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Friday, Mar 05, 2021

Let’s call time on unpaid electronic labour with a legal right to disconnect

Having to answer emails, calls and messages out of hours has become an insidious form of unpaid work

Too many of us know the feeling: you sign a contract for a nine-to-five job, but you find yourself answering emails, texts or even phone calls well into the evening. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like the working day ever truly ends: the very thought – or threat – of an email pinging into your inbox means your free time isn’t really free at all. This shared experience makes Rebecca Long-Bailey’s recent announcement of a proposed policy enshrining the “right to disconnect” welcome. Perhaps for the first time in this fairly underwhelming Labour leadership election, we can point to something concrete and say “that’s a good idea” or “I’d want that in my workplace”.

In 1886, factory workers in the US campaigning for an eight-hour day rallied around the slogan “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what we will”. Today digital devices have eroded these hard-fought distinctions. The right to disconnect – which is simply the right for employees not to be contacted outside of office hours by their boss – largely speaks for itself. It’s an idea that could have profound effects on people working in occupations where a phone has become an electronic leash that employers can pull at any time. Putting an end to the toxic expectations of connectedness would allow us to reclaim the mental space to enjoy our evenings and weekends.

Digital disconnection is currently a privilege. Paying attendees can take part in “digital detox” retreats, handing over their phones and laptops to enjoy an “off-the-grid” experience cut off from the flurry of communication. A universal right to disconnect would open up this possibility to everyone. Here’s the kicker: it might sound radical, but France already adopted a similar policy in 2017, which requires companies with more than 50 employees to draw up a charter that sets out times when staff should not send or answer emails. The Italian government introduced a similar law in the same year.

More than five million UK workers put in a total of 2bn unpaid hours in 2018 – an average of more than seven hours a week per person. Although answering emails, phone calls and WhatsApp messages out of hours may not feel like work, it’s an insidious form of unpaid labour. Workers surveyed for a 2016 study spent about eight hours each week sending and responding to company-related emails outside of working hours. Participants said that monitoring and responding to emails during non-working hours led to chronic stress and emotional exhaustion.

This is a significant problem in the UK, where workload pressure is the single greatest cause of work-related illnesses. Employees in Britain already work among the longest hours and have the fewest national holidays compared with their European counterparts. A right to disconnect would empower workers to say no to the expectation of being “always on”. It would also bring back something that many of us have perhaps forgotten: the right to say no. As we move into a more digital world of email, WhatsApp and flexible working, work and life blend in new and uncomfortable ways. We need to update how we react to these changes. Though some jobs genuinely require an out-of-hours capacity, overtime should be remunerated or taken off as time in lieu.

New employee rights fit for our digital economy could be the building blocks for a complete reimagination of our working culture. Part of creating a more sustainable society will involve critically examining the kind of work that takes place within it. When Franklin D Roosevelt set about confronting the twin economic and environmental crises of the Great Depression and the dust bowl, he included labour protections as a key part of his New Deal. The Wagner Act strengthened workers’ collective bargaining rights, allowing them to negotiate better working conditions, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 set maximum hours and minimum wages.

Almost 100 years on from this pivotal legislation, the rights of working people have barely changed, but communications technology has dissolved the boundary between contracted and non-contracted hours. It’s time our political leaders recognised this, and provided a rulebook fit for purpose.


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