December 31, 2023

Longer Working Hours: What about Returns?

Sanjay Roy

ONCE again a moral appeal to the young people of India came from the doyen of IT industry that they should be diligent and be ready to work longer hours up to 70 hours a week. Currently the youth that is the age group of 15-29 constitutes 28 per cent of India’s population which is going to come down to about 23 per cent in 2036. Hence we are passing through a phase of potential demographic dividend.

Ironically, the clarion call was made when the unemployment rate within the 15-29 age group is as high as 17.6 per cent and roughly 60 per cent of the young labour force are discouraged to participate in the labour market. Making workers/employees work for longer hours would always be a preferred choice by employers than employing new people simply because the marginal cost of employing additional hours of labour according to requirement is less as the costs of recruitment and training can be avoided and the employers need not have to acclimatise new people to the existing mode of control. This is also the reason why new employment in the process of post pandemic recovery was more in favour of elderly people and against the young people and particularly women. Therefore, the appeal to work more was being voiced not because of a tight labour market that people should work more to meet the demands of production rather when a large number of young people are unemployed.


Longer working hours and work ethic have been invoked time and again in capitalism but was contested in several ways including the struggle for eight-hours working day in America and Europe in the early nineteenth century. In fact, Adam Smith while commenting on the origin of capital argued that primary capital emerged in the beginning of capitalism out of the savings of the diligent and intelligent people who earned the initial surplus through hard work and thrift. Hence capital according to Smith was a result of savings of hard-working people. Contesting this view, Marx argued that the primary capital emerged out of forcibly displacing direct producers from the means of production and by converting those inputs and implements into capital. This was the process of primary accumulation of capital and ‘Capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.’

Advocates of capital always argue that putting greater efforts and working longer hours would add something good to a collective, a country, nation or region and so on. It sounds as if the gains of working longer hours will be equally distributed between people who are working longer hours. The reality however is just the opposite. Longer the working hours the larger is the absolute surplus value that the capitalist earns.

Let us ask a simple question. Would these advocates of higher work ethic be able to ensure that the greater value that might be added by these longer hours of work will be at least equally distributed between workers and owners although workers add additional hours of work while the owners do not put any additional labour to this process? No. Because they think appropriation of surplus value by paying the worker less than the value what s/he produces is the birth right of the capitalist and cannot be compromised. In other words, workers should agree to work longer hours, they should put their best efforts for the factory, country or nation but the owners or non-workers will have the sole right to derive gains out of that simply because they own the means of production. Hence, mind that capitalist’s return is not for their effort or work but solely because of their property right.

Shall we ask the great advocates and propagators of industriousness, why the share of workers in value added declined across the world and more sharply in case of India despite the fact that labour productivity increased sharply during the past three decades. What great quality and efficiency allows the capitalist owners earn surplus out of others’ unpaid labour? They hire workers, managers, accountants, scientists, advertisers, marketing personnel, security guards and what not and their only contribution is that they own the means of production. This capital didn’t fall from the sky but is a result of a social process that makes few, the owners of means of production, while the vast majority of property-less have no other alternative but to sell their labour power. Ability of hiring specialised people and workers originates from this process of exploitation. Hence not because of any physical or intellectual labour an owner of a company receives the share of surplus created by exploiting labour but because they as a class with supportive institutions can reproduce the propertylessness of the vast majority of the people, so that these workers have no other alternative but to sell their labour power. So one who is advocating for longer working hours should also spell out what minimum portion of the value added generated by additional hours of work would be shared with the workers.

The average annual working hours per worker has declined from 2500-3000 hours in 1990 to 2000 hours in 2000 in many developing countries. According to ILO, weekly hours of work is much lower in countries like France (30.1 hours), Canada (32.1 hours), Germany (34.3 hours) and Japan (36.6 hours). United Arab Emirates records the highest average weekly working hours that is 52.6 hours. In Republic of Korea and Brazil, the average weekly working hours is much less at 37.9 hours a week. In India, the average weekly working hours turn out to be 47.7 higher than that of China and Pakistan, the latter two recording average weekly working hours of 46.1 hours and 46.7 hours respectively. India ranks 7th among 163 nations in terms of average weekly working hours the top being the UAE. Therefore, India is one of the countries where the average weekly working hours is higher than many of the developing countries leave aside the advanced economies. Hence the proposal to extend it to 70 hours a week is primarily to make India far more exploitative than UAE in terms of working hours.

The real question to the advocates of higher working hours could be why people need to work longer hours when technology actually is used to reduce direct labour. In the course of human civilisation, role of technology had been to reduce human effort as machines over the years can internalise some of human skills and intelligence. It reduces human labour and saves time. The question is, that being the case, why proposals of longer working hours are coming at all. This is simply because of the social system namely capitalism, where gains of technologies are appropriated by the capitalist class and instead of reducing working hours the owners of new technology want to realise the value of the new investment on technology as fast as they can before it becomes obsolete. Therefore, on the one hand people get displaced because of new labour saving technology, who are thrown out of jobs and lose their earnings. On the other hand, existing workers face the pressure of extended hours of work which the employers are legally or illegally able to enforce because of rising unemployment and consequent decline in the bargaining power of workers. In other words, the intensity of work increases together with longer working hours. A win-win situation for the capitalist class who would be able to amass not only higher absolute surplus value for longer hours of work but also higher relative surplus value by increasing intensity and productivity through technology. Hence the proposal for longer working hours is floated to take advantage of the weak bargaining power of the workers when there is large scale unemployment and the neoliberal state is hell-bent to destroy all protective institutions that ensure workers’ rights and entitlements.


Cannot connect to Ginger Check your internet connection
or reload the browser
Disable in this text fieldRephraseRephrase current sentenceEdit in Ginger