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Government to examine if 'right to disconnect' from emails out of hours would work in Ireland

The law would give workers the right to avoid emails out of hours.

Image: Shutterstock/Sunflower Aoi

LAWS TO ALLOW for the right to disconnect, which gives workers the legal standing to avoid work emails outside working hours, will be considered by government, according to Business Minister Heather Humphreys. 

The initiative was introduced in France in 2017, mandating companies with more than 50 employees to develop a charter defining employees’ right to switch off and setting out the hours when staff are not supposed to send or answer emails.

The French law was prompted by the blurring of the boundary between work and private life by new technology and ways of working.

When asked by Fine Gael’s Bernard Durkan if consideration will be given to introducing guidelines regarding the right to disconnect in Ireland, the minister said it would be examined. 

Humphreys said an interdepartmental steering group has been formed to investigate flexible practices in the Irish workforce, such as remote working and the attitudes towards such arrangements. 

“As part of their work programme, I will ask the Interdepartmental Steering Group to examine the French approach referenced by the deputy. Given the increasing digitalisation of the workforce, I believe it is important from a work-life balance perspective that there are clearly defined guidelines regarding workers’ rights to switch off after office hours,” she said. 

Last year, a business executive at a subsidiary of meat producer Kepak was awarded €7,500 over being required to deal with out-of-hours work emails, including some after midnight, that led to work in excess of 48 hours a week.

At the Labour Court, Kepak Convenience Foods Unlimited Co was ordered to pay former business development executive Gráinne O’Hara €7,500 over repeated breaches of the Organisation of Working Time Act.

At the time, employment law expert and solicitor, Richard Grogan told TheJournal.ie that the ruling was  “very clear and precise” and would “serve as a massive wake-up call to employers who expect employees to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week”.

He said: “The law is very clear. Employees are entitled to an uninterrupted 11-hour break between finishing work and starting work the following day.”

Working time in Ireland is heavily regulated under the Organisation of Working Time Act, 1997, with the onus on the employer to ensure employees are afforded sufficient time away from the office for rest.

Confirming that her department will assess whether the right to disconnect law is something that might work in Ireland, the minister said she and her department understands the importance of promoting a good work-life balance for employees. 

As part of the Future Jobs Ireland Strategy, the minister wants to increase access to the labour force by offering more flexible working conditions to workers. 

“Flexible working encompasses a wide range of practices including part-time, compressed hours, job sharing, home-working and remote working. Such solutions allow for tangible benefits for employees including improving their work life balance. It also provides solutions for those who would otherwise take unpaid parental leave but cannot afford to do so,” she said. 

The interdepartmental group has met with key stakeholders, identified employment data in relation to flexible working and also had one-on-one consultations with industry. 

The minister also said a remote working consultation forum was held in July, and the insights arising from it will be included in a final report to be completed at the end of the year.

The report will outline the relevant policy implications of remote working for Ireland, and make recommendations as to whether a right to disconnect law would be workable in Ireland. 

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