On April 24, the Chief Minister of Tamilnadu announced his government’s decision to put on hold the implementation of the amendment to the Factories Act (1948) that would increase the length of the working day to 12 hours. The bill had been passed in the state assembly on April 21, after the opposition parties staged a walk-out to protest against it.
Workers’ unions across the state opposed the amendment and announced protest actions with mass mobilisation, demanding that the amendment be withdrawn. This militant response of the working class has forced the government to stall the implementation of the amendment.
The announcement that the amendment will be put on hold was made shortly after representatives of the major trade unions including the DMK-affiliated Labour Progressive Front (LPF), opposed the amendment during official talks with the state Labour Minister and other ministers. Numerous political parties and organisations in the state, including Dravidar Kazhagam, Congress, MDMK, CPI (M), CPI, VCK, Muslim League, Manithaneya Makkal Katchi and Tamilaga Vazhvurimai Katchi, had also appealed to the Chief Minister in a joint memorandum, to withdraw the amendment.
The Factories (Tamil Nadu Amendment) Act, 2023
The amendment allows the state government to override existing provisions of the law related to working hours and working conditions, including weekly holidays, daily working hours, intervals for rest, spread over or daily working hours including intervals, and wages for working overtime. The amended law will allow factory owners to increase the working hours of workers from 8 hours to 12 hours. Factory owners will be able to make workers work more hours overtime, up to 145 hours over a three month period, as compared to the earlier maximum of 75 hours. It will also enable factory owners to force women to work in night shifts.
Government is fulfilling the capitalists’ demand
The amendment aims to fulfil the longstanding demand of Indian and foreign capitalists, to allow flexibility of working hours and working conditions, so that the degree of exploitation of workers can be maximised. Capitalists in various sectors of industry have been demanding that the government should extend the length of the working day from 8 hours to 12 hours.
The Tamilnadu government has justified the amendment saying that it will “attract big investments and increase employment opportunities”, especially for the youth. The government claims that the amendment will enable Tamilnadu to emerge as an alternate supply chain to China, in the global market. It is assuring the Indian and foreign capitalists that it will ensure them cheap skilled labour at super-exploitative conditions, in order to enhance their profits and expand their space in the global markets.
In recent years, Tamil Nadu has emerged as a hub of major manufacturing companies, both Indian and foreign. It has attracted billions of dollars of investments from global monopolies. The state is one of the most industrialised states, and has the highest number of industrial workers in the country. Its automobile, apparel, and footwear sectors respectively account for 37.6%, 30.8%, and 46.4% of the country’s exports in these categories.
The state now has units of 16 top electronics manufacturers, including global giants such as Nokia, Samsung, Flex, Dell, Motorola, Salcomp, HP, etc. More recent entrants are Foxconn and Pegatron, with huge contracts for assembling premium Apple phones. Many of these companies are reported to have been lobbying strongly for such an amendment.
Capitalists’ associations have praised the Amendment
The president of FIEO (Federation of Indian Export Organisations) has said that “statutory provision for flexible working hours brings in several benefits to the State and workers, especially women employees and the economy as a whole”. What is being lauded are the possibilities of greater exploitation of the workers and greater profits for the capitalists.
The president of Tirupur Exporters Association (TEA) has expressed his support for the changes in the law, which would help exporter companies to legally step up their exploitation. He has also said that given the seasonal nature of the Tirupur knitwear garment export industry, the amendment will enable the factory owners to make workers put in more overtime in peak periods, to meet the greater delivery schedules. In non-peak periods, the contracts of the workers can be terminated, thereby ensuring the profits of the capitalists.
Workers’ unions oppose the Amendment to the Factories Act
The passing of amendments to the Factories Act 1948 has been met with opposition from workers and their unions. At a meeting of the trade unions on April 23, they condemned the Tamilnadu government for implementing such a regressive law, which the Central government was finding difficult to implement. The amendment, they pointed out, openly favours the capitalists’ interests and attacks the rights of the workers.
The trade unions announced a series of protest actions against these amendments, culminating in agitations at the district headquarters on May 9 and state wide workers strike on May 12. Representatives of nine trade unions including AITUC, CITU, HMS, INTUC, AIUTUC, AICCTU, Working People’s Council, MLF and LLF issued a joint statement announcing that all unions of workers, both in the private sector and public sector, would participate in the agitation.
The statement recalled the history of the struggle of workers to establish their right to an 8 hour working day. It reminded the workers that the 8 hour limit to the working day was implemented in 1936 in Puducherry and in 1947 across the country. “The eight-hour working day was won by our forefathers who sacrificed their lives and blood for the cause”, the statement said, concluding that it is the duty of the working class to defend this right.
Women Workers’ Union demands immediate withdrawal of the Amendment to the Factories Act
In the famous May Day Park in the heart of Chennai city, women workers protested in large numbers against the amendment to the Factories Act. They agitated under the banner of the Women Workers’ Union. Hundreds of garment workers and domestic workers participated in the protest action.
The agitating women explained that even with the existing 8-hour shift in the factories, they spend more than 12 hours out of the home, including the travel time. If they have to work in 12-hour shifts, they cannot imagine how they would go home and come back to work again the next day! They would not be able to get any rest or to spend any time with their families. Many of the protesting women expressed their apprehension that the amendment would deter women from coming out to earn a livelihood and would push them back into the confines of their homes.
The working women opposed the attempt of the government to facilitate greater exploitation of workers, in order to enhance the profits of the capitalists. They demanded that the amendment should be immediately withdrawn.
Karnataka government passed a similar amendment attacking workers’ rights
Barely two months earlier, on February 24, the government of Karnataka passed a similar amendment to the Factories Act of 1948, named the Factories (Karnataka Amendment) Bill, 2023. With this amendment, companies will now be allowed to extend working hours of workers up to 12 hours a day, extend overtime from 75 hours in three months to 145 hours and also compel women to work in night shifts.
The bill was passed without a debate in the Legislative Assembly, although it was opposed by the Congress, JDS, and even a member of the BJP, in the Legislative Council all of whom staged a walkout.
The working class must persist in the struggle to defend our rights
While the militant opposition by workers in Tamilnadu has succeeded in forcing the government to put a hold on implementing the anti-worker amendments, the fact remains that the Amendment has not been withdrawn. Workers have to be vigilant about the fact that the government will try different methods to put the amendments into effect. The stay on the amendment in no way means that the government has changed its aim, which remains that of enabling the Indian and foreign capitalists to make bigger profits out of increased exploitation of the workers.
Workers cannot afford to have faith in the political parties of the parliamentary opposition, all of whom represent the interests of the same capitalist ruling class. Whenever the ruling party brings in any anti-people legislation, these parties adopt their tried and tested methods of staging walkouts or getting thrown out because of creating disruptions in the proceedings. They thereby enable the ruling party to proceed unhindered in ensuring passage of the bill.
Workers have to strengthen their unity, putting aside differences of political and trade union affiliation, and step the struggle in defence of our rights.