By Shloka Suda, School of Law, UPES, Dehradun.

During the last 25 years, there has been a drastic improvement in the modes of communication, every person carrying a cellular device is just a phone call away, letters are written via email, the transmission of messages takes place in seconds through means of the internet. In the wake of advancements in technology, it has become increasingly difficult for a person to separate professional life from personal life. This “problem” has been recognized by the International Labour Organisation, as the said situation has only led to increased responsibility and accountability on the Employee. Any person who wants to give a 100% at his job invariably ends up spending all of his day working, which leads to a degradation in the quality of their life. In order to protect employees from this complication and to maintain the distinction between work and home, a need for “The Right to Disconnect” has been acknowledged. The Right to Disconnect essentially empowers the employee to not respond to any work-related queries post designated work hours.

The Right to Disconnect, as a concept, emerged in 2004 in the Western European country of France; a precedent was set in a decision of the Labour Chamber of the French Supreme Court. In January 2017, the El Khomri Law was passed by the French Government as part of their Labour Code, in response to a report published in September 2015, which showcased how emergence of digital technologies can be seen to have a negative impact on a worker’s health as it is psychologically draining to be accountable to respond 24×7. 

Following the passing of this law, in 2016, there was another study which concluded that 37% of workers were using professional digital tools (e.g., work mobile phones) outside of work hours, and that 62% of workers wanted more controls and rules to regulate this. Germany, Italy, and the Philippines were quick to follow the same accord and have the rights of their employees safeguarded. Policies are being formulated and amendments being made all over the globe to protect the rights of employees.

Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay. Every employee has a personal life and owing to different conditions, it is simply not possible for some people to dedicate their entire time to work- this was recognized by the UDHR in 1948 itself.

India is the second most populated country in the world, standing second only to China. In terms of numbers, India is home to almost 1.5 billion people. Owing to the immense number of inhabitants, there is a higher rate of competition, to a point where people start believing that not having a personal life is the only way to succeed, which in the long run can have a major psychological impact on society as a whole. 

The Right to Disconnect Bill 2018 introduced by a Private Member, NCP MP Supriya Sule, has been making the rounds of the Lok Sabha. It demands that companies with more than 10 employees set up an Employee Welfare committee, and then negotiate upon details such as working hours, overtime pay, etc., with the workers. 

The Bill aims to empower the employees by granting them the liberty to not be answerable beyond work hours. They will be able to choose to not respond to work calls and emails beyond work hours.

The Employee Welfare Authority is to be set up centrally and shall consist of members who have been enlisted in the Bill. The functions of the Authority as described under Section 5 of the Bill, are not limited to but will include the formulation of a Charter, which will provide an outline about the terms and conditions to be negotiated between employer and employee. This would include details like, maximum work hours, overtime compensation limits, etc. The Bill also consists of provisions for spreading knowledge about the use of digital and communication tools, in furtherance of its effort to educate the working society about technology and its effect(s).

In the first year of its passing, the Bill aims to get the Authority to conduct baseline studies to gather data about the usage of digital and communication tools outside work hours and in personal life by all workers either employed in a public or a private company. Though the Authority will provide an outline Charter, as per Section 8 of the Bill, every individual, company, and society having more than ten employees will need to consult with employees, unions or employee representatives to decide on the terms and conditions for the contract, as per the requirements of the Company Charter. The State Government and concerned organisations will stay actively involved in the process.

The main objective behind setting up of the Employee Welfare Authority is to, after thorough research and analysis, set up a framework of employer-employee contracts.

The Bill goes on to define exactly what overtime work and work hours should be, in the eyes of law. The Bill at multiple places has made clear that the exact terms are to be negotiated between the employer and employee and made clear at the time of the contract. To keep the mental health of employees in check, provisions have been made in the Bill, for providing counseling service and setting up of digital detox centers.

While some may argue that this Bill will lead to increased stress on the Employers and Managers, in the long run, it will only lead to a better understanding of work ethic and to Indians leading a more structured life. As of now, many of us live in absolute chaos, working overtime without demanding extra pay, only to please our superiors, and to show dedication. Working a “nine to five” job but staying in the office from “nine to nine” has become the norm, and it needs to be addressed. The Bill is a great initiative in the right direction though it is highly unlikely that it will materialize into law, as it’s a Private Member’s Bill and the last time that a Private Member’s Bill turned into an Act was in 1970.