Saturday

8th May 2021

MEPs call for workers to have 'right to disconnect'

  • People who regularly work from home are twice as likely to work 48 hours-plus per week (Photo: Steinar Engeland)

The European Parliament has called on the EU Commission to put forward a legislative proposal guaranteeing the right of workers to disconnect outside working hours - without facing consequences from employers.

The 'always on' culture, resulting from the digitalisation of work, is having a negative impact on people's work-life balance, causing a rise in unpaid overtime, exhaustion, and burnout that must come to an end, MEPs said.

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"The pressure to be always 'on', always reachable, is growing as the boundaries between private life and work-life are increasingly becoming blurred," said MEP Alex Agius Saliba, lead rapporteur on the initiative.

"[But] it is fundamental that we protect workers from the invasion of their rest time, ensuring that they have the right to rest and leisure and that the maximum limit of the workday is safeguarded," he added.

In an own-initiative report, approved last week (21 January), MEPs called for a new law that ensures that workers can ignore work-related tasks, such as phone calls, WhatsApp, emails and other digital communication, outside work, without repercussions.

In addition, the initiative points out the need to establish minimum requirements for remote working with clear working conditions, hours and rest periods - an issue has become even more relevant during the pandemic.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, working from home has increased by almost 30 percent in Europe.

However, studies show that people who regularly work from home tend to work during their spare time more than those working at their employer's premises - being twice as likely to work 48 hours or more a week.

EU commissioner for jobs and social rights, Nicolas Schmit, said it was essential to ensure "a healthy work-life balance and sound working conditions in the new digitised world," arguing that "people are not robots".

However, he told MEPs that social partners like employers organisations and trade unions have the "leading role" in making the right to disconnect a reality.

In the last few years, some member states - such as Italy, Spain, France or Belgium - have taken action by directly or indirectly mandating social partners to negotiate provisions of the right of disconnect, according to the commissioner.

Three-year delay

As more people are expected to work from home after the pandemic, the proposal has been welcomed by most trade unions as a step forward in the right direction.

However, they regretted that MEPs passed a last-minute amendment (tabled by Saliba, of the Socialists & Democrats, to his own report) which asks the commission to delay any legislative action for three years - meaning workers will probably have to wait a long time to see a legally-enforceable 'right to disconnect' enacted.

"This is unacceptable. Workers are experiencing the problem right now and need solutions," a group of trade unions said in a letter sent to MEPs before the vote.

According to the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the apparent reason for such a delay is the existence of an "autonomous social partner agreement" on digitalisation signed last year.

However, this agreement does not mention the right to disconnect. Instead, it states that the "modalities of connection and disconnection" are a topic for negotiation between unions and employers.

The ETUC urged the commission to ignore the request for delaying EU legislation, arguing that "this amendment puts a weapon in the hands of those who oppose legislation on the rights and working conditions of working people".

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