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27th Feb 2024

EU workers' 'right to disconnect' likely delayed after talks fail

  • In a typical working week, 80 percent of employees surveyed receive work-related communications outside working hours (Photo: Unsplash)
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The possibility of a directive on the right for EU workers to disconnect from work is now a long shot to become a reality before the end of this European term in 2024.

Three years ago, the European Parliament called on the EU Commission to propose a law on the so-called 'right to disconnect' in order to clearly define the boundaries between work and free time in the online age.

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  • EU commissioner for jobs and social rights Nicholas Schmit. Before Covid, only five percent of people regularly worked from home. Now it is 24 percent. (Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service)

The EU executive then paused its legislative process to allow the social partners [ie representatives of workers and employers] to negotiate a text at cross-industry level — but these talks recently broke down and the ball is now back in the commission's court.

"Long negotiations have taken place. All the details have been studied. There is no room now to go back to stage number one," commissioner for jobs and social rights Nicholas Schmit said during a plenary debate in Strasbourg (12 December).

"Now we have to deliver [with a legislative proposal]," Schmit said — but the reality is that there is little room for manoeuvre given that his term of office ends in a few months.

The EU senior official stressed his disappointment with the outcome of the social partners' negotiations and labelled the move of those not being able to agree [the employers' organisations] on a text as "short-sighted".

The negotiations on a framework agreement on telework and the right to disconnect started over a year ago between the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and the employers organisations, BusinessEurope, SMEunited and SGI Europe.

In total, there were 15 rounds of negotiations. The first took place on 4 October 2022 and the last on 9 November 2023, although the decision by two of the three employer organisations to withdraw from the negotiations without signing was only taken at the end of November.

Neither SMEUnited nor BusinessEurope gave specific reasons for not agreeing to the text, and both rejected the unions' request for a mediator.

BusinessEurope told EUobserver that they had been involved in these negotiations throughout last year with the aim of reaching a balanced agreement that could work for companies of all sizes and sectors across Europe.

"Unfortunately, the gap between what could work for employers and what could work for trade unions could not be bridged," the lobby group said.

Negotiations were tense, and the decision of the employers' representatives not to agree on a final text was far from a surprise, and from the unions' point of view was predictable.

In fact, the negotiations were originally scheduled to end in June 2023 with a view to submitting the text to the Council for implementation as a directive — a deadline that was then extended to November.

On 27 November, all parties informed the commission by letter that the negotiations had ended without agreement on a text.

"This means the file is now back in the hands of the commission," reads the letter to Schmit, seen by EUobserver.

For the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU), the U-turn of the employers is seen as a blow for the cross-sector social dialogue, noting that the last time that the EU social partners used their co-legislative powers for an agreement goes back to 1999.

The ETUC regretted that the employers "were unable to communicate a path to a successful outcome and withdrew from the negotiations," they said in a press release.

However, although the cross-sectoral agreement did not succeed, all is not lost at the sectoral level, as some MEPs stressed during the debate.

"Look at the public services sector agreement, where social dialogue did succeed," MEP Sara Matthieu (Greens/EFA) told the plenary.

About a year ago, the social partners in central government administrations across Europe signed an agreement on digitalisation for public employees.

The text has strong provisions on remote working and the right to disconnect, even sets out a framework for dealing with artificial intelligence in the workplace, and includes a gender approach (not on the table in the cross-industry negotiations).

"The European commission can still save the day," Jan Willem Goudriaan, EPSU general secretary told EUobserver.

"Implementing it would be a step forward for nine million workers and pave the way for other sectors of the economy," Goudriaan stressed. "After all, governments can act as role models".

Boom in home-working — but protections needed

Remote working from home online is a reality that has been spurred on by the Covid-19 pandemic, and it is here to stay.

This is underlined by the 24 percent of workers in the EU who already benefited from it in 2021, and the estimated 40 percent it could potentially reach. By way of comparison, before 2020 only five percent of people regularly worked from home.

And while teleworking has its benefits, it also has some drawbacks.

"The human cost of blurred boundaries is high: from unpaid overtime, insufficient rest periods and longer working hours, to work-related stress, exhaustion, burnout, isolation, fatigue, and depression," Alex Saliba (S&D), the leading MEP of the file, said during the debate.

According to a survey by the EU agency Eurofound, companies with policies on the right to disconnect recorded fewer cases of anxiety or stress among their employees. The difference is 10 percentage points (28 versus 38 percent).

As it was proposed by the EU social partners, the right to disconnect can be understood as the right not to engage in any work-related activities or communications using digital tools and not to be contactable outside the agreed working time, reads the latest version of the text, dated 9 November, and seen by EUobserver.

The right to disconnect and remote working was intended to be voluntary and to be agreed by both parties, employees and employers.

The same Eurofound survey found that in a typical working week, eight-out-of-ten employees surveyed received work-related communications outside working hours.

And 45 percent felt this was detrimental to their work-life balance, health and well-being, particularly women and those aged between 25 and 39 (as they are most likely to have young children).

"Digitalisation can help us all move forward, but it must be developed to suit people and not the other way around," Matthieu said.

Only a few member states, such as France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Luxembourg or Portugal, have so far introduced the right to disconnect, highlighting the need for an EU legal framework.

"Legal prevention and protection are therefore desperately needed," Matthieu stressed, calling on the commission to swiftly put forward a proposal for a directive.

MEPs call for workers to have 'right to disconnect'

MEPs called for a new law guaranteeing workers can 'disconnect' outside work hours, without repercussion. But they also passed a last-minute amendment, calling on the commission to delay any legislation for three years.

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