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Opinion: There's no point asking employees to 'work from home' when employers hold all the cards

As NPHET calls for more people to work from home, ICTU’s Dr Laura Bambrick says workers have no rights in law to work remotely, and this needs to change.

Dr Laura Bambrick

DEVELOPMENTS IN TECHNOLOGY and its widespread availability have made it possible for many jobs to be performed outside of the employer’s premises. However, it took a pandemic to fully awaken us to the potential for homeworking. 

Before Covid-19 struck, just under one in 20 (4.9%) employees worked mainly from home. In policy circles, homeworking was viewed as one in a suite of flexible working arrangements for attracting and retaining mothers, carers and people with a disability in the workforce. 

With the arrival of Covid-19, working from home went mainstream. Over a matter of days, tens of thousands of businesses moved their staff to remote working to help slow the spread of the virus.

Around 40% of paid hours worked in the economy during lockdown were performed from homes around the country as the number of remote workers skyrocketed to more than one in four (27.6%) of those in employment.

The future of work is now

For some employees, the experience of working from home has been fraught. Unsuitable accommodation, poor broadband, longer hours, feeling isolated are among the top issues raised with union reps.

But, for the vast majority, it has been a positive experience and they want to continue working from home after the Covid-19 restrictions end. 

Unsurprising, remote working has become a hot topic for radio and tv programmes and newspaper think pieces, with many predicting the death of the office. This conclusion is not supported by opinion poll findings and what we are hearing from our members – the overwhelming preference is for a mix of office-based and homeworking post-pandemic. 

So, while unions view the reports of the death of the office to be greatly exaggerated, we do recognise the potential for remote working to be one of the great disruptors to the workplace, similar to the arrival of the assembly line on to the factory floor and the personal computer into the office.  

To be clear, trade unions are not looking to hold back the tide of progress. There is a huge appetite for remote working among our members. When implemented in the right way, working from home or remotely from another location, such as a digital hub or co-working space, can really improve workers’ work-life balance, make them happier and more productive.

Our focus is on ensuring workers’ hard-won rights are preserved when working from home and that protections keep pace with changes in ways of working.

However, while workers are willing to embrace this future of work, and as the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has been to the fore in highlighting, under Irish law they have no rights to work from home.

The power imbalance

In the UK, Northern Ireland and across the EU, workers who have completed their probation period have a right to request homeworking and their employer is legally required to give their request serious consideration. 

There is no obligation on the employer to agree to the request. Not all jobs can be completed remotely and the need for flexibility must be balanced with the needs of the business.

Here in Ireland, working from home and other flexible working arrangements – flexi-time, part-time hours, job-share, etc – are wholly at the discretion of the employer.

Without a statutory requirement to give requests reasonable consideration, Irish employers have shown themselves to be too quick to out of hand refuse to negotiate a work from home company policy with trade union reps, prior to Covid. 

Equally today, datasets on people’s movements show large numbers of workers are back in the workplace, in spite of public health advice to work from home unless absolutely necessary to attend in person.

The message on working from home is ‘not getting through’ said Dr Tony Holohan, the chief medical officer, last Thursday. This message needs to be targeted at employers, who hold all the power when it comes to workers’ place of work.

The homeworking genie is out of the bottle

A new EU Directive on Work-Life Balance requires Government to give carers and parents of young children the right to request remote working by 2022, in line with European workers’ rights.

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The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has called on Government to go beyond the minimum requirements of the directive and extend this right to all workers. 

The past eight months have been a mass experiment in homeworking. Granted, the experiment conditions have been far from textbook. No one would have designed it to be implemented overnight, without time to set-up, and for it to run in parallel with a public health emergency. 

Even so, workers and policymakers are now very much alive to its potential. In the next few weeks, Government will publish its National Strategy on Remote Working. Introducing rights to remote working and stronger protections for homeworkers will be key to getting buy-in from reluctant employers and for a smooth transition in this cultural shift in how we work.

Dr Laura Bambrick is Head of Social Policy and Employment Affairs at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. ICTU is the umbrella body for 44 unions together representing the interests of some 700,000 workers on the island in all sectors of the economy.

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Dr Laura Bambrick

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