Malta could be among the first EU Member States to introduce the Right to Disconnect, MEP Alex Agius Saliba said on this week’s edition of Indepth.
The MEP said Minister Carmelo Abela, who is responsible for social dialogue, has indicated that the government will not wait until the directive is officially transposed by the EU – a process which could take up to a year.
The Right to Disconnect allows workers to refrain from engaging in work-related tasks, activities, and electronic communication, such as phone calls, emails and other messages, outside their working time. The directive, which was spearheaded by Agius Saliba, was approved by the European Parliament last month.
“The directive will enforce fundamental rights that are supposed to be obvious for workers. The right to enjoy your time of rest should be obvious. Workers should never be forced to work after work hours, unless they are being compensated to do so.”
Agius Saliba said today’s digitisation has revolutionised the way we work. “The line between work and family time is becoming more blurred.”
This has been exacerbated by the pandemic, with some Member States reporting that up to 40% of their workers are doing telework, flexi-work or smart-work.
“Each and every one of us has gone through an experience where we would be enjoying our time off and receive a text or email from work, and we feel obliged to reply. This is eating away from our rest and family time and this also has an effect on our mental health.”
The proposed legislation gives a set of minimal rights to all workers, including on the way working time is recorded.
“Since there are different scenarios according to the type of job, we have engaged with the social partners to see how they can negotiate according to the different sectors while respecting these minimum requirements. We are also giving workers the tools to be able to enforce this right, so that workers are not victimised when they try to enjoy this right. We are giving them protection, including the reversal of burden of proof, where if a worker is victimised for invoking this right, it is the employer who has to prove that this was not the case.”
When should we expect it in Malta?
Agius Saliba said he has had talks with Minister Abela, who indicated that the government will not wait for the EU process to be finalised.
“Even after the pandemic is over, there will still be a lot of teleworking. The indications we have is that the Maltese government will not wait until the Directive comes into force, but now that the legal framework is there and approved, it will start discussions with the social partners so that we are among the first Member States to introduce these rights.”
The MEP said the directive is also being eyed by other non-European countries.
“On a European level, we set off from a situation where we were in a minority. Employees and unions were both in favour of having a right to disconnect, but employers were totally against having a directive that enforces this right. There was strong opposition to it.”
Some political groups were also against it, including the EPP, he said. The group – the largest in the EP – changed its stance and voted in favour of the report.
“There was resistance to some elements of the directive right up until the very last minute. Some wanted this to be a recommended practice, rather than a directive. This was a red line for us, and we would never have accepted to go in that direction.”
“On a local basis, I had discussions with unions and with employers. Employers still have questions, but I assured them that flexibility will remain. What we want to remove is the idea that, because certain employers pay their employees well, they can call them in the evenings and during weekends. Rest hours are a fundamental right that should always be enjoyed, except in very exceptional and limited circumstances.”
The MEP acknowledged that in some jobs, like journalism, healthcare and law enforcement, it might be more difficult to disconnect.
“This is why I spoke about flexibility and the minimum rights. These will be negotiated with the social partners according to each job. Every job has different realities. This is why we did not go for a rigid system. There was a suggestion, for example, that a company should switch off its servers at the end of the working day so that no emails are sent before the following morning. The important thing is that the minimum requirements are met.”
Asked if the directive could affect a company’s productivity, Agius Saliba said this is not the case, “because productivity should only take place during working hours.”
“Workers should never be forced to be productive outside their work hours, when they should be resting. We do not want the Japanese system of ‘work until you die.’ It does not reflect European values. We want European values and cultures to be enjoyed by all our workers.”
Asked how confident he is that the directive will work in practice, Agius Saliba said that a lot remains to be done. “What fills me with courage are the initiatives and discussions launched in countries that had no idea what the right to disconnect is, including Malta and Ireland.”
The European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, Nicholas Schmit, has also said the EC will immediately start discussions with the social partners so that the directive and the legislative process on a European level can be finalised as soon as possible.
“We still have a lot to do and it is important that the debate continues and that workers are aware of this right. There also has to be training. It is pointless to have this right if employers abide by it but your colleagues do not and keep sending you work-related emails and texts. This culture of always being connected makes us read or even reply to these emails. So even workers have to be aware of this right and that they could also be breaching this right.
Agius Saliba is also involved in the cross-party alliance on medicinal cannabis.
“There are currently two main obstacles,” he explained; “prices and accessibility.”
“There are cancer patients who wish to live their last few remaining months in dignity and they can only do that with medicinal cannabis. There are also people suffering from various other conditions. A few months ago, I met a young woman who needs to take a medicinal cannabis product that costs €380 a month just to be able to get out of bed and go to school. Her parents cannot afford spending that amount.”
He explained that, since the product is limited, it is often out of stock or exorbitantly priced.
“We want to achieve harmonisation in CBD. Each member state has different requisites. The regulations in Malta are totally different to the rules in Spain or Germany. This is leading to a situation where those who produce have to target different markets. In the case of Malta, where the market is small, it is more expensive to produce that product.”
With internal market regulations, where products can be freely transported around the bloc, the same should happen with medicinal cannabis, he said. “There should be a common EU standard where prices are lower, and accessibility is greater. Medicinal cannabis should no longer be regarded as a taboo. It is like any other medicine out there.”
The MEP is also the Vice-President of the intergroup on hunting. He recently said that he wants Malta to have a louder voice to protect this pastime.
The Malta Independent asked how he can achieve this when Malta last year recorded its highest ever number of recorded hunting illegalities – 210.
“Illegality should always be condemned. Those who break the law are criminals, but not every hunter breaks the law. In fact, illegalities are carried out by a minority.”
Agius Saliba said he will next week be meeting the European Commissioner for the Environment to discuss two letters the European Commission recently sent to Malta – one on hunting and the other on trapping.
Malta recently applied a derogation that allows songbird trapping for ‘research’ purposes.
Agius Saliba said Malta was acting “legally” and the derogation is intended to carry out research on the species of songbirds trapped in Malta to determine whether this is sustainable. If the practice is sustainable, he said, then Malta would apply another derogation for the trapping of the species.
“At the end of the day, we want Maltese trappers to enjoy the same rights that their European counterparts have. We cannot have a situation where Malta is used as a case study … where the EU makes a show out of the smallest state.”
The MEP said enforcement has improved over the past years, hence why illegalities are reported, but it can always be better.
“But the Maltese should have the same rights as other EU citizens, in conformity with the laws and with respect to sustainability. I will fight this fight not only on hunting but in all situations where our people are not given the same rights as others, like in the case of farmers. When I see these types of injustices, I will speak up. I am not a hunter or trapper. I have never picked up a gun. But I have always believed that we should be a voice for the minority. This is not about winning or losing votes.”