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Government pledges to eliminate legal consequences for employers contacting employees outside of regular working hours

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has pledged to pass new legislation to eliminate criminal sanctions for violations of the ‘right to disconnect.’

The government is in a rush to amend its recently passed workplace relations laws after discovering that they still included criminal penalties for employers who violated the “right to disconnect” provisions. This new law prohibits employers from contacting employees after working hours.

The bill was approved by the Senate on Thursday night, but Prime Minister Anthony Albanese now says it will be revised in the lower house to eliminate the penalties.

He downplayed the significance of the issue, stating, “It won’t mean anything, it’ll just mean we fix it up through separate legislation because this legislation isn’t due to take effect for many months, so it won’t mean anything.”

The ‘right to disconnect’ provisions were added to the bill during negotiations with the Greens, who then agreed to support it along with Senators David Pocock and Lidia Thorpe. Fellow crossbench Senators Jacqui Lambie and Tammy Tyrrell voted against it.

Under the current law, if an employee complains about being regularly contacted outside of working hours, their employer could face a fine of $18,000.

However, Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke mentioned that the intention was for employees and employers to negotiate more formal arrangements for out-of-hours contact through workplace agreements.

“One of the ways—instead of the fines—of doing it is simply having an absolute ban on there being a penalty on the worker for disengaging,” Mr. Burke said. “So, if the worker disconnects, if they decide they’re not going to have their phone with them, if they decide they’re not going to be checking their work emails, then absolutely no penalty can be brought against them. And that sort of protection would give you a way of doing it without fines on the employer. “It is difficult to imagine a situation where criminal penalties would ever be appropriate,” Mr. Burke said. “Despite the opposition’s idiotic and irresponsible behaviour, we will legislate to fix this.”

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Government Services Minister Bill Shorten stated that the government made an attempt to remove the criminal penalties for employers, but the Coalition did not provide the support required on Thursday night.

“I’ve seen this latest ‘Tory’ tantrum on workers getting better rights,” he said. “We said to the Libs, listen, we just better tidy that up. And would you believe, the Liberals threw the toys out of the cot and said, ‘No no, you’ve got your laws, we’re not going to let you amend it.'”

Opposition Deputy Leader Sussan Ley blamed the government, saying it couldn’t control the “chaos in the Senate” it had caused over the legislation on Thursday night.

“Whether deliberately or maybe accidentally, Labor has passed legislation that means that if you either run or manage your business and you contact your staff after hours, you could face jail time,” she said.

“How chaotic and how confusing. We need a much better and much more sensible approach when it comes to these issues.”

Australian Industry Group CEO Innes Willox expressed that employers were facing “massive complexity and uncertainty about how workplaces operate” due to the new laws.

“There is now the real likelihood of conflict where previously there were agreed flexibilities and trade-offs … disputes over trying to keep a workplace moving are now more likely,” he said.

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