MTEJA HAPATIKANI

A bill now seeks to give Kenyans the 'right to disconnect' after work

The aim is to correct an anomaly where digital technologies have created an obscure line between official work hours and rest time
Please do not call me after work hours.
Please do not call me after work hours.
Photo: THOMAS MUKOYA (Reuters)
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A new bill is being proposed through Kenya’s senate to block employers from interfering with the work-life balance of their employees via calls, text messages, emails, or assignments past working hours, weekends, and public holidays.

The Employment (Amendment) Bill, sponsored by Nandi senator Samson Cherarkey, seeks to give Kenyan workers the “the right to disconnect in the digital age” and protect them against employers who subject them to extra work without pay, this year.

The bill states: “Where an employer contacts an employee during the period when there is no mutually agreed out-of-work hours, the employee — (a) shall not be obliged to respond and shall have the right to disconnect; and (b) may choose to respond, for which the employee shall be entitled to get compensation.”

Inside Kenya’s Employment Amendment Bill

As Kenya’s future of work keeps drifting to online spaces thanks to lower cost of internet and devices, the bill notes that constant digital connectivity is “eroding leisure time for employees hence affecting their work-life balance.”

To correct that, the bill aims to create a much needed “balance between work and private life to allow digital technology to have a positive effect on workers’ quality of life.”

Firms with over 10 employees shall be required to consult their employees or trade unions when formulating their out-of-work policies. Employers who breach the law will be fined $4,000.

The earliest the bill can be tabled to the senate is on Feb. 13 when lawmakers resume from recess. As per Kenya’s law making procedures, it will go through all readings at the senate for 90 days. If approved, it will be tabled to the national assembly where it will take another 90 days before presidential assent.

If passed into law, Kenya shall become the first African country to protect employees against burnout, fatigue, and hours of unpaid work, allowing them more time with their families. France effected a similar law in 2017, with research showing that more leisure time translates to higher productivity during working hours.

The challenge with the right to disconnect in Kenya

But those who fight for the right to disconnect can easily slide into quiet quitting and get earmarked for the next wave of retrenchments among Kenyan companies, which tend to promote employees who go above and beyond the outlines of their job descriptions.

With the country’s economy wobbling amid rampant inflation and soaring youth unemployment, the right to disconnect may not work as there might be many Kenyans who are ready to work for free during overtime as long as it attracts future employment. Those already under-employed see it as an opportunity to rise to get better employment terms in future.

“On Fridays, I carry files home to work on during the weekend. I’m not paid for it but I know my diligence will earn me better pay in future,” Susan Gituku, a credit officer at a Nairobi-based microfinance told Quartz. Kenyan law allows a maximum of 40 working hours for a five-day week (eight per day) but some companies extend that to 12 hours a day in pursuit of profits.

Another hurdle is that such a law can never be universally applied across all sectors, with people working as emergency medical staff, journalists, electricians, plumbers, fire fighters, security personnel, and drivers being forced by the nature of their jobs to work during odd hours, sometimes to save lives and livelihoods.

Executive director of the Federation of Kenyan Employers Jacqueline Mugo disagrees with the tenets of the right to switch-off from work, saying the bill will create indiscipline among employees, hurt the country’s micro-economy, and prevent the creation of new job opportunities in the public and private sectors.

“[It will] introduce new stringent measures that will curtail the prerogative to manage enterprises by the owners. This will automatically pose a challenge to industrial relations in Kenya,” she says.