Saturday, December 9, 2023

Labour Blues

Amid opposition to increasing factory working hours to 12 against the present eight, the Bill was put on hold. The constant jostling between productivity and labour rights often sees workers left high and dry.

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By Vikram Kilpady

Closely following the Lehman Brothers crash and the worldwide downturn thereafter, the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 was a seminal moment when people in developed economies came together to protest against economic inequality and the influence that money bought itself in politics worldwide. Photo wires across the world ran the iconic image of the Wall Street bull being surrounded by protesters.

Among the many leading lights of the almost two-month-long protest was Professor David Graeber, a self-confessed anarchist and an anthropologist. Graeber, who died in 2020, has either written or co-written almost 20 books, the last being Bullshit Jobs. This book attacks the profusion of consultant jobs and non-jobs that make up more than two-thirds of the job market, as opposed to real jobs. 

Graeber broadly defines real jobs as those in which if there is a cut, the effect will be felt in real life. Like a cut in jobs for ambulance drivers or nurses, which are often the first ones affected when austerity measures come into effect. A corollary to this is the four-day work week, which exists in one form or another in some 18 countries. Most of such arrangements are in pilot form in the UK, the US, Spain and South Africa. 

Though the demand for reduced working hours is a crucial matter that would change the nature of work and the average working day, the issue is one on which debate is still open.

In India, it is a big question with many sides to it. On April 21, the Tamil Nadu government introduced and cleared an amendment to the Factories Act 1948. The change in law meant that workers can choose to work 12-hour shifts, instead of eight-hour ones, to save three days as paid holidays. With the maximum working hours per week set at 48 hours, a worker who does 12-hour shifts would finish the 48 hours in four days, leaving three days of the week as paid holidays. Instead, if the worker continued with the eight-hour shift, he would be required to work six days and get the seventh as a paid holiday.

However, as widespread protests and opposition spread, including from the rapidly regrouping AIADMK with its close ties with the BJP, the DMK government put the changes on hold after a meeting with labour representatives. The AIADMK had sought to have the Bill withdrawn while the DMK’s allies, the CPI(M), the CPI and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, had opposed it.

Tabling the Factories (Tamil Nadu Amendment) Bill, 2023, on April 12, labour minister of the state CV Ganesan said the amendment to the Factories Act 1948 was necessitated after industries and associations had petitioned for reforms that would allow a statutory provision for flexible working hours. The minister said this would benefit women workers who could get time for their families and help industries and the country’s economy as a whole.

Ganesan was at pains to communicate to the MLAs that the Bill was to promote industrial flexibility and would not effect change in eight-hour work days, weekly holidays and additional wages. He added the law would be applied only in places where workers desired it and won’t be applied all over the state and for all factories. However, the protesters said that it was nobody’s case that reforms should not be undertaken. All that they were pushing for was greater definition and statutory safeguards for things left unsaid in the law passed by the Tamil Nadu assembly.

Even Karnataka had brought in a law to this effect in February, but with clear safeguards. Reports said the Karnataka amendments stipulate that such an increase in daily work hours will be subject to the condition that the weekly hours not exceed 48. The days left over in the work week will be counted as paid holidays. The Karnataka law mandates change in working hours subject to the workers’ written consent. 

Reports said the problem with the law passed by the Tamil Nadu assembly was that instead of putting things in writing, it baldly introduces a broad exemption which can overrule norms on weekly hours, weekly holidays, daily hours, rest intervals, overtime wages and in-factory time, inclusive of intervals.

The change in working hours is not a spur of the moment measure. It is in line with the four central codes for labour which are yet to be brought into force. The centre has formulated the Code on Wages, 2019, the Industrial Relations Code, 2020, the Code on Social Security, 2020, and the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020, and published them in the Official Gazette for general information.

The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020’s Section 127 (2) reads: “Without prejudice to the generality of sub-section (1), where the State Government is satisfied in the public interest that it is necessary to create more economic activities and employment opportunities, it may, by notification, exempt, subject to such conditions as it may think fit, any new factory or class or description of new factories from all or any of the provisions of this Code for such period from the date on which such commercial production starts, as may be specified in the notification:

“Provided that any notification issued by a State Government under the Factories Act, 1948 for the time being in force in the State prior to the commencement of this Code to achieve the same purpose as is specified in this sub-section, shall remain in force after such commencement for its remaining period as if the provisions of this Code, to the extent they defeat any purpose to be achieved by such notification issued by the State Government, were not in force.”

This should put to rest any concern that Tamil Nadu had shot the gun on labour reforms. Uttar Pradesh had also brought in the 12-hour factory rule and withdrawn it. Karnataka has passed the law as mentioned earlier.

The need for such reforms is also specific to the kind of investment the state draws. Tamil Nadu has plants set up by Apple contractors Foxconn and Pegatron, Samsung, Nokia, Dell and others who work at different levels of productivity. The need for increasing working hours looks like an attempt to invite more such manufacturers into the country.

Labour unions have opposed the law tooth and nail. The Centre of Indian Trade Unions TN president A Soundararajan told a newspaper that even when it was eight hours, employees were being forced to work for more than 12 hours. If the government allows companies to extend working hours to 12, they will extend them unofficially to even 16 hours, he said. Soundararajan said the effects will be similar to the fatigue felt by workers in Japan.

In theory, everything is easy and compact. Practice makes it clear if it is indeed so. Innovations in hiring and firing have also run their course: The contract labour route and the temporary worker route seem to have outlived their purpose if one were to look at the labour strife in Haryana with both Maruti Suzuki and Honda Motorcycles. In both cases, the state sided with the companies and thwarted strikes that held back productivity, allowing the roll out of diesel SUVs and suave scooterettes that everyone wants to buy to proceed unhampered.

The urgent move to increase working hours is all the more perplexing as the western world is hedging its bets as calls for a four-day week gain support. Former Finland PM Sanna Marin is on record supporting a four-day week or a six-hour working day.

The eight-hour working day itself didn’t happen by chance and was the result of labour movements in the US in the 1860s. With investment moving further East, labour in developing countries is fair game for experiments in extending the work day. Communist China is notorious for appalling work conditions, which have been documented well in the West. The Chinese 996 system, 9 am to 9 pm for 6 days a week, is underwritten by laws which allow employers to extend working hours as per production needs after discussion with labour unions.

Though the compensation for such long hours is stipulated to be made at far higher amounts and with a limit on the hours so billed, the end result allows an eleventh hour hurry to meet production targets, leaving labour and its rights in the cesspool. The toiling workers are just tools in these pursuits, AI is after all only for white-collar work.

The catching up that the Indian Elephant has to do with the Chinese Dragon is enormous, and the extension of working hours looks like par for the course. But will state governments in India follow up on it, or leave the letter of the law as a loophole to be exploited by employers is a GDP-levelling question.

The irony of it all is that such a move, utilising labour for the production requirements of foreign uber capitalists, is being heralded in a state led by a chief minister named Stalin. 

—The writer is Editor, and

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