When it’s after hours, and the boss is on the line, Australian workers — already among the world’s best-rested and most personally fulfilled employees — can soon press “decline” in favor of the seductive call of the beach.
In yet another buttress against the scourge of overwork, Australia’s Senate on Thursday passed a bill giving workers the right to ignore calls and messages outside of working hours without fear of repercussion. It will now return to the House of Representatives for final approval.
The new bill, which is expected to pass in the House with ease, will let Australian workers refuse “unreasonable” professional communication outside of the workday. Workplaces that punish employees for not responding to such demands could be fined.
“Someone who is not being paid 24 hours a day shouldn’t be penalized if they’re not online and available 24 hours a day,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said at a news conference on Wednesday.
The provision is a last-minute amendment to a package of proposed legal changes aimed at strengthening workers’ rights. The legislation, which also includes protections for temporary workers looking to become more permanent, and new standards for gig workers, such as food delivery drivers, had been heavily debated.
Australia follows in the footsteps of European nations such as France, which in 2017 introduced the right of workers to disconnect from employers while off duty, a move later emulated by Germany, Italy and Belgium. The European Parliament has also called for a law across the bloc that would alleviate the pressure on workers to answer communications off the clock.
“The world is connected, but that has created a problem,” Tony Burke, the minister for employment and workplace relations, said in an interview with Australia’s public broadcaster on Tuesday.
“If you’re in a job where you’re only paid for the exact hours that you’re working, some people are now constantly in a situation of getting in trouble if they’re not checking their emails,” Mr. Burke added. It was reasonable for employers to contact their workers about shifts and other matters, he said, but workers should not be obligated to respond to these messages during their uncompensated hours.
Unions and other industrial groups have long argued that employees have the right to disconnect, but the issue gained salience during the pandemic, when a widespread shift to remote work led to the further blurring of boundaries between home life and work life.
Critics of the new rule, among them businesses groups and opposition lawmakers, have called it rushed and an overreach from the government, expressing concerns that it could make it harder for businesses to get their work done.
“This legislation will create significant costs for businesses and result in less jobs and less opportunities,” Bran Black, the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, said in a statement.
“None of the measures are designed to improve productivity, jobs, growth and investment, which are the ingredients of a successful economy,” said Michaelia Cash, a senator from the right-wing opposition Liberal Party. She added: “Workers already have legal protections against unreasonable working hours.”
Others criticized the mechanism of the legislation, which places the onus on workers to protect their rights rather than obliging employers to not contact staff members at unreasonable hours.
Similar orders, said Kevin Jones, an Australian workplace safety expert, “are usually used by someone who realizes that their relationship with their employer is now so tainted, that it’s not functional and they may as well leave.”
Australians already enjoy a host of standardized benefits, including 20 days of paid annual leave, mandatory paid sick leave, “long service” leave of six weeks for those who have remained at an employer for at least seven years, 18 weeks of paid maternity leave and a nationwide minimum wage of about $15 an hour.
The country ranks fourth in the world for “work-life balance,” behind New Zealand, Spain and France, according to an index from the global employment platform Remote. The United States, with a minimum wage of $7.25, ranks 53rd.
“Work-life balance is a cultural marker for Australians,” said Mr. Jones. “We go down to the beach, and we muck about, and we have time off.”