Right to disconnect: Don’t get caught up in hyperbolic rhetoric

It was not that long ago that smartphones didn’t exist.

It was not that long ago that smartphones didn’t exist. Photo: Getty

I feel as though I might soon need to exercise my right to disconnect from discussions about the right to disconnect, but before I do, let’s take a look at it all in a bit more detail.

A last-minute manoeuvre

Although the right to disconnect laws came in with the second part of the government’s Closing Loopholes legislation, they weren’t a part of the original reform package that the government was seeking to pass.

In fact, they were added to what we refer to as Closing Loopholes part 2 by the Greens, no doubt in exchange for their support of the other changes the government was trying to get through. To make it clear, Adam Bandt, leader of the Greens, was the sponsor of the Right to Disconnect Bill.

And because they weren’t part of the original package proposed by Tony Burke in September last year, they also didn’t face the same parliamentary scrutiny that the other changes did before being voted on by the Senate on February 8.

What is the right to disconnect?

Barbara Pocock, leader of the Greens in the Senate and a key spokesperson for the right to disconnect laws, said that: “We heard from Australia’s best mental health experts about the burden on our health system of uncontrolled working time, of excessive overtime and the reach of our technology into our lives.”

The changes are “a simple and straightforward change to our workplace law”, Pocock said.

After the laws were passed, Prime Minister Albanese said: “We’re giving workers a right to disconnect, so you’ll be protected from unreasonable contact outside of work hours.”

The law states: “An employee may refuse to monitor, read or respond to contact, or attempted contact, from an employer outside of the employee’s working hours unless the refusal is unreasonable.” It also extends to allow refusal of work-related contact from third parties.

Pretty plain language really. As always, not everyone agrees.

In an opinion piece published in The Financial Review earlier this week, titled “Labor’s job-killing new IR world” Michaelia Cash, referring to what she says is “the Albanese government’s right to disconnect law, which was rammed through Parliament last week” argues because of the new laws “workers are likely to lose some of the flexibilities that have come to characterise the modern workplace”.

Flexibilities which Ms Cash argues “have been beneficial to both employees and employers”.

To say the changes were rammed through is probably fair. To say that workplace flexibilities operate to benefit both employees and employers. Absolutely. Of course they do.

But they weren’t the Albanese government’s introduced laws. And on my reading, they’re unlikely to have any impact on flexibilities that employees have chosen to enjoy, like working out of usual hours so they can pick up the kids or go to a doctor’s appointment.

A right isn’t an obligation

Because a right to disconnect shouldn’t be mistaken for an obligation to disconnect. The laws might enable a worker to choose not to engage in work outside of their work hours, but it doesn’t say they have to, nor on my reading does it create a consequence for them if they do.
If you want to keep responding to work emails and text messages after knock-off time? Do it.

If you have a lawful arrangement with your employer which means that you can attend to personal things during the day and then complete your work tasks at other times of the day? Do that too.

Looking to do more and set yourself apart so you can get a promotion or a better outcome at your next salary review? Go for it.

The right to disconnect, in essence, merely sets out to allow workers to not do those things too.

Creeping technology

Bear in mind that many of the issues that have given rise to the right to disconnect laws are a result of technologies creeping into all aspects of our lives.

Smartphones didn’t exist, not that long ago. The time before around the clock availability and expectations of immediate responses to messages is within the living memory of many Australians.

And there are very many benefits that we all now enjoy as a result of a more connected and technologically advanced world, although it’s hard to know what IBM engineers might have envisaged for the world of work when they launched one of the first smart phones in 1992, codenamed “Sweetspot”.

But perhaps we shouldn’t blindly proceed on the basis that more is always better.

Whether the consensus lands on the right to disconnect laws being good or bad is one thing, but at least when making that assessment we should look at them for what they are, and not get caught in hyperbolic rhetoric about what they are not.

Scott Riches is a former union official with the Electrical Trades Union Victorian branch, and a practising employment lawyer. He is also a volunteer in the employment clinic at the Fitzroy Legal Service.

Stay informed, daily
A FREE subscription to The New Daily arrives every morning and evening.
The New Daily is a trusted source of national news and information and is provided free for all Australians. Read our editorial charter
Copyright © 2024 The New Daily.
All rights reserved.