BRUSSELS — Workers in Belgium may now switch off their work phones outside working hours without fear of being told off by their boss.
But there’s a major catch: In practice, the right to disconnect only applies to some workers — and some companies.
Belgian companies with more than 20 employees had until April 1 to implement the right to disconnect, which represents one of four pillars in a 2022 federal government labor deal.
By now, all companies the law applies to are legally required to have relevant agreements in place, either in a form of a company collective agreement or work regulations.
“It is essential for any worker to have a clear separation between work and free time,” said Alexandre Sutherland from the trade union ACLVB-CGSLB. “The lack of separation between work and private life is a source of burnout, which is one of the most common causes of long-term absence,” he pointed out.
“The right to disconnect, if effectively respected, addresses this issue.”
Since the legislation only introduces a general framework for a right to disconnect, Belgian companies have lot of leeway in its implementation. The framework requires employers to set out practical arrangements for the right to disconnect; create guidelines for the use of digital tools that respect employees’ private lives; and provide training and raise awareness on the risks of excessive digital technology use.
But the right to disconnect for the private sector lacks clarity and guarantees, according to Hugues Ghenne, a legal adviser at the department of social politics and well-being at work of trade union ABBV-FGTB (Belgian unions have bulky names as they must include both the French and Dutch versions).
“It’s a bit unclear for the company what they have to do, since they have an option to negotiate an agreement within the company or at the sectoral level,” Ghenne said. “That is why our trade union is trying to help them by putting good examples on paper.”
The fact that some workers are excluded remains a bone of contention.
Sutherland pointed out that jobs in emergency services or that require a high level of responsiveness form an exception. But that’s not the only one.
“Some already concluded [collective labor] agreements limited the scope,” Ghenne said. This is the case for example for the aviation sector, he explained, “which excludes management and employees in the position of trust.”
With regard to companies with fewer than 20 employees being omitted from the scope of this law — Nicolas Gillard, the spokesperson for Belgium’s Federal Employment Minister Pierre-Yves Dermargne, said this comes down to provisions in force from the previous government.
“However, there is nothing to prevent companies with less than 20 employees from setting up rules,” said Gillard. Trade unions are fighting for the right to be extended to all companies, said Ghenne.
Additionally, the law is unclear on what employees can do when a company does not respect their right to disconnect, Ghenne said. “It’s mandatory, but there are no sanctions,” he said.
“Though if your employer is calling you at 9 p.m., you can always contact us as trade union to see what we can do.”