The Right to Disconnect Bill is here: All you need to know

Within days of a nationwide strike by trade unions demanding more worker-friendly labour laws, a private member’s bill seeking the right to disconnect from work after office hours was introduced in the Lok Sabha on December 28, 2018. 

Acknowledging the grievances of employees working overtime, NCP MP Supriya Sule who introduced the bill underlined its primary agenda to allow employees the right to not respond to communication from work outside of work hours, including the right to ignore phone calls and emails.

Other provisions of the bill

The Right to Disconnect Bill, 2018, also seeks to establish an Employees’ Welfare Authority “to confer the right on every employee to disconnect from work-related telephone calls and emails beyond work hours and on holidays and [the] right to refuse to answer calls and emails outside work hours and for all matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.”

The bill also mandates companies to detail out-of-work demands “as a way to reduce stress and ease tension between an employee’s personal and professional life,” Sule added. The proposed regulatory body will comprise of IT, Communication and Labour ministers who will formulate a charter within a year, listing terms and conditions for negotiations between employees and employers. Companies will also be required to draft their own policy towards employees working remotely, tele-working and travelling for work.

The Bill also recommended the constitution of Employees’ Welfare Committees at every company to assist the employees in such negotiations.

Why it matters

The proposed legislation primarily seeks to secure the grounds for an employee to refuse to answer work calls after office hours. Section 7 of the bill noted that while the employer may contact the worker after work hours, the employee is not obliged to reply. Furthermore, an employee who exercises such a right will not be subject to disciplinary or discriminatory action thereafter.

“The need is to respect the personal space of the employees by recognising their right to disconnect and not respond to their employer’s calls, e-mails etc., during out-of- work hours. The need is also to recognise the rights of the employees, it also takes into consideration the competitive needs of the companies and their diverse work cultures. Flexibility in the right to disconnect rules and leaves it to the individual companies to negotiate terms of service with their employees is need of the hour,” the bill tabled at the parliament reads.

The case against being readily contactable

With dynamic business demands in an evolving corporate landscape, striking a work-life balance has become difficult but also a priority. More millennials are shifting to freelancing to have a better control over how they use their time, and to stave off stress, anxiety and sleep deprivation—notable trends in studies on employee health.

The traditional service sector has to often deal with unreasonable work hours, working overtime without extra compensation, or carrying their work home. William Becker who studies the impact of technologies on workers’ well-being suggests that implicit expectations from an employer that the employee is always contactable can trigger feelings of anxiety.

“The insidious impact of ‘always on’ organizational culture is often unaccounted for or disguised as a benefit – increased convenience, for example, or higher autonomy and control over work-life boundaries,” said Becker. “Our research exposes the reality: ‘flexible work boundaries’ often turn into ‘work without boundaries,’ compromising an employee’s and their family’s health and well-being,” he told New Atlas.

Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian also called out this glorification of long working hours, describing it as hustle porn. Taking a stand against this culture that expects employees to be on perpetual standby for micro-tasks in an ultra-connected world, Ohanian said, “This idea that unless you are suffering, grinding, working every hour of every day, you’re not working hard enough … this is one of the most toxic, dangerous things in tech right now,” adding, “It’s such bullshit, such utter bullshit. It has deleterious effects not just on your business but on your wellbeing.”

Other instances of modernising the workplace

Countries like France and Germany have already adopted the right to disconnect laws, with the French government setting the example first in 2004, when it clarified that an employee unreachable on a smartphone outside of work hours will not be tagged for misconduct.

The European Union had voted in 2015 to regard the time spent in commute (to and from work) as work. In India, a Kolkata-based firm became the third in the country to sanction menstruation leave (of two days per month) to its female employees starting New Year’s Day.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius

Employee wellbeinglabour rightsParliamentRight to DisconnectSupriya Sule