We stopped Portugal’s bosses contacting staff outside work hours. Here’s why

This week the Portuguese parliament attracted headlines around the world, and even some attention from The Daily Show, after we banned bosses from contacting their employees outside of working hours. Under the new laws, employers will now face sanctions if they text message, phone or email their workers when they are off the clock.

For us, this is as an essential move to strengthen the boundaries needed for a good work-life balance. There should be a boundary between the time when an employer’s authority prevails, and the time when the worker’s autonomy should prevail. There should be a boundary between the time in which a worker is a resource in the service of the person paying their salary, and the time in which they should be the owner of a life that is not all about work. We have introduced these new labour laws to avoid the blurring of the boundary between the time we spend serving others and family time. The boundary between time as a commodity with a financial value, and the precious time remaining for the enjoyment of life.

In the age of the industrial revolution, workers could be little more than workers. The demand for shorter working hours was a central tenet of the labour movement from the very beginning. It was a demand that sought a way out of the extreme fatigue caused by long working hours, and the poor health caused by overwork. This alone would have been more than enough of a reason. But the demand for shorter working hours was also about establishing that workers should be more than just a labour force, that they should also be people de facto, and not just de jure.

The worry has been that the rise of remote working is threatening to take us back to that period before trade unions won protections for their members, when the working day stretched out endlessly. Remote working has to be a step forward, not a step back. When more and more of us are working remotely, it is all the more essential to establish clear boundaries between working time and personal time.

The ongoing digital transition made the need to legislate remote working necessary. The pandemic has made it urgent. We conceived this new legislation before the pandemic began, but it has become even more necessary now: to respond to the perverse, undesirable effects of the rapid expansion of tele-working. The necessity of all kinds of digital software means surveillance of workers has also grown very rapidly. Remote working has great advantages, but like all new phenomena that develop very quickly, carries new risks. Risks, above all, for the weakest part of the labour relationship: the workers.

Labour market regulation cannot ignore the innate inequality between the parties: employers and employees. A work relation is not one between equals that can be freely regulated by the individual contract. In passing these new labour laws, we kept in mind the words of the 19th-century French preacher and writer Henri Dominique Lacordaire: “Between the strong and the weak, between the rich and the poor, between the lord and the slave, it is freedom which oppresses and the law which sets free.” Between the weak and the strong, the state must intervene to redress the balance.

In an unequal relationship such as that between boss and worker, it is not enough to establish the latter has a “right to disconnect”; to switch off their mobile phone, close their laptop, or ignore phone calls that arrive in the middle of dinner with their family. Any abuse that conflicts with that right must be deterred through sanctions. This is why we have prohibited employers from contacting workers outside working hours, and imposed potential fines for breaking the rules. In practice, the right to disconnect has to be reinforced with that prohibition.

We can always weaken new labour laws by invoking the difficulty of enforcing them whenever employment is precarious and wages are low – but we shouldn’t. If the labour market makes it difficult to apply new laws, then we have to insist on reforming the labour market, not give up on regulating it.

The law that we have just passed honours the legacy of the Portuguese Socialist party, in all those previous battles for workers’ rights. It is not in fact a radical law, but one that helps us take another step towards the development of Portogallo as a more decent and egalitarian society.

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