Working from Home (Covid-19) Bill 2020: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to provide employees working remotely with a right to switch off from out of working hours work-related electronic communications, to disapply subject to conditions certain provisions of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 in the case of certain employees working temporarily from home, and to provide for related matters.

We launched this campaign already, so I think we are ahead of the curve. The Tánaiste has already spoken on this issue in response to a previous question. It is a very important topic, one which, collectively, this House will have to deal with. The Labour Party has been fighting for workers since its inception.

The number of people working from home on a regular basis has more than trebled from 200,000 to 700,000 as a result of the pandemic. We will have to address the issues that have arisen out of that change. The laws regulating home working are either piecemeal, out of date or unworkable. I am sure everybody in the House will accept that the Organisation of Working Time Act is designed for a different era. Its basis is fine but it is out of date. Eight months into the pandemic, we really need to get up to speed with how these issues are being dealt with in other jurisdictions. Four of our European partners have moved to address them quite swiftly and we must do the same.

We are introducing this Bill to protect workers in a situation where there is an increasing number of issues affecting their day-to-day working lives. The Bill gives two new protections to employees who work from home. The first is to give all workers the right to switch off. This is a very important protection that will ensure fair treatment of workers working remotely. The advances in information technology and mobile telephony over the past 20 years have enabled people to contact each other through different channels with an ease that was unthinkable a few years ago, let alone a decade ago. Whether it is by way of email, text messaging, WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, Zoom, Google Duo, Microsoft Teams or even the good old-fashioned telephone call, there is rarely an instance where a person cannot be contacted. In this environment, politicians, like many people, now have to manage our contact channels. People who are working from home deserve to be able to do the same.

All this increased connectivity brings with it increased opportunities for employees to be pressurised into working long hours and responding to messages late at night. A recent report by RTÉ on staff working in the Houses of the Oireachtas showed that we are not exactly angels in our own working environment. The culture of always being on has a very negative impact on people's physical and mental health, not to mention family life, as I am sure we are all aware. Our Bill requires employers to set out a policy in regard to out-of-hours communication and ensure employees will not be punished for failing to respond to emails or other communications.

As I said, we need to quicken our pace in addressing these issues, following what has been done in France, Italy, Spain and Belgium. Ireland is one of the only countries in the EU without any modern protection in our employment law for remote workers. The second key protection the Bill offers is to sort out the mess that is the requirement on employers to ensure their employees' workspace is suitable and appropriate. At present, employers are, in effect, required to inspect the homes of their employees to ensure their workspace meets the requirements. This is ludicrous and cannot be enforced. We have proposed the pragmatic solution that employers be required to provide the equipment employees need but do not have, such as a suitable desk and chair, and pay a fixed amount to cover the cost to the employee of working from home, such as heating and lighting. Much of this can be done through amendments to the tax codes and other small changes that I am sure the Tánaiste will support. Such changes are particularly important for people in low-paid employment and those who are renting.

My colleague, Senator Marie Sherlock, has carried out a survey on this issue, which found that the lack of suitable workspace at home, especially for those renting, is really impacting on people's mental health. The lack of clarity about supports and compensation for employees for the costs of working from home is also affecting workers negatively. The idea that people in rented accommodation will invest in home-working equipment is not realistic. However, employers often put them under pressure to perform and they may not be able to do so without investing. There must be some formula for dealing with that.

I hope the Taoiseach will give our proposals his consideration. I meant to refer to the Tánaiste. This is the first time I have made that Freudian slip. I was one of the few people who never made it but now I have slipped up as well. I call on the Tánaiste, the Government and all parties to support the Bill. Collectively, as the Dáil and Seanad, we all know we need to deal with this issue. Covid has been a disrupter and it has changed everything. We must change with it.

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.