When it’s after hours and the boss is on the line, Australian workers—who are already among the world’s best-rested and most personally fulfilled employees—can quickly hit “decline” in favour of the allure of the beach.
In yet another blow to the epidemic of overwork, Australia’s Senate passed a law on Thursday that would allow employees to reject calls and texts outside of business hours without fear of repercussions. It will now go back to the House of Representatives for final approval.
The proposed law, which is likely to pass easily in the House, would allow Australian workers to refuse “unreasonable” professional communication outside of working hours. Workplaces that penalise employees for failing to react to such demands may face fines.
The clause is a last-minute addition to a package of proposed legislative amendments aimed at improving worker rights. The legislation, which also contains protections for temporary workers seeking to become permanent employees and new rules for gig workers such as food delivery drivers, has been hotly disputed.
Australia follows in the footsteps of European countries such as France, which in 2017 granted workers the freedom to disconnect from their employers while off duty, a move later emulated by Germany, Italy, and Belgium. The European Parliament has also advocated for a European Union-wide rule to reduce the pressure on workers to respond to communications outside of working hours.
“The world is connected, but that has created a problem,” Tony Burke, the minister for employment and workplace relations, told Australia’s public broadcaster on Tuesday.
Employers are entitled to contact their employees about shifts and other concerns, he said, but employees should not be required to respond to these communications during unpaid hours.
Unions and other industry groups have long maintained that employees have the right to disconnect, but the issue gained traction during the epidemic, when a widespread move to remote work exacerbated the blurring of the lines between home and work.
Critics of the new rule, including business groups and opposition MPs, have termed it hurried and an overreach by the government, raising concerns that it will make it more difficult for firms to do their work.
“This legislation will increase costs for businesses, resulting in fewer jobs and opportunities,” said Bran Black, CEO of the Business Council of Australia, in a statement.
“None of the measures are designed to improve productivity, jobs, growth, and investment, which are the ingredients of a successful economy,” stated Michaelia Cash, a senator from the right-wing opposition Liberal Party.
Others criticised the mechanism of the Act, which places the onus on workers to defend their rights rather than requiring companies not to contact staff members at unreasonable hours.
According to Kevin Jones, an Australian workplace safety expert, similar orders are typically issued by someone who recognises that their connection with their employer has become so polluted that it is no longer viable and they should leave.
Australians already have a slew of standardised benefits, such as 20 days of paid annual leave, mandatory paid sick leave, six weeks of “long service” leave for those who have been with their employer for at least seven years, 18 weeks of paid maternity leave, and a national minimum wage of around $15 per hour.
According to Remote, the country ranks fourth in the world for “work-life balance,” trailing only New Zealand, Spain, and France. The U.S. ranks 53rd, with a federal minimum wage of $7.25.
“Work-life balance is a cultural marker for Australians,” Mr. Jones explained.