Portugal’s new law on working from home makes the European Union country sound like a workers’ paradise.
Companies can’t attempt to contact their staff outside working hours. They must help staff pay for their home gas, electric and internet bills. Bosses are forbidden from using digital software to track what their teleworkers are doing.
There’s just one problem: the law might not work. Critics say the new rules are half-baked, short on detail and unfeasible. And they may even backfire by making companies reluctant to allow working from home at all.
“The law is badly written and doesn’t meet anybody’s needs,” says José Pedro Anacoreta, an employment attorney at PLMJ, one of Portugal’s main law firms. “It’s no good for anyone. … It doesn’t make any sense.”
In many places around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a prior trend toward the digitalization of work and more flexible work arrangements. Amid such a sudden and massive shift in the employment landscape, governments are scrambling to accommodate working from home in their employment laws. Those efforts are largely still in their infancy.
Many Europeans have stopped going into the office regularly since March last year to help curb the spread of COVID-19.
In Europe, unlike in the United States, worker protections are widely regarded as cherished entitlements. Laying off a staff member, for instance, can entail substantial severance pay.
Without a promised European Commission directive on how to legally frame the shift to more extensive working from home, governments’ legislative responses have been patchy and piecemeal.
During the pandemic some countries have recommended teleworking. Others — like Portugal — have demanded it. Most EU countries have specific legislation on teleworking, though with different approaches, and others are considering it through amendments, extensions or conventions.
As home working grew in recent years, workers’ “right to disconnect” — allowing staff to ignore work matters outside formal working hours — was adopted before the pandemic in countries such as Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Belgium. It is now becoming the standard.
But Portugal is taking that concept a step further, by flipping the onus onto companies. “The employer has a duty to refrain from contacting the employee outside working hours, except in situations of force majeure,” meaning an unanticipated or uncontrollable event, states the new law.
Also, parents or caregivers with children up to eight years old have the right to work from home if they choose, as long as the type of work they do is compatible with teleworking.
Fines for companies breaking the law go up to almost 10,000 euros ($11,200) for each infringement. The Portuguese rules are meant to address the downside of what has become known as WFH.
The technology that enables working from home has also opened the door to abuses, such as drawn-out workdays as staff remain reachable outside their normal eight-hour shift. The consequences may include attrition between work and private life and a sense of isolation.
But the new law has met with skepticism from those it is intended to protect.Andreia Sampaio, a 37-year-old who works in communications in Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, agrees with the law’s purpose but thinks it is too general and will be “very hard” to enforce.
“We have to have common sense,” she says, adding that she doesn’t mind being contacted out of hours if it’s an urgent matter. “We have to judge each case by its merits.”
And she reckons authorities will mostly only act on employees’ complaints — “but people will fear losing their job if they do.”