The ‘Programme for Government – Our Shared Future’ (Programme) outlines the ambitions of the new three-way coalition government. The Programme contains policies and initiatives intended to help the economy recover from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. We examine the potential implications of these proposals for employers and employees in Ireland and examine those policies that may change the “normal” world of work as we have known it. We will be monitoring the government’s progress rolling out the Programme in our new article series The Future of How Ireland Works. We will stress-test current Irish employment law and consider how it may need to adapt to meet the changing needs of employers and employees alike, as the traditional workplace continues to evolve.
Economic Recovery from the COVID-19 Pandemic
The Programme focuses on a ‘jobs-led recovery’ which aims to get people back into the workforce as quickly as possible. The aim is to create 200,000 new jobs by 2025 and to help those affected by the pandemic to get back to work. There are two key limbs to this plan to aid recovery:
- The July Jobs Stimulus package; and
- The National Economic Plan.
The July Jobs Stimulus
The July Jobs Stimulus package (Package) was recently published by the government. Two fundamental aspects of the Package are the reforms to the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme and the Pandemic Unemployment Payment, both of which have played critical roles in sustaining incomes through the worst stages of the COVID-19 crisis. We previously reviewed the Package and reported on key points for employers at our recent article here.
The National Economic Plan
The details of the National Economic Plan (Plan) are expected to be announced on the same day as Budget 2021 and will chart the course for the longer-term jobs-led recovery. The COVID-19 crisis has already heralded the introduction of a suite of emergency measures but from now on, the government will focus on long-term measures to return employees to employment in a sustainable manner.
Much like in the Package, the government is committed to supporting, through reskilling and training programmes, people who have lost their jobs to return to the workforce as soon as. These education, training and reskilling programmes will help workers in sectors unlikely to return to full capacity in the next year to avail of opportunities in other more sustainable sectors.
An updated apprenticeship action plan will be published which will restructure, fund and promote apprenticeships. There will be targets to promote apprenticeships undertaken by women, people with disabilities and disadvantaged groups.
The Way We Work
The way we work continues to evolve as technology advances. However, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, resulting lockdown, and phased but cautious return to the workplace has served as a catalyst for a re-evaluation of how employers and employees regard the concept of remote and flexible working. The sudden movement away from traditional ways of working necessitated by the immediate urgency of the pandemic in March 2020 has not gone unnoticed by the newly formed government, that has addressed remote working and the right to disconnect in the Programme.
Remote Working – Here to Stay?
During the pandemic, many sectors switched to working from home. Indeed, government and public health guidance require all employees to work from home where possible. There are green shoots in the Programme that suggest that this move towards remote working may be here to stay.
In summary, in the Programme the government has committed to:
- developing a remote working policy to facilitate employees working from home or from ‘co-working’ spaces in rural areas;
- mandating public sector bodies (including colleges) to move to 20% remote working in 2021;
- accelerating the rollout of the National Broadband Plan. High speed and reliable internet connection will be essential in ensuring that those who wish to work from home, especially those in rural communities, will have the infrastructure to enable them to do so; and
- examining the feasibility of changing the tax regime to encourage more people to work from home.
The Right to Disconnect
Even before the ongoing pandemic, the traditional concept of structured “9 to 5” working hours has been gradually giving way to the more fluid models of remote working and more flexible working arrangements. In today’s global economy, many employers are engaging with employees across multiple time-zones and conference calls are routinely set up outside of core hours to facilitate all participants. With this in mind, the need to ensure a work-life balance and minimise the plague of the “perpetual plug in” in today’s “digital workplace” is evident.
In December 2019, the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation published a report on Remote Work in Ireland- Future Jobs 2019, which acknowledged that the right to disconnect is an important issue that needs to be addressed as more people take advantage of remote working opportunities. The Report also acknowledged that “employers would benefit from increased clarity and support in balancing their employees’ right to privacy and the practical elements of performance measurement and monitoring working hours”.
The Financial Services Union (FSU) has been calling for the introduction of new legislation which would give workers the right to ‘switch off’ and not engage in work activity (including answering phone calls or emails) outside of paid working hours. Allied Irish Banks plc has recently become the first employer to agree a ‘right to disconnect’ policy for their workers with the FSU.
This debate around the right to disconnect has gained considerable traction in recent months in light of the ongoing pandemic. More and more employees are working remotely, some for the first time, and the question of how to “draw the line” between “working from home” versus “living at work” is firmly on the board agenda. In May 2020, The Irish Times reported on a LinkedIn study highlighting that Irish workers were putting in an average of 38 hours extra work per month during pandemic-led remote working.
As part of a commitment to improving work-life balance, the government will bring forward proposals on a right to disconnect in 2020. The Workplace Relations Commission will be brought onboard to draw up a code in this area.
Greater Access to Employment Opportunities for Those with Disabilities
Another key take-away from the Programme is the government’s pledge to offer increased supports, incentives and training to allow for greater opportunities for those with disabilities to remain in the workforce.
The Programme commits to promoting an awareness and support programme for employers, which would support recruitment and retention of staff with disabilities. Initiatives will be introduced to improve employment opportunities in rural areas for those with disabilities, including through the provision of remote working opportunities.
Increased State Support
Some State supports for those with disabilities will be improved. For example, employment schemes such as the Wage Subsidy Scheme and the Ability Programme will be fine-tuned and expanded to help more people with disabilities remain in the workforce. The Programme further commits to fast-tracking the return to Disability or Invalidity Pension for people where employment opportunities do not succeed.
There will be an audit of equity access to further education and training for those with disabilities.
The government’s three pronged approach, comprising the Package, the Plan and the Programme, includes a number of short-term quick fixes in addition to a commitment to wider and deeper reform of how we work and how employers and employees can work effectively in an evolved workplace without entirely sacrificing their work-life balance.
We will be following the government’s implementation of the Programme in the coming months and years and will consider what the future in Ireland can and might look like in our new article series The Future of How Ireland Works. This article is Part 1 in this series.
Contributed by Elaine Egan, Darran Brennan