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New legislation to reflect permanent shift in working patterns required, say Alliance MLAs

Alliance Economy spokesperson Stewart Dickson MLA and Infrastructure and Finance spokesperson Andrew Muir MLA have called on Stormont Ministers to consider major new legislation in response to changes in working patterns that have been accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whilst key workers have continued to keep commuting, the number of people working from home in Northern Ireland has surged since lockdown restrictions were put in place by the Executive in March, with many employees and employers seeing major productivity and other benefits from the new arrangements.

Challenges have also emerged, such as ensuring that employees are able to switch-off from work outside of working hours, and adapting public transport to meet changing commuter habits.

Andrew Muir MLA has now questioned the Minister for the Economy directly, asking her to bring forward remote working legislation, setting out the legal rights for employees to work from home, to sit alongside existing flexible working legislation.

He said: “While some people in Northern Ireland can’t wait to get back to the office, for others working from home allows them to be much more productive, while at the same time saving them from lengthy commutes to and from their place of work. It has been proven that remote working can work for both employees and employers, and the Minister should legislate so that all workers have the right to request these arrangements where they are practical.

“We also need provisions to ensure that the health and safety of people’s remote working setups are suitable, as many people don’t have much space to work in.

“As remote and flexible working become more common, our public transport providers will need to adapt to reflect passenger preferences in terms of journey times and frequency. The availability of contactless ticketing, multi-day tickets plus shoulder and off-peak pricing all need to be progressed to ensure that public transport continues to be a viable option for those traveling to work, even if it’s not every day.

“With 52 percent of the 21.5k people employed by the NI Civil Service now working from home, it’s also incumbent upon the Finance Minister to bring forward remote working plans for the medium and long term that meets needs to deliver Public Services and safeguards welfare of Civil Servants.”

Mr Dickson added there was also a need for the Minister to consider “right to disconnect” legislation, allowing employees the fight not to respond to work communications outside of agreed hours.

Mr Dickson, who has been working from home while shielding throughout the COVID pandemic, added: “as more people work from home, it is ever more important that people can have a clear separation between their work and personal lives. A right-to-disconnect in Northern Ireland would protect employee’s ability to switch-off, which is a crucial element of good mental-health."