Australia passes Right To Disconnect law, including (for now) jail time for bosses who email after-hours
Rushed law will lose criminal sanction, but debate about its utility is fierce
Australia last week passed a Right To Disconnect law that forbids employers contacting workers after hours, with penalties including jail time for bosses who do the wrong thing.
The criminal sanction will soon be overturned – it was the result of parliamentary shenanigans rather than the government's intent – and the whole law could go too if opposition parties and business groups have their way.
European companies have already introduced Right To Disconnect laws in response to digital devices blurring the boundaries between working hours and personal time. The laptops or phones employers provide have obvious after-hours uses, but also mean workers can find themselves browsing emailed or texted messages from their boss at all hours – sometimes with an expectation of a response. That expectation, labor rights orgs argue, extends the working day without increasing pay.
Right To Disconnect laws might better be termed "Right to not read or respond to messages from work" laws because that's what they seek to guarantee.
Law firm Holding Redlich's view of Australia's law is that it will give employees the opportunity to seek an order "that the employer stops unreasonable out of hours contact."
Reasonable contact concerns issues like availability to work – the kind of contact that casual employees may well welcome. But being asked to perform work out of hours could be refused under the law.
Australia's union movement has hailed the laws as a sensible post-COVID rebalancing, and claimed many workers perform up to 280 hours per year of unpaid work.
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The Business Council of Australia has criticized the law on grounds that it – and especially its criminal sanctions – was not the subject of lengthy debate prior to its passage.
"Everyone deserves to be able to switch off at home, though it's really important to get the balance right here given people are now wanting more flexibility and to work different hours in different ways," argued the Council's chief executive Bran Black.
Australia's opposition party has pledged to repeal the law if elected at national elections due in 2025.
And the nation's government has signaled it will immediately amend the law – which so far has only passed the nation's Senate and needs to be confirmed by the House of Representatives – to remove the criminal penalties for bosses who dare to send after-hours emails.
The bill that introduced the Right to Disconnect also added requirements for operators of digital platforms – Australian legal-speak for gig-work platforms like Uber – to set minimum standards so that rideshare drivers, delivery drives, and other gig workers are afforded "employee-like" benefits even if they are on the books as independent contractors. ®