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Productivity At What Cost?

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By Lavanya Garg, Mansi Kabra

Back in May 2019, we were visiting a large garment factory in Arsikere, Karnataka, when we asked some of the workers, “What would you do if you got Saturdays off?” Their responses to this simple question summed up their priorities. A majority said they would spend time with family or friends and take care of their children. Many said they would use this time to relax or do household chores. Only a few said they’d look for additional pay.

Since garment factories in India are characterised by a predominantly female labour force, it seems almost obvious that a shorter workweek would not only give existing female workers a better work-life balance but also incentivise prospective women to join the workforce—many of whom are bound by other time constraints.

“How would giving workers time off affect the productivity and profits of the business?”

But the broader question that still remains is: How would giving workers time off affect the productivity and profits of the business? Will the anticipated effect be positive and sizeable, enough to incentivise a policy change in favour of lowering daily or weekly working hours? Answering these questions requires us to examine the link between working hours and productivity. This is particularly relevant in the context of the amendments made to India’s labour laws in the wake of COVID-19.

What Do India’s Labour Laws Say About Working Hours?

Globally, labour laws have been put in place with the purpose of protecting employees’ rights and setting forth employers’ duties, and Indian labour laws are no differentThe Indian Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to work, secured to the best abilities of the state. However, with upwards of 200 separate pieces of labour legislation in the country, there is no strict definition of ‘labour laws’ to draw any boundaries. The current laws not only regulate the conditions of work of industrial establishments, but also industrial relations, payment of wages, and registration of trade unions, among other subjects.

Without a set definition to serve as a compass, the scope for what can be regulated is wide, and can thus fall at the discretion of the regulators. One area where this has played out is in the context of The Factories Act, 1948 (amended in 1987)—an iconic act relating to minimum conditions of employment, which lays down all the provisions concerning occupational safety and health in factories, including working hours. Section 51 and 59 of the Act state, “No employee is supposed to work for more than 48 hours in a week and nine hours in a day. Any employee who works for more than this period is eligible for overtime remuneration.”

line of women workers in garment factory_PC Nayantara ParikhWith upwards of 200 separate pieces of labour legislation in the country, there is no strict definition of ‘labour laws’ to draw any boundaries. Picture courtesy: Nayantara Parikh

However, the same act also allows state governments to exempt factories from these provisions relating to work hours for three months if factories are dealing with an exceptional amount of work.

Where freedom is allowed, freedom is usually taken.

In light of COVID-19, some states have increased both the daily and weekly work hours with the purported aim of reviving the economy, boosting productivity, and ensuring more workers get jobs.

  • Assam, Goa, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh governments issued notifications to increase the maximum daily work hours for workers in their states to 12 hours. Karnataka and Uttarakhand increased maximum daily work hours to 10 and 11 hours, respectively.
  • Karnataka, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh subsequently withdrew their notifications for various reasons, including change in the economic conditions from earlier this year and legal challenges via public interest litigation.
  • More recently, the Karnataka government passed an ordinance which increases overtime hours in a quarter from 75 to 125.

These amendments violate the Hours of Work (Industry) Convention, 1919 adopted by the International Labour Organisation—to which India is a signatory. Further, they also put at risk the fine balance between productivity and labour rights. But is increasing working hours the only way to increase productivity?

An Alternative To Boost productivity

In 1914, Henry Ford took the ‘radical’ decision to cut daily work hours from nine to eight and double pay for workers to USD 5 a day. Though this move was initially unpopular among most rivals, many followed suit, seeing the overall profitability of Ford’s operations.

“Over the last few years, many of us working in urban, ‘white-collar’ jobs have a seen a clarion call for shorter workweeks as well.”

Over the last few years, many of us working in urban, ‘white-collar’ jobs have a seen a clarion call for shorter workweeks as well. In 1930, the British economist, John Maynard Keynes, famously predicted that by 2030, workers will be able to enjoy more leisure due to technological advancements.

More recently, Microsoft’s Japan office witnessed a 40% increase in productivity as a result of putting in place a four-day workweek. One study suggests that productivity may be a decreasing function of time. Even critics of shorter workweeks, at best, call for work hours to remain the same.

migrant labourers amid lockdown
Representational image.

In contrast, factory workers in India are at risk of going back to more rigid, less flexible work conditions if changes continue in the direction of the latest labour law amendments with respect to working hours.

To present a balanced view, it is worth asking if factories simultaneously increased any other benefits to ‘offset’ the increase in work hours? This too presents a bleak picture. Madhya Pradesh introduced changes for factories to be exempt from provisions of the Factories Act, 1948, such as those related to dangerous operations, along with those providing for crèches, washrooms, and disposal of waste, for three months. According to a draft of the Uttar Pradesh ordinance, all factories and establishments engaged in manufacturing processes will be exempt from all labour laws for three years, subject to the fulfilment of certain conditions.

Who Bears The Burden Of These Changes?

It is true that in the wake of this pandemic, businesses were hurt worldwide and were forced to reconsider their business strategies and costs. For labour-intensive industries, concentrated in this part of the world, cost adjustment, of which labour adjustment is a part, assumed importance. But what proportion of this COVID-19 burden should labour bear, and what proportion should businesses? Especially when there is an inherent power dynamic between the two parties involved?

“We live in a world where alternative methods to increase productivity exist.”

We live in a world where alternative methods to increase productivity exist—methods that don’t achieve ‘the needs of the industry’ at the cost of the working classes, and that take into account labour well-being by reducing, and not increasing work hours.

These recent changes in India’s labour laws show their disguised priority towards businesses over workers. On one hand, one could be hopeful that such support in strengthening the business’ capacity to be resilient would ultimately trickle down to workers in terms of employment and growth opportunities. However, in the absence of proper checks and balances, this can snowball into unfair working conditions for a certain class of workers.

Disclaimer: This article does not represent the views of Good Business Lab and has been written by the authors in their personal capacity. We’d like to thank Ankita Nanda, Partnerships and Design Associate, Good Business Lab for her internal policy brief on the labour law changes.

This article was originally published on India Development Review (IDR)

About the authors: 

Lavanya is a development professional, with a special interest in gender. She is currently Chief of Staff and Senior Manager (Strategy and Development), Good Business Lab. She is also the co-founder of Sustainable Style Speak (SUSS), India’s first homegrown sustainable fashion community. In the past, she has also founded and run the student-run nonprofit, Asmat. Lavanya holds a Masters in international and development economics from Yale University.

Mansi is a development practitioner, both professionally and personally, who is trying to understand development through the lens of systems and metaphors. She is currently a Senior Marketing Manager, Good Business Lab. Previously, she worked in rural livelihoods and development in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and Odisha, India. She comes with an in-depth, hands-on approach to social business and innovation. Founder of Angai, a social enterprise focusing on tribal livelihoods, Mansi holds an MA in development studies from The Graduate Institute, Geneva.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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