‘Always on’ culture, no longer on

MEP Alex Agius Saliba, who has spearheaded the European Parliament’s struggle to update worker’s rights to correspond to the new realities of the digital age, looks forward to European legislation on the right to digitally disconnect from work without facing negative repercussions to be approved before the June European elections.

There is currently no EU legal framework directly defining and regulating the right for a worker to switch off from work. However, this situation is poised to change as part of efforts to promote a healthier work-life balance for European citizens, a key focus of recent EU initiatives.

Leading the charge for this shift is Maltese MEP and S&D Group Vice-Chair Alex Agius Saliba, who has been advocating for EU legislation in this area since before he was elected to the European Parliament in 2019. Prior to his initiative, the matter wasn’t even on the institution’s agenda. He began to promote the issue within an S&D Group working group forming part of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs (EMPL), in which he was an active member. The S&D Group then made the right to disconnect one of its top priorities for the current legislature, which is nearing its conclusion, and named Agius Saliba as rapporteur.

The Journal sat with MEP Agius Saliba in Strasbourg last week, just after he had concluded the debate at the EP plenary as the rapporteur on this matter. He was full of enthusiasm following the assurance that European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, Nicholas Schmit, gave MEPs in plenary that the European Commission would follow up the commitments given by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, to legislate on the right to disconnect. During that plenary, the EP overwhelmingly approved, by a vote of more than 75%, a legislative report and a fully-fledged draft directive to be proposed by the EP to the Commission.

“I look forward to the Commission’s legislative proposal being issued early in 2024 so that the legislation is approved ahead of the June EP elections,” said Agius Saliba. “In this last plenary for this year, all political groups without any exception were in agreement that the EU needs to act without delay on our legislative proposal on the right to disconnect and telework. Commissioner Schmit was very clear: the ball is now in the European Commission’s court.”

According to the EU’s rules (Article 154 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU), legislative initiatives in the social policy field require negotiations with social partners on the possible direction of European Union action. However, since no agreement was reached and European employers’ representatives walked away from the negotiating table two weeks ago, the Commission can now go ahead and initiate legislative action.

“The employers have regrettably been resisting from the very beginning,” Agius Saliba noted. “When we started discussions on this issue at the EP, they sent an email to all MEPs, urging us to vote against this proposal because they wanted to regulate matters in this field themselves, not through European legislation.”

Why is European legislation in this area important?

Looking back on the months of dedicated effort that went into crafting this legislative proposal, Agius Saliba highlighted how the pandemic further underscored the necessity of legislation safeguarding workers’ right to disconnect. While the digital transformation was already rapidly transforming workplaces before Covid-19, the pandemic accelerated this shift, as many companies and organisations were forced to adopt remote work arrangements such as telework, smartwork, and flexiwork. The seamless integration of digital tools into the workplace has created a perception of perpetual availability among employees, leading to a culture of having to be “always on”.

In his address to the EP Plenary just a few minutes before his conversation with The Journal, he had told the assembly: “Less than two weeks ago, Eurofound (the EU Agency for the improvement of living and working conditions) published a study providing further evidence that the existing legislation is not fit to address the risks posed by the always-on culture in our workplace. Workers who use digital tools work longer hours with insufficient rest periods, unpaid overtime and health issues linked directly to work-related stress, exhaustion, burnout, isolation, fatigue, and depression. Where the right to disconnect has been implemented, the data clearly shows a positive effect on work-life balance and the health and well-being of our people.”

The European Parliament’s call for the Right to Disconnect – Alex Agius Saliba addressing the EP’s plenary session as rapporteur

Alex Agius Saliba is unwavering in his belief that harmonisation of rules across the EU is the only way to ensure the same protection for European  workers across all Member States: “It is illogical to have seven Member States, including Malta, implementing a somewhat restricted form of the right to disconnect, while employees in other Member States are left without any such protections whatsoever. The right to disconnect should apply uniformly to all workers throughout the EU via European legislation. That is why it is so crucial for the EU to swiftly enact legislation on this matter. We have already squandered enough time in an unsuccessful negotiation process, with employers’ organisations failing to take responsibility for improving workers’ conditions and pulling the plug on the draft agreement with the trade unions.”

What does the legislative proposal entail?

The EP’s legisltive proposal, spearheaded by Agius Saliba, is based on principles that the institution believes should apply in all collective agreements, agreements between employers and employees, and other employment-related contracts.

One of the key principles of the proposed legislation is the shift in the burden of proof. This means that instead of placing the responsibility on employees to demonstrate that they have been expected to work beyond their contracted hours at the behest of their superiors, the onus will shift to employers to prove that they have not imposed such demands. This reversal is intended to strengthen the enforceability of the new rules. Additionally, the proposal encourages transparent record-keeping practices for employees’ working hours.

“Those who came before us diligently fought for basic employment conditions, including maximum weekly working hours, and minimum daily and weekly rest periods,” affirmed Alex Agius Saliba. “These labour principles should be universally accessible to all workers, regardless of the evolving nature of work environments where digital tools like laptops, tablets, and smartphones have become ubiquitous. We cannot turn a blind eye to the plight of millions of European workers, burdened by the constant pressure to be “always on” and subjected to excessive working hours. Now is the time to stand in solidarity with them and grant them their rightful entitlement: the right to disconnect.”

Main photo: Deagreez e / Adobe Stock

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