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Earlier this month, it was announced that bosses in Portugal could face fines if they contact their employees outside of contractual hours in an effort to improve work/life balance as remote working becomes the norm and the lines between work and home continue to blur.

Under new ’Right to Rest‘ laws submitted by the Portuguese Government, employers must respect the privacy of their workers and any violation could be considered a ’serious offence’ incurring a fine.

The move comes as part of a wider package of rules that aims to regulate employees working from home including:

  • The right to opt-out of remote work if they wish
  • The right to request working from home arrangements if compatible with their job
  • Employers must provide employees with the tools they need to work remotely and reimburse workers for additional expenses
  • Employers are forbidden from monitoring their employees while they work from home
  • Parents have the right to work from home without prior arrangement with their employer until their child turns eight

The widespread shift to remote working, accelerated by the pandemic, has led to an increased blurring of the boundaries between ‘home time’ and ‘work time’.  When your office is your kitchen, it can be difficult to switch off, and there can be an increased expectation of being ‘on-call’ for later and longer hours.

It isn’t just Portugal that has recognised the need for changes to the way we work, other countries around Europe have imposed some form of change to allow employees greater flexibility.  In January, Germany made it mandatory for workplaces to offer staff the opportunity to work from home. In Russia, employers must provide employees with the equipment they need to work from home. France has also made it clear that employers must have a good reason to refuse remote working requests.

This brings us back to the UK…

Calling ‘time’ on regulations?

In the UK, the Working Time Regulations (The Regulations) impose a basic set of standards on the time people work, encompassing minimum paid holiday entitlement, paid rest breaks and a limit to the number of weekly working hours for all workers.  The Regulations were implemented in 1998 as a result of the European Working Time Directive (93/104/EC), which was subsequently consolidated in 2003 (Directive 2003/88/EC).

Since their implementation The Regulations have been nothing but contentious, with numerous (successful) challenges made to the European Courts.  The plethora of case law generated by The Regulations has led many to argue they are simply not fit for purpose.  The fact that various UK Governments have refrained from making any significant changes to the The Regulations for more than 20 years, despite the criticism and successful challenges, speaks volumes about how much of a political minefield this area could be.

The political drivers are highly weighted towards the protection of the economy and the efficient running of industry across the country.  Any slackening of The Regulations; the implementation of a four-day week, shorter hours, more paid holiday etc., is likely to have a negative impact on the running of the businesses that keep the country moving. Though different parties in power have their views on how things could be done differently, The Regulations are a political ‘hot potato’ that very few want to grab hold of.

Hopes that the UK might become slightly more European in its approach to working have only been clouded by Brexit.  With Britain’s exit from the EU, there are fears that workers’ rights may actually be reduced.

So, will we soon be saying “óla” to more flexible working arrangements and the implementation of measures to improve UK workers’ work/life balance?  I’m afraid the answer is likely to be não.

Michael Jenkins, Head of Legal Advice, Arc Legal Assistance

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