Organisation of Working Time (Amendment) (Right to Disconnect) Bill 2020: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 to establish procedures for an employee’s right to disconnect from work-related emails, texts, and calls outside of working hours, and to provide for related matters.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to introduce this Bill, which seeks to guarantee workers a legal right to disconnect and a right to switch off from work. With social, economic and technological development, work practices are changing all the time. Having spoken to the Tánaiste on this issue several times, he will be aware that it is one that Sinn Féin has been working on for a number of months. I understand it is also an issue for the Government. Remote working is a new form of working which needs to be recognised as a distinct form of working, similar to the way that shift work is recognised.

These technological advances that we talk about make our lives easier. They improve the quality of our lives in so many ways but there are also dangers and pitfalls. Sometimes these developments, if they are unregulated or uncontrolled, end up actively working against workers, being damaging and inducing stress and other illnesses in people. From an employer's perspective, if one wants to look at the issue like that, these developments can make it harder for employees to do their work and make them less productive. For this reason, the right to disconnect is a win-win in many respects for both the worker and the employer.

For many workers, developments in the area of technology have proven to be a mixed bag. There are advantages and we know there are disadvantages. We have seen the development of what can be referred to as an "always on" culture. We all know what when people finish work at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 7 p.m. or whatever time and close the door behind them, they are off, the door is closed and they can go home. However, people working at home or remotely do not have the same structure and the danger is that they will always be in work, as it were, if they do not have the opportunity to leave. Needless to say, the work-related stress created by this situation is a key driver in the mental ill health epidemic that is sweeping the world of work.

Many years ago, the French noticed there was a blurring of the boundary between work and private life by new technology and ways of working. They promptly legislated to give workers the right to disconnect from their work outside of contracted work hours. There is a strong campaign here among trade unions, especially the Financial Services Union, FSU, which has done fantastic work in this area. I want to give a particular mention to Gareth Murphy, who has been leading on this issue. The Bill seeks to build on the work done by the FSU, SIPTU, UNITE, the Communication Workers Union and others, and legislate to regulate excessive out-of-hours contact between employers and staff via email, messaging, apps, phones, etc.

The purpose of the Bill is to establish procedures for an employee's right to disconnect from work-related emails, texts, and calls outside of their normal working hours. Put simply, it gives workers the right to disconnect when they are not in work so that they have the right to switch off. However, as is often the case, some people may prefer to be always on the go, and it will be necessary to include in the legislation a right to opt out from this.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of electronic communications to the success of many businesses and organisations. The use of mobile technology has enabled many workers to remain connected and in employment, and those who can work from home have been encouraged to do so. We discussed this during Oral Questions the other evening. I believe there should be a legal right not just to request remote working but also to ensure that people have their request considered properly if they want to work remotely.

We know that working from home has increased productivity. Some workers are much happier and when they are much happier, obviously they will be much more productive. I have to be honest when I say that while many workers enjoy remote working, blended working and their jobs in general, many have been in contact with me to say the "always on" culture and the fact that they cannot disconnect, and cannot refer to legislation that gives them the right to do so, is making their lives almost unbearable. For some, the emails and pings from their phones are constant. We know these are constant for many workers.

I note the Government has published its guidance on remote working, which is very much a step in the right direction. However, we need to have a legislative underpinning. That is why I have spent the last number of weeks working with stakeholders to research and draft this Bill. In this regard, I must give specific thanks and credit to Dr. Conor McCabe.

This legislation seeks to give workers the legal right to disconnect from work-related emails, texts and calls. It further makes it a requirement for employers to put in place a right to disconnect policy to establish the hours when employees are not supposed to send or answer work-related emails, texts or calls, and this has to be put in place in consultation with the workers and, where applicable, with the relevant, recognised trade union. It also allows an employee to waive his or right to disconnect but only with his or her consent. The Bill builds upon the social contract and industrial relations machinery in order to lead to a more productive and, more important, a much less stressful working environment.

Is the Bill opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.