Labour MEP advances right to disconnect in fight against ‘always on’ work culture

Labour MEP Alex Agius Saliba presents amendment to EP report calling for right to disconnect digitally for workers

The ‘right to disconnect’ is a worker’s right to disconnect from work and refrain from work-related electronic communications
The ‘right to disconnect’ is a worker’s right to disconnect from work and refrain from work-related electronic communications

A Labour MEP has successfully introduced a text to a report on employment and social policies in the Euro area to recognise the right to “digitally disconnect”.

Alex Agius Saliba’s recommendation found overwhelming support by MEPs and their respective political groups. “For the first time, the new European Parliament has adopted and incorporated my amendment on the right to digitally in an official Parliament’s text.”

Agius Saliba said his text is now an official recommendation to the European Parliament. “When I started talking about this right during my campaign, this was a quasi-taboo… This is the first step but a vital one in order to continue pushing for concrete measures on the right to digitally disconnect.”

The right to switch off, sometimes called the ‘right to disconnect’, refers to a worker’s right to be able to disconnect from work and refrain from engaging in work-related electronic communications, such as emails or other messages, during non-work hours.

This concept has developed as a result of advancements in communication technologies and its impact on people’s daily lives. The widespread use of smart phones and other digital devices means that always being ‘on call’ has become a reality in many workplaces, as continuous remote access can create pressure for employees to be constantly accessible. The expectation that workers are available at almost any time for online or mobile communication is now considered to be potentially hazardous to workers’ health.

Agius Saliba told the EP plenary that despite favourable economic conditions and steadily growing employment rates in Europe, wealth inequalities and income differences continue to increase the gap between poor and rich people.

“The problem is no longer strictly linked to unemployment, and ordinary people, especially young and older workers remain at a high risk of poverty. It is no longer enough for people to only have a job! With the jobs they have, people should be able to afford a decent life for themselves and their families.

“In-work poverty, decent living standards, quality of work, and good wages are today’s most pressing challenges. We need a labour market and policies that improve working conditions and deliver fair employment and quality jobs to all Europeans,” Agius Saliba said.

There is currently no European legal framework directly defining and regulating the right to switch off. The Working Time Directive (2003/88/EC), however, refers to a number of rights that indirectly relate to similar issues: in particular, the minimum daily and weekly rest periods that are required in order to safeguard workers’ health and safety.

On a national level, France is considered to be a pioneer in legally recognising this new right. As early as 2013, a national cross-sectoral agreement on quality of life at work encouraged businesses to avoid any intrusion on employees’ private lives by defining periods when devices should be switched off. This right was subsequently made law on 8 August 2016.