The coronavirus is going to change the way we all work long after lockdown is lifted.
Before the outbreak, just one in 10 people worked from home every day. But new research has found that almost 40% of EU citizens started working from home during confinement.
In the short-term, these are the lucky ones. Thousands of carers, nurses, doctors, drivers and other key workers have lost their lives serving on the frontline of the crisis, while 60 million workers have suddenly been temporarily or permanently laid off.
The ability to work from home over the last three months has at least meant personal and financial security. Some may also have enjoyed cutting out the commute and even the new-found freedom to work in their pyjamas.
However, the situation has undoubtedly thrown up challenges for workers, which we have to address as the novelty wears off and working from home becomes the new normal for many companies, like Twitter, which has told its employees they can work from home forever.
Many people will have found that the line between work and home life can become blurred now that they can no longer simply leave work at the front door like they used to.
People who regularly work from home are twice as likely to work more than 48 hours a week and six times more likely to work during their free time. In most cases, this extra work goes unpaid.
That’s why the right to disconnect is becoming one of the most important issues of our time. Without it, the rights and quality of life of working people would be set back by 200 years.
While it might seem a very 21st century struggle, it is a matter of upholding the most basic right that working people set out to win when they first came together to form trade unions in the 19th century: the eight-hour day.
“Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest,” is a concept which we have taken for granted but was life-changing when it was first proposed by social reformer Robert Owen in 1817.
In the 20th century, trade unions then won the two-day weekend, which is also now being eroded.
The right to disconnect is about maintaining those boundaries between work and personal life so that we keep our hard won right to free time - and even a decent night’s sleep. Research has also found that people working from home are more likely to suffer interrupted sleep than colleagues working from an office with a more regulated routine.
Just seeing an email arrive from your boss is usually enough to increase the stress levels and send people back to work mentally. Employers wouldn’t expect staff to spent 24 hours-a-day physically in the office, sleeping under their desks, so they shouldn’t expect that from those working at home.
The good news is that you may already have the right to disconnect. It’s important to know that your rights are exactly the same while working at home as they are if you were working in an office, shop, building site or any other workplace.
Trade unions have seen the challenge posed to our rights by technology since the days of floppy discs and dial-up internet.
That’s why in 2002, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) made an agreement with employers’ organisations to help workers reconcile the benefits of greater autonomy brought by working from home with their family and social lives.
Companies which signed the agreement accepted that normal working hours must be maintained for those working from home, and that they have the right to disconnect. On top of that, workers also have a right to privacy and the same work performance standards as office workers. As technology makes surveillance easier, managers should not be allowed to monitor every website visited or key stroke made by workers.
The 2002 agreement has been followed by the right to disconnect being adopted into national law in France, Spain and Italy.
The challenge now is enforcing these rights. There have already been some recent high-profile legal victories which should make your boss think twice before emailing you after working hours.
In France, where the right to disconnect came into force in 2016, one UK company was ordered to pay a former employee €60,000 for extensive use of phone and emails outside working hours.
And in Ireland, the country’s labour court awarded a worker €7,500 after she was consistently expected to check her emails outside of office hours in contravention of legislation on working hours.
But this steady progress in the right direction is insufficient in the face of this unprecedented situation. With millions forced to work from home for the first time by the lockdown, the right to disconnect is an urgent necessity for workers everywhere.
Far from trying to turn back the clock, this is about ensuring our rights keep up with these fast-moving times.
Our rights were won through protests and on picket lines, but the most radical thing you could do to defend them is to close your emails and log-off.
- Esther Lynch is Deputy General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).
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