A Government plan to allow workers to request the right to work from home is “fatally flawed”, an Oireachtas committee has heard.
The Enterprise, Trade and Employment Committee heard conflicting views on the draft remote working legislation, a flagship project of Tanaiste Leo Varadkar.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) condemned it as largely toothless and “stacked in favour of the employer at every turn”, while employers’ group Ibec portrayed it as a cumbersome piece of legislation that would impose drastic new obligations on businesses.
The Bill, which the Government says would allow workers to request the right to work from home, is currently being scrutinised by TDs and senators.
During the committee meeting on Wednesday, attended remotely by representatives from Ictu and Ibec, it was stressed that remote working is one of the few good things to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, some politicians raised serious concerns about the drafting of the legislation.
Sinn Fein TD Louise O’Reilly said: “The legislation, in its current format, wouldn’t work for anybody. It’s literally a tick box for employers.”
That sentiment was shared by Ibec and Ictu, but for dramatically different reasons.
Maeve McElwee, director of employer relations at Ibec, stressed that, while the group is not opposed to remote working, the Bill raises “complex considerations” and the threat of a “significant cost impact”.
She said it would be “reasonable to expect that employees who request to work remotely can identify a suitable and secure work area which, where necessary, is not too far from an employer’s on-site location”.
“The obligation to ensure a proper and safe place of work, ensuring data security, confidentiality and the protection of intellectual property at a place of work are paramount considerations for employers,” she said. “They must be permitted to refuse requests for remote working where there are concerns relating to these issues.”
The proposed legislation, she added, has taken a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
And she warned it could lead to “absurd situations”, giving the example of a small cafe being forced to have a remote working policy that could never in fact be realised.
Ictu general secretary Patricia King offered a polar opposite perspective on the Bill’s provisions.
“Some people are mixing and confusing it with the right to remote working. I wish we were talking about the right to remote working. We’re not. We’re talking about the right to request remote working,” she said during the committee.
“The draft Bill is stacked in favour of the employer at every turn and is fatally flawed in key parts.”
She warned that employers, under current provisions, can “refuse a request on any grounds they choose that relates to the business, including a mere assertion that remote working is not suitable to the needs of the business”.
And while both sides were united in bemoaning the lack of consultation on the proposed legislation, they offered opposing views on the scale of the problems raised by remote working.
Ms McElwee at one stage offered the example of data privacy issues raised by people working from home and living with friends or flatmates.
“Who do you share your home with? Where or when do you lock away this information? Do they also have rights to work remotely? And if you work for one of the big legal houses, and your colleague or the person you share your apartment, your home with, work for our biggest competitor, how is our data secure? How are conversations not overheard? How do I know you haven’t left a document on the table inadvertently?”
Ms King hit back at that example, saying that some of those issues will arise “whether you work from home or not”.
“If you’re a professional working in a legal company, and you have to have papers read for the next morning and you take them home with you to read them at night, you could leave them on a table. You wouldn’t have to be working from home to have breaches of confidentiality.”
Some of the committee members also displayed a degree of scepticism towards the objections from Ibec.
Fine Gael TD Richard Bruton probed some of the objections from employers, adding that it is “disappointing” to hear the two sides so far apart.
“We shouldn’t be putting up ab initio arguments against this when we’re already two years into using this in many workplaces,” he said.
Labour senator Marie Sherlock also questioned whether it is realistic to believe that employers have left serious issues unaddressed for the past two years.
“Are you really suggesting that employers are only beginning to grapple with these issues now?” she asked.
Pointing to the concerns about data security, she said: “I find it hard to believe that employers have allowed a Wild West with regards to digital security systems in place for their workers working remotely.”
Ms McElwee denied this is a retrospective rejection.
“We’re not saying these are issues that haven’t been dealt with over the past two years,” she said.
“In fact, we’ve been saying this for at least two years.
“And we were saying it pre-pandemic as we were looking at more organisations moving to remote working, but they are big challenges to grapple with.
“What I’m saying is that, when we talk about the scale and the fact that we have recognised that it’s possible, I’m saying some of it is possible.
“Some of it will absolutely remain longer term.
“A lot of it would not have been as facilitated and would not have been done with the blessing of employers in the absence of the public health guidance and advice.
However, a suggestion for a middle-ground approach in the form of a code of practice was knocked back by Ms King, while being welcomed by Ibec.
“I know that codes of practice, even with statutory provisions, are just that,” Ms King said.