Lockdown has forced organisations to re-think working habits, with remote working fast becoming the norm. As a result, several European countries have introduced new legislation to ensure that those faced with homeworking are protected. Spain, for example, has been mulling over new laws to ensure equal career opportunities and working conditions for remote workers, Germany has proposed an Act to give employees the right to work from home and France has had regulatory laws for home working since 2017. As the UK enters a second form of lockdown, the need to assess the current rights afforded to homeworkers in the UK seems ever more pressing.
What’s Already Covered and What are the Considerations Going Forward?
So far, the UK’s employment legislation does not specifically cover remote workers. It does, however, offer some of the same protections enjoyed by those working from offices, including entitlements to work breaks, protections in respect of working on average over 48 hours per week, sick pay, holiday leave entitlements and protections against unfair dismissal. The duty of care to provide a safe working environment, which all employers have, is equally applicable to home workspaces and employers should be assessing the safety and suitability of their staff’s homes accordingly.
However, currently in the UK there is no explicit right for employees to work from home. Employees can make a request to work from home which will need to be considered, but there is no requirement to accept any such request, even in the current health crisis.
In addition, there is no specific law requiring employers to treat employees working from home in an equal way to those working from an office. There are laws that prevent the discrimination of employees on the basis of certain characteristics, known as ‘protected characteristics’, comprising gender, sexual orientation, religion and age, amongst others and also laws that require part time workers to be treated no less favourably than comparable full time workers. Such legislation ensures that potentially disadvantaged employees are paid fairly and receive equal treatment. However, currently there are no similar protections specifically for remote workers. In theory, an employer can pay a remote worker a lower salary than comparable staff members and there may be not be any direct remedy. It is also a well-known fact that remote workers are less likely to be promoted than other employees.
Therefore, new laws could help to clarify the issues of equal pay and equal career advancement opportunities for remote workers as well as stronger rights to request remote working.
Can We Expect Any Imminent Changes?
To date, not much with regards to passing new laws has been officially discussed. The Queen’s speech in December 2019 announced a plan for an employment bill which would support flexible working, but this has yet to be presented to parliament. Additionally, pre-COVID, the Conservatives 2019 manifesto laid out plans to enshrine the right to work from home in law. This was reiterated back in July, when Health Secretary Matt Hancock stated that the government may consider making working from home a mandatory option which all employers should offer to their employees.
It is unlikely that such legislation will be debated and passed by Parliament in the short term – especially with the ever-looming date for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and the ongoing health crisis. However, it is likely to be visited more seriously in the long term, since legislation to ensure the equal treatment and pay for people working remotely will become increasingly necessary following the uptick in remote working. In any case, unless the government asserts various powers to pass legislation with minimal parliamentary input, a new Bill would be subject to various readings and consultations before it could be passed as an Act.
What Can Employers Do Now?
If you are an employer, you may want to seek out the advice of an experienced employment solicitor for guidance on next steps whilst the dust of COVID-19 and Brexit settles. This can include:
- Addressing health and safety issues to ensure that your ‘duty of care’ to remote working employees is met.
- Reviewing (and potentially amending) existing employment contracts to deal with homeworking issues.
- Reviewing current policies on flexible working requests, making appropriate changes where necessary to reflect the current situation.
- Devising effective homeworking policies to maintain ensure staff productivity in their day to day work during these times.
Our employment team is on hand to provide specialist advice in these areas and to bring you up-to-date with the latest developments in employment law.