The human right to disconnect
For many children, their childhood is marred by their parents working late and having very little time for them. Or, as with the changed scenario nowadays, parents being home with their kids, but still being bombarded with work calls, emails, and (no thanks to the pandemic!) online meetings. After working around 8 to 10 hours every day, employees still have to spend many hours at home dealing with work-related communication. Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, as people have taken up working from home as part of the new normal, the fine line between work and personal time seems to have become erased. Although Zoom or Google Meet meetings have made it easier for people to work from the comfort of their homes, work hours have become extended and have diluted family time.
In such circumstances, the right to disconnect is becoming more and more relevant. The "right to disconnect" refers to an employee's ability to disengage from work and any other communication related to work after the working hours are over. This right has its origin in a few pre-existing rights. For example, the right to rest and leisure with reasonable limitation of working hours under Article 24 and the right to just and favourable conditions of work under Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Thus, instead of considering the right to disconnect as new or emerging, it is more apt to consider it a necessary element for the realisation of existing rights.
In 2004, the Chambre Sociale (Labour Division) of the Court of Cassation of France stated in another case that not answering phone calls outside working hours does not constitute serious misconduct and therefore does not justify a disciplinary dismissal. Article 55 of the El Khomri law, enacted by France in 2016 to reform working conditions, established the right to disconnect for employees to ensure respect for rest periods and leave as well as personal and family life. The provision stated that the employer shall draw up a charter, after consultation, to define the procedures for the exercise of this right to disconnect. The provision was added after a report to the French Labour Minister suggested "professional disconnection," so that the introduction of digital technologies in the workplace could have a positive impact.
Although the provision introduces the right to disconnect, it does not define its scope, but rather leaves it upon the employers to draw up a policy regarding this right after consulting with workers and other stakeholders. Similarly, in Italy, article 19(1) of the Senate Act no. 2233-B stipulates that an agreement shall govern the performance of work outside the premises of the company, as well as decide the technical and organisational measures to ensure that the worker is disconnected from the technological equipment.
The Philippines provides this right to workers by stipulating that employers establish hours during which no employee is obliged to send or receive work-related electronic communication. Recently, Ireland passed new guidelines providing the right to disconnect. Besides, a lot of renowned companies in Europe including Volkswagen, Allianz, Henkel, Daimler, and Siemens, etc provide this right to their workers to varying degrees.
Against the backdrop of increased workloads thanks to digital means due to the Covid-19 pandemic, members of the European parliament have been calling for a law that enables people working digitally to disconnect outside their working hours. Recently, the International Labour Organization, in its report titled "Work anytime, anywhere: The effects on the world of work," discussed the right to disconnect as a policy response.
Although the right to disconnect is gaining momentum due to the rise of remote working, the right is equally relevant for people working from home and from the office. Proper implementation of right-to-disconnect policies will not only be instrumental in providing employees much-needed rest and allow them to enjoy their family life after a busy day at work, but it can be beneficial to employers as well. Proper rest and leisure may boost the productivity of employers and keep their mental health in check through the minimisation of work-related stress and communication.
Again, availing this right will allow working parents to spend an adequate amount of time with their children, which in turn will have a positive impact on children's quality of life. With the gradual empowerment of women in the educational and professional spheres, a lot of families consist of both parents working. Thus, to provide a child with the necessary care and quality time with their parents, it is essential to avail the right to disconnect to working parents.
Article 15(c) of the constitution of Bangladesh prescribes the right to reasonable rest, recreation and leisure as a basic necessity for life, thus creating an obligation upon the state to secure it through progressive policies.
Adapting to the current challenges of employment in the 21st century, it is desired that the government makes it mandatory for companies and corporations to have policies to implement the right to disconnect. Proper utilisation of the right to disconnect will help minimise the side effects of electronic communication in workplaces and bring out the best of employees. Even if establishing the right to disconnect as a human right seems a bit overdone, implementing it as a policy will increase the chances of better implementation of a range of rights related to the workplace and also to one's personal life.
Arafat Ibnul Bashar is a lecturer in the Department of Law at Port City International University, Chittagong.