Australian public servants granted ‘right to disconnect’ but with exceptions, says minister

By on 20/02/2024 | Updated on 20/02/2024
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels

Officials working for Australia’s federal government will have the ‘right to disconnect’ in six months’ time, unless their contract explicitly states otherwise, minister for the public service Katy Gallagher has confirmed.

The right to disconnect bill – which was passed by the Australian Senate earlier this month and covers the national workforce – gives employees the right to ignore “unreasonable” work calls or emails outside of their normal working hours without fear of repercussion.

At a Senate estimates last week, Gallagher and Jo Talbot, first assistant commissioner, workplace reform and diversity, at the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC), were questioned about how the bill would affect public servants.

Senator Jane Hume expressed concerns about the effect the bill would have on the work of public servants and political staffers.  

Read more: New phase of reform for Australian Public Service underway, says minister

Though Gallagher and Talbot confirmed that the right would be legally in operation in about six months, the right to disconnect excludes people with explicit contractual obligations to be on call or to work out of hours.

According to The Mandarin, this includes media advisers, for example, who receive an allowance for working outside normal business hours.

Talbot told senators during the meeting that the APSC was considering how the new rules could be implemented across the service.

“The APSC will work in particular with DEWR (the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations) to develop implementation guidance to support commonwealth agencies as a model employer,” she said.

Employers could face fines – and political staff excluded

Under the new law, employees will be able to raise a complaint with their employer about intrusive phone calls or the expectation they answer work emails out-of-hours.

If the issue is not resolved, employees can apply to the Fair Work Commission for an order on the employer to stop unreasonable out-of-hours contact. A breach of the order is punishable by fines of AUS$18,000 (US$11,800).  

Political staffers will not have the right to disconnect but Gallagher said politicians should be mindful not to contact people on their teams at unreasonable hours unless necessary.

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) has raised concerns about staff of members of parliament being excluded from the rights covered in the bill, citing “unrelenting pressure” and high levels of burnout.

Belgium and Scotland prioritise civil servants’ wellbeing  

Governments in other countries, including Belgium and Scotland, have also moved to introduce the right to disconnect for civil and public servants since the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to widespread adoption of flexible working arrangements and a greater focus on employee wellbeing and work/life balance.

In Belgium, a law granting 65,000 civil servants the right to disconnect came into force on 1 February 2022. Petra De Sutter, minister for the civil service, said the aim was to prevent “excessive work stress and burnout” and would give civil servants the ability to enjoy “better focus, better recuperation and a more sustainable energy level [at work]”.

However, an employer may still be authorised to contact an employee “in the event of exceptional and unforeseen circumstances requiring action that cannot wait until the next working period”.

Later that year, trade unions and Scotland’s devolved administration agreed on a formal right setting out that civil servants should not be pressured to routinely work outside their agreed working hours, or penalised for refusing to do so. Like in Australia and Belgium, there are exceptions, such as when the provision is not allowed under a contract that has been agreed in advance, when officials are on call, or when the situation is deemed “extraordinary”.  

Read more: Belgian civil servants granted ‘right to disconnect’ after working hours  

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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