Australia is experiencing a period of industrial reforms that is returning some power to workers and, according to some critics, the trade union movement – working hours, same pay for the same job, changing employment status, right to disconnect and more. A curious omission is a discussion of the concept of Zero Hours Contracts. This type of employment is crucial to improving mental health at work as it strengthens a worker’s job control, economy and security.
There is a curious development in the current discussion in Australia about the newly introduced Right-To-Disconnect (RTD). Many are conflating RTD with Working From Home (WFH) – two separate but slightly overlapping changes to the world of work – which is impeding valid and necessary discussion.
Working From Home largely emerged as a response to the coronavirus pandemic and used flimsy work structures to provide business continuity. The WFH arrangements would have been unlikely to have been so widespread without the federal government’s investment in the National Broadband Network and the commercial growth in mobile phone communication infrastructure. However, that same infrastructure and investment have contributed to the problem that Right-To-Disconnect is intended to address.
Last week, the Australian Parliament passed workplace relations legislation that included a Right-To-Disconnect.
The Australian Greens announced on February 7, 2024, that the Right-To-Disconnect (RTD) bill would pass Parliament as part of workplace relations reforms. On February 8, 2024, the mainstream media wrote as if the laws had already been passed. However, several issues with these laws indicate they are unlikely to be applied in practice as widely as advocates claim and in the way anticipated.
The closer the RTD laws come to reality, the more useless they appear.
This week, the Australian Parliament debates further workplace relations legislative system changes. These will have occupational health and safety (OHS) impacts, usually indirectly; however, one clear OHS element in the proposed legislation is the Right-to-Disconnect.
This change has been a long time coming and has clear and proven mental health and social benefits for workers, but you won’t hear much of the OHS justification in the media. Most of the business opposition has been alarmist noise claiming the world will end. According to the Australian Financial Review (AFR) editorial on February 1 2024. Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke:
Many workers have a working week that includes more hours than they were contracted for. This is often described as “unpaid overtime”, which is a misnomer as “overtime” traditionally involves being paid a higher rate of income to compensate for making one available beyond or “over” regular business hours. Unpaid overtime can also be considered employer- and employee-endorsed exploitation and lead to industrial disputes, as junior doctors recently showed in Victoria.
Since 2006, the West Australian government has had a Code of Practice for Working Hours, with supporting documents such as risk management guidelines. This level of prescription could be applicable in supporting and clarifying newly-emphasised occupational health and safety (OHS) duties for psychosocially healthy work.
Long working hours have been identified as a major contributor to poor workplace mental health. International benchmarks have been identified as tipping points for mental health. A local Australian initiative to highlight the risks associated with overwork is Go Home on Time Day, which The Australia Institute supports.
Fewer companies than when the day started in 2009 seem to be supporting and promoting the day in their wellbeing calendars. Perhaps because the day identifies the shameful fact that employers will not stop workers from working long hours “if the workers choose to” even though the evidence is that the practice is harmful.
Its working hours calculator is a major part of the Go Home on Time Day initiative.