That Dáil Éireann:
recognises that legislation to promote a flexible working environment is in the public interest, in order to achieve:
— an appropriate combination of paid work with caring responsibilities, and the enjoyment of a better work-life balance;
— the promotion of access to work, particularly for persons who face particular obstacles in taking up employment;
— a reduction in traffic congestion and carbon emissions caused by the commute to work;
— a rebalancing of the population and of amenities and resources between more densely and less densely populated regions; and
— the economic and social development of the State as a whole, in accordance with policies on proper planning and sustainable development;
rejects as inadequate the Government proposals in the general scheme of the Right to Request Remote Work Bill, on the grounds that they:
— fail to provide that access to flexible work should be the default entitlement and not the exception;
— fail to include a presumption that if work has been done remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic it is reasonably practicable for it to continue to be done remotely; and
— confer a right on employers to refuse the entitlement to work remotely on grounds that are both manifestly unreasonable and unchallengeable; and
calls on the Government, as an immediate priority, to produce or to support radical alternative legislative arrangements which ensure that:
— all workers have a right to request flexible work;
— there is a presumption in favour of flexible work; and
— a reason for refusal relied upon by an employer must be objectively justifiable, appropriate and proportionate.
Nowhere is the innate conservatism of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil more evident than in this Government's approach to the question of flexible work. We were told the pandemic had changed everything, that nothing would ever be the same again, that a new Ireland would emerge from the ashes of the epoch-shaping disrupter that is Covid-19, and that a new deal for working people, taking into account the lessons and experiences of the pandemic and the innovative ways that workers, the State and businesses responded, would be forged. Based on the evidence so far, in the Labour Party's judgment, the Government has failed its very first test. It is a case of back to the future, based on the toothless legislation presented in recent weeks. I genuinely wish we did not have to bring this motion to the floor of the Dáil today and we do so more in sorrow than anger.
For some years now, and well before the pandemic hit, my Labour Party colleagues and I have been debating in this Chamber and writing in the media about the next frontier of workers' rights. Before the 2020 general election, the Labour Party produced a document - Getting Ireland Moving: A Smarter Way to Work. It envisaged new opportunities for remote working, properly regulated within a statutory framework, which would help to cut the commute, bring about a better work-life balance, help our environment, sustain our communities and allow workers and businesses, at the same time, to be more productive and flexible. We also argued for evidence-based ideas around a shorter working week and a right to switch off, making the point that, far from liberating us from work, the devices we constantly have in our hands mean we are always on. Technology should work for us. Instead, it can and does enslave us.
The gains that workers, unions and the Labour Party have extracted over the past century and more are in danger of being lost as new ways of working take hold. The notion of the traditional employment model is fraying at the edges. We are not Luddites; we are progressives. Ireland and Irish-based firms are at the cutting edge of innovation and the 9 to 5 job does not suit everyone. The idea of a job for life spooks some. Society has changed, as have the expectations of workers and citizens, which is often no bad thing.
The ideas we have posited for years now were previously dismissed as the musings of lunatics and it was said we were seeking some kind of utopia, but then, two years ago this month came the lockdown. Overnight, hundreds of thousands of commuters set up shop at the kitchen table or the box room. There was an overnight revolution. Employees in companies, the Civil Service and public service who could work from home adapted and, by and large, did so very well. Flexible and remote work issues became the issue du jour and a mainstream real-world issue. Workers showed themselves to be as productive, if not more so, when working from home or working remotely from a hub. Citizens reported better balance in their lives, the Environmental Protection Agency reported fewer carbon emissions, workers were less stressed and those with caring responsibilities liked what they saw.
Remote working works and it works for everyone. What is more, the demand is there. In Ireland, the demand for remote working is among the highest in the OECD. Of those in employment who can work remotely, 88% of those who answered a recent Indeed survey said they would like to do so when all the pandemic restrictions are removed. I ask the Minister of State to consider that searches for jobs in Ireland permitting remote work were six times higher in December 2021 than they were before the pandemic. That speaks for itself. Employers I speak to daily, including those in large multinational corporations in my constituency and elsewhere, now tell me it is employers who provide structured, remote working opportunities who will win the war for talent in what is, as we know, a very tight labour market.
Yesterday, we celebrated International Women's Day. Too often, women in Ireland have been forced to choose between a family and career, which is simply not on. The under-representation of women in the labour force is a social travesty and a massive economic and fiscal problem. Greater access to the labour market for all citizens is crucial to our productivity and our overall economic and social success. Without the right to flexible work and the provision of affordable, universal public childcare, we are shamefully writing too many talented hard-working women out of our labour force. These figures do not lie. Over the two years that spanned the first phase of the pandemic, 2020 and 2021, full-time female employment increased by 7% or 56,000, while part-time female employment rose by 10% or 34,000. Almost 90,000 women were able to enter the workforce at a time when many citizens were losing their jobs. Many of these women were attracted into the labour force by the working from home arrangements forced on companies by the pandemic, which allowed women to balance their work with other responsibilities. If the Government's so-called right to request legislation goes unamended, once again, many of these women will in effect be forced out of the workforce. In a poll conducted recently by Ireland Thinks on behalf of the Labour Party, 81% of women surveyed believe workers should have a right to flexible work. Let us be in no doubt that the issue of remote work is a gender issue and it needs to be accepted as such by the Government.
I simply could not believe what I read when I saw the draft heads of the Bill from the Tánaiste that were published recently. It was, frankly, bizarre and quite extraordinary. No lessons whatsoever had been learned from the pandemic. The Government tries to sell this legislation as a right to request remote working framework. It is nothing of the sort. In fact, it is a charter for refusal. It is toothless and anaemic and it should be scrapped.
What made it worse was that this legislation came at around the same time as thousands of my constituents were dragged back into city centre offices. They were instructed to go back to the office at a time when the cost of filling the car went stratospheric.
Almost in the same week, the National Transport Authority responded to me saying it had decided now was not the time and it could not proceed with the promised flexible taxsaver ticket that would respond to the needs of workers in the situation in which we are at present.
Commuters who have successfully worked from home for two years told me that they felt absolutely cheated on so many fronts. The gains and the progress made over the past two years counted for nothing. The draft legislation the Government produced says, in effect, that you could ask to work remotely but you boss could tell you to go and whistle. You would have no right to challenge the grounds for refusal. That is, frankly, bizarre.
This proposed legislation was even more favourable to the unenlightened employer than the laws proposed by the Tory Party. That is an objective fact and legal academics have made that very point. Central to the success of a balanced legislative solution should be the idea that the recorded experience over the past two years should be considered when a request to work remotely is to be made.
With my own experience in this field, I know the concept of a defined reference period in employment rights legislation is well established. I want refer in particular to legislation that was recently passed in these Houses, the Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2018. It is a prime example. This was the culmination of a process the Labour Party initiated in 2014 to better regulate low- and uncertain-hours contracts. A key feature of this legislation is the averaging out of hours worked over a period of 12 months to establish which band of hours in which a person ought to be placed when his or her contract is being considered. This works very well. I say this for the reason that this approach also needs to be adopted in the context of the legislative and regulatory approach to flexible work, where a proven ability to work successfully from home over the past two years must inform this process. Without the consideration of those kinds of elements in a Bill, it will simply be toothless and will not work.
The gains from the past two years cannot be squandered. The Government would be better off giving this, frankly useless, Bill a decent burial, accepting this motion and the principles that inform it and adopting the draft legislation from my colleague, Senator Sherlock, if the Government is serious about making remote working work for everyone. As much as the Government seems to want it, the clock simply cannot be wound back to 2019. The people and many good employers have moved on.