November 12, 2023

Seventy-Hour Working Week: A Reflection of Capital's Essence

R Karumalaiyan

RECENTLY, the IT billionaire R N Narayana Murthy, co-founder of Infosys, suggested a 70-hour working week and urged Indian youth to embrace a shift in India's work culture to expedite development. This isn't the first time that this prominent figure, now in his seventies, has advocated extending working hours beyond the globally accepted labour standards. In 2020, he had previously proposed a 60-hour working week. His rationale for this proposition is based on his own unsubstantiated interpretation of worker productivity and the nation's economic growth in the context of global competition. These ideas echo the widely discredited perspectives of the Modi government.

Let's take a closer look at his viewpoints.

Narayana Murthy has asserted that "India's work productivity is one of the lowest in the world" and emphasised the need for Indians to enhance discipline and productivity at work. Unsurprisingly, his statement quickly went viral. Almost immediately, Bhavish Aggarwal, the co-founder of Ola Cabs, endorsed Murthy's perspective. Likewise, Sajjan Jindal, the chairman of the JSW Group, a multinational conglomerate, also expressed his solidarity with Murthy's viewpoint.

As we are all aware, Indian labour laws mandate that our workers should work for eight hours a day, resulting in a 48-hour working week with one day of rest. When we compare our legal limits on working hours with those of other countries, global data paints a grim picture. India's workforce is already among the most overworked in the world. According to the latest data from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 2023, Indians work an average of 47.7 hours per week. To put this in perspective, Americans work roughly 36.4 hours a week, while in South Korea, it is 37.9 hours, in Russia, it is 37.6 hours, and in the United Kingdom, it is 36 hours. The figures are also around 37 hours in the USA and Germany.

According to a report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), India ranks fifth among the countries with the longest working hours in the world. Only Gambia, Mongolia, Maldives, and Qatar, where most workers are migrants from the Indian subcontinent, have longer average working hours than India. In contrast, the Global Wage Report for 2020-21 revealed that Indians earn the lowest minimum statutory wage in the Asia-Pacific region, except for Bangladesh.

Although any comparison lacks scientific validity due to the vast differences in the size and pace of industrialisation and technological advancement in these countries, there is no evidence to suggest that the average Indian worker has worked significantly less than their Japanese or German counterparts, as Narayana Murthy has implied. In 1970, the average Indian worker worked approximately 2,077 hours per year, and this figure has remained relatively stable to this day. In 1970, the average German worker worked 1,941 hours, and the average Japanese worker worked 2,137 hours. In fact, during the 1960s to the 1980s, a period of rapid economic growth in Japan, the annual working hours were quite comparable to those in India. In 2017, annual working hours in India stood at 2,117 hours, while in Japan and Germany, they were 1,738 hours and 1,354 hours, respectively. This data challenges the notion that Indian workers are inherently less industrious or hardworking than their counterparts in Japan or Germany.

It is imperative to bring to Narayana Murthy’s attention the alarming findings of the Time Use in India – 2019 Report, prepared by the Government of India. These findings reveal the contemporary capitalist’s insatiable appetite for surplus labour, akin to what Marx described as their “werewolf hunger” for it. Capital goes beyond not only moral but even physical limits when it comes to the working day. According to this report, which far exceeds the observations of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a male Indian urban worker in the 15-59 years age group spends a staggering 521 minutes daily and 60 hours and 47 minutes weekly on direct employment and related activities. This information shatters the myth of the legally stipulated 48-hour workweek. It vividly illustrates the barbaric exploitation imposed on Indian working people by the ruling classes through the inhumane extension of the working day.

The Government of India's data, as presented in the concerned ministry's annual report submitted to the parliament, does not align with Murthy's assertions, particularly in terms of productivity. According to the report, "Comparison of labor productivity growth across Asian Productivity Organisation (APO) member countries during the years 2000 to 2013 shows that labour productivity growth has been the highest in China (9.0 per cent), followed by Mongolia (5.5 per cent), India (5.2 per cent), Lao PDR (4.6 per cent), Vietnam (4.4 per cent), Cambodia (4.5 per cent), Sri Lanka (4.1 per cent), and Indonesia (3.5 per cent). India is ranked second among the 20 APO member countries."

This data contradicts the notion that India's workforce lags behind in terms of productivity, indicating a strong performance and progress in this aspect.

Another critical aspect in the debate over the 70-hour workweek is the potential occupational hazards and the impact on workers' health and overall well-being, including their work-life balance. This aspect was conveniently disregarded by the so-called mainstream corporate media, not to mention the liberals who were already in complete agreement with neoliberals like Mr Murthy.

Long working hours have led to a substantial increase in deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease, with 7,45,000 fatalities recorded in 2016, marking a 29 per cent increase since 2000. This data comes from the latest estimates published in Environment International by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

In a pioneering global analysis of the loss of life and health attributable to long working hours, the WHO and ILO estimated that in 2016, 3,98,000 individuals died from stroke and 3,47,000 from heart disease due to working a minimum of 55 hours per week. The period between 2000 and 2016 witnessed a 42 per cent increase in deaths from heart disease associated with long working hours, and a 19 per cent increase in deaths from stroke.

This revelation underscores that long working hours constitute a significant occupational risk factor, responsible for approximately one-third of the overall estimated work-related burden of disease. It establishes long working hours as the occupational risk factor with the most substantial burden on human health, shifting the focus to a relatively new and more psychosocial risk factor.

Furthermore, the number of individuals working long hours is on the rise and currently stands at 9 per cent of the global population. This trend puts an even larger number of people at risk of work-related disabilities and premature death.

In light of this data, Karl Marx's words find vivid validation, as the capitalist mode of production, which centers on the production and absorption of surplus value, not only deteriorates human labour-power by depriving it of its normal, moral, and physical conditions of development and function but also hastens the exhaustion and demise of this labour-power itself.

Modi's government has legalised the unrestrained extension of working hours, perpetuating a system akin to slavery. Initially, the four labour codes bills did not include any legal limits on maximum working hours. These codes failed to specify even the fundamental humane working condition of an eight-hour workday, as mandated by the very first ILO Convention 01. Instead, they left this to be determined by the respective governments. Through persistent interventions and protests by trade unions, the government reluctantly introduced some definitive provisions on working hours. However, these provisions allowed for extensions and exemptions, with a concealed agenda to undermine workers' rights.

Modi's government granted the appropriate governments the authority to dilute the concept of an eight-hour workday, at the behest of the employer class. The spread-over time specified in the Factories Act was initially ten and a half hours, but it has now been extended to twelve hours. Modi eliminated the fixed weekly holiday on the first day of the week, i.e., Sunday, through the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code (OSHWC code), granting the appropriate government the power to deny this right to workers.

Furthermore, the notorious OSHWC code, designed to extend working hours to virtually any length, empowers the appropriate government to prescribe the total number of hours of overtime without any specified limits. The central draft rules, for instance, permit up to 125 hours of overtime per quarter. The code itself retains provisions that enable establishments to be exempted based on their own preferences. Shortly after the code was enacted, several state governments rushed to extend daily work hours to 12 hours, especially during the deadly pandemic. This move prompted a backlash from workers, leading to a retreat by the government in most cases. In a noteworthy example, the previous BJP government in Karnataka passed a bill to extend daily working hours to 12 hours a day, seemingly to appease figures like Mr Murthy, just before the assembly election. Similarly, the Tamil Nadu government initially passed a bill that would have allowed a mass-scale exemption for factories, groups, or classes from the binding stipulation of an eight-hour workday and related matters. However, they eventually withdrew the bill due to widespread opposition across the state.

As the far-right communal ruling political regime led by Modi & Co enters election mode, their corporate allies, such as Narayana Murthy, are tasked with keeping their economic agenda alive as they pursue their fascistic goal of shaping public opinion. In the words of Marx, capital holds no regard for the well-being or longevity of the worker who offers their labour-power with their own physical and mental faculties. Capital's sole concern is maximising the labour-power that can be effectively utilised within a working day. It achieves this by reducing the duration of the labourer's life.

This encapsulates the essence of the contemporary struggle between labour and capital.