I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
I am sharing time with my colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin. Sometimes Governments and all politicians are accused of being out of touch and behind the times. Sometimes the criticism is merited; sometimes it is not. When it comes to this topic, the rights of workers working from home, that criticism is very much merited and accurate. Current Irish law as it relates to working from home is either outdated, unworkable or non-existent. I am thankful that other parties and the Government are now following the Labour Party's lead in addressing this issue.
This year, 2020, has been like no other. All of our lives have been transformed by the pandemic and its knock-on effects. The impact on the working lives of hundreds of thousands of Irish workers who are now working from home has been immense. At the start of the year, there were around 200,000 Irish workers working from home on a regular basis. As a result of the pandemic, that number more than trebled to 700,000, which must represent the greatest change in working life in a single year in Irish history. The implications in the long run, even if a vaccine is rolled out and we defeat this virus as I believe we will, could be enormous for Irish society, for everything from transporting and commuting to regional development, industrial policy and everything else.
People's priorities have changed. Covid has been a disruptor. According to a survey conducted earlier this year by Mental Health First Aid Ireland, we are facing significant and varied challenges due to the mass shift to remote work. Survey respondents reported negative physical ramifications as a result of working from home, as well as issues related to mental health and well-being. Over a third of respondents reported that they were not happy with their work-life balance. The report concludes that as boundaries are blurred between work and life, workers have found it hard to switch off, mainly due to the removal of the commute to a physical office location as the time and space to move into work mode has been removed. Some 42% of those surveyed agreed that they found it difficult to maintain the boundaries between home and work life and almost half of all respondents, 49.3% to be exact, worked over their contracted hours.
In the context of the huge shift to remote working that has taken place this year among Irish workers, these are extremely significant findings. While the nature of work may be changing at a rapid pace, the need to protect the rights of workers will never change, nor will the determination of the Labour Party, which I have the privilege to lead, and all its members and elected representatives in this House, the Seanad and across Ireland, to protect those workers and advance those rights. However, the laws regulating working from home in Ireland are either non-existent, unworkable or completely out of date. The Government is, once again, miles behind the curve when it comes to adapting to changes in our society. We are eight months into this pandemic and it will go on. Whatever excuses the Government may have had for not bringing Irish law up to date when it comes to working from home at the start of the pandemic, it has no excuses now. The law as it relates to working from home is badly in need of being reformed.
For these reasons, and as a responsible Opposition party, the Labour Party has introduced the Working from Home (Covid-19) Bill 2020, in order to protect the rights of workers who are in mass numbers working from home. We are proposing two new protections for workers working from home. The first is giving all workers the right to switch off. This is a fundamental and very important protection that ensures workers are not being put under pressure to work all hours. I think we can all acknowledge that the higher levels of connectivity made possible by advances in IT and mobile technology in recent years have been a double-edged sword for workers. While it is now much easier for people to stay connected with one another, it is now much more difficult for workers to take a break and get away from dealing with issues in work. This can and does lead to workers being pressurised into working very long hours and responding to messages late into the night, particularly younger and more junior workers. Dare I say it, we could all learn about that ourselves in these Houses.
This always-on culture can have very negative impacts on the physical and mental health of workers and on family life. More time spent on laptops and mobile phones late into the night means less time to spend with loved ones, children and families. This can lead to more stressed, harried and pressurised workers, and all the knock-on emotional effects this can have in families. It is time to put an end to this always-on culture. Workers deserve the right to switch off. The Bill requires employers to inform their employees what their policy is in relation to out-of-hours communication and gives protection to employees from being punished for failing to respond to emails or other communications out of hours, which is completely unacceptable. We would not be the first country in Europe to do something in this space, as France, Italy, Spain and Belgium have all passed legislation to tackle this issue. Ireland is also one of the few EU countries without any modern protection in our employment law for remote working.
The second key protection which the Bill offers is to make sure workers have a workstation in their home which is suitable for their working needs and that the cost of running the office is not being transferred from employers to workers, by requiring employers to pay a fixed tax-free amount to cover the costs of working from home, such as higher heating, electricity and broadband bills.
The current law in this area is an absolute dog's dinner. Under it, employers are effectively required to inspect the homes of their employees to ensure that they are suitable for working from home. I do not believe this fact is well known, but I am sure the Tánaiste would agree that it is completely and utterly ludicrous. It is a law that is not acceptable; it is unenforceable and simply wrong.
We have proposed a pragmatic solution, namely, that an employer be required to provide the equipment that an employee needs but does not have, and pay a fixed amount to cover the costs of the worker of working from home. It is a particularly important issue for people who are working in low-paid employment and those who are renting. If an employer adopts these two measures, then the legal obligations are considered to have been complied with.
However, we, as legislators, need to act on this issue and we need to act now. The law needs to catch up with the lived reality of 700,000 workers in Ireland who are, as we speak, working from home, often in cramped and unsuitable spaces. There is no time to waste. To be frank, this issue should have been dealt with by the Oireachtas years ago.
This is not a time to do what this Government has repeatedly been doing. I respectfully ask the Taoiseach to consider this. The Government has kicked the can down the road repeatedly on the positive and sensible proposed legislation we have introduced. It then regurgitates and positions it as some form of Government initiative, such as our proposal on sick pay.
I ask the Tánaiste not to kick this can down the road and to not delay, because action is long overdue. We, in the Labour Party, are calling on the Tánaiste, the Government and, indeed, all parties in the House to support this Bill and bring our laws on remote working into the 21st century. Irish workers deserve nothing less.