Good morning from New Economy Brief.

Pay may be the hot issue for workers and their unions at the moment due to inflation, but it is far from the only topic to gather momentum recently. 

One trend in recent policy discussions over work has been the centrality of time, with the 4 Day Week campaign the most famous example. 

This week we explore another proposal around working time, the ‘Right to Disconnect’, explain how and why this issue has shot up the agenda, and offer some thoughts about the evolving politics of workers’ rights.

Labour backs new laws to improve work-life balance. The news that the Labour Party are set to propose the introduction of a new "right to disconnect" policy caused a stir in Westminster last week. This policy would grant employees the ability to disengage from work-related communication and tasks outside of their normal working hours, with the objective of addressing work-related stress and promoting a healthier work-life balance.

  • Combatting the ‘always on’ work culture. The objective of the "right to disconnect" is to establish boundaries between work and personal life, ensuring that employees have designated periods of rest and leisure. A report on the right to disconnect from the trade union Prospect notes that ‘always-on’ working cultures and poorly managed remote work arrangements can give rise to various concerns for workers. These include undisclosed overtime, heightened work intensity, challenges to mental health and well-being, musculoskeletal disorders resulting from strain on muscles, joints, and bones, unequal treatment and discrimination against women and individuals with disabilities, increased utilisation of monitoring and surveillance technologies, as well as instances of remote and digital bullying.
  • Rationale. The Labour Party argues that this measure would help alleviate the negative effects of constant connectivity and enable individuals to better maintain their mental well-being in an ‘always-on’ culture of checking emails and taking calls away from work. The right to disconnect seeks to enforce clear guidelines and regulations to protect employees from excessive work demands beyond their official working hours. Allowing individuals the right to disconnect fosters a more sustainable and balanced approach to work, safeguards against burnout and enhances overall productivity. Andrew Pakes, Research Director and Deputy General Secretary at Prospect Union explains the rationale for the right to disconnect after the pandemic accelerated trends in digital surveillance and abnormal working conditions: (e.g. one-in-five companies are now using digital surveillance to monitor workers or planning to do so.)

Part of Labour’s ‘New Deal for Working People’… The proposed policy is part of Labour’s wider package to improve working conditions and pay: the New Deal for Working People. The plan focuses on strengthening workers’ rights, improving job security, fair pay, work-life balance, health and safety and providing more education and training opportunities at work. 

  • …and a fraught politics of working time. The proposal should also be seen as part of a struggle against working longer hours. Reducing working hours has been a longstanding proposal to improve working life and the balance between work, leisure and important unpaid activity such as care. As Novara Media’s Polly Smythe notes: “In Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, John Maynard Keynes speculated that technological advancement would soon precipitate a 15-hour workweek, and eventually do away with the need for human labour altogether. Yet the consequence of our hyper-connected lives has not been a reduction but an increase in hours.” The TUC’s online calculator made for Work Your Proper Hours day back in 2019 found that workers in the UK put in more than £35bn in unpaid overtime. Since the pandemic accelerated trends towards remote working, there has been a rise in digital surveillance of employees and a blurring between work and home life, where workers are expected to work longer hours and always be contactable. A Harvard study analysed the emails and meetings of 3.1 million individuals in 16 cities worldwide during the pandemic, it was discovered that the average duration of a workday had grown by approximately 48.5 minutes in the early stages of the crisis.

How would it work? A 2020 guide from Prospect looks at different approaches to the “right to disconnect” and how to ensure unions are involved in safeguarding workers’ well-being and rights as new technology changes how we work. There are three primary methods of implementing a Right to Disconnect:

  • Enterprise agreement. This approach involves employers and unions negotiating and reaching an agreement on the Right to Disconnect. Unions can advocate for this right either as part of collective bargaining or through a separate agreement. An example is Telefonica, which established its own Right to Disconnect in collaboration with its Works Council and unions.
  • Directive approach. This method entails enacting a legislative framework that requires organisations to engage in negotiations with their workforce or unions to establish a Right to Disconnect. This approach is similar to the French model, where companies with 50 or more employees are obligated to negotiate rules suitable for their industry.
  • Prescriptive approach. This approach involves the establishment of specific details about the Right to Disconnect through legislation or statutory regulations. Similar to the Irish Code of Practice implemented in April 2021, this approach outlines the necessary components and guidelines for implementing a Right to Disconnect within an organisation. A 2019 paper from Autonomy discusses the international precedents of such a proposal, as well as outlining the legislative wording of a hypothetical ‘Right to Disconnect’, thereby providing an off the shelf option for policymakers.

Political analysis. The FT’s Stephen Bush thinks that the ‘right to disconnect’ “is a talker that, whether you are shaking your head at the prospect or counting the days until a Labour government implements it, will be broadly recognised by people in most workplaces. For good or for ill, it is going to define how a lot of people see Keir Starmer’s Labour party…ultimately the biggest change that Starmer’s Labour proposes to make to the UK’s economic model is to significantly increase the power of workers and trade unions”, which could be one “area of friction” for a minority Labour government reliant on Liberal Democrat support.

  • New politics of work? While ‘Labour supports worker’s rights’ is hardly a shocking headline, it has perhaps flown under the radar how much policy exists in this space. The popular support for recent strikes, and success that Joe Biden has had in branding himself a ‘union man’ indicate a recognition that in turbulent economic times, the economic security offered by rights and unions is a potential vote winner, especially as economic insecurity is the key commonality among swing voters. The popularity of this agenda is perhaps best demonstrated by a Conservative candidate for London Mayor launching their campaign talking about the four day week.
  • Support. The Right to Disconnect pushes the usual politics of worker’s rights into new territory, appealing to many white collar, younger and remote workers - all demographics that are traditionally underrepresented in trade unions. Polling commissioned by Prospect has found that two thirds of remote workers support the idea of a right to disconnect with companies required to negotiate with their staff over rules on when people could be contacted out of normal working hours.
Weekly Updates


National Wealth Surplus. 8 in 10 Brits are concerned that the wealthy don’t contribute their fair share of taxes, according to new polling commissioned by the Fairness Foundation. The same public opinion research found that 68% of people (including 64% of 2019 Conservative voters) think the government should be doing more to tax high net worth individuals (those with £10m or more). 

  • Obscene wealth” simulator. To mark the release of the 2023 Sunday Times Rich List, the Equality Trust has launched an ‘Obscene Wealth Simulator’: an interactive tool which demonstrates what wealth taxes on the extremely wealthy could be spent on. Options in the online game include fixing the NHS for 10 years and reaching Net Zero by 2050. 
  • Asking MPs to tax the rich. Tax Justice UK has launched a campaign calling on MPs to introduce wealth taxes. Tax Justice UK is proposing six taxes on wealth that could raise £50 billion a year “to save our NHS and public services”. 

Patriotic Millionaire Rishi Sunak? Campaign group Patriotic Millionaires UK has called on Rishi Sunak to become a member of the group of millionaires and “deliver policies that raise taxes on himself”. The call comes as Sunak becomes the first sitting British Prime Minister to appear on the Sunday Times Rich List.

Macroeconomic policy

Is the UK on track? Despite the fact that the IMF has said that it no longer expects an imminent UK recession, the IPPR’s George Dibb argues that the UK is “off track” across “a whole range of policy areas” including growth, tax reform, business investment, net zero, energy security, public investment and public health. Dibb notes that the IMF advises greater “policy certainty”, which he argues points to a need for industrial strategy. 

“Not having an industrial policy is itself an industrial policy”. Conservative Home’s William Atkinson argues that in order to compete with the US, China and the EU and to avoid becoming “outliers”, Rishi Sunak must introduce proper industrial strategy. Atkinson argues that while conservatives may be scared of the term ‘industrial strategy’, there is no option but to engage with it, saying that “it is a conscious choice not to co-ordinate investment towards a particular goal”.

Climate change

Public opinion on climate spending. As rumours circulate that Labour’s commitment to £28 billion in climate investment might be under threat, the European Climate Foundation’s Leo Barasi explores public opinion on climate spending. Barasi argues that the climate pledge “gets widespread support across Labour’s voter coalition” including swing voters and, interestingly, is seen as a “special case worthy of borrowing for investment”. 


Food prices and the cost of living crisis. The focus on energy prices in the cost of living debate “understates the growing role of food prices… in the squeeze on living standards that households – especially low- and middle-income households – are living through.” argues a new paper by the Resolution Foundation which explores the impact of food prices on inflation. It finds that “while energy’s role in this crisis may have peaked, that of food very much has not”.