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India debates work-life balance after new Bill

A Bill introduced in India's Parliament last month says employees have the right not to answer calls or e-mails after work and should not face any disciplinary action for exercising this right.

Source: straitstimes.com | Jan 21, 2019 05:00 AM SGT

Policemen in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh had a pleasant surprise earlier this month -they are fi­nally getting a weekly day off.

The decision to grant them a weekly rest day was an election pledge that the Indian National Congress Government in the state simple ­ minted after taking office last month. While   police   personnel were allowed annual leave, the ab­sence of a weekly day off had taken a toll on their work-life balance.

The importance of good work-life balance has gained greater public interest in India in recent weeks with the introduction of a Right to Disconnect Bill last month in Parliament.

Introduced by Nationalist Con­gress Party MP Supriya Sule, it seeks to empower Indians to disconnect from the office after working hours.

It is something that concerns not only those who helm essential services, like policemen and doctors, but also regular office-goers who often find themselves working on weekends and holidays.

A study last year by Swiss investment bank UBS found that an average employee in Mumbai works 3,315 hours a year - the highest in the world. Hanoi took the second spot with 2,691 hours and Mexico City placed third with 2,622 hours in the study of 77 cities. Singapore was not on the list. New Delhi, too, ranked among the top five, indicat­ing the culture of long hours is widely prevalent in India.

The Bill says employees have the right not to answer calls or emails after work and should not face any disciplinary action for exercising this right. It also directs employers to negotiate out-of-work hours with employees, and entitles the latter to overtime compensation.

Besides prescribing the creation of a national authority to oversee the welfare of employees, it even says any non-adherence to the Bill will cost the employer 1 percent of total employees ‘remuneration.

While it has provoked a discussion on the need for better work­ life balance, the Bill has been widely described as impractical and utopian in a country that needs to reform labour laws and get other human resources basics right first.

It stands a remote chance of being enacted into law soon, more so with political leaders getting drawn into campaigning ahead of a general election due in three months.

Ms Sule tells The Straits Times that "one has to start somewhere and push for change", adding:

"Why should one want to overwork somebody to the point that they are completely drained."

She adds that people have misunderstood the Bill, which is not about making people work less or preventing employers from contact­ in their workers in emergencies.

"It is about bringing in good efficiency for work-life balance that in turn boosts productivity, “she says.

But industry experts think the Bill is disconnected from the ambitious dynamics of an economy that seeks to develop at double-digit rates and its workers who covet growth.

Mr Sunil Goel, managing director of human resources firm Global­Hunt, says: "When firms and employees try to achieve certain things in a short time, when they have limited time to ensure returns for in­vestors' money, it automatically translates into a24/7-office model."

India, he adds, is a long way from countries with mature markets with clear employee workloads. France, for instance, has laws requiring contracts featuring negotiation with employees on how connected they have To Be outside office hours.

Still, he acknowledges work-life balance is becoming a greater priority for firms in India as they seek to reduce attrition and boost productivity. A negotiated reinforcement of work-life balance between employers and employees, instead of a legislative push, is what most feel could work better.

Ms Sule plans to reintroduce a strengthened version of the Bill later this year. “Maybe not now, but it could be enacted into legislation in a couple of years, “she adds.