The right to disconnect: Protecting remote workers

The right to disconnect: Protecting remote workers in times of COVID-19

As social distancing becomes part of our collective vocabulary, working from home is no longer a luxury, and businesses across the globe have quickly adopted flexible remote work policies for their employees.

The new normal takes a foothold with a reality that requires careful analysis of capacity and prioritization of workloads. 

The “right to disconnect,” a concept that was first legislated in France back in 2017, can set the limits of how much employees can answer phone calls and emails outside working hours.

If the title of this right seems simple, its exact nature leaves room for questions, as no legal definition of what exactly is the right to disconnect exists. 

With the recognition that office life may never resume as it was and the current massive shift to remote work, Spain, Greece, Ireland, and other European countries are starting to discuss how they can protect employees when people are working from home. 

Spanish media circulated potential draft legislation which sets clear working hours, establishing a “right to a flexible schedule.” The bill is expected to state that choosing to work remotely should not mean accepting a loss in pay, job stability, or opportunities for promotion.

European efforts to ensure work-life balance contrast with Lebanon (or the Middle East), where there has been much griping about the work-at-home challenges but not much of a policy response.  

The pandemic imposed the largest global mass exercise in remote working. 

While other countries are busy trying to implement a right to disconnect, Lebanese struggle to fight for basic employee rights –among other problems, such as gaps in public service delivery, unemployment, poverty, chronic governance issues, corruption, gender inequality, and a lack of social protection mechanisms. 

Limited Legislative Reforms

In Lebanon, the regulations governing the labor sector are often redundant, outdated, and in many cases, incomplete or contradictory.

The weekly working hours in Lebanon are 48 hours, with a maximum of 8 working hours per day according to the labor law which was passed in 1946, Lawyer Majd Harb told Beirut Today.

All employees are subjected to the guidelines set by the labor law. Under special circumstances, employers are permitted to add extra hours to an employee’s regular shift, but this requires a permit from the Ministry of Labor. Many employers, however, ask for their employees to work extra hours and fail to pay them overtime wages. 

And so, with the coronavirus, the always-on work culture has reached new heights in Lebanon.

Many employees in Lebanon receive unapologetic messages from their employers on nights and weekends, including a notably demanding one on a Sunday.

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The wages have stayed stagnant and workers are expected to produce more, and they are not being compensated for being available 24 hours a day. 

It’s clear that the absence of rights and principles in the legislation and of provisions and protections related to employees should be a priority issue in light of Lebanon’s social and economic reality, yet, unfortunately, even these rights are not tackled.

Many of the “reforms” introduced by the legislators do not respond to the necessities and needs of the labor sector today, notably the need to address soaring unemployment.