Editorial: The right to ‘guinea pig’

Last Updated on Thursday, 18 February, 2021 at 2:22 pm by Andre Camilleri

The right to disconnect refers to a worker’s right to disengage from work and refrain from engaging in work-related electronic communications, such as emails or other messages, during non-work hours. This is a right Alex Agius Saliba has been bringing to the attention of the EU head honchos. In January, a legislative initiative passed in the EU Parliament with 472 votes in favour for this right, 126 against and 83 abstentions. MEPs called on the Commission to propose a law that enables those who work digitally to disconnect outside their working hours.

This concept has emerged as a result of advancements in technologies and its impact our lives. The ubiquitous use of technology means that always being “on-call” has become a reality in many workplaces, as continuous remote access can assert employees’ pressure to be always available. The expectation that workers are always accessible is now considered detrimental to our wellbeing.

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

On a national level, France is considered to be paving the way in legally recognising this right. As early as 2013, a national cross-sectoral agreement on the 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 and is now regulated by the Labour Code. According to this text, the mandatory negotiations about equality between men and women and quality of life at work, which are to be carried out at company level only and therefore not systematically, have to plan, under specific conditions “the terms for the full exercise by the employee of [their] right to disconnect and the setting up by the company of devices to regulate the use of digital tools. This is to ensure the respect of the rest and leave periods and that of personal and family life”.Suppose employers and unions do not reach an agreement. In that case, the employer must draw up a charter following consultation with the social and economic committee which “defines the procedures for the exercise of the right to disconnect and further provides for the implementation, for employees and managers, of training and awareness-raising actions to foster a reasonable use of digital tools”.

France’s approach has gone some way to inspire other EU countries. According to research by Eurofound, a few EU countries have some form of the right to disconnect included in their law and in some cases it is stipulated in the policy of many large companies. In Italy, the right to disconnect is dealt with by Article 19 of Law No. 81/2017, which specifies that the written agreement between worker and employer must also regulate the rest periods of the employee and indicate the technical and organisational measures taken by the parties to guarantee the worker’s right to disconnect from company devices.

Beyond the formal and legal recognition of a right to disconnect, many initiatives at a company level strive to support. Back in France, the telecommunications group Orange, signed a collective company agreement in 2016, relating to the digital transformation of the Group; this agreement established a right to disconnect for employees.

So, while some may not want Malta to be “guinea pigs” on the European platform of trialling this right, one could argue it is irrespective; we won’t be the first to champion this and can certainly learn lessons from our counterpart

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