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12-hour work day: Millions of Indians regard as normal what Alibaba chief Jack Ma asked of his employees

Rajni Bakshi
Today, the eight-hour work day remains elusive, particularly for Asians. An ILO study in 2018 showed that in South Asia and East Asia on an average, workers are putting in 46 hours a week.

Many young people in India must be wondering why there is a controversy about Alibaba chief Jack Ma saying that his staff must work 12 hours a day and 6 days a week. This is what millions of Indians, in different walks of life, regard as 'normal'. Some may know that an eight-hour work day is 'right' but only in theory.

Ironically, militating against this reality may also address unemployment.

In December 1999, veteran labour leader Bagaram Tulpule made a devastating observation. Looking back on a lifetime spent championing the cause of labour, Tulpule felt defeated. The working class made important gains in the course of the 20th century, he said, but now we have regressed to where we were a hundred years ago.

1 May is observed as International Workers Day in countries across the world because it commemorates the 19th century struggle by the labourers movement to make the eight-hour work day a norm. In 1919, this demand gained traction with the setting up of the International Labour Office, now known as the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

In 1948, the Indian Factories Act stipulated that an employer cannot ask a person to work more than 48 hours in a week or more than 9 hours in one day. For much of the 40 years after that legislation was enacted, there were strong labour unions that ensured this basic right was enforced. The resurgence of 'free market' economics, from the mid-1980s, changed all this.

Today, the eight-hour work day remains elusive, particularly for Asians. An ILO study in 2018 showed that in South Asia and East Asia on an average, workers are putting in 46 hours a week. Indian workers are much worse off. A report by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) shows that workers in Indian cities are working an average of 53 to 54 hours a week. This is partly because when wages are too low, people have to work longer hours to earn enough.

Such surveys confirm what random interviews with the workers in different sectors reveal. Over the last ten years, I have asked a wide variety of workers how long hours they work every day. Be it attendants in airport toilets, sales clerks at department stores, drivers of app-based taxis, tailors in garment factories, painters or carpenters €" everyone is working up to 10-12 hours a day.

In many cases, these interviews showed, that people lose 3 hours in travel time between home and work place €" so they are left with just nine hours in which they have to cook, eat, sleep and return to work. An overwhelming majority of such workers are hired on a per-day basis so they never have a paid off day. This reality is a consequence of how market dynamic has overwhelmed both laws and a more humane work ethics.

Some years ago, an interview with the chairman of a leading Indian consumer goods company encapsulated the conundrum. This business leader felt unhappy that his security staff work 12-hour shifts. But, he added, if they work 8 hours at a reduced wage they will be compelled to take up another job and may end up working 16 hours a day. If the company reduces the work day to eight hours but pays what they now earn for 12 hours of work that would be unacceptable to the shareholders of the company €" because it would be construed as a deliberate reduction of return on investment.

There are three possible ways in which this 'market logic' can be defied and contested.

Firstly, the law can be uniformly enforced €" both for hours of work and compliance with minimum wage norms.

Secondly, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) could be redefined firstly to emphasise higher labour standards and only then giving away of a percentage of profits to social causes.

It is the third possibility that is the most promising €" particularly in an election year when unemployment is an issue. Every 12-hour work shift actually means that someone is being denied half a day's work. A strict enforcement of the shorter work day and shorter work week would, therefore, raise employment levels.

Conspicuously, there is no mention here of a revival of the labour union movement. For the simple reason that the old forms of this movement have faded into history. The concern for labour has taken newer forms, notably ethical investing groups in the West which generate shareholder pressure inside large corporations to prevent exploitation of labour. Such efforts have shown localised results but they have not altered realities for labour on a large scale.

This is why a controversy like the one generated by Jack Ma's statement can be useful. If nothing else it serves as a reminder that working 12 hours a day may today be 'normal' for millions of Asians but in democratic India it is illegal.

(Rajni Bakshi is a freelance writer and author)

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