Supporting remote workers – Portugal leads the way
Portugal recently attracted headlines around the world after introducing legislation supporting remote workers that prevents employers from texting, phoning, or emailing remote staff outside their contractual working hours. This initiative, dubbed the “right to rest law,” is a new law by the ruling Socialist Party. It was introduced in response to the increased shift to home working as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a recognition of a need to address the blurring of boundaries between work and home life.
As part of the review to regulate the new type of working, the Portuguese government fell short of allowing a “right to disconnect” which allows staff to switch off all work devices out of hours. The regulations also do not apply to companies with fewer than ten employees. However, other measures included increased rights to work at home for those with children under 8 without seeking prior approval, and a requirement for a Company to contribute to household bills for home workers. Penalties for non-compliance will include employer fines.
Ana Catarina Mendes, the parliamentary leader of the Portuguese Socialist Party said “this is as an essential move to strengthen the boundaries needed for a good work-life balance. There should be a boundary between the time when an employer’s authority prevails, and the time when the worker’s autonomy should prevail. There should be a boundary between the time in which a worker is a resource in the service of the person paying their salary, and the time in which they should be the owner of a life that is not all about work.
“Remote working has great advantages, but like all new phenomena that develop very quickly, carries new risks. Risks, above all, for the weakest part of the labour relationship: the workers.”
It is well documented that excessive working hours, lack of rest and constant demands impact on physical health, mental health, and family life. The Working Time Regulations in the UK already provide some protection around working hours, rest periods and annual leave, but these measures obviously didn’t anticipate the dramatic changes to working life that many have experienced since the pandemic took hold.
These new trends require some analysis and refined laws to protect employees. In the UK, the government commissioned a Flexible Working Task Force as long ago as 2018. Its initial objectives included the following:
- Clarify the benefits of flexible working
- Investigate the barriers that prevent employers from offering, and individuals taking up, flexible working options
- Develop evidence and understanding of the most effective ways to increase provision and support
- Increase the number of flexible working opportunities available by drawing together action plans and recommendations
Following the impact of the pandemic, in February 2021, the role of the Task Force was amended to review recent trends with a view to developing policies and practices for supporting remote workers and employers in the new climate, to include ‘hybrid’, ‘ad hoc’ and ‘non-contractual’ flexible working.
The “right to disconnect” or disengage, was covered in a recent didlaw blog which can be found here. This initiative seeks to protect employees by setting firm parameters around when an employee is in the office (virtual or otherwise) and when their working day ends, so they can disengage to enable them to switch off, re-charge batteries and enjoy some family, leisure, or down time. We will have to wait to see whether this will become a right going forward. No doubt the Task Force will have an eye overseas on how other countries’ new measures are working.
Like some other countries, Portugal has already introduced temporary resident visa schemes to attract foreign entrepreneurs and freelancers to work under their so-called “digital nomad visa”. The Portuguese Island of Madeira, for example has a “digital nomad village” offering free Wi-Fi and office facilities. So, if the constant pressure from work during these winter months is getting you own, why not bear in mind that Easy Jet are offering some inexpensive direct flights to Madeira in the weeks ahead….?
This blog is by Caroline Oliver, Senior Solicitor at didlaw