Government’s remote working plan hailed as ‘ambitious vision’ but caution urged

Trade unions have welcomed Government plans to allow people to have a legal right to seek to work from home, while business groups stressed the need for both “careful development” of legislation and the faster rollout of better broadband infrastructure.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions said working from home or remotely from a location close to home had many advantages for workers.

“That is why ICTU was first to call for legislation to oblige employers to give requests for flexible working arrangements serious consideration,” said ICTU general secretary Patricia King. “Without this requirement, Irish employers have shown themselves to be too quick to refuse out of hand to negotiate company-level agreements on remote working.”

Under a new strategy on remote working to be published today by Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Leo Varadkar, the Government will also legislate to introduce the “right to disconnect” from work, which in theory would protect employees from the obligation to answer phone calls and emails out-of-hours.

The Government has also proposed that working from home should be the norm for up to 20 per cent of staff in the public service, but accepts this is an average figure and could pose challenges in frontline areas such as health.

Fórsa, the largest public service union, gave an initial welcome to the headline measures, but called for the Government to engage with unions on the proposals to ensure fair access to remote working and proper protections for all staff.

“Fórsa very much welcomes the pledge to establish legal rights to disconnect and to request remote working, which would bring Ireland closer to European best practice,” said head of communications Bernard Harbor.

Business group Ibec said the strategy was a “timely recognition” of changes in Irish workplaces hastened by the Covid-19 crisis, but cautioned that there would be a need for “balance” in the new laws.

“The proposals to introduce legislation will require careful development to meet a balance for businesses and employees in order to ensure competitiveness, equality and flexibility considerations are addressed,” said Ibec director of employer relations Maeve McElwee.

“Allowing time for a full regulatory impact assessment, including the costs of administration of new employment legislation, will be critical.”

‘Ambitious vision’

Chambers Ireland said the remote work strategy was an “ambition vision for the future of work” that could transform the workplace, supporting quality of life, inclusion and regional development.

“Of particular importance to our members is the commitment within the report to examine the acceleration of the National Broadband Plan and develop a National Hubs Network,” said chief executive Ian Talbot.

“The experience of the pandemic means that it is more important than ever that we ensure rapid delivery of high-speed broadband throughout the country.”

In his response, former minister for communications Denis Naughten said innovations that would allow many more public sector employees to work remotely had been “blocked at every turn” and that targeted investment in digital infrastructure was necessary to stimulate employment in the regions.

Marian Ryan, consumer tax manager at Taxback. com, said the strategy was an opportunity for the Government “to take a keener look” at the reliefs and allowances in place for people who work from home in the long term.

“While there are many benefits to working from home, a potential downside can be the additional cost to the employee, who really shouldn’t be penalised financially just because of their place of work.”

It said it supported an indication that the Government will review the current tax arrangements. “We hope it finds merit in further enhancements,” Ms Ryan said.

ICTU social policy officer Laura Bambrick said the current methods of reimbursing expenses was not fit for purpose.

“Remote workers should not have to carry the business costs – whether in the form of higher utility bills or the daily desk charge at a hub,” Dr Bambrick said.