Enhanced rights for employees to disconnect from work
These days, many of us feel lost if we are separated from our phones, tablets or computers – but those same devices are making it harder for us to separate working time from personal time.
James Doyle’s employer has been ahead of the crowd in introducing policies to restrict out of hours contact – a progressive move that he praises, particularly given the additional stress of working from home during the pandemic.
“It’s a struggle when you live, work, eat, sleep and relax all in the same space,” he said. “It becomes very difficult to actually have that break and delineate that time.”
As the technology revolution has eroded boundaries between work and personal time, unions have been campaigning for a framework to limit the extent to which employers can contact employees out of hours.
The new Workplace Relations Commission Code of Practice – published today by the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar – aims to do just that.
The code, which applies to all employees, whether office-based or working from home, doesn’t bar all contact outside normal working hours.
However, employees can refuse to “routinely” work outside their normal hours, and significantly, they cannot be penalised for doing so.
There is also a duty to respect the disconnection rights of others – and both employers and employees have a responsibility to develop local arrangements that work.
While failure to follow the code is not an offence, it will be admissible in evidence in legal proceedings, and can be taken into account in reaching an adjudication.
Launching the code, the Tánaiste said the Government was trying to modernise the workplace.
“This recognises that in the world where everyone has a smartphone and a computer at home, the workplace has changed and people more and more are being required to almost put in extra hours for free from their own bedroom or house – and I want to change that,” said Mr Varadkar.
“We want to make sure that people aren’t expected to work extra hours without remuneration or protection, and this is a big step towards ensuring that,” he added.
He said the Government had held back from putting the Right to Disconnect into law as a statute as it was very hard to write a policy that would suit every workplace – and that based on the Code, employers and employees could sit down at workplace level to develop their own procedures.
However the opposition voiced criticisms.
Sinn Féin Enterprise Trade and Employment Spokesperson Louise O’Reilly argued that the Code of Practice did not confer additional legal rights on workers.
“The establishment of a code of practice is a welcome first step, but if an employer ignores this or breaches it, it is not an offence, and therefore there is no compellability factor,” she said.
Labour Senator Marie Sherlock echoed the criticism that the code, while “a step in the right direction”, does not go so far as to provide a legal right to disconnect, and called for such an entitlement to be enshrined in law.
Employer groups also welcomed the code, citing in particular its flexibility in permitting employers and employees to develop policies appropriate for individual workplaces, rather than a “one size fits all” prescriptive formula enshrined in more legislation.
“Ireland remains an open economy and many of our employers, whether large multinationals or small indigenous businesses, no longer operate on a strict 9 to 5 basis, but across different time zones and responsive to their customer needs,” said Ibec Director of Employer Relations Maeve McElwee.
The Director of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development Ireland Mary Connaughton welcomed the fact that the policy has to be developed at company level and allows for flexibility within companies to meet their own operational environment.
Unions too voiced support.
Irish Congress of Trade Unions General Secretary Patricia King noted that existing checks on excessive working had become “increasingly strained” by advances in communications technology, an always on culture and the boom in remote working.
“Protections must keep pace with modern ways of working if workers’ hard-won rights are to be preserved,” she said.
However, employment lawyer Richard Grogan claimed elements of the Code of Practice could contradict existing legislation.
A spokesperson for the Tánaiste defended the code, insisting that there had been no changes to existing legislation, and that it had been put in place to help employees better understand their rights.
It remains to be seen how effective this Code of Practice will be in reducing the encroachment of work into private life.