To be relevant to many modern workers, the Labour Party should campaign for a right to disconnect, Will Barber-Taylor writes.

Working from home isn’t a new concept. Prior to the industrial revolution, most British weavers worked at their homes, using what would be considered now fairly primitive machinery to create clothes or sacks or anything that included cloth. Publicans and shop keepers, both in the past and now, have often lived “over the shop” and artists, again both then and now, often work from their homes.

As such, in an increasingly connected age, the divide between work and home has shrunk further than ever. The contrast between time for ourselves and time to work has become blurred, thanks to the greater amount of accessibility to employers have to their employees. Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, which is still ravaging parts of the world, the needed for employers to engage with their employees outside the confines of the traditional office or workplace has become greater than ever.

However, this has led to an increase in employers expecting, entirely unreasonably, that their employees answer emails and perform tasks well outside their allotted working time. You only have to regularly check Twitter to see people justifiably complaining that they have been sent an email post work telling them to complete a task before work starts again. Indeed, the amount of unpaid overtime UK workers are currently having to do in order to keep their jobs is astonishingly high. Per week, according to a report released by the ADP Research Institute, UK workers are completing on average 7.8 hours’ worth of unpaid work. This is higher than the European average of 6.7 hours per week. This is of course the average and looking at specific groups the amount of unpaid average work hours per week simply gets worse and worse – for 18–24 year olds the average is 9.35 hours and for those working in the entertainment and media sector the average per week is an astonishing 13.5 hours.

Similarly, the contribution to the UK economy is immense with unpaid overtime contributing £35 billion to the UK economy. That UK employees feel the need to complete these unpaid working hours because they are continually being sent messages and told to work online outside their contracted working hours is utterly disgraceful. It should, however, not come as a shock. As James Bloodworth’s book Hired exposed, the conditions of British workers can be at times utterly dire, particularly those working in the gig economy. The precarious nature of gig economy work, which has only been made worse by the pandemic, means that many British workers feel forced to work outside normal hours just to ensure that they have work. This is not a situation that can or should continue.

It is for these above reasons that the Labour Party can and should campaign to ensure there is a legal right for employees to discontent for digital applications after they have finished work. Aside from the unjustness of expecting individuals to work when they aren’t being paid and outside their set work hours, the clear mental health implications of continuing down this road are enormous. Free time and the ability to separate work from leisure were key aims of the early Labour movement and the campaign to disconnect from work falls into that tradition. Like equal pay, like the minimum wage, the right to disconnect is a clear and achievable aim that will improve the lives of British workers.
Therefore, Labour should campaign to disconnect – not simply because it is the right thing to do but because it stands within the long and noble tradition of workers’ rights that Labour stands for. It must also do it because Britain is lagging behind in their area.

Other countries including France, Italy and Slovakia have already implemented their own right to disconnect laws. How then can Britain, the home of the mother of all Parliaments, fail to implement a crucial and necessary law as this? The answer is that it has yet to have a strong enough advocate pushing for this much needed change. The Labour Party is such a champion.

As Jon Cruddas said in his excellent book The Dignity of Labour, “Progressive politics has sought solace in liberal abstraction, appearing remote and disconnected from the people it seeks to represent.” The Labour Party can and will reconnect with such voters when it campaigns for and implements the right to disconnect from work.

Will Barber Taylor

Will is a writer and member of the Labour Party. He is passionate about local communities and progressive politics that can help people. He is reading History at the University of Warwick and is working on a short book on Philip Snowden.

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