Work-life balance has always been a priority for trade unions. The eight-hour day campaign was one of our earliest and most far-reaching achievements. It has benefited generations of workers. In recent years however, the short working day has come under threat from an always-on work culture.
While the push from unions around the world for a ‘right to disconnect’ from work-related calls, email and other electronic messages out of hours pre-dates the pandemic, the large swathes of workers suddenly thrust into remote working in response to the virus catapulted the issue up the political agenda. Much of the same technology that enables us to work from anywhere, makes us reachable at any time.
When the occasional intrusion on a worker’s personal time becomes the norm, it becomes a health and safety concern. An overtired worker is a danger to themselves and others. It was in recognition of this that existing EU legislation regulating working hours and rest periods was introduced. But these decades-old protections haven’t kept pace with new technologies and modern work practices.
Following developments in other European countries throughout 2020 and a national plan to encourage more remote working post-pandemic, the Irish Government committed to a right to disconnect.
The Code of Practice on the Right to Disconnect
The Code of Practice on the Right to Disconnect was developed in consultation with trade unions and business representatives, and came into effect in April this year.
There are three elements to the right enshrined in the Code. The right of an employee to not have to routinely perform work outside their normal working hours. The right to not to be penalised for disconnecting. The duty to respect another person’s right to disconnect.
The Code allows for legitimate situations that may occasionally arise when it is necessary to contact staff.
It also recognises flexible working is highly-prized by workers and may be required to meet the operational needs of a business, as set out in an employee’s contract of employment. But emphasises that while non-standard working hours may suit different employees and different organisations, the right to disconnect outside of agreed hours is universal.
The purpose of the Code is to complement existing law on working hours and, in recognising that a one-size-fits-all approach would be unworkable across all business and all roles within those businesses, to provide guidance for developing a right to disconnect company policy.
The Code requires employers to engage with their employees and union reps to tailor a right to disconnect policy that takes account of the particular needs of their business and its workforce. It also provides for reviews, equality checks, training, and raising concerns both informally and formally.
While failure by an employer to follow the Code is not an offence in itself, the Code is legally admissible in evidence in any proceedings a worker takes relating to their working hours.
Significantly, the right to disconnect goes beyond the right to switch-off from digital devices. It applies to all types of work and all types of employment arrangements, not only remote working. In this respect, the Code will be an important tool in tackling the longstanding issue of workers routinely doing unpaid overtime.
The Code is not without its critics. Some argue it goes too far – that it will stifle flexible working and deter investment from American multinationals. Others argue it doesn’t go far enough – that it falls short of the French gold standard of providing for the right in primary legislation. Time will tell. The Code is just four months in place. Trade unions will be closely monitoring its operation.
For now, the priority is to ensure its full and proper implementation in workplaces as part of our pushback against the chipping away of work-life balance.