Last week, Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar, TD, published Ireland’s first National Remote Work Strategy. Among other steps towards more flexible working options in Ireland, it promised a legal code of practice on the right to disconnect.
Rolling out the right to disconnect would keep employees from doing work-related tasks, such as phone calls and emails, outside of working hours. They would also be protected from criticism, discrimination and dismissal from their employer on the grounds of ‘switching off’ at the end of the day.
Though the pandemic has accelerated their implementation, more flexible working policies have been on the cards for some time now. As 2019 came to an end, the right to disconnect was included in a public consultation on the future of work in Ireland. Almost exactly a year later, Varadkar announced another public consultation – this time with greater focus on the right to disconnect.
While the right to disconnect is an important issue for workers regardless of location, working from home in line with Government restrictions has pushed it to the forefront. Now, MEPs have agreed that disconnecting from work should be a fundamental right across the EU.
Right to disconnect in the EU
Having adopted a resolution on the issue late last year, members of Parliament passed legislation on the right to digitally disconnect from work yesterday (21 January). A total of 472 votes were in favour of the initiative, while 126 were against and 83 abstained.
MEPs also called on the European Commission to set minimum requirements for remote working. This should include clarification of working conditions, hours and rest periods, they said.
Since the pandemic began, working from home has increased by almost 30pc, according to Parliament. It cited a Eurofound finding that claims people who work from home are twice as likely as those on company premises to work more than 48 hours every week. This always-on culture negatively impacts work-life balance, MEPs added, and can contribute to anxiety, burnout, depression and more.
Alex Agius Saliba, MEP from the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, commented: “We cannot abandon millions of European workers who are exhausted by the pressure to be always on and overly long working hours.
“Now is the moment to stand by their side and give them what they deserve: the right to disconnect. This is vital for our mental and physical health. It is time to update workers’ rights so that they correspond to the new realities of the digital age.”
Gender equality for remote workers
Disconnecting wasn’t the only workers’ right discussed by MEPs yesterday. They also presented a report on improving gender equality and protecting women’s rights, which received 485 votes in favour, 86 against and 108 abstentations.
Parliament argued that the pandemic has hit women harder than it has men. Working from home has given rise to greater levels of domestic violence, MEPs said. They are urging member states to “establish safe and flexible emergency warning systems” for women and to make violence against women a criminal offence in the EU.
Women will also be disproportionately affected by the economic crisis on the back of the pandemic, the report said, leading to “even greater inequalities between men and women”. It added that countries must set out targeted actions for gender equality to address this in national recovery plans.
Finally, Parliament highlighted the added burden of childcare for some women as they work from home. It emphasised that working from home is not a substitute for childcare and that governments should “encourage men, through incentive measures, to take up flexible working as a disproportionate number of women are now making use of these arrangements”.
Right to disconnect: Next steps
Announcing the new remote working strategy for Ireland earlier this month, Varadkar said that it “has to be done right” and that “employment rights need to be updated”.
“Many people will want to continue on to do at least some remote working after the pandemic, and it’s really important that we protect the rights and entitlements of those workers so that they can still switch off from work,” he said.
“That is why we have included the right to disconnect piece. We want to put in place the structures which ensure we take advantage of the benefits of remote working and protect against the downsides.”
While Bloomberg believes it could be years before the European Commission rolls out a right to disconnect, Varadkar said that a new group will meet every four months to monitor its implementation – along with the rest of the remote working strategy – here in Ireland.
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