Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Questions (44)

Pat Deering

Question:

44. Deputy Pat Deering asked the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation the work she is carrying out in respect of the right to disconnect; if she will consider the development of guidelines for employers and employees in the area; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [50130/19]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Business)

The new era of modern working environments has led to great changes in recent years. New communications and other technologies have caused the boundaries between work life and home life to be increasingly blurred. New digital tools mean that work life has changed greatly for employees and employers. There is, however, an absence of limits in this area. I would like to know what the Minister and her Department are doing with regard to a right to disconnect. Will she consider the development of guidelines for employers and employees in this area?

I thank Deputy Deering for raising this matter. As Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, I understand the growing importance of promoting a good work-life balance for employees as new ways of working emerge. This is addressed under pillar 4 of our Future Jobs Ireland strategy. Pillar 4 is focused on increasing participation in the labour force as this will lead to the more equitable, balanced and sustainable development of Ireland’s economy.

Ambition 4.2 under pillar 4 aims to foster participation through flexible working solutions. This includes several deliverables aimed at promoting flexible working. I refer, for example, to the production of guidelines for employers on flexible and family-friendly working options. 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 work-life balance. It also provides solutions for those who would otherwise take unpaid parental leave but cannot afford to do so.

A key deliverable under this ambition is the completion of research on remote working. My Department is leading on this research, which will focus on understanding the prevalence and the types of remote working arrangements within the Irish workforce and the attitudes towards such arrangements. The research will identify the influencing factors for both employers and employees partaking in remote working. The final report will also include an international policy review which will consider related policy developments abroad, such as the right to disconnect. This will help to inform future policy on remote work. The final report will be published shortly.

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.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997, which covers such matters, falls under the policy remit of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. I have, therefore, discussed this matter with my colleague, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, in the context of developing Future Jobs 2020.

I thank the Minister for that comprehensive reply. As she rightly states, we are in a different era now. We have continuous access to our phones and emails. We also have many means of communication. People in flexible working environments are now contactable 24 hours a day. The job can be brought home by the employees and they can be expected to work when they are at home as well, whether it is Sunday or Monday and 7 p.m. or 10 p.m. As politicians, we all know that experience. We regularly receive emails from people at 10 p.m, midnight or even 1 a. m. We have, unfortunately, created an expectation, in these Houses and outside, of instant replies to emails. I welcome the Minister's commitment in respect of guidelines. It is important that definite guidelines are laid down in order to ensure that pressure is not put on people to work at home. It is important that people enjoy a balanced lifestyle. To get the full benefit, employees have to be treated in a fair and equitable way.

Being able to switch off from work is already an issue and it is going to become more of an issue in the years to come. Our phones are causing these problems. Phones allow us to be contacted by phone or to email 24-7, and that means people are always on. It is not like long ago, when people left work and went home at 6 p.m. Some of us probably remember when there were no computers at home, so there was no need to worry them until going back into work the next morning at 9 a.m. There is now a sense of always being on and of never being able to switch off and enjoy time with one's family. That is impacting on people's lives. It is not good for work-life balance and the problem will only become worse in the future because of the impact of technology. Things are only going in one direction.

When I met representatives of the Financial Services Union a few weeks ago, they told me that this is a big issue in the financial services sector. The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation is putting together a report on remote working. As part of that process, we are looking at what is happening in other countries. The report will look at how the right to disconnect has worked in France. My own view is that the legislation might not be the way to go. We must remember that one size will not fit all. We have to consult. I know the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, is consulting some of the employer organisations.

The Minister said in her original reply that she is in favour of guidelines. Will she give us an indication of the potential timeline for some of these guidelines being introduced after this report is completed? It is important for the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation to take a leading role in this matter. As the Minister has rightly identified, the phone is the greatest enemy of employees and employers at the moment. I made this point a few minutes ago. Will the Minister give us an indication of the timelines that will be involved in the possible introduction of guidelines?

I have spoken to the Minister, Deputy Doherty. The Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 falls under her remit. She has agreed that we need to examine this area. She is consulting representative bodies like IBEC and ICTU to get their views. I hope that by consulting and hearing different views, we will be able to come up with some sensible guidelines to help everyone. Some businesses that are doing this might not realise the stress it is causing to some workers. I have got a few messages about it. Some workers have been affected. We do not want them to feel bullied or pressurised into taking calls or reading emails. We will deal with this as part of the Future Jobs Ireland initiative.