Government 'pandering' to business and 'failing to lead' on remote working

Government 'pandering' to business and 'failing to lead' on remote working

Public servants were subject to a work-from-home order throughout the pandemic. File picture: Joe Giddens/PA

The president of Ireland’s largest public sector union has accused the Government of "pandering" to business interests and “failing to lead” on the issue of remote working.

Michael Smyth, president of Forsa, told delegates at the union’s conference in Kerry on Wednesday that the Government has chosen to ignore the remote working revolution brought about by the Covid pandemic and instead “simply looked to return to old and outmoded ways of thinking”.

Mr Smyth was referring to the Government’s Right to Request Remote Working bill, currently before the Oireachtas, which lists 13 reasons under which an employer can refuse such a request.

He said the bill is “designed to enable an employer’s right to refuse remote work rather than a worker’s right to request it”, something he suggested amounts to “a spectacular own-goal after two years of a revolutionary real-world experience”.

The Government, he said, had shown itself as “prepared to pander to every employer sensitivity and stereotype, no matter how baseless, falling back on old and outmoded ways of thinking about the relationship between employers and workers”.

Mr Smyth told the conference that the move to remote working necessitated by the impact of Covid-19 in early 2020 represented a “seismic revolution in the world of work”.

He said the “normalisation” of remote working would deliver benefits for workers and employers alike, and would also make a “significant contribution” to climate action, as well as urban and rural development.

Quoting Financial Times journalist Sarah O’Connor, Mr Smyth said the pandemic “has made a new world of work possible”.

“Let’s not go back to a past which wasn’t working anyway,” he said. “Why would we mindlessly return to clogging the roads between commuter towns and Irish cities with thousands upon thousands of private cars?” he said, adding that the traditional suburban working commute “is an outmoded pattern of work inherited from the last century” from which “technology and innovation liberated us”.

Public servants were subject to a work-from-home order throughout the pandemic, while the Government’s remote working strategy published last year included a commitment that 20% of all public service jobs would be worked remotely in future.

However, Mr Smyth said that the union considers that commitment “a floor rather than a ceiling”.

He also stressed the “radical and innovative potential” of a possible four-day working week, adding that the most significant of workplace innovations sometimes “occur through unforeseen interventions”, such as the creation of the eight-hour working day in 1919, first introduced to ensure the availability of employment for those returning from the battlefields of World War I.

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