Factories (Karnataka Amendment) Bill, 2023: A Step Backwards For Workers’ Rights
AS calls for shorter work hours gain popularity worldwide, the Karnataka government in late February took the controversial decision to increase working hours for workers across the state.
Amidst zero debate and consultation with trade unions, the Karnataka Assembly amended India’s Factories Act, 1948 to increase working hours for workers to up to 12 hours a day, subject to a 48-hour weekly limit, and scale up permissible hours of overtime per quarter to 145 hours from the previously mandated 75-hour limit. Additionally, the Act was amended to permit women workers to work night shifts.
It must be noted that the Bill has not come into effect yet, since it has not been assented to be the Governor till now.
A report from Financial Times suggests that lobbying by American multinational technology company Apple and Taiwanese multinational electronics contract manufacturer Foxconn may have been the prime factor behind Karnataka’s landmark decision to relax labour protections for workers across the state. Since disruptions in global supply chains caused by the pandemic, Apple and Foxconn have been on the prowl for alternative manufacturing destinations to reduce their overreliance on China.
Foxconn is globally known for being one of the world’s most repressive employers. In 2010, 14 workers at Foxconn Shenzen, China, tragically plunged to their death from company-allotted dormitories due to oppressive labour conditions, including frustration from long working hours at the factory.
The Karnataka Assembly amended India’s Factories Act, 1948 to increase working hours for workers to up to 12 hours a day, subject to a 48-hour weekly limit, scale up permissible hours of overtime per quarter to 145 hours from the previously mandated 75-hour limit, and permit women workers to work night shifts.
Foxconn, which has already set up shop over a sprawling 49 acre zone in Tamil Nadu, is now in talks to expand to states such as Telangana and Karnataka.
Also read: May Day: 12-hour working day notifications
Lesser working time— a popular and historical demand of the labour movement
The world over, and historically, the fight for lesser working hours has been the rallying cry of trade unions and the workers’ movement. The celebration of May Day or International Workers’ Day on May 1 every year pays homage to the incredible movement by workers who lost their lives fighting for an eight-hour workday at Haymarket Square in Chicago in the United States in 1886. It is from this gathering that the famous and oft-repeated rallying cry of workers and unions— “eight hours of work, eight hours of rest and eight hours for everything else”— claims its origin.
Today, unions worldwide, from IG Metall, Germany’s biggest union with 2.3 million workers, to workers at Forsa, Ireland’s second largest union, with over 80,000 members, are reviving this historical demand for lesser working hours and making it a central element of their campaign.
There are several reasons why reducing working time is a popular demand for workers worldwide. For one, excess working time does not necessarily guarantee an improvement in the life of workers.
In their book Overtime: Why We Need A Shorter Working Week (2021), British researchers Will Stronge and Kyle Lewis note that as the contribution to national income from wages and salaries has been falling over the past few decades, the share of capital has been rapidly increasing. This means owning assets like a home or shares is a more guaranteed route to economic prosperity than working for a wage. Studies have also widely documented that countries with longer work hours are some of the world’s most unequal societies.
Two, longer working hours are literally making workers sicker. Studies link excess working hours to several ailments including anxiety, depression, burnout, hypertension, and increased risk of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease. In 2021, a combined International Labour Organization–World Health Organization study found that workers who worked for more than 55 hours a week have a 35 per cent higher risk of contracting a stroke and 17 per cent higher chance of dying from heart disease compared to those working 35–40 hours a week.
But the fight for lesser working hours or free time is as much about the health and safety of workers, and the improvement of their living standards as it is about them leading fulfilling lives. And leading a fulfilling life requires free time. Workers need to have free time to be able to relax, care for themselves, nurture their communities, take care of children and the elderly, and pursue interests— all of which are impossible to achieve if an individual’s most valuable hours of a day are snatched by their bosses.
Women workers’ domestic labour— unpaid and unrecognised
While workers from all sectors will suffer from this amendment in Karnataka, women workers will be particularly hard hit.
Women workers engage in work not only at the factory but also at their homes. The gendered division of work under capitalism means that women workers are primary caregivers in their families and disproportionately carry the burden of performing household chores. The increase in the labour force participation of women in paid work over the years has not translated into a decrease in women’s provision of care work at home; it has only left women workers working more hours.
Workers need to have free time to be able to relax, care for themselves, nurture their communities, take care of children and the elderly, and pursue interests— all of which are impossible to achieve if an individual’s most valuable hours of a day are snatched by their bosses.
A surge in daily working hours, will not lead to “equal opportunity for women” as declared in the Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Factories (Karnataka Amendment) Bill, 2023; instead, women workers will work themselves to the bone for a minimum of 18–20 hours a day to scrape through a living, or worse, leave the workforce altogether.
It is evident from how the factory is organised that it is gendered and was created keeping in mind male workers who have little to no responsibilities at home. Any fight for lesser working hours should consider the gendered nature of work and be mindful that the fight for lesser hours of work is also a fight for gender equality.
In many ways, inspiration should be sought from the 1970s feminist call for ‘wages for housework’, which sought to expose how modern society and capitalism structurally depend on women’s free labour for survival. Italian–American scholar, teacher and feminist activist Silvia Federici, one of the movement’s founders, wrote in her influential 1975 pamphlet Wages Against Housework, “To say that we want wages for housework is to expose the fact that housework is already money for capital, that capital has made, and makes money out of our cooking, smiling…” What she meant was that every penny saved by wage workers thanks to the free labour performed by women at home was money that bosses did not have to fork over from their profits. Similarly, every minute spent by women performing free labour at home is extra time for wage workers that bosses claim as their own.
Recognising housework— from cooking and cleaning to caring for children— as legitimate working time, therefore, becomes the first step in fighting for lesser working hours. It forces society to calculate deleted hours of work put in by women workers at their homes. As Fredrici declared, “To say that we want money for housework is the first step towards refusing to do it”; agitating to recognise housework as a part of working hours declared under the law is the first step towards reducing women’s workload.
Night shift for women workers— a step backward for gender equality
Another key amendment is the introduction of the night shift, that is, a shift between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m., for women workers.
As per the Bill, night shifts are optional. They require written consent from women workers and are subject to certain conditions being met, including providing transport and ensuring CCTV coverage in the factory, among other things.
To assume that consent has place at a factory is a fool’s errand. In a country with historically low levels of union membership, where workers have close to no bargaining power, what is the assurance that workers will not be fired for refusing night shifts? Moreover, several mandates for worker safety are flouted with ease at the factory, including the setting up of internal complaints’ committees under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 with no repercussions for factory owners. What guarantee is there, then, to ensure that the additional conditions of the Bill are met?
Apart from procedural issues, the base idea that night shifts for women workers are a step forward for gender equality is deeply flawed. Night shifts have a profound impact on health, including increasing the risk of contracting breast cancer.
The goal must be to eradicate night shifts for people of all genders, not expand their scope. The objective must be to create a world of work which is humane, not one where people’s life and fulfilment is subordinate to work.
Recognising housework as legitimate working time becomes the first step in fighting for lesser working hours. It forces society to calculate deleted hours of work put in by women workers at their homes.
If the concern is gender equality, then efforts should be made to fund public services that benefit women and radically redistribute work in a way where people of all genders perform their fair share of household and care work. Providing paid paternity leave, increasing funding for childcare, and protecting the rights of Anganwadi workers who take care of children’s health and nutrition needs are some of the immediate steps that could be taken for the benefit of working women.
Factories (Karnataka Amendment) Bill, 2023— a stain on the Constitution
Crucially, we will do well to remember that ensuring just and humane conditions for work is a Directive Principle of State Policy under the Constitution. Although directive principles cannot be independently enforced, they are meant to act as a guiding light for State policy.
By introducing this amendment, the Karnataka government is disregarding these principles and rendering the hard-won protections of the Factories Act to waste. To honour the Constitution’s commitments and safeguard workers’ rights, the first step in a long list of those needed to empower workers must be the immediate revocation of Karnataka’s amendments to the Factories Act.
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