Spain: AXA recognises workers’ right to turn phones off out of working hours
The beginning of 2017 witnessed increasing debate on allowing workers to disconnect their digital devices after working hours. In July 2017, insurance company AXA became the first company in Spain to recognise workers’ right to do so. The government is currently studying possible legislation in favour of the ‘right to disconnect’.
New collective agreement at AXA
In July 2017, a new company-level collective agreement was arranged between representatives of the management at insurance company, AXA, and the Trade Union Confederation of Workers’ Commissions (CCOO), the main trade union representing the company’s employees. The agreement, which will be in force until 2020, includes the recognition of the right to turn off company phones or not answer work-related calls out of working hours. This implies that employees of AXA are also not required to answer work emails or messages outside of their normal working day. The approval of this innovative measure makes AXA the first company in Spain to recognise that right.
In a press release (PDF) published by the company’s human resources (HR) department on 20 July 2017, AXA explains that it agreed to introduce this pioneering measure in order to create a better work climate. AXA argued that the boundaries between an employee’s place of work and working time limits are blurring, giving rise to a complex reality that could affect workers’ private life. For this reason, the new collective agreement recognises workers’ right to not answer professional emails or messages out of working hours, with the exception of ‘cases of force majeure or exceptional circumstances’.
In addition, the collective agreement signed between AXA and CCOO includes some other interesting items. For instance, it promotes and regulates telework as a form of work that facilitates a better work–life balance, and improves and creates new leave entitlements and permissions in addition to those already offered by the Workers’ Statute – the main labour legal framework for employees in Spain. The collective agreement also introduces innovative solutions concerning flexible remuneration, including different (voluntary and reversible) options of in kind remuneration.
The ‘right to disconnect’ in Spain
France is the pioneering country in Europe in the introduction of this labour right: from 1 January 2017, all companies with more than 50 workers are required to set ‘connection hours’ agreed with employees’ representatives, so that employees can enjoy their free time without being subject to alerts on their electronic devices.
The beginning of 2017 witnessed increasing debate among social partners and political parties in Spain on the possibility of allowing workers to disconnect their digital devices after work. Thus, the Spanish government announced in March 2017 that it was studying the possibility of recognising workers’ rights in this area. However, despite discussions and proposals, no official advancements have been made so far.
Moreover, on 28 March 2017, the socialist main opposition party PSOE presented a proposal in parliament aimed at regulating Spanish citizens’ digital rights, including digital disconnection outside working time. The proposal was particularly valued by trade union representatives, who suggested that specific legislative measures in this field is urgently needed due to the current lack of ad hoc legislation, along with the increasing presence of stress and burnout symptoms associated with the continuous use of digital facilities outside of traditional working time patterns. But again, no further developments have occurred.
In view of the agreement approved by AXA, in July 2017 the General Workers’ Union (UGT) claimed that the right of disconnection should be included in both the Workers’ Statue and the Occupational Risks Prevention Law so that all companies guarantee this right to their employees. In contrast, representatives of the Spanish Confederation of Employers’ Organisations (CEOE), the main Spanish employer organisation, suggested that there are some sectors where this digital disconnection might not be feasible, but without giving any details.
However, similar initiatives aimed at preserving workers’ free time and favouring a work–life balance have been introduced in Spain. In Catalonia, for instance, 100 town councils have adhered to an initiative which aims to reform daily timetables in their towns, including shops and schools. As an example, the measure implies that local council staff should not hold meetings after 16:00 and work-related emails should not be sent after 18:00.
Spain has been traditionally characterised by having longer work days than the European average, though flexible working time practices are rarely extended in Spanish companies. Although it is widely agreed that these ‘habits’ should be modified for the state of workers’ physical, mental and social health, there are many cultural and social barriers that obstruct this change.
In theory, it could be said that the right to disconnect already exists in all employment contracts, in the sense that contracts register an agreement between employer and employee on a determinate number of holidays and working hours (in other words, in general, time-off should not include time at the employer’s disposal). However, reality shows that in some cases, daily practices do not respect the limits of free time and private life. Moreover, trade unions criticised the fact that, in many cases, employees do not know exactly when their work day begins and ends, whereas the ‘presentism’ culture is considerably extended in the Spanish labour market. A recent research study (PDF) published by HR services company Randstad found that 32.5% of Spanish workers are unable to forget about work during their holidays. Officially approving the ‘right to disconnect’ could help reduce these numbers.
Moreover, in the past few years, the prevention of work-related risks is focusing increasingly on workers’ mental health issues, such as stress and burnout. It is widely known that workers who do not ‘disconnect’ during their free time are more likely to suffer from these problems. All in all, the example of AXA’s agreement has had a considerable impact on Spanish media as well as among interested parties. As a ‘pioneering measure’, it could lead other companies to consider similar arrangements, as well as to foster the development of legislative initiatives that have been put on the table by stakeholders.