Workers must be given a right to do their jobs from home, Labour has demanded as it piled pressure on the government not to let its consultation on flexible working be kicked into the long grass.
In the first major announcement made by Angela Rayner since gaining the portfolio of shadow cabinet minister for the future of work, she said employers should not be able to “dictate terms” to staff when the guidance urging people to work from home is expected to be lifted next month.
A right to disconnect, meaning workers would have a reasonable expectation of not having to work or check calls and emails outside their normal hours, is also being supported by Labour, to ensure homes do not become round-the-clock offices.
The announcement comes as attention turns to how to hold on to some of the positive benefits experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic, which for some have included home working – saving time and money on commuting and being able to spend longer with their families.
Ministers have promised to introduce an employment bill to upgrade workers’ rights and help give people a better work-life balance, and the government has launched a consultation on giving workers a right to ask for flexible working.
But some critics fear the right to request more flexible working conditions – such as working from home, or starting earlier or later – will be too easily turned down by employers and fail to meaningfully improve the situation.
Labour has gone further, and said the right to flexible working should be guaranteed and negotiated by trade unions or elected staff representatives, given Downing Street this week said the government had no plans to introduce a right to work from home.
Over the summer, it is also expected to announce detailed plans for how small and medium-sized business should be helped to adapt to flexible working practices, along with support for more rights to protect workers from remote surveillance.
Rayner said: “As restrictions lift and we adjust to a ‘new normal’, we need a new deal for working people. As a starting point, this must mean the right to flexible working – not just the right to ask for flexibility – and a duty on employers to accommodate this unless there is a reason a certain job can’t be done flexibly.
“It is clear that the government won’t act to strengthen rights for working people, and we cannot have a drawn-out consultation process that simply kicks this urgent issue into the long grass, leaving workers in a vulnerable position and allowing employers to dictate terms to their staff.”
Andrew Pakes, deputy general secretary of the Prospect union, said: “Labour is right to focus on how we ensure flexible working works for workers, including on the right for a digital switch-off from work.
“While digital technology has kept us connected over the last year, coupled with pandemic working patterns and an increase in working from home, it has left many people struggling to switch off.”
The right to disconnect has been shown to have strong cross-party support, with a recent poll finding 65% of Labour and 53% of Conservative voters backed the policy.
A government spokesperson said: “The 2019 manifesto contains a clear commitment to consulting on making flexible working the default, unless employers have good reasons not to. Ensuring workers have a work-life balance is extremely important, and we have reconvened the Flexible Working Taskforce to better understand and promote flexible working.”