The great competition in labor rights is holding us back

Are there no problems these days that the state can’t solve? When the cry is raised, “Why isn’t someone doing something about this?”, that someone is almost always government.

Labour’s plan to “give staff the right to contact” so that bosses don’t contact them outside of working hours seems like a classic of the genre. Burnout is real. But one of the reasons home and work life have become so blurred is that so many of us have chosen to work from home. I don’t know how the same politicians who support “flexible working” can imagine our working day at the same time. If I pick up my child from school in the afternoon and return to my desk in the evening, should I not send an email? What if I’m interacting with colleagues in another time zone or working on a corporate contract?

Some kind of formal permission to turn it off seems appealing. Scrolling through e-mail right before bed can raise your blood pressure. I recently started using the “schedule to send” feature, so emails I write late at night don’t arrive until 9am the next morning. And I’ve noticed that a lot of people have email footers that make sure their message isn’t urgent.

But this is proof that organizations are already adapting. Much has been said about the fact that France and Spain introduced the right of secession. But France already has a 35-hour working week – a policy that had to give rise to exemptions to adapt to the real world. A rule of thumb for decision-making might be: don’t make a law that both staff and bosses ignore because they think it’s nonsense.

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Meanwhile, in Spain last year, the offices of PwC, KPMG, EY and Deloitte were paid a surprise visit by government inspectors to check whether employees were working unrecognized overtime. If these were Amazon warehouses where exhausted workers were stacked on the shelves, that might have made sense. But at the big accountancy firms, thousands of job applicants struggle, most of whom are fully aware that the trade-off is high pay for long hours. The tight labor market has already empowered employees: they can quit.

If you work at the cash register or in a call center, your biggest problem is not the boss sending you a WhatsApp message on his day off. This is the threat of inflation, uncertainty and automation. In its New Deal for Working People policy document, the Labor Party promises, if it wins the election, to strengthen workers’ rights by banning zero-hour work contracts, raising the minimum wage, and giving workers the right to sick pay and parental leave from day one. All these changes would make the lives of those working in the gig economy less uncertain. However, it also includes a number of other proposals: extending maternity and paternity leave, the right to bereavement leave, tougher collective bargaining and the right for all employees to work flexibly from day one “as far as is reasonable”.

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The paper argues that fair and safe working practices improve productivity because staff are happier. There is merit in this. But too many new rules are fueling a booming legal and compliance industry. When politicians talk about ‘growth’, I don’t think that’s what they mean.

Conservatives have form here too. They introduced a gender pay gap report, up to 12 weeks paid leave for parents who need to care for a newborn, and the right to work flexibly from day one instead of starting a 26-week job. Changes to IR35, which require employers to determine the tax status of freelancers, have left companies seeking expensive legal advice and forced many contractors to pay tax as employees without any rights in return. Meanwhile, the Carers’ Leave Bill, introduced by the Liberal Democrats but backed by all the main parties, will give more than 2 million people the legal right to take five days of unpaid leave a year.

Who wouldn’t agree with helping someone whose newborn needs specialist care or who is juggling caring for an elderly relative? Individually, these changes seem unobjectionable. Taken together, they add up. Policymakers claim to care about productivity, but never ask the ratio of compliance officers, labor lawyers, and training managers to employees doing “real” work.

Some compliance roles are, after all, “crap jobs,” identified by anthropologist David Graeber, who has shown that meaningless work is almost as bad as no work at all. Small companies don’t even have the luxury of hiring a compliance officer. The business owner works late into the night to fill out all the extra forms. I don’t know how that helps with work-life balance.

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Maternity leave, paid leave, sick pay, equality legislation: these are hard-won, vital employee protections. But the endless drip of new employment laws from politicians who have rarely introduced anything shows that employers cannot be trusted. There will always be those who cut corners. However, most CEOs and managers are struggling to navigate post-pandemic norms and are concerned about the mental health of their staff. One told me that creating the right to work from home would outweigh the effort to treat everyone fairly – half the staff would have to come in to serve customers. When the world of work is in such a state of flux, it would be wiser to leave such decisions to employers.

In 2018, a French court ordered Rentokil to pay €60,000 to a former employee after ruling that the company had violated his right to stop working. The man was a director who had been asked to keep his phone on in case of an emergency. When we’re desperate for inward investment, when public finances are a gaping black hole, helping employees relax seems, dare I say it, trivial.

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