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Tuesday 30 May 2023 Dublin: 16°C
Ivana Bacik Flexible work makes sense, so why is the government clinging to old ways?
The TD says the conservatism being shown by Government on flexible working is in stark contrast to the need for radical change.

LAST UPDATE | Feb 9th 2022, 2:00 PM

SOMETIMES IT IS possible to see positive signs emerging, even from the darkest of times. One such possible glimmer of hope arising out of the devastating and terrible worldwide Covid-19 pandemic may be the move to flexible and remote working.

As the pandemic subsides, hopefully for the longer term, we must refocus our energies upon resolving the other crisis facing this and future generations; the global climate emergency.

If we in Ireland are to meet international commitments to halve the 60 million tonnes of annual carbon emissions we produce by 2030, then wide adoption of flexible and remote work practices is absolutely essential.

Remote benefits climate

Analysis carried out by Trinity College Dublin researchers shows that if every person who commutes to work by car could switch to remote working from home for just three days per week, we could avoid two tonnes of carbon emissions for every three participants over a year.

With more than a million commuters travelling to work in cars every day before the pandemic, such a development could greatly assist in the wider push to reach our vital carbon reduction targets.

And while research is ongoing on the differentials in energy use between office-based and remote working, all the evidence points to major carbon emission savings being produced by the intelligent use of flexible work arrangements.

Developing remote and flexible work patterns also makes economic sense. It could increase the active workforce in Ireland by hundreds of thousands, helping rebalance our economy to better face the challenges of an ageing population. In its research on flexible work, the Central Statistics Office has found that three in four respondents who were engaged full-time in-home duties, and almost seven in 10 of those unable to work due to longstanding health problems, would consider entering paid employment if it could be done remotely.

These changes would represent gains for all in society; with enormous social, emotional and psychological benefits for children and other family members where a more meaningful work-life balance can be achieved for the working adults in each household.

It makes sense

The environmental, economic and social benefits of flexible work are clear, so why does the Government not fully endorse these developments? No logical answer may be found – beyond a real fear of change.

Yes, moving to an economy that actively promotes remote and flexible work will mean that management approaches will have to be altered. And it will mean a rebalancing of some sectors of the economy away from congested city centres to suburbs, commuter towns and rural areas. However, such progressive change must happen – and we can make it so.

The conservatism being shown by the Government in this area is in stark contrast to the radical ability to change. Workers and businesses alike displayed incredible adaptability in response to the enormous threat of the pandemic. The move from the office to home working was not easy for many, but the readjustment of family lives was done with great determination and resolve – even when coupled with the immense difficulties of ‘home schooling’ for many.

Scrap the Bill

The reality is that change in most cases was a success, with surveys nationally, locally and in workplaces regularly showing that nine in 10 workers wish to retain their new flexible work patterns.

So how should we solidify and encourage these gains achieved over the last two years? For legislation to work, it must be clear in its aims.

Announcing his proposed Bill on ‘a right to request flexible work’ last month, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar claimed he wants to “change the culture” and “move the dial’ towards greater flexible work.

 If this was truly his aim, then what he presented is simply inadequate. The Government’s proposals would actually roll back the progress that has already been made towards the greater use by businesses and workers of remote and flexible work practices that have been happening since March 2020.

The Government are of course fully aware that their Bill could not achieve its stated aims. It is a text which the Tánaiste has already started claiming will have to be ‘refined’, ‘amended’ and even ‘improved’.

If we accept that flexible work practices carry with them great social, environmental and economic benefits, it is counterintuitive to attempt to ‘amend’ the Government Bill to make it do something it is not fit to do. Instead, it is essential that we begin anew, with a piece of legislation that truly aims to protect the gains made by hundreds of thousands of workers during the pandemic in terms of a more flexible working life.

That is why the Labour Party is working with representatives of women in the workforce, employees with disabilities and with groups representing commuters, as well as with environmental groups, trade unions and industrial relations experts to assemble a piece of legislation that will provide a genuine ‘right to flexible work’.

‘Right to flexible work’

A right to flexible work will free up our clogged transport network, provide for a better work-life balance and cut climate emissions. It is a right based on the notion that we can’t just ignore the past two years, and must take account of work arrangements that have successfully evolved.

A right that recognises a real work-life balance. A right that will put what is best for our communities and our planet into the centre of the debate about our workplaces and our economy in post-pandemic Ireland.

The Bill will also contain proposals on remote working hours, protection for the right to disconnect; it will enable green audits of changing work practices and will include measures to incentivise businesses to move long-term to flexible work arrangements.

The flexible working legislation proposed by the Government represents a step back in time. It is time for government to plan instead for the future, for a post-Covid world where our towns and villages have been rejuvenated, where local entrepreneurship is encouraged; a world where we can fit in our social and family lives around our working lives.

Our Labour legislation would support citizens, employees and businesses to move with the times towards the creation of a fairer, more community-focused, family-centred and far greener workplace model. That is what Labour is proposing – a step forward for all.

Ivana Bacik is a Labour TD for Dublin Bay South.


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