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Workers will have the right to take a case to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) if their employer ignores their request for flexible working under a new bill.

The bill, which is currently going through the Dáil, will give every worker with children under the age of 12 the right to request a variety of flexible working options. These include job sharing, remote working, delayed starting times and “compressed hours”, where a worker does the same hours over a shorter number of days.

The Department of Children has confirmed to the Business Post that workers would have the right to appeal if their employer fails to deal with their flexible working request properly.

Under the bill, employers must respond to a request within four weeks and either approve it or reject it with a written statement of reasons. They can seek a further four weeks if a request is difficult for them to assess. If they do not comply with these requirements, their employee has a right to go to the WRC.

A similar provision is in place in the proposed bill to allow workers to request a right to remote working. This has been criticised by unions which claim that workers should be able to take a WRC case if their request is refused, rather than only if it is ignored.

Karen O’Reilly, the founder of Employflex, which specialises in finding flexible roles for workers, said that her company was getting phone calls every week from people who were “in tears” about being forced out of the workplace due to a lack of flexible working arrangements. But she said the labour shortage was changing company attitudes.

“Companies are coming around to the idea that if they offer flexible work they will have access to a greater pool of talented people out there who would do a fantastic job for 30 hours, but just can’t, for whatever reasons, work for 40 hours.”

She said she hoped employers would embrace the true spirit of the new work-life balance bill. “It is only a right to request flexible work, and there are many reasons why a company or an organisation can refuse it.”

The government was due to have the system in place by last August to comply with the EU’s work-life balance directive. However a spokeswoman for the Department of Children said it had not been possible to get the bill into the Dáil until now due to the “significant volume of current legislative work”, and the importance of correctly transposing the directive.

The joint Oireachtas committee on children had recommended that all workers, and not just those with children under 12, should have a “statutory right to reasonable access to flexible working”, but this did not make it into the bill.

The spokeswoman for the Department of Children said the bill was aimed at implementing the flexible working arrangements in the EU directive. “The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is progressing legislation to provide a general right to request remote working to all employees,” she said.

The work-life balance bill will also allow mothers to take breastfeeding breaks of up to one hour per day for the first two years of their child’s life. Previously, this was restricted to the first six months of a child’s life, meaning that many mothers had no entitlement to breastfeeding breaks once they returned from their maternity leave.

The government is also going to amend the bill to allow victims of domestic violence to take up to five days of paid leave from work. Both Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Roderic O’Gorman, the Minister for Children, have said workers will not be required to provide any proof of domestic violence to their employer.

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