Workers... you have nothing to lose but your smartphones!

A Maltese MEP wants an EU-wide law that allows workers to switch off after work or be financially compensated

Can a right to disconnect break up the conflation of ‘personal’ and ‘work’, often wrapped up under the guise of ‘flexible working’?
Can a right to disconnect break up the conflation of ‘personal’ and ‘work’, often wrapped up under the guise of ‘flexible working’?

Smartphones gave us wholly unrestricted access to the entirety of human knowledge in the palm of our hand, and with it, instant knowledge of every email passing through our work address.

But the expectations for us to be readily available to answer phone calls or work emails is blurring those once-clear boundaries between work and life. Work is no longer confined to the 9-to-5 routine – emails can be accessed from mobiles, and dual-sim mobiles take both work calls and personal messages.

So can a right to disconnect break up the conflation of ‘personal’ and ‘work’, often wrapped up under the guise of ‘flexible working’?

Labour MEP Alex Agius Saliba is pushing for this right to disconnect inside the European Parliament, to seek a law that removes employees of the obligation to answer emails or messages outside office hours.

“Digitalization has brought many advantages to employers and workers, such as flexibility of working arrangements, the potential to improve work-life balance and reducing commuting times.

“But at the same time, it has resulted in an ‘always connected’ culture, with some potential disadvantages, such as constant availability and long working hours, blurring the boundaries between private and working life and affecting workers’ fundamental rights, fair working conditions and health and safety at work,” Agius Saliba says in his report to MEPs.

Alex Agius Saliba: “A solid right to disconnect at Union level can give more protection to employees from extra work which is creating a lot of stress to them”
Alex Agius Saliba: “A solid right to disconnect at Union level can give more protection to employees from extra work which is creating a lot of stress to them”

Under the proposal, a European directive would oblige employers to record individual working times and compensate them, financially or through leave, for work done outside office hours.

But implementation of the proposed law would still rests largely on a collective agreement negotiated between social partners. Agius Saliba told Malta Today that enforcement would be carried out primarily “by collective agreements or at the level of employer undertaking.”

“The Collective Agreement should include measures to switch off digital tools, including work-related monitoring or surveillance tools,” he said, apart from measures that record individual working times, health and safety assessments, and psychosocial risk assessments.

“We have introduced safeguards for workers who invoke their right to disconnect from any victimisation or negative repercussions, and a mechanism to deal with complaints or breaches of the right to disconnect,” he said.

The General Workers’ Union is supporting the MEP on his report, with secretary-general Josef Bugeja auguring that the right is introduced in national employment law.

Malta’s labour force was not spared the ‘always on’ work culture foisted by digital technologies. The COVID-19 pandemic encouraged a surge in flexible work, mainly through teleworking. “These new working conditions are blurring the fine line between working time and rest periods, something which is directly linked to an increase in the number of mental health issues,” Agius Saliba said.

“A recent report published by Eurofound during the pandemic shed light on new worrying realities. Workers who responded to the survey confirmed that, when teleworking, they are working more hours then they usually would from their offices.

“I believe a solid right to disconnect at Union level can give more protection to employees from extra work which is creating a lot of stress to them and for which they are not being compensated,” he said.

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