Laboured movements

Context: Recently Karnataka and now Tamil Nadu have amended the Factories Act, 1948, to allow the introduction of 12-hour shifts, ostensibly to give large manufacturers greater flexibility to synchronise their production schedules with global supply chains.

Positive aspects of a 12-hour shift

  • The change would enable factories to work 12-hour shifts four days a week, which means they would continue to conform to the weekly allowable limit of 48 hours stipulated by the Act.
  • In Karnataka, these changes were reportedly made at the behest of Apple’s Taiwanese vendor Foxconn.
  • Tamil Nadu, meanwhile, is positioning itself as a hub for investment in new-age industries such as electric vehicles and solar power equipment, though the state has put the implementation of the amended law on hold.
  • No doubt, both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu hope to become vibrant investment choices for multinationals seeking alternative destinations as part of their “China Plus One” strategies.
  • These moves may be understandable from an investment perspective, given that India, with its relatively low labour productivity and high transaction costs, has to compete with destinations such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand for global investment dollars.

Concerns related to the 12-hour shift

  • The first concern is whether 12-hour shifts are advisable in industries such as electronics that require intricate assembly work, demanding high levels of concentration and accuracy.
  • In such cases, the probability of high defect levels could well annul any productivity gains over time.
  • The second, larger concern is the ethics of such laws, which stretch workers beyond their capacities.
  • It is possible to argue that this system does not differ greatly from the standard labour practices imposed on workers in the vast and mostly unmonitored unorganised sector, where working hours can be far longer and benefits are all but non-existent.
  • In the context of India’s huge unemployment problem, workers in the organised sector who get to work 12-hour shifts with some benefits (paid leave, sick leave, and so on) could be considered privileged when compared with those who work those same (or longer) hours without benefits.
  • This reality, however, also requires recognising a fine line between exploitation and profit maximisation, especially in the context of the weakening of trade unionism in India.
  • It may be recalled that Uttar Pradesh had to revoke an Ordinance requiring factories to run 12 hours a day for three months to make up for the time lost during the Covid lockdown in 2020.
  • This was after strong objections from workers’ fronts and labour experts.
  • In China, too, the government felt the need to remind companies that the famed “996 culture” (in which people work from 9 am to 9 pm six days a week) was illegal.
  • The legal work week in China is 44 hours with overtime required to be paid for extra hours.
  • In reality, as China strove to become the factory to the world, most employers and the government turned a blind eye to these rules — Alibaba’s Jack Ma memorably described the 996 cultures as a “blessing”.
  • -It was only growing worker anger that compelled Zhongnanhai to intervene in 2021.

So, the introduction of the 12-hour shift in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu reflects the realities of globalised business where competition for low cost and maximising productivity results in a race to the bottom as far as labour rights and welfare are concerned.

Mains practice question:

Critically examine the relevance of amendment in the Factories Act, 1948, to allow the introduction of 12-hour shifts by Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments. (250 words, 15 marks)

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