Impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on working conditions of workers

The Covid-19 lockdowns in phases in various parts of the country have led to new and grave problems for several sections of the working class.

In many sectors, companies have asked their workers to work from home. “Work from home” (WFH) has in fact become the new norm, in a situation where it is not possible for workers to physically travel and be present at the workplace during designated hours, due to the pandemic and lockdown.

90-95% of workers in all large and medium IT companies and IT-based services have been asked by their employers to work from home since the country-wide lockdown enforced on March 25, 2020. Some of these companies had opened partially, in phases, during easing down of lockdowns in various parts of the country since then. However, the current devastating wave of the pandemic since April 2021 has once again forced the vast majority of these workers to work from home.

Many other services in various sectors – media and journalism, school and higher education, banking and finance, to name a few – have required their employees to work from home during the lockdown.

Many studies conducted worldwide as well as in India have highlighted the fact that WFH has severely affected workers’ physical and mental health and social relations. Workers and their organisations in several sectors have also raised concerns about increased exploitation of workers – increased working hours from the statutory 8-12 to often up to 20 hours a day! They have also raised concerns of – no overtime wages for the increased working hours, lack of crèche facilities for workers’ children, lack of peer interaction, job insecurity and difficulties in organizing for workers’ rights.

Some of these concerns are presented here.

Impact on workers’ physical and mental health

Workers often have to spend 8-10 hours at a stretch, sitting in a fixed posture, in front of a laptop or a mobile phone. There are no physical meetings or interactions with other people.

In most cases, the workload has increased considerably, as working hours are no longer fixed but ‘flexible’. Many working women and men have complained that this has completely erased the distinction between their personal and professional lives. They have no fixed times for eating, sleeping or for physical exercise – walking, workouts, etc.

“Work time” has to be constantly “adjusted” with household and family responsibilities. The burden of creating workspace and infrastructure, in the midst of majority of family members, house-bound in the lockdown, is entirely on the workers themselves.

Insomnia, headache, backache, restlessness, stress and anxiety are among the common physical ailments workers are reported to be facing as a result of prolonged work from home. Insecurity of jobs, as many sectors witness closures and large-scale retrenchment of workers, is another factor causing a lot of anxiety and mental tension among workers. Mental health doctors have pointed out that distressing information related to the coronavirus is making people scared and worried about their own and their family’s health, aggravating the mental health problems.

Increased exploitation of workers

Workers in almost all sectors which have adopted the WFH mode have reported increased exploitation with increased workload and longer working hours. Most companies have forced workers to “readjust” the work timings and have adopted “all waking hours” as the new measure for productivity, to set deadlines and even to hand out new projects. According to employees in many IT and other companies, projects which were originally meant to begin three months later, have already been initiated to “keep the companies’ business going”, adding to the workers’ workload. Workers are often forced to work for more than 16-18 hours a day with little or no breaks in between, and also on the weekends. The concept of payment of ‘overtime’ for working beyond stipulated hours has been completely abandoned. The employers are using the threat of closure and retrenchment to compel the workers to submit to these conditions.

To add to the workers’ problems, the companies are not even providing the necessary infrastructure to work from home like high speed internet, hardware and software and working space.  Neither the state, nor the employer companies are providing the workers any kind of health care or psychological assistance to face the new situation.

Work-life balance has been disturbed tremendously. Workers are expected to check and reply to their work phone calls and emails at all hours. The pressures of working from home leave workers with hardly any time or energy to deal with necessary household chores and responsibilities, including care of children and the elderly. With closure of crèches, daycare centers and schools, as well as cessation of all forms of social interaction among children, working mothers and fathers are faced with additional responsibilities of assisting the young children with the challenges of on-line education and social isolation. They are utterly exhausted.

All these factors are aggravating stress, burnout, sleep problems and anxiety related illnesses. They are leading to increased tensions in family and social relationships.

Workers are organizing and demanding an end to this severe exploitation

Workers in IT and ITES companies and other services are organizing and raising their concerns about the additional workload and longer working hours imposed on the workers. In particular, UNITE — a union of IT and ITES workers — has demanded that work hours be reduced to 6 hours during the lockdown period, without the expectation of meeting usual levels of productivity. They have also demanded that the additional expenses of internet and electricity that the workers have to bear during the lockdown must be borne by the companies. Workers have demanded that a law be enforced by the government, giving the workers the right to disconnect after working hours.

Capitalists are adopting every measure to ensure that their profits are least affected due to the Covid-19 lockdown, even if this is resulting in terrible physical and mental problems for the workers and huge social stress. The “work from home” measures adopted by the capitalists in the Covid-19 lockdown are once again proving that capitalism is an inhuman system that cares only about the profits of the capitalist class. It cares nothing for the human beings, the workers, whose exploitation is the source of the capitalists’ profits.

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