The regulation of working hours is one of the trade union movement's earliest and most far-reaching achievements.
Borne out of the long hours toiled by workers, including children, in the factories and mills of industrial Britain, our struggle from Robert Owen's 1817 short-time movement slowly became the accepted norm and then the law from 1997, to the benefit of generations of working people.
In recent years, however, the working day has come under threat on two fronts from an always-on work culture. Smartphone technology is blurring the boundaries between work and home life by making workers easily accessible outside of their workday and exposing them to longer working hours. Without clear guidance from their employer on the right to switch off in their free time, workers feel pressured to answer work-related calls, emails and other electronic messages.
When the occasional intrusion from our digital devices during non-work hours becomes constant, it is an issue for concern. An overtired worker is a danger to themselves and others.
In the absence of a legal 'right to disconnect', as in French employment law, it is essential that employers engage with workers through their trade unions in order to secure pragmatic collective agreements at a company level which achieve a balance between the rights of workers to adequate rest time and the need for flexibility to ensure the continued success of the business.
Another phenomenon chipping away at the working day is the creeping precariousness of work. Zero-hour and low-hour contracts give employers complete discretion over working hours.
Workers must make themselves available for work at their boss's request. They are effectively on call constantly. Unscrupulous employers use the threat of reduced hours to keep their staff servile and to punish them for being unavailable, even at short notice.
Unpredictable working hours and insecure income make it next to impossible for workers to organise childcare, to plan ahead and to budget their household expenses.
We know of workers who, despite working a full working week, have been denied bank loans based on the low-hours guaranteed in their contracts.
Uncertainty in working hours creates stress and insecurity in the family life of workers and has no place in a modern, wealthy economy.
Legislation signed by President Michael D Higgins on Christmas Day is an important milestone on the road to addressing this power-imbalance.
From tomorrow, this new law bans zero-hour contracts in almost all circumstances and gives workers in casual and precarious jobs greater certainty around the length of their working week.
The Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2018 is one of the most significant pieces of employment law in 20 years and is the result of a five-year campaign by the trade union movement to get legal protection around working hours for vulnerable workers.
There are four new rights:
1. Workers are entitled to a written statement of their terms of employment within the first five days
The Act legally requires employers to provide workers with a written statement of their main conditions of employment within the first five days of starting work.
The statement must include details of daily and weekly working hours, rate of pay and how pay is calculated.
2. Zero-Hour contracts are banned in almost all circumstances
It had become practice for some employers to employ workers without guaranteeing them a set number of working hours.
Under the Act, employers will no longer be able to use these zero-hour contracts except in very limited circumstances, such as to provide cover in emergency situations or to cover short-term absences.
3. Workers are entitled to a minimum payment if their employer fails to provide them with work
Workers have the right to compensation from their employer if they turn up for work but are sent home without work.
The minimum payment they are entitled to is three hours' pay at the minimum wage rate, or three hours at the JLC rate if they work in a sector where an Employment Regulation Order is in force, such as security or contract cleaning.
4. Workers are entitled to be guaranteed hours of work that reflect their normal working week
Under the Act, if a worker habitually works more hours each week than is provided in their contract, they have the right to request to be placed in a band of weekly hours that better reflects their normal working hours over a 12-month period.
Any worker denied their new rights under this legislation, or victimised for asking for them, should contact a trade union who will assist them to vindicate their rights.
Union contact details can be found on the Irish Congress of Trade Unions website: www.ictu.ie
Patricia King is the general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions