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Marie Sherlock: The government should scrap its remote working plans and start over

Labour Senator Marie Sherlock says the plans announced this week are not worth the paper they’re written on.

Marie Sherlock

THE PANDEMIC HAS changed the nature of work for many people in Ireland. The quick adoption of remote and flexible work arrangements by workers throughout the country, from March 2020, was a spectacular success.

However, this move to remote and flexible work arrangements would have been essential during this decade anyway, if we are to play our full part in combating the global climate crisis by reducing carbon emissions and seek to maintain a vibrant, future-facing economy.

That the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has to all intents and purposes decided he wants to squander these gains with proposals on flexible working – which in reality will just see a return to the status quo – is unacceptable.

Rights of workers

They also fly in the face of claims the government has made to be concerned with improving workers’ rights. In relation to working to ensure that more women felt able to remain in employment, the then Taoiseach Varadkar told the #WorkEqual Conference in late 2019 that he was committed to “removing the barriers” that prevent many women from staying in the workforce.

However, the proposals in relation to supposedly supporting a worker’s right to ‘request’ remote or flexible work run contradictory to that aim. In its latest quarterly bulletin, released this week, the Central Bank, noted female participation in the Irish labour force had increased by three and a half percentage points since the start of the pandemic to stand at a record 59.8 per cent.

That is over the two years that span the pandemic (2020 and 2021), full-time female employment has increased by 7 per cent or 56,000, while part-time female employment has risen by 10 per cent or 34,000.

As working mothers and other women will know a major factor in this positive development has been the widespread adoption of remote and flexible work practices. Instead of seeking to promote more flexible working the ‘Heads of Bill’ presented by the Tánaiste, and his public utterances this week, merely amount to the declaration of a “free for all” end to the pandemic work from home recommendation.

What rights if there’s no ‘right’?

Unfortunately, the proposed right to request flexible work is not the paper it is written on as the grounds for refusal are so broad and the right to appeal, toothless. Workers cannot appeal the grounds for the refusal, they can only appeal the process – whether their employer engaged with them or not.

Unless workers have the protection of a union, there will now be reliant on the benevolence of their employers with regard to future work arrangements. If forced back to the office on a full-time basis, a large number of workers will be facing into the rapid unwinding of two years of arrangements in relation to childcare and caring for other dependents, and back into long commutes, paying petrol prices that have risen by almost 32% in the space of 12 months.

Unfortunately, the Government has shown no ambition at all in attempting to develop the positive gains for workers, their communities and the environment, of the new forward-facing work practices they have been created and adapted to during the two dark years of the pandemic.

There is literally nothing in them that will benefit workers or help our society maintain gains in terms of health, work-life balance, greater involvement by women in the workforce, a reduction in carbon emissions, traffic congestion, that result from more workers working remotely on a permanent or flexible basis.

Listen to employees

These gains were outlined in great detail in another crucial report published this week by the Central Statistics Office. Its ‘Our Lives Online Pulse Survey‘ also revealed that 90% of those aged between 35 and 44 years who could work remotely would like to do so when the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions end.

In reality, the government’s proposals would introduce a system in relation to remote and flexible working which is actually worse for workers than the legalisation which was imposed on Britain by the Tories, on which it is modelled. Labour instead proposes that legalisation enshrining a right for workers, who have proven their ability to work successfully remotely, to maintain flexible working arrangements.

Such an approach is in the European mainstream and is being successfully implemented in the Netherlands, Finland and elsewhere. Ireland must commit to maintaining and empowering the ability of workers to engage in flexible and remote working where applicable across the economy.

In this regard, the government proposals published this week are of little value and the Labour Party are calling on the Tánaiste to withdraw them to allow for the space for serious discussions on this critical piece of legalisation for the future of work in Ireland.

Ultimately, our ask is simple. It is crucial that working arrangements that have evolved over the past two must be taken into account. Real progress has been made during the pandemic for so many workers. Let’s build on that experience and give workers the right to flexible work, where it has been proven to be made work.

Senator Marie Sherlock is Labour Party Spokesperson on Workers’ Rights and representative for Dublin Central.

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