Business Briefing

‘Right to rest’: inside Portugal’s bold bid to regulate remote working

Newly passed leglisation bans bosses from contacting employees outside work hours

Bosses can be fined for contacting their employees outside working hours by email, text or phone under new laws in Portugual. 

The “right to rest” rules, which came into effect on Saturday, have been introduced by Portugal’s Socialist-led government to help improve the nation’s work-life balance as the Covid pandemic forces millions of people to work from home. 

In what The New York Times described as “one of the world’s boldest efforts” to regulate remote working, the new law states that “the employer must respect the privacy of the worker”. As well as being banned from contacting off-duty staff except for in emergencies, employers are also required to compensate remote workers for any resulting increase in bills such as electricity and gas. 

In an effort to prevent remote workers from feeling isolated, companies are also expected to organise face-to-face meetings at least every two months.

But employees with children up to eight years old have the right to work remotely without seeking prior approval from their bosses.

The new legislation applies to companies with more than ten staff members, and employers may face fines for any violation that constitutes a “serious” offence. 

“Remote working has great advantages provided we control the disadvantages,” said Portugal’s minister of labour, solidarity and social security, Ana Mendes Godinho, at Lisbon’s Web Summit earlier this month. “The pandemic accelerated the need to regulate what already needed to be regulated.”

The new legislation could entice more foreign remote workers to Portugal, boosting the country’s economy, she added.

But some industry chiefs have criticised the new laws “for being too hasty a response” to the pandemic, reported the Financial Times. The Confederation of Portuguese Farmers (CAP) said the legislation was an “unreasonable” reaction to the problems caused by Covid-19.

Research firm Gartner estimated in June that 32% of the global workforce would be remote workers by the end of 2021, compared with just 17% in 2019, before the virus hit.

Although the Portuguese push to protect workers’ off-clock hours is among the “boldest” yet, other countries have been modernising their labour laws in recent years.

Staff in countries including France, Spain, Belgium, Slovakia, Italy, the Philippines, Argentina and India “all currently enjoy ‘the right to disconnect’ – or abstain without punishment from working and communicating with their employers during designated rest periods”, wrote Vancouver-based journalist Adrienne Matei in an article for The Guardian asking whether the US might introduce similar laws.

The same question was posed about the UK by Metro in August, when the paper reported that Downing Street was “being encouraged” to introduce such worker rights “from multiple sides”. But “as of yet, the UK government has not indicated plans to make the right to switch off from work outside of normal hours a legal requirement”, the paper said.

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