I cannot stress enough the importance of remote working to our rural towns and villages. While it is hard to see anything positive in relation to Covid, it has been life-changing for rural Ireland in allowing people to work from home, to reduce commute times and to remain in their communities, which is of huge benefit to the local economy and also to their work-life balance.
Of course there have been challenges, particularly in relation to broadband. The initial target last year was that 115,000 homes were to be connected. However, that target was reduced to 60,000. As of the end of January this year, only 37,000 premises were passed. That is of concern to those of us in homes and business in rural areas that do not have broadband access in this day and age. Given that targets are being missed, it is concerning in regard to how long the roll-out will now take.
That brings me to the importance of remote working hubs, in which the Government has invested significantly. They are very important to rural communities, especially in areas where people do not have broadband at home. They have worked out very well. In areas of my constituency where we have not seen job creation, such as Ballinlough, Tulsk and Ballinasloe, the option to go to a remote working hub to work remotely has been of huge benefit, particularly for those of us living in rural areas. It has, as I said, been life-changing. For the first time in my lifetime, we have seen people choosing to move into rural areas. That is something we must protect, sustain, develop and grow. We will not do that with the proposed legislation that the Tánaiste is bringing forward. The legislation is very concerning, especially for those who have actually picked up and moved their lives into rural areas and those who want to work remotely, be it in local remote working hubs or from home. The Government needs to look at this legislation through a rural lens, in particular. I have asked the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, to engage with the Tánaiste and I know she will do so. It is very important that we get this legislation right and it is very important that we look at it through a rural lens as well.
I welcome the motion before this House and thank my Labour Party colleagues for bringing it forward. The impact of the pandemic on the nation’s mental health is significant. We will be dealing with the fallout from the trauma and tragedy for many years to come. We need to recognise this as we formalise our policies and in how we organise society from here on in. A good start to this is recognising the opportunity the pandemic gave us to fully explore flexible and remote work. It has revolutionised and advanced the way we imagine work and there are many benefits to be harvested for all our well-being if we are bold enough to take that step for the better.
As this motion outlines, a more flexible working arrangement can be better for employers and employees. Empirical evidence has shown that companies and organisations that introduced employees to this method of work saw their trade increase by 25% to 30% and staff well-being increased twofold. Flexible working arrangements are also better for the climate, for work-life balance, for family-friendliness and for inclusion and diversity in the workplace, to name but a few. As the saying goes, anything worth doing is worth doing well. The Government’s remote working Bill has failed to do this. More robust protective legislation for employees is required. For instance, subjective reasons to allow an employer to deny a remote working request are not proportionate or transparent.
This is exacerbated by the fact that the appeals mechanism outlined in the draft heads of the Bill is far too ineffective and weak. For example, the right to disconnect, the right to set working hours, protection against the reduction of pay and access to overtime or premium pay must be built into the system. Furthermore, we need to rural-proof any legislation and policy that deals with flexible and remote working. For many years, rural transport has been the bane of ordinary workers' lives. Flexible working arrangements offer them a real opportunity not to have to spend most of the day in a car or in the rain and cold at bus stops. To accomplish this and to allow them do their jobs properly, the infrastructure must be provided.
If I had €1 for every time a constituent complained to me about the lack of sufficient broadband in County Wexford, I could fund many more remote working hubs in the county. This must be taken into consideration when we are discussing the real need to respond in this House to our new ways of working. We must embrace and plan for our future. Without doubt, flexible and remote working will play a major part in the modern workforce.
I support this motion and I thank the Labour Party for bringing it forward.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion. Senator Sherlock has put a great deal of work into it. It is a very timely motion. Prior to Covid, I would have been a sceptic about flexible working. I always believed it would not work. Following on from Covid, I am a strong advocate for it. It can make a significant difference to employers and employees. I understand why employers would be reluctant. It is a big change, but the reality is there is no going back. Everything has changed. From an employer's perspective, the improvement in the employee's work-life balance means the employee will be happier and as a result will work more efficiently and effectively. It is a win-win for everybody. The environmental benefits are huge as well. As mentioned by Deputy Mythen, people will not be stuck in cars or at bus stops. It is a win-win for everybody. The Government needs to embrace flexible working. I do not get any sense that it is looking to do that. There are significant opportunities for employers if they are open-minded about it and if they embrace and engage with the process.
The conversation on remote working has been gradually growing over the years. In the eyes of many, the conversation on remote working was not moving fast enough. We have seen huge technological developments which can enable remote working. We all know now that there are times when in-person meetings are not necessary. It seems pointless sometimes when the work could be done in half the time over a Zoom call. There have been huge improvements in technology. With the onset of Covid-19, when thousands of workers were suddenly required to work remotely, the technological developments made it clear how smooth a transition it can be. If the employers embrace this, it will be a win-win for everybody.
I thank the Labour Party for introducing this motion. I am aware it had intended to bring a particular Bill through to Committee Stage during its Private Members' time. I have worked on similar legislation. Bill Browder came over and met parliamentarians to try to get a Magnitsky Act concluded here. I share the Labour Party's frustration. I have equally found the process a very frustrating experience. There is no doubt that there is a requirement for a money message, but there is goodwill across the House to get a Magnitsky Act in place in this country similar to what has been done in other jurisdictions. I would hope the goodwill that is there to do that would be taken up on the Government side.
On the motion, I do not believe there can be any going back to old work practices. The pandemic has been hugely difficult for people right across society, but there are things that happened during the pandemic that we should embrace. There were changes that have proved to be positive. One of those was the more flexible working arrangements, which we should be trying to retain. Some 80% of workers were engaged in remote working at some point during the pandemic. For employers, remote working has resulted in increased productivity and better retention of workers. It has opened up the workforce to people who could not access certain forms of employment, particularly in the regions. For workers, remote working provided a greater work-life balance and more flexible hours and reduced stress. Some 93% of those in employment in the mid-east region of Kildare, Louth, Meath and Wicklow who could work remotely said that they would like to continue to do so after the pandemic restrictions are removed. Those who listen to the morning traffic reports will know that every morning it is the same roads that are congested. Some of those roads in my constituency, which is described as "the commuter belt". According to the CSO study, that was the area that most favoured remote working.
The Government plan for the right to request remote working is saying something in theory but not delivering it in practice. There are massive loopholes built in to allow employers to turn down requests. It includes grounds such as potential negative impact on quality. It is impossible to evaluate that. The idea that a person could appeal to the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, is only proposed on procedural grounds, in the same way as, for example, a judicial review of a decision of An Bord Pleanála does not relate to the actual decision but how the decision was arrived at.
The public service needs to play a lead role in the move towards remote and blended work and to show an example in that regard. If it is done right, it has the potential to transform the labour market, particularly for women, disabled persons and carers, many of whom have been forced to give up work or have been locked out of the jobs market. Remote working was put in place in a hurry because of Covid. It is not the way we would have liked it to happen but it has been a positive development for so many. However, there are negatives as well. There is evidence of workers struggling to switch off, working longer hours and working while ill. Women are taking on childcare responsibilities on top of a full working day. Remote working is not and cannot be a substitute for childcare. There is a real problem at the moment with accessing childcare. We are starting to see evidence of that. I am being contacted daily on the issue. There is a real struggle to access childcare. When more women than men take advantage of remote working, in some cases it impacts on their careers. We need to keep an eye on that. We need to overcome the cultural beliefs about committed workers, who are people who work beyond the hours they are supposed to work. Remote working also makes people invisible in the workplace and it lessens the opportunities for promotions and mentorship. We have to make sure to avoid the negative impacts. We can do that by making sure men equally take up remote working.
As we know, workers' rights are better protected where there is free collective bargaining. There should be an embracing of that where these issues can be worked through. Remote working can mean that workers are more isolated. It is important to strike a balance between the right to remote working and the right to work in the workplace. Remote working is also important in that it helps us to meet our climate targets. We are committed to reducing car travel by 2030, with a reduction of 500,000 car journeys per day by 2030. Remote working will have a positive impact in terms of achieving those targets. It is very difficult to see how we would achieve that in the absence of such a big initiative.
The CSO survey shows that up to 73% of remote workers take fewer car trips, that there has been a reduction in the gender commuting gap and that where women have childcare and domestic work responsibilities, they opt for shorter commutes and the limited pool of lower paid jobs.
There is a degree of this being reversed by virtue of the fact that we are starting to see people in the regions taking up positions that would not have been available previously. Remote working has had a positive impact from that point of view.
The right to remote working is crucial for easing housing pressures in urban areas and will facilitate rural regeneration. If remote working were available, nearly 50% of first-time buyers would rent outside of Dublin, 38% of workers would consider moving house and 7% have already done so. In the UK, there is a legal right to request working from home, but employees must be employed for 26 weeks before they can make that request. The availability of remote working is often the difference between someone taking up a job and not taking it up. We must consider all aspects of remote working to ensure that there is no negative.
The legislation as presented contains too many loopholes and is an example of doing something in theory without doing it in practice. This has to work in practice. We must embrace remote working as a positive change and take it up to the furthest possible extent. It would benefit us all.
I am sharing time with Deputy Barry.
I thank the Labour Party for tabling this motion. The Government's response, whereby it will allow the motion to pass, reeks of cynicism again. Last night, the Government allowed to pass a motion that lacerated its approach to waiting lists for children with special needs but has no intention of doing anything about the issue. Today, it will allow to pass a motion that correctly rejects as inadequate the Government's proposals on the right to request remote working and calls on the Government to introduce:
radical alternative legislative arrangements which ensure that: — all workers have a right to request flexible work;
— there is a presumption in favour of flexible work; and
— a reason for refusal relied upon by an employer must be objectively justifiable, appropriate and proportionate.
Is the Government actually going to do these things? No, it is not. This is utterly cynical, as the Government refuses to come out with its real position because it would face public criticism over it.
We know that the Government will not do these things because the Minister responsible, the Tánaiste, gave an interview two days ago where he spelled out his view. He presented himself as being very reasonable. He stated: "One side almost wants the right to demand remote working, and that's not practical ... And then another side thinks there should be no law at all, and no right to it at all." He placed himself conveniently in the middle by saying:
I do think there should be a legal right to request remote working. But I also accept that it can't be an absolute right because some business just can't be done remotely.
This is ludicrous. The Government's proposal is gesture politics at its very worst. Is it the Government's position that it is currently illegal for workers to say to their employers that they would like to have remote working? All the Government is proposing is that it would be legal to request and then the employer would have the right to refuse on any ground at all. Workers are already able to request remote working. What they need is a right to remote working where they are able to do so. What the Government is doing is as ludicrous as saying that, instead of introducing a sick pay Bill, it will introduce a Bill allowing workers to request sick pay, or a right to request to be paid the minimum wage.
This is about the Tánaiste and the other members of the Government getting themselves in the media, talking about remote working and embracing this new way of doing things post Covid while actually refusing to do anything that might inconvenience big business and its corporate lobbyists in the form of IBEC. The result is a Bill that the trade unions have rightly described as utterly pointless. We need a genuine right to remote working where bosses are only able to refuse working from home in exceptional circumstances where it is not possible for that work to be done remotely.
The idea of the Government setting itself up as a neutral arbiter between two sides is not evidenced. The evidence shows that the Government wrote the legislation in cahoots with big business. Let us compare the lobbying and interactions between ICTU and the Government on this, which are extremely minimal, with the number of meetings that took place between IBEC and the Government in advance of the drafting of the Bill's heads. The lobbying register shows more than 100 sessions of business lobbying the Government on remote working and five cases of IBEC lobbying. At one meeting,-----
-----at the committee meeting last week forgot all about. Does the Minister of State know who IBEC met? It met him, the other Minister of State, the Tánaiste and every senior official in the Department. That is some level of access. IBEC has that access and gets the legislation written in its interests.
I will remind the Minister of State of something else. It is three months since he said he would give me a call that afternoon because he was under pressure to pass the ventilation Bill. Since then, he has sent me a letter. I have written back looking for meetings and meetings and meetings. The Dáil has passed Second Stage of a Bill but we cannot get a meeting with the Minister of State about it because he has no interest in passing it completely and is engaged in cynical politics-----
It was cynical then, just as it is cynical today. The Government has no intention of legislating for workers' rights except when it is under immense pressure. What is contained in the heads of the Bill is not the right to remote working, but 13 reasons that businesses can give for saying workers cannot do it.
Incredibly, one of the grounds is concern for the commute between the proposed working location and the employer's on-site location. An employer can say "No" on the grounds that it believes the employee lives too far away or too near. What does that mean? There are not just 13 reasons, but any ground at all, given that "the proposal requested is not suitable on business grounds." The heads explicitly state that the 13 reasons are not an exhaustive list, so any reason whatsoever can be used. As such, what the Government has introduced is a right to refuse remote working. It needs to be changed radically. If the Government does not do that, then it is failing all of those workers who want access to remote working.
The Government's remote working Bill is the flimsiest workers' rights legislation ever brought before this Dáil. The Tánaiste likes to present it as part of a package showing that Fine Gael is fighting for workers' rights, is introducing remote working and sick pay rights, has increased the national minimum wage, is tackling low pay and so on. Let us look at a real situation, though. A new order for contract cleaners is coming into effect on 1 April and will increase their wages from €11 an hour to €11.55. In April of next year, they will increase to €11.90. In April 2024, which is more than two years away, they will increase to €12.40. I heard the Minister of State on 96FM radio in Cork the other morning. He was jubilant about this increase for contract cleaners. To be clear, any increase in workers' wages is welcome on this side of the House, but let us take a look at this situation. These were key workers in a pandemic. They got down on their hands and knees to scrub walls and floors, including in Leinster House. In the middle of an inflation crisis and during the week of International Women's Day, though, the Government is promising them pay increases that, in two years, will bring them up to less than the living wage that was calculated last year. That says a great deal about Fine Gael and its workers' rights.
The Bill sets out 13 grounds on which an employer can refuse a request. The point has been made that similar legislation is in place in the UK. It was introduced by a Tory Government in 2014, but that legislation only gives eight reasons on which an employer can refuse. The percentage of workers in the UK who have no form of flexible working has decreased from 74% in 2014 to 70%, representing just a 4% improvement. Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party in government are introducing an even more restrictive Bill.
Although we will vote in favour of the Labour motion, I have some issues with it. I do not have time to outline them.
It is important not to let the State off the hook on its responsibilities for childcare provision. The thrust of the proposal is positive. We will support the motion.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this matter as it is very close to my heart and close to the hearts of many people in my constituency. I thank the Labour Party for bringing forward the Private Members' motion so that we can discuss it today.
I acknowledge and commend a group called Grow Remote, a community-led enterprise that was working in this field long before Covid came into being. Grow Remote provides access to employers and employees to match up to work remotely, whereby firms and companies want people to work remotely and people who want to work remotely can be matched up. This has been, and continues to be, a phenomenal success, and has been done in a very simple way.
I also wish to commend the Department of Rural and Community Development on their efforts, along with the Western Development Commission and the Atlantic Economic Corridor task force, in setting up many digital hubs along the Atlantic economic corridor. Even in my constituency of Galway East a number of hubs are in place where people can go to work when they do not have broadband connection to their homes.It is important that if people are working remotely they have access to broadband. The national broadband plan will do that in time but the digital hubs are a very good interim measure to ensure people have access to the Internet so they can conduct their business. If people are working in different parts of the country, they have access to these digital hubs to call in to do their business online, and then they can go on to wherever they want again. The fact that there is a platform set-up that gives access, sets out where these places are, and who to contact, is a great tool.
I also commend the Western Development Commission and the Whitaker Institute of Innovation and Societal Change in National University of Ireland Galway, which produced a report, Remote Working: Opportunities, Challenges and Policy Implications. This is a very timely report and it issues a number of recommendations, some of which I will address shortly. The report's executive summary considers the issues that Government must deal with, as well as those that organisations and employers must deal with. On remote working, the report states:
Wider financial supports are needed to provide appropriate equipment for those who are obliged to work from home ... An awareness raising campaign is needed to promote health and safety guidance and user-friendly templates for supporting those who are working from home.
Government should consider extending the right to request flexible working to all workers and not just those with caring duties. In the context of the Government’s Remote Work strategy, the right to request remote work should be explored. [I believe it should not alone be explored; it should be there as a right]
As part of a national strategy for remote working a review of current tax reliefs around e-Working and expenses should be undertaken, to ensure that tax reliefs defray the costs involved in remote working. A review of the e-Working allowance rate should be undertaken, considering both costs and savings for both employers and employees realised through the practice of remote working.
The take-up of available tax allowances to enable employees to remote work should be promoted especially in the context of the wider social and economic benefits [that accrue].
In a constituency such as Galway East when listening to the AA Roadwatch radio bulletins on "Morning Ireland", or on "Drivetime" in the evening, there is constant mention of the traffic jams in Claregalway, Bóthar na dTreabh, and so on, all trying to get around Galway city. If some of these commuters were to work from home, even in a blended way of perhaps two or three days per week, the volume of carbon emissions saved would be a huge benefit. We talk about bringing electric cars and doing all of these different things to try to reduce our carbon emissions, and we have an opportunity here staring us in the face. We need to make sure that we afford the opportunity to anybody who can work remotely, and for whom it suits, as well as suiting their type of work.
In fairness, there are issues relating remote working and working from home that have to be addressed. People who enter the workforce initially need to have peer training, and they need to work with their colleagues to gain the necessary experience for them to develop their careers. One cannot have trainees working remotely. That is an issue.
From the employers' point of view, this is a win-win situation. The amount spent on providing facilities such as real estate, maintenance of huge office spaces, running costs, insurance costs and all that goes with this can be reduced to a degree that will afford more profit for these employers and will reduce the overall cost of emissions. We must consider this for the public service so that people can work from home, and should work from home as much as they can, to allow us to not spend so much money in providing offices and spaces, which following the pandemic are required to be much bigger than before the pandemic. There is a lot of things that can happen here.
Digital hubs are a key factor right now and they need to continue to be expanded. By expanding those digital hubs we are creating remote working in localities that are very important for regional development. I always cite the example of one particular hub that was set up almost ten years ago in Headford, County Galway. The cost of setting it up was €4,000. It was done in Moyne Villa soccer club. Today there are ten desks in that place with three people working there permanently for perhaps three or four days per week. They bring their children to school and bring them home in the evening and in between they can do their work without having to travel to Galway, or in some cases Dublin, on a daily basis and be away from their families. It is a very good example of what can be done with small money. We need the Government to make sure that these hubs are set up in small towns and the villages to allow people to work locally, raise their families locally, and provide economic advantages.
I believe that we have an opportunity to change the way we work. We need to have blended working as opposed to full-time remote working. It does not work for everybody and it does not work for every organisation. It is important that we put legislation in place that is effective and gives people the opportunity, both employers and employees, to make sure they can work remotely and still enjoy the same opportunities for promotion and development of their careers, and not just be based in offices all of their lives. The fundamental thing about remote working is that it offers us potential for people, for families and for rural Ireland.
I compliment the proposals in this motion, but we have to be sensible and sensitive in how we deal with this area. The opportunity to highlight the positives of working from home is really presented here. Remote and flexible working can offer a renewed vigour to the Government plans, if the Government has the plans. The post offices have been floundering for decades and the Government has been promising everything and giving them nothing.
I put it to the Minister of State that there are issues here for smaller employers. We must think of those at any time. It is fine to pass legislation, and I hear people in here with stronger and stronger demands, and complaining about lobbying, but we must think of the smaller employers as well. I salute the workers and I am self-employed myself. I employ quite a number of people and we have excellent staff relations, but in my business people could not work from home. Many businesses just could not do it because physically it would not be possible, as we work with machinery and everything else. We must be reasonable here. It is grand in theory but we must understand that it does not always work.
We have a community house at An Caisleán Nua for which I thank South Tipperary County Council. At the time I was chair of that voluntary housing board and we set up a community house with excellent facilities. We have given this space to different people for remote working during Covid. The Covid pandemic has changed everything as we know it, but we must be sensible. We just cannot keep ushering in legislation through here with no analysis on the impact it might have on employers. I am sure the Minister of State is listening and has written to them, and especially now when they are on their knees trying to deal with the cost of living, the cost of oil, the cost of insurance, the cost of electricity and the cost of everything.
Legislation is fine and dandy but we need a balance here. While we need to remember mol an óige agus tiochfaidh sí, we must also praise and support employers because we do not do that much of the time. We must also nurture and look after the workers. A fair day's pay for a fair day's work is important. We must be sensible and understanding about this issue. We must deal with people face to face, sit down around a table and discuss what is possible.
I will raise the issue of traffic jams on the N24 and many other roads. Our carbon footprint has been mentioned. The roads are clogged up. I travelled on the N11 this morning and it was crazy with traffic. We must think about the impact on our carbon footprint and the costs for people who are going to work. We must look at all those issues in the round. As I said, this is sensitive legislation and must be dealt with sensitively. It must cover everybody.
Remote and flexible working can offer renewed vigour to Ireland's rural development plan. It is crucial to attract workers to rural Ireland after the pandemic with new job opportunities, remote working hubs and supports for those working from home. Without remote working, rural decline will continue beyond its current trajectory.
The Government's five-year strategy, Our Rural Future, promises to invest in rural regions after the pandemic, with a particular focus on enabling remote working in rural communities, revitalising town centres and rolling out broadband. However, the biggest flaw of this plan remains the complete lack of satisfactory broadband services in many rural communities across the country. Gaggin, near Bandon, is fighting for its right to get a mast put up by Three Ireland in an area that cannot be seen from the road. The local authority decided to object to the mast. People are trying to work from home and the erection of a mast would sort that out. Work was going on last year, as was mentioned by RTÉ, in the church car park. People were able to work at home. The local authority decided the mast is too high and must be taken down. The issue is now before An Bord Pleanála. That kind of negativity gives people no chance to work at home.
During the pandemic, we all discovered new ways of working. That can, and should, help our rural communities. In order for rural order to play a central role in our recovery from the impact of Covid-19, we need a radical step change to improve and upgrade the infrastructure, including the broadband infrastructure. I know from my constituents that the lack of broadband in parts of Cork South-West means there is no way people can live there because they cannot work from home. The Government needs to work with private wireless broadband operators while we wait for the roll-out of this dream national plan that never comes to the aid of local communities.
We all know the cost of diesel and petrol now. It has been leaked that the paltry sum of 15 cent or 20 cent will be reduced from the price of a litre of petrol or diesel by the Government. That is shocking and disgraceful. It is a measure that opposes families, work and everything else.
There are other areas we need to consider. We should examine whether the larger companies should pay the energy costs of their employees who are working from home. That is another issue that must come into play. People are paying high prices to travel to work. They are paying the high price of energy costs if they are working from home. The least that the larger companies with employees working from home can do is to pay for their energy costs. That is something that needs to be looked at further.
In February 2022, 80,000 remote working jobs were advertised without location restrictions. People in rural areas without broadband are excluded from those jobs. They are being discriminated against.
In 2019, did we think it was possible to achieve the situation we are in? We have been told in the past that many things could not happen yet when the pandemic happened, things changed, and many of them for the better. The option to work from home has been an extraordinary success in many jobs. However, a person from a rural area without broadband is discriminated against.
Flexible working has been proven to boost morale and improve physical and mental well-being. It has the rewarding benefits of flexible working hours for the employer. Flexible working has reduced costs, increased productivity and creativity, and allowed for ease of management. It has improved well-being, staff retention and the ability to attract talent. Some 60% of human resource directors have seen an increase in work productivity, further identifying that businesses benefit from flexible working hours.
A hybrid model will develop whereby staff can have access to the workplace as required. For this to work successfully, we need the national broadband roll-out that is still being promised to people in our areas and might take until 2025. Black spots are still common in County Limerick. Broadband is important for everyone but it has been provided to those in built-up and city areas before people in rural areas. People in rural Ireland are being discriminated against because of the lack of infrastructure. How do we correct this? We must get more infrastructure and fast-track broadband for rural Ireland.
Working from home has benefited many families. Employees can go to the office two days a week and be at home three days a week. That has improved family life, morale and mental health. If we can find a balance, this can work for all. However, we must look at the roll-out of broadband in rural areas and not just cherry-pick the areas where companies think they can fast-track the roll-out because there are 1,000 houses while 100 houses in a rural area are left without broadband. That is discrimination against the people of rural Ireland. We need investment. We need a plan to be rolled out far more quickly than by 2025. We need it now.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the motion. As we all know, yesterday was International Women’s Day, a very important day to recognise the social, political and economic achievements of the women in our lives and societies, and across the globe. It is also an opportunity for us to focus greater attention on women’s rights, gender equality and equal treatment and representation. With that in mind, I was shocked and saddened to see the results of the Indeed's International Women’s Day employment survey this week. The survey revealed that up to 40% of women in Ireland have considered quitting their job in the past 12 months due to burnout and the pressures of family life.
Let us reflect on that for a moment. Well over one third of our female workforce have contemplated quitting their jobs due to the fact that they are feeling overstretched or that they can no longer manage balancing their working life with their family life. That demonstrates that this is not an issue for individual employers or organisations but a systemic issue that requires a widespread policy approach. It demonstrates the specific challenges women still face in the workplace and is a stark reminder that we still have a very long way to go in advancing gender equality in this country. Efforts should be made to better understand how to properly support our female workers to ensure they are not feeling overwhelmed and overstretched. Employers must create supportive working environments and address the challenges women face in the workplace. Women have much to contribute to our workforce but their career paths are hampered by burnout and by their decision to have children. This is a burden felt mostly by women and not men.
Women should not feel this way. It is completely unacceptable and it is an absolute shame on our society. Mothers should not have to put their careers on hold but should instead be given flexibility to work around childcare. A part of allowing this flexibility would be to introduce flexible and remote working.
The right to request remote work Bill does not go far enough in ensuring that people are entitled to work remotely. Covid-19 has shown us that many jobs can be done remotely and employers' excuses that this cannot be done do not hold up anymore. Employers should be required to allow the option of remote working in cases where it is possible.
As well as providing support for our struggling female workforce, the introduction of flexible and remote work would reduce carbon emissions caused by the commute to work and would also allow and improve access to work to those who face obstacles in taking up employment, such as people with disabilities, those with long-term health conditions and those from rural communities.
There are, however, also risks as well as benefits and they must be highlighted. There is no doubt but that unscrupulous employers would use the fact that people are working from home to abuse their workforces and squeeze more out of them, as they would see it. I have heard stories of people working from home whose work supervisors have arranged work meetings for 10 o'clock on a Friday night. That is absolutely crazy. People need to be aware that while they work from home, they have a right to switch off. That is vitally important, and not all employers will recognise that right. Workers must stand up for themselves and ensure they avail of that right. Workers must ensure that when work is finished, it is finished. Employers cannot be abusing people in such a way.
People also have to be responsible. There might be a temptation to work late or take a few hours off in the middle of the day and work on but that could lead to more problems. We should be working to live, not living to work. That is vitally important and must be recognised by everybody, including the Government.
By allowing better access to employment for all, we would have a much better and more inclusive workforce, which is what we should aspire to. Remote working has allowed many of my constituents in Donegal to take up employment in companies that are based in Dublin or even further afield, which they previously would not have been able to do. It has also given many of my constituents the freedom to return to Donegal, to their families and friends and the place they call home. Remote working has been a relief to my constituency, and for many constituencies in the west, in which there has been a decline at an incredible rate over the last few decades of population, activity, services and businesses. Remote working has breathed life into our towns again. We all saw the proof of this during the pandemic. My town of Killybegs, which has for so long been a picture of dereliction and abandonment, has a new lease of life, with many new entrepreneurial ventures throughout the town. Businesses and companies had been doing well but the town itself had been declining. It just shows the great things people can do when given the opportunity and the flexibility to do it.
This is why it is so important to introduce flexible and remote working, to revitalise our rural areas and to give equal opportunity to all. There is no doubt that women mostly bear the brunt of having to balance work and family life, between pregnancy, maternity leave and childcare, as well as menopause and caring responsibilities. The 2016 census showed that women make up over six in ten carers. These are all women’s issues that should be looked into further and addressed. I welcome the announcement by the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth of the introduction of gender pay gap reporting this week. However, much more needs to be done to address the issues I have outlined today. A start to this would be the introduction of flexible and remote work. I again voice my support for this motion and thank the Labour Party for bringing this issue to the forefront on this very important week.
I thank the Labour Party for submitting this motion and facilitating this discussion. I listened carefully to the Deputies who have spoken today, both online in the earlier part of the debate and in person in the second half. There is a common and shared objective among them to make remote and flexible working a permanent feature of Ireland’s workforce.
I am sorry if I got a bit argumentative earlier but it is hard to accept when somebody comes in here and gives out that others have made submissions and had a chance to discuss this over the last year when that same person did not bother making the effort to make a submission during the public consultation on this matter. I am not talking about all Members of this House because plenty have contributed to this debate over the last year but others have come in here as if this was the first time they have been asked to discuss remote working with the Government. There was very strong public consultation around this matter and very interesting research submissions on it. I personally thought there would have been a lot more submissions; not from politicians but in general. However, the consultation helped us flesh out a conversation around the remote working legislation and bring it forward.
The Tánaiste is very clear on the legislation. It is before a committee for pre-legislative scrutiny. He is very open to making changes if we can and we will take that opportunity. We will work through that and we are trying to get the balance right. I agree with Deputy Mattie McGrath on this. We have to be sensible in our approach and try to achieve a balance that works for everybody, as best we possibly can. The proposed legislation will put a process in place for a new approach, by setting out the procedures to request remote working. That request will then be judged and independently assessed through a code of conduct and a plan that is put in place for each company. We are working to improve the legislation. We will see what comes back from the pre-legislative scrutiny process and see if we can enhance it.
Much has been made of the list of reasons why an employer can refuse a request for remote working, but that refusal has to be backed up by a business case. It is not just a case of saying the employee lives too close or something. The employer has to go beyond that and explain why they are refusing the request. It is not good enough just to pick a reason. That is not the intention. We have set out some areas where the conversation could be framed around those reasons.
To be very clear, this is still an open conversation. I hope the committee doing the pre-legislative scrutiny comes back very soon. We will then work through its recommendations and report to this House. The Tánaiste and the Cabinet are very clear that we are not opposing any proposals because of any gimmick. It is because the Bill is still a work in progress. This is a very timely motion and a timely conversation. The Labour Party and many others have strong views on this and want to go forward with the Bill. That is fine. Let us tease those out.
The draft right to request remote working legislative proposals are being brought forward by the Government in response to the commitment to make remote working a permanent feature of Ireland’s workforce in a way that can benefit all, economically, socially and environmentally. The Tánaiste published the remote working strategy over a year ago and it included a list of issues to be dealt with. Some have already been dealt with through the code of practice and changes in the budget, initiatives with hubs such as mapping, and so on. A lot is happening here. Another commitment under that strategy was the legislation that we are now bringing forward. The Tánaiste has been leading this conversation. It is certainly not one the Government is hiding from. Like everybody who spoke today, we would like to make remote working a positive feature of our work environment going forward and get that balance right.
In March 2020, people were sent home to try to work remotely in a way that was unplanned and not co-ordinated in many situations. They had to balance work, family, care and Covid, and were in a panic in some cases. It took a while to adapt and adjust but in most situations there was a positive outcome and employers and employees said the experience was positive and good. To build on that, we want to make it a permanent feature where we can, where it makes sense and where the job suits. It will not suit every job. We know and accept that. That is something we have to recognise and tease out. It is about getting the balance right between employers and employees, protecting the jobs we have and growing more of them. There are great benefits to remote working, including for families, communities, volunteering, climate, transport and many others. There is so much positivity around remote working, be that at home or in a hub provided through LEOs, local authorities, enterprise plans, Enterprise Ireland or the Department. A lot of effort has been made in that regard as well.
According to the research from the public consultation, there is a strong interest in the hybrid model, that is, some days working in the office and some days working at home. There is also very strong interest in working in a hub close to home. We need to capture all those choices and options. It is about giving people the choice and the option. Flexibility in a workforce is key. A major part of the success story of Irish job creation over the last number of years is that we are a very flexible nation when it comes to work. We need to build on that and make sure everybody is protected so we can continue to have a jobs-led recovery from Covid.
The right to request remote work has its roots in work done in recent years on promoting balanced regional development and the future of work. This conversation had started in the Department even before Covid but because of Covid that conversation took off at pace. More and more people can now see the benefits of remote working on all sides of the argument. It is a question of how we can make that a permanent feature. The 2020 programme for Government contains several commitments on the topic. Remote work is already a key consideration in Government policy documents such as the national economic plan, the climate action plan, the town centre living initiative and the smarter travel policy.
New regional enterprise plans to 2024 are currently being developed by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. These are bottom-up plans being made in conjunction with all the stakeholders in the regions and various counties. We have launched five of the nine plans and there are four more to be launched. A big focus in all those enterprise plans is remote working, including the development of hubs and the development of procedures and processes to encourage people to work from home. We can see the benefits to our regions, towns and villages throughout the country. This can bring people back into those areas and breathe life into many towns and villages. That is what we are going to try to build on in order to develop our communities. The remaining enterprise plans will be published over the next few weeks. The State is committed to increasing remote work adoption in Ireland through removing barriers, developing infrastructure, providing guidance, raising awareness and leading by example in this area.
Some speakers said we need a plan for broadband. They might want to wake up because there is a plan for broadband. A spend of €5 billion has been committed to make sure broadband is rolled out. Of course we all want it to happen much quicker. We would rather it was there tomorrow. At least there is a plan in place and a contract signed. Part of this remote work strategy is a commitment that negotiations around speeding up that plan and that delivery will continue, while recognising that there were delays from Covid. It is wrong to make out that there is no plan. Thankfully, the cheque is signed and people now know broadband is on its way. Of course, every effort should be made to deliver that fibre broadband to everyone's home as quickly as we possibly can because access to top-class broadband is a game changer, for so many reasons. There is no doubt about that.
The right to request remote working Bill 2022 will provide employees with a right to request remote work and will provide a legal framework around which requesting, approving or refusing such a request can be based and judged independently.
It will also provide legal clarity to employers on their obligations for dealing with such requests. Pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment commenced on 9 February and continued on 2 March.
It is recognised that not all occupations, industries and roles within enterprise will be suitable for remote working. Therefore, even in cases where employers want to support workers and can be as flexible as possible, it will not always be an appropriate or suitable option. Technology changes by the day, however, and that could change as well. The Opposition's call to introduce a blanket right to remote working is not realistic. It does not recognise that, for some jobs, it just is not yet possible, and we need to bear that in mind. Many companies already offer remote working and the Bill is not intended to undermine existing remote working agreements, which may offer more favourable terms overall. Many of them offer remote or hybrid working from day one of the employment relationship. The Bill is intended primarily to act as a floor-level protection and to ensure workers, particularly those employees who currently have no access to remote working, will have an entitlement to make a request and to understand the employer's clear obligations to deal with it. The employer will not be able to ignore the request but must process it properly and fairly and with the option to work remotely if that is possible and if it makes sense.
The Government wants to give employees a choice, which is why we are progressing the legislation and why we will not oppose the motion. The conversation is a live one and the legislation will be enhanced and brought through these Houses in the weeks and months ahead. The Tánaiste is clear, and has said on a number of occasions, that as long as the business gets done and services are provided, employers should facilitate remote working where they can. We will do all we can as a Government, through our remote working strategy and the legislation, to make that an attractive option for everybody involved. I reiterate the research has captured that employers, employees and many organisations now recognise that remote working is, without doubt, a positive experience. Of course, as I said, the way it was rushed in at the start of the pandemic came with complications, but many of them have been ironed out and we can build on that. There are benefits for families, communities and the towns and villages where we live, by bringing life back into them through a positive remote working option, whether that is working at home or in hubs that will be developed in conjunction with the State or with employers, and that is what we want to build on.
I am sharing time with Deputy Ó Ríordáin. I welcome and will support the motion. If the Government were to read the wording properly, it would see it "rejects as inadequate the Government proposals in the general scheme of the Right to Request Remote Work Bill, on the grounds that they: fail to provide that access to flexible work should be the default entitlement and not the exception; [and] fail to include a presumption that if work has been done remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic it is reasonably practicable for it to continue to be done remotely". What we are arguing for, and what is the unanimous approach of the Opposition, is to reflect the fact there has been a paradigm shift in society, which has had a major benefit, not least for women.
I might give the practical example of a woman who works in the pharmaceutical sector. She is a lone parent, highly skilled and educated. Earlier in the Covid pandemic, she obtained a promotion. Her employer now says she is expected to work overnight shifts in other parts of the country. Given she received a promotion during the pandemic when she was able to take care of her childcare responsibilities, surely she should have a right to continue to work as she has been doing and not to have to work those overnight shifts. There is a risk she will now have to leave that job because she will not be able to make alternative childcare arrangements. All we are trying to do is to instil a presumption in favour of the right to have a flexible arrangement. If nothing else, it is to ensure lone parents, in particular, who want to work but who cannot do so at present because of their childcare arrangements will be given that opportunity to be able to do so, such as in the case of the person I mentioned.
The Government's legislation, with all due respect to the Minister of State, will yank that out of the equation. It is too weak. The paradigm shift has occurred, as he will have seen on his commute to the Houses of the Oireachtas from wherever he resides, as will the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, when he travels along the M4. They will see that people are back on the road, going to work. The whole place is snarled up and many of those people would be just as productive if working from home or having that flexibility, but the Government's legislative proposal is too weak. We argue that the Bill fails to live up to the ambitions of the remote work strategy published last year. The Government has watered it down. Let us give women, in particular, and men a chance. I refer to women who have attained some autonomy, been able to come back into the workplace and achieved promotions, and who otherwise would not have been promoted because of that pull towards the need to provide childcare and the domestic arrangements they may have. Let us give them a chance and embed it as a right. Female full-time employment increased by an impressive 7.5% in the two-year period between the end of 2019 and the end of 2021. That was as a result of the pandemic because people were able to make more flexible arrangements.
All we are asking for is a bit of common sense. There is a significant opportunity to reflect the zeitgeist. People want flexible working time, instilled as a right, and our motion speaks to that.
We thank very much all the Deputies across the House who will support the motion and we commend the work of Senator Sherlock, who, on having examined the Government's proposals, committed to producing her own legislation, which she is now pursuing. The Government's proposals, which would require employees to wait up to 26 weeks before they could ask to work remotely and a further 12 weeks before a decision is made, that is, a full pregnancy of 38 weeks before an employee might actually be given the right, go to the heart of all workers' rights legislation in this Republic. A worker has the right to ask, but it will always be the employer's right to say "No". It feels as though the Government handed its legislation to IBEC and asked it to script it, and then presented it to the House and was surprised people would have an issue with it. We had a round-table discussion, organised by Senator Sherlock, at which we heard from Orla O'Connor of the National Women's Council of Ireland, Liam Berney of ICTU, Louise Bayliss of SPARK, Gareth Murphy of the Financial Services Union, Fleachta Phelan of the Disability Federation of Ireland, and Alan Eustace, all of whom argued that we need to grasp this opportunity that has been presented to us during the pandemic.
We are not suggesting a young worker will not want to go into the workplace. I can appreciate that somebody who is starting out in life may have housing or accommodation difficulties whereby working from home may not really be an option for him or her, given that person may not wish to grasp the opportunity of working at the end of the bed, for example. If, however, a worker in good faith has the opportunity to work from home, why do we once again have to place all the power in the hands of the employer? It is as though there is a lack of trust at the heart of Irish legislation such that the worker will always try not to be honest. If we are honest with ourselves as a legislative body, however, we will appreciate that the productivity of the worker would improve if he or she did not have to run on this treadmill of traffic congestion and rush and push in the morning and of having to deal with childcare arrangements.
Indeed, this is a gender equality issue, given it will encourage more women into the workplace and to seek empowerment there too. Furthermore, it goes hand in hand with the right to switch off. It cannot be that in Irish workplaces, whether at home or in the traditional work setting, workers must be constantly contactable, whereby they do not have the right to switch off and are expected to receive a message or email at any hour of the day or night.
We are trying to expose the fact that what the Government has brought forward in this right to flexible working legislation is actually the right of an employer to say "No". There are 38 weeks before a worker can get a decision. The reasons for refusal are so wide as to make the workers powerless. In good faith the Labour Party has been working assiduously on this. Senator Sherlock, as our workers' rights spokesperson, has been drafting legislation. She had correctly pointed out the issues in the legislation. A number of weeks ago, the Tánaiste told me some employers were not happy with the Bill either. It is quite clear nobody on either side, workers or employers, is necessarily impressed with the Government's legislation. We cannot have a situation where somebody has to wait 26 weeks before applying to work remotely. We cannot have a ridiculous situation where people have to wait 12 weeks to get an answer. We cannot have the employers' rights of refusal to be so broad as to make the legislation worthless. As my colleague Deputy Sherlock has said, it is a gender equality issue and it is a workers' rights issue.
It is about taking from the pandemic all we have learned and bringing it into the mainstream of the workplace and workers' rights. I hope the Taoiseach and representatives from the Government might listen to this. My greatest regret of ten years ago at the time of the previous crisis is that we did not learn enough from the financial collapse and build a more robust economy on the basis of workers' rights and human interaction. Having learned from what happened in the pandemic, we have an opportunity to do things much better. This is why we have tabled the motion. We do not want the Government just to support the motion; we want it to work on it and make the legislation better.