June 04, 2023

Undermining Workers’ Rights: The Push for 12-Hours Working Day

J S Majumdar

DURING the challenging times of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, when people were grappling with the dual concerns of preserving their health and sustaining their livelihoods, the BJP-led Modi government at the centre, along with certain state governments, attempted to extend the working hours of employees from 8 hours to 12 hours per day. This contradicts the principles outlined in the tripartite ILO Convention on Working Hours, to which India is a signatory. It also raises concerns regarding UNESCO Human Rights standards, as well as the historical progression of the global labor movement advocating for an 8-hour workday.

In 2020 the central government introduced four labour codes and associated regulations, while some state governments issued ordinances and subsequently made amendments to their respective labour laws. However, due to strong opposition from workers and farmers, the Modi government ultimately decided to withdraw these proposed changes.

Recently in Tamil Nadu, The Factories (Tamil Nadu Amendment) Act 2023, which aimed to increase working hours, was met with strong opposition. Following strong objections from all central trade unions, including the ruling party's LPF (Labour Progressive Front), the implementation of the amendment was put on hold on April 24, 2023. Additionally, political parties such as Dravidar Kazhagam, Congress, MDMK (Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), CPI(M) (Communist Party of India - Marxist), CPI (Communist Party of India), VCK (Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi), Muslim League, Manithaneya Makkal Katchi, and Tamilaga Vazhvurimai Katchi, collectively sent a memorandum to the chief minister, demanding the withdrawal of the proposed bill.

In 2020, the BJP-led state government in Karnataka brought an ordinance for state amendments in the Industrial Disputes Act, Factories Act, and Contract Labour (Regulation & Abolition) Act, 1970. However, when the bill to replace the ordinance was presented in the state legislative council, it was defeated jointly by the Congress and JD(S) parties. HoweverHowever , before their electoral defeat, the BJP government in Karnataka amended the Factories Act, increasing the maximum working hours from 8 to 12 hours, including the spread over and overtime work hours per quarter, without altering the weekly working hours of 48 hours. As of now, Karnataka stands as the sole state in India that has implemented a 12-hour working day. Now, it rests upon the current Congress-led state government to take necessary measures to address the repercussions of these changes.

The recent assembly elections in Karnataka clearly demonstrated the discontent among workers regarding the previous BJP-led State government's decision to increase working hours through state amendments in the Factories Act. This issue had an impact on the voting patterns, albeit to a minor extent, in the industrial regions in and around Bangalore city. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP garnered between 53 per cent and 57 per cent of the votes, but in this Assembly election, the average dropped to 46.4 per cent in the Bangalore city area. Other factors also played a role in shaping the election outcome.

The amendments to the working hours in Karnataka have already been implemented, allowing the State government to permit 12-hour shifts within a 48-hour workweek while employers have flexibility in deciding the number of working days per week, which can be four, five, or six days. They can determine the total hours of work per day, without requiring mandatory rest, for up to 6 hours, and can prescribe daily or weekly working hours along with provisions for overtime wages.

In addition, employers have been granted certain provisions under the new amendments. They now have the ability to increase the cap on the spread of working hours, allowing for intervals during the extended 12-hour shifts. Moreover, the total number of overtime hours that can be worked within a quarter has been increased from 75 hours to 144 hours. Another significant change is that employers are now permitted to recruit women to work in factories beyond 7 PM.

In the garment industry of Karnataka, a significant proportion of workers are women. The amendments introduced in the state allow for women to work night shifts in the export-oriented unorganised sector garment industry, which raises serious safety concerns for them. While the amended law includes provisions for employers to establish safety facilities for women workers, there is a lack of detailed information regarding the implementation plan. Additionally, the amended statute fails to consider the specific needs and challenges faced by pregnant women workers who will be particularly impacted by these night shifts. Consequently, these amendments are likely to create additional hurdles for women workers' participation in the labor market and pose risks to their well-being and safety.

This amendment in Karnataka contradicts the principles outlined in the 1990 ILO Protocol, which emphasizes the need for agreements between employers and workers' representatives when it comes to determining night work for women. Moreover, the ILO Convention includes safeguards to protect pregnant workers regarding night shifts. Unfortunately, the Bill in question does not address these important protective measures for workers.

In a memorandum addressed to the Karnataka governor, CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions) highlighted that the Net Value Addition (NVA) in Karnataka is comparatively lower at 15.04 per cent when compared to the national average of 18.87 per cent. Furthermore, it pointed out that the share of profits for employers in NVA stands at 46.11 per cent in Karnataka, exceeding the national average of 38.71 per cent. According to CITU, the proposed amendments would only exacerbate this situation, leading to a further reduction in the share of wages for workers and an increase in the share of profits for employers.

In response to these amendments, CITU and various other trade unions organised demonstrations throughout Karnataka, expressing their strong opposition to these changes. These demonstrations aimed to highlight the concerns and advocate for the rights and well-being of workers affected by the amendments.