The Right to Switch Off
Would the Labour party’s proposed “right to switch off” help workers in the UK achieve a better work-life balance?
The Labour party have announced that they plan to introduce a “right to switch off” for workers, in the event that they obtain a majority at the next general election. According to reports, the scheme would prevent employers contacting workers by phone or email outside of normal working hours.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner, who is also Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work and is spearheading the proposal, told the Financial Times that “constant emails and calls outside of work should not be the norm and is harming work-life balance for many”. However, Rayner did acknowledge that there would be some circumstances where such contact would be necessary; for example, where workers are on call or are working overtime. In terms of the practical implementation of a “right to switch off”, Angela Rayner told the Financial Times that the Labour party will be looking at “learning from countries where it has been introduced successfully”.
A British “right to switch off” might resemble legislation introduced in France in 2017, which gave all workers the right to disconnect from their work devices outside of normal working hours. In 2018, the French arm of Rentokil was ordered to pay €60,000 to a former employee for violating their “right to disconnect” during non-working hours. Many other European countries, including Belgium, Italy, Spain, Ireland, and Portugal have followed France’s lead, by introducing policies that grant workers a right to disconnect.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Government have come to an agreement with The Council of Scottish Government Unions (the “CSGU”), under which civil servants will be the first workers in the UK to have a right not to be contacted outside of work hours. Speaking on behalf of the CSGU, the Prospect trade union’s Scottish Secretary, Richard Hardy, stated that “The Right to Disconnect policy creates a safety net for staff to ensure nobody is placed under pressure or compelled to work in ways or times that are atypical for them”. There are some exceptions to the policy; where contact was expressly agreed with the worker in advance, where the worker is on call, or where the situation is extraordinary (for example, letting a worker know that the office is shut). It is easy to see how the first exception might be subject to abuse, if workers felt pressured to “agree” to being contacted outside of work hours.
If such a right were introduced in the UK, there might be a few areas of concern for employers. For some employers, the immediate concern might be a loss of productivity or service standards, particularly for industries or roles with a “round the clock” nature. Employers might also worry that such a right would impact on the ability of employees to work autonomously – indeed, it remains to be seen whether a right to switch off might come into conflict with the increasing popularity of flexible working regimes in the UK. Where strict arrangements are in place for how an employee’s hours differ from the business’ normal hours, there will be clarity as to when the employee can and cannot be contacted – but where an employee has the flexibility to work around other engagements and responsibilities, the lines might quickly become blurred as to when an employee’s “working hours” are, and therefore as to when they have the right to switch off.
The Financial Times reported that the “right to switch off” is part of the Labour party’s broader package of employment rights, dubbed a “New Deal for Working People” and is currently part of their draft manifesto. There is not much detail at present on the nitty-gritty of the “right to switch off” policy, but the draft manifesto it forms a part of is due to be agreed over the summer by the Labour party’s national policy forum.
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