Changes in public sector work practices accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic need to be reflected in updated agreements so staff can be protected from excessive overtime and their privacy guarded, says the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU).
The CPSU call comes as new research shows an explosion in unpaid overtime as workers have swapped the office for home, with the average employee now providing eight full-time weeks of free work per year.
The 2021 ‘Go Home on Time Day’ report, run by the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work, highlights time theft and increasing use by managers of surveillance software to monitor staff working from home.
The CPSU said the Australian Public Service (APS) has been at the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic response, and Services Australia staff have worked enormous amounts of paid overtime to deal with work surges, but there are also some workers who weren’t paid overtime rates, including many managers.
CPSU national secretary Melissa Donnelly said surveys during the past year revealed that while most workers had continued with regular hours, others have had work contact increase due to urgent tasks related to the pandemic response.
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She said there is a strong appetite to combine working from home with changes to hours of work, and the APS needs to update agreements to reflect this.
“The union is having ongoing discussions with agencies and departments about the best way to support employees while working from home, including supervisors taking steps to ensure employees don’t work excessive hours,” said Ms Donnelly.
“We know from our research that employees want to see working from home rights reflected in enterprise agreements so that there are adequate protections, including protections against excessive working hours.”
Ms Donnelly said APS staff also deserve fair pay rises that keep up with Australia’s cost of living.
The report found that COVID-19 appears to have accelerated Australia’s time theft crisis, with 26 per cent of workers reporting their employers’ expectations of their availability increased during the pandemic.
The average employed Australian performed 6.13 hours of unpaid work each week in 2021, up from 5.25 in 2020, and 4.62 in 2019, equating to 319 hours per year, or more than eight standard 38-hour work weeks per worker.
This unpaid overtime represents the loss of $125 billion in income from Australian workers in the past year, or $461.60 per worker every fortnight.
Young workers aged 18-29 performed the most unpaid overtime at 8.17 hours per week.
With more people working from home, employers are using new technologies to pressure and monitor employees, with 39 per cent of workers reporting their bosses remotely monitor them through technology such as webcams and keystroke counters.
The report’s author, Dan Nahum, said the research showed there needs to be legal protections for workers so they are not exploited; to guard the working week as is done in France; and limit work contact out of hours.
He said the move to working from home has blurred the work-home divide so it is hard for staff to switch off. A quarter of workers also reported that their employers expectations of availability had increased during COVID-19.
“We need protections for workers in terms of employers respecting their non-work time because that is not properly guarded in law at the moment, and what that is spilling into is that unpaid overtime, which is illegal but not properly enforced,” said Mr Nahum.
He said it had particular implications for women who carried most of the caring responsibilities.
The union did not have any specific examples of increased surveillance, but Mr Nahum said public servants are already subject to monitoring of email and social media accounts, something he says should not come into the employer-employee relationship unless the activity is ”off the charts”.
He said the technology is way ahead of the law and there are few jurisdictions, the ACT being one, that have any restrictions around privacy from electronic surveillance.
“But even in the ACT there are tools being used that aren’t being properly regulated so we definitely need to make sure workers aren’t under excessive surveillance when they are on the clock, and aren’t under surveillance at all when they’re off the clock,” said Mr Nahum.
He said that during COVID-19 when staff were out of the office, managers had tried to reassert a sense of control over what they are doing at the expense of workers’ dignity, mental health, stress levels and right to privacy.
Mr Nahum said the productivity benefits of such surveillance tools are questionable.