The capitalist class has launched a massive onslaught on the rights of workers of our country. In the conditions of the declaration of a health emergency accompanied by a country wide lock down, it is ramrodding one anti worker measure after another down the throats of the working class. One of the most basic rights of workers has been the limiting of the working day to 8 hours, and the working week to 48 hours, which is codified in the Factories Act, 1948. Over the past one month, one state government after another, irrespective of which party is in power in the state, has been passing ordinances extending the working day to 12 hours and the working week to 72 hours.
On April 7, 2020, the Gujarat government amended the Factories Act to allow capitalists to legally force workers in the state to work 12 hours in a shift, 72 hours in a week with a 30 minutes break after 6 hours. The amendment right now is applicable for the period April 29 to July 19, 2020. The Factories Act, 1948, otherwise provides that workers can only be made to work 9 hours in a day – but 48 hours in a week, with 1 weekly off – thus coming to 8 hours in a day on an average, with 30 minutes break after 5 hours.
The amendment by the Gujarat government further stated that workers will be eligible only for single overtime for the extra four hours. This is directly against section 59 of the (unamended) Act which provides that wages must be paid at double the ordinary rate for hours worked in excess of 48 hours in a week.
The Rajasthan government issued a Notification on April 11, allowing a 12-hour working day for 3 months, but provided for double overtime pay for the extra 4 hours worked up to a limit of 24 hours a week, i.e, 12 hours a day for a straight 6 days. The justification given is to reduce the manpower requirement for manufacturing in those factories exempted from the lockdown.
The Punjab government through its Notification of April 20 permitted a 12-hour working day for 3 months, with payment of double overtime for the additional 4 hours. Himachal Pradesh issued a similar notification on April 21, allowing a 12-hour working day, up to 72 hours in a week, with double overtime payment, for the period April 21 to July 20, 2020.
On May 7, the Madhya Pradesh government announced a number of anti worker changes to existing labour laws, including allowing capitalists to force workers to work for 12 hours per day. Meanwhile the Uttar Pradesh government has passed an ordinance by which most of the laws which define the wages and working conditions of workers, including the Factories Act, have been suspended for a period of three years. This includes the 8 hour day and the 48 hour week.
The idea of 12-hour working day for the post-lockdown period was proposed by a working group of the central government secretaries. As it would have invited immediate attention and strong opposition of central trade unions, the central government encouraged state governments to make the necessary amendment in the Factories Act. This tactic has lately been adopted to make a number of anti-worker changes in labour laws since the subject of ‘labour’ figures in the Concurrent List of the Constitution. The subjects in the Concurrent List are under the jurisdiction of both the central and state governments
These amendments seem to assume that the worker is owned by the capitalist and can be made to work for any amount of time as per his wish. This is outrageous, because a wage-worker is not a slave! He or she does not belong to any employer full-time. A wage-worker sells labour-power for a fixed number of hours per day, while the rest of the time belongs to him or her for spending with family and for rest. Hence a strict legally enforced limit on the length of the working day is a right that belongs to all wage-workers, without exception.
Workers of 19th and 20th century waged long struggles to win the right of an 8-hour working day which is now being taken away. May Day commemorates the struggle of lakhs of workers in the 19th century for an 8-hour working day. A common working day in Europe and USA used to be 12 to 16 hours in the 19th century. Poor working conditions and long hours of work took lives of thousands of workers every year. Many workers sacrificed their lives fighting for this demand. Workers had started raising demand for shorter working hours since the middle of the 19th century itself. Many countries were forced to pass laws by the early 20th century to restrict the working day to 8-hours. In India an 8-hour working day was legalised when the Factories Act of 1934 was amended in 1946.
Capitalists, however, never gave up the desire to increase working hours without increasing wages. For large sections of the working class in our country, 10-12 hours of work has already become common. For most casual workers and daily wagers, there are no defined working hours. Many construction workers work from sunrise to sunset. Piece rate workers are forced to work longer hours just to earn enough for the day. Manual workers as well as office workers work longer hours. In most sections of the service sector, the work day gets over only when the assigned work is completed. In our country, a 48-hour week is presently enjoyed only by a limited number of workers engaged in large factories where workers are organized into unions. Even in such establishments, non-unionized workers are forced to work longer hours.
Legalizing a 12-hour work per day, 72-hour week is a direct attack on the right that workers won after decades of struggle. It is turning the clock back to the inhuman working conditions of the 19th century. Depriving workers presently enjoying the right to work 8-hours per day, 48-hours per week is an attack on the entire working class. Workers must unite and fight for limiting the working day to a maximum of eight hours for every worker, irrespective of the nature of work and employment.