‘Right to disconnect’ a key battle in workplace debate

Hitting ‘decline’ on an incoming call from a boss after work may be a guilty pleasure, but should it also be an enshrined right?

Feb 07, 2024, updated Feb 07, 2024
Photo: Jenny Ueberberg/Unsplash

Photo: Jenny Ueberberg/Unsplash

That’s a key question for crossbenchers to ponder as the government attempts to push its industrial relations reforms into law.

The legislation is aimed at closing loopholes used by employers to undermine pay and working conditions, and after much debate now includes a “right to disconnect” outside regular work hours.

But with the opposition staunchly against the bill, crossbenchers have become kingmakers on the future of workplace law – and they are divided.

Independent Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie said workers generally had some ability to disconnect after the COVID-19 pandemic forced flexibility into many workplaces.

“If you have a problem in this area, I don’t know that needs to be enshrined – that is already available to you. If you think that something is not fair, ring Fair Work (Commission) ,” she said on Wednesday.

“If you’re ringing somebody and they’re not picking up their phone, because we’re going to give them this choice now, you’re going to go back in that workplace next next day and … I’m just worried about the argy bargy that will go on in that office.”

Meanwhile, ACT independent David Pocock acknowledged technology had fundamentally changed the way Australians work and that “sensible guardrails” were needed.

“Clearly there are workers out there who want that right to not have to respond to unreasonable requests from their bosses outside of work hours,” he said.

Lambie also has concerns about the bill’s proposed definition of casual employment, and has taken issue with unions being provided the right of entry without notice at workplaces to investigate underpayments.

However, she maintained the importance of the bill and said she would continue to negotiate with the government.

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CEOs at some of Australia’s most prominent business chambers including the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Business NSW, and the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry penned a joint statement on Wednesday.

They urged the Senate to consider the “rushed and flawed” industrial relations legislation, saying it would hurt business owners and operators and damage communities.

“Most of our members are small businesses that contribute so much, and we will burden them with additional constraints and costs,” they wrote.

“A one-size-fits-all approach to the casual labour market, in an economy that is already short of essential skills, could not come at a worse time.”

Echoing Senator Lambie’s words, they say the right to disconnect is unnecessary as employees already have protections against working unreasonable hours outside work.

However, the issue remains a focus for the Greens who had been campaigning for its inclusion since 2023.


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