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Men, Women and the Gendered Life of Labour

When one of the retired kings of the hi-tech corporate world speaks on work hours, India listens. Yet, much remains unsaid.
'Does your man/family approve? How do your children cope after school hours?' Photo: ILRI/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

Saakhi is a Sunday column from Mrinal Pande, in which she writes about what she sees and also participates in. That has been her burden to bear ever since she embarked on a life as a journalist, writer, editor, author, and chairperson of Prasar Bharti. Her journey of being a witness-participant continues.

Ever since Dr Narayana Murthy, founder of the tech giant Infosys, spoke of the need for young Indians to work longer (at least 70 hours a week), his words have triggered a big debate on work patterns within India.

Public figures have often said Indian workers are somewhat indisciplined and shirk work unless driven by an iron hand. They are pleased by Dr Murthy’s words that working longer hours was how Europe had recreated its lost wealth after the World Wars. So if India is to compete with global manufacturing hubs like China, its young workers must work harder and for longer hours. 

Mrinal Pande

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Such an easy linking of long work hours with bigger and better outputs, is essentially a part of thinking that peaks in a technocratic contempt for philosophical talk about liberty, equality and fraternity. When one of the retired kings of the hi-tech corporate world speaks, India listens. Among many, it strengthens the belief that most workers are a herd – often ridiculed – away from the mic of course, for their lack of scientific acumen, and so they must be nudged with suitable labour laws apart from being directed and kept under surveillance for data collection.

By harvesting such raw data, a further tweaking of more manipulatory laws to make production of goods cheaper than China’s can become a reality. The basic, perhaps unconscious, assumption behind this has some backing of the caste system as well: ordinary workers are to be ruled and tolerated only up to a point. 

It is time we examined caste, class and gender privileges in a social context, as embedded in the Indian industry and political space, through the eyes of those it has routinely overlooked. Chances are a legalised work ethic that will promote longer working hours in the name of nation building via industrial production, will again measure work hours as ‘man hours’. This verbal term genderises work by attaching a greater value to work being done by males. With that, female workers in factories, fields and other types of industrial jobs turn into invisible entities, always to be spoken for and never consulted about their work experience as women, when in fact, their productive and reproductive roles are simultaneous. 

The original Factories’ Act of 1948, which is being increasingly challenged, had stipulated that an adult worker cannot work for more than 48 hours per week, and nine hours if paid extra. The Act also prohibits women working between 7-8 pm and 9:30-10 pm, thus freeing the employers of the burden of organising transport facilities but limiting women’s access to jobs that need workers to perform during those hours. Workers, the Act says, must not work more than 10 and a half hours. And that includes a lunch break. The states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have already amended the Act and extended work hours to 12 hours for factory workers who, in fact, work even longer hours. The ILO data for 2023 says we already rank number seven among nations, where workers work 47.7 hours per week. 

Given the overall educational and health patterns of our ordinary workers and poor quality of infrastructure and tools, an average Indian worker’s performance peters out after seven years, according to the Lancet. In the global list of long peak productive years among workers, India stands at 158 among 195 nations. Be it noted here that by 2027, it will have the largest workforce globally (18.6% of total). Given the present levels of education, health and social care, and quality of tools and infrastructures they handle, a higher productivity only through subjecting them to longer work hours, is rather unlikely.

The point raised by Murthy merits attention, but the first question we should actually ask is what do Indian workers, especially women, need beyond a ‘safe space’ and a revised salary to achieve peak performance levels? How helpful, how unbiased will the socio-legal perceptions be towards helping our invisibilised working women if the labour laws are revised ? A major English daily recently quoted a judgment from the Madras high court delivered on June 23, that sums up the current perceptions on gender: “In generality of marriages, the wife bears and rears children and minds the home. She thereby frees her husband for his economic activities.” 

This is the ground reality women see, aankhon ki dekhi, as Kabir says. 

‘Does your man or family approve?’ 

‘How do your children cope after school hours?’ 

These are questions never posed to male employees. Unsurprisingly, according to the NSSO, on an average, male salaried employees earn 1.2-1.3 times more than their female colleagues. And while men spend 150 minutes more per day as paid employees, working women spend twice the time than males in carrying out domestic duties within homes and have 24% less leisure time than the males. Time poverty eats up a woman’s energies and work potential all through her working life. 

Representative image of a labourer at work in Rajasthan. Photo: Eric Parker/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Being pro-women is now the politically correct stance even for the most extreme right-wing parties. But governments that launch a thousand schemes to save, educate the girl child and make women’s domestic lives better barely think of raising salaries and social safety levels for improving lives of rural women workers like those under the ASHA or landless farm labourers. Neither they nor the corporate honchos who mobilise Corporate Social Responsibility budgets for empowering women actually see the irony of the obvious clash between better lives for workers with poor health and educational backgrounds being burdened with longer hours so India can compete better with China!

One fears the impact of longer work hours will be to create job pressures that will automatically squeeze women out of the formal work force. The alarming attrition of numbers of women employed in India’s formal sector in the last decade is already indicating this. And the glossy magazines celebrating 20 or 200 ‘power women’ in their annual conclaves are still not asking women who have arrived about their feelings of conflict, about their specific needs neglected, about the terminal guilt for leaving home each day and getting back late, being constantly deepened by jibes at work place and in the social media, about the assumptions that only ‘poor women work because they have to’. 

Most of the labour in the world is done by women and that is a fact. If the right to education for the girl child is a stepping stone, towards freedom, it has to have the road ahead paved with other kinds of stepping stones and action. To be sure, growing at a fast pace is a positive goal. But it is equally important to remain in the present, remain open, spontaneous and flexible. Because our gender-polarised corporate and political worlds simultaneously need to face the challenges posed by global climate changes. The extreme heat and humidity waiting around the corner and the pollution caused by carbon emissions and rising temperatures, are already affecting workers’ productivity and increasing absenteeism in industry. According to a national panel of Indian factories’ report, annual plant output will fall by 2% per degree rise in temperature. This year’s Rabi crop sowing is also down by several lakh hectares as water tables dry up. By 2030 heat stress may cause a loss of 3.4 crore jobs and even the RBI admits if that happens it will deeply impact the GDP. 

An obsession with fast-paced development that measures progress only in terms of corporate outputs to challenge China, we can already see it erode agrarian land and jobs, raze water sources and literally bring down the Himalayas, our protector for centuries. 

Mrinal Pande is a writer and veteran journalist.

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