Estonia not planning to further legislate employees' out-of-hours working rights

A clock.
A clock. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Estonia is not planning to introduce strict laws regulating out-of-hours work such as replying to calls or emails, as several other EU countries have done.

Under existing law, most employees do not have to answer an employer's phone calls, read work emails, or think about them during their time off. 

But, due to the rise of flexible working, this is not always the case, said Ulla Saar, deputy secretary-general at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications.

"People are sometimes available 24/7, the boundaries between work and private life are blurred and people may not get as much rest as the law and contracts say they should. This leads to fatigue, overwork, stress, and burnout," said Saar.

Some countries have already enacted legislation that lays out additional rights for employees working out of hours. For example, French employers must pay their workers bonuses for answering emails and phone calls outside of working hours.

In reality, French law is not significantly stricter than Estonia's. For example, an employer can still send emails to the employee during non-working hours, but there is no obligation to reply. 

However, France's work culture is different, and some employers turn off email servers altogether for the weekend, and the emails only reach employees on Monday.

Arto Aas, CEO of the Employers' Confederation (Tööandjate Keskliit ), said the European Union and Estonia do not need stricter laws.

"While today's working environment is characterized by a great deal of flexibility and employees want to have more control over their own working hours, working methods, and workplace, there is of course a flip side to this coin – sometimes an email or a phone call comes in after 5 p.m. But it is a mutual agreement and can be managed with the current regulation," Aas said.

The right not to be available has been discussed at the EU level, said Saar.

"In the European Union, the social partners, i.e. trade unions and employers, were in negotiations to agree among themselves what this right not to be available meant. But unfortunately, they did not come to an agreement, which means that there will be no further legislative initiative from there either," Saar explained.

But the topic may crop up again after the European Parliament elections next year, she added. 

Estonia does not have a clear position on the issue, the vice-chancellor said, and there are no plans to change the law in advance. This is because if the EU agreed on a different set of rules, Estonia would then need to change its legislation again.

Saar agreed with Aas that teams should agree and set their own rules.

At the same time, Kaia Vask, chairman of the Estonian Trade Union Confederation (Ametiühingute keskliit), said employees may not want to discuss the issue with their employer.

"I don't know how many of these workers are having this conversation, how strongly they feel. Quite often we hear the other side of the argument, that I'd better not do it, I'm going to end up on the bad list," explained Vask.

Better supervision may help, so that employers have to take the right to be unavailable into account, she said. But Vask added the issue is a new one in Estonia and has not been thoroughly discussed. She was also hesitant about introducing new legislation.


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Editor: Mirjam Mäekivi, Helen Wright

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