EDITORIAL: Of labour laws and ground reality
The U-turn is a result of the pressure exerted by trade unions and alliance partners of the ruling DMK, who believe the new proposal would entail exploitation of workers.
CHENNAI: The State government has decided to put on hold the Factories (Tamil Nadu Amendment) Bill, 2023, which included a provision to extend daily working shifts of factory workers from the present eight hours to 12 hours. The U-turn is a result of the pressure exerted by trade unions and alliance partners of the ruling DMK, who believe the new proposal would entail exploitation of workers. As per provisions of the amendment, only a few factories belonging to specific sectors will be covered under conditional exemption (of increased work hours) after offering the necessary conducive working conditions.
These developments are transpiring when there is a national and global discourse regarding work hours that need to be punched in by employees during any given week. Work from Home and hybrid routines inspired by the pandemic had even prompted employees to consider the pros and cons of the four-day work week entailing a 12-hour work day, which would allow workers to allocate a fair quotient of their time towards personal or familial pursuits.
For instance, the UK had set into motion the world’s biggest experiment for a four-day work week last year. Staffers at over 60 British enterprises had attempted to follow a four-day work week between June and December 2022. The results of the pilot programme which came in February, revealed the accrual of major benefits – not just to the health of workers, but even to their productivity. Over 90% of the participating companies have chosen to continue with the four-day week schedule, with as many as 18 firms adopting it permanently. A slew of such experiments have taken place in the US, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, with positive results.
Advocates of the four-day work week believe that apart from the productivity-linked benefits, employee morale has also been boosted. However, there are critics who say the system might be impractical in certain sectors, like manufacturing, agriculture, essential services such as healthcare, public administration, law enforcement as well as emergency services. In India, where workers are already stretched thin, especially in understaffed government departments, the notion of a four-day work week might entail staffers stretching their work days up to 12 hours, which might wreak havoc with their sleep cycles.
Let’s not forget, extending the Factories Act provision to ordinary workspaces also means people will be required to consider commute times when it comes to their work hours. For those travelling by private transport, it might not be a stretch. But it’s worth probing whether India’s public transport system can be reimagined so as to provide seamless connectivity between destinations around the clock, while taking care of the maintenance issues. Even the government of India had introduced four new labour laws last year, which included the provision for a four-day work week. But then, it went against the spirit of the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020 (manufacturing sector), which mandates that workers not be permitted to work more than eight hours a day.
A silver lining of these developments is the fact that formalising the 12-hour shift could have offered some legal safeguards to the interests of workers in the unorganised sector, many of whom are already working beyond the designated hours. Long story short, a one size fits all solution might not be the answer to the needs of an ever-evolving ecosystem of workplaces.