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Potential Legal Right to Switch Off from Work

Ignoring work calls and emails after hours could soon become a legal right as political momentum grows to ensure people can unplug and unwind.

A federal parliamentary inquiry has broadly examined workplace laws including the ability of Australians to disconnect.

“One aspect of work-life balance that needs to be protected in the modern industrial context is the right to disconnect from our workplaces outside regulated hours,” the Senate committee said in its report.

Greens senator and chair Barbara Pocock went further.

“Unpaid overtime is ubiquitous, has untold financial, physical, mental and social costs, and demands urgent action through a right to disconnect,” she said.

The Work and Care committee has recommended the Fair Work Act be amended to legislate the right to disconnect, drawing criticism from business groups.

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Innes Willox, chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, said the change would be significant yet had not been properly scrutinised.

Some agreements already contained provisions for contacting employees after hours, reflecting the needs of particular sectors and fields of work, he said.

The package of industrial relations changes was designed to improve pay and conditions and protect workers from exploitation.

However, Bran Black from the Business Council of Australia sounded the alarm over the “right to disconnect” suggestion.

“We are disappointed to see the government try to introduce the ‘right to disconnect’ amendment at the eleventh hour with no consultation and no detail on what it will entail,” he said.

Fiona Macdonald, an industrial relations expert from the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work, said the most effective way to legislate disconnection would be via national employment standards as a general right not to be contacted unreasonably.

“Unreasonable is going to mean different things in different industries, so the detail is going to have to be sector specific,” Ms. Macdonald said.

This would be outlined in industrial awards and require negotiation for particular workplaces.

“There are many industries where the boundaries between work time and non-work time are disappearing,” she said.

Seven in 10 of the 1,410 respondents reported working outside of scheduled work hours, with many experiencing anxiety, fatigue, and interference with their personal lives.

Several European nations including Belgium have legislated similar rights, which Ms. Macdonald said “hadn’t caused too many dramas.”

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