The Lok Sabha may soon pass a bill to allow women in factories to work night shifts, something that is now illegal. But workers themselves are not too happy with the prospect.

Even though trade and workers’ unions believe that women should have as much access as men do to work opportunities, factory workers and union leaders say that the current form of the Factories Amendment Bill does not make night shifts for women a viable option.

“The night shift is an extremely physically and mentally isolating form of work but since it does exist, excluding women from night shifts contributes to their exclusion and intensified discrimination,” said Gautam Mody, general secretary of the Delhi-based New Trade Union Initiative. “But the amendment to the Factories Act introduced in the Lok Sabha does not adequately address concerns about women’s health and only makes a casual reference to safety.”

The issue came into focus last week when the Congress declared its opposition to the Factories Amendment Bill – tabled in parliament on August 7 – claiming that a law allowing night shifts for female factory labourers would leave women vulnerable to sexual harassment.

The criticism was voiced by party spokesperson Shobha Oza, who stated that it would not be advisable to have night shifts for women in factories, because of the increasing number of cases of rape and atrocities against women in India.

Since then, the Congress has faced criticism for its discriminatory attitude towards women, for failing to acknowledge the state’s responsibility in ensuring safety and for doing a U-turn on its own position on equal opportunities for women in the workforce.

Women in the workforce
The original Factories Act of 1948 categorically states that women are not to work in any factory except between 6 am and 7 pm. But the debate on working hours has been raging for more than a decade, as new employment avenues for women have been opening up.

According to the 2011 census, women formed 12.4% of the total workforce in India. In factories, the proportion of female employees has increased considerably in 2010, the last year for which the government’s Labour Bureau provides data.

Along with the rising presence of women in work spaces, however, there has also been a greater number of reported crimes against women, particularly after the Delhi gang rape incident of 2012. This has brought into focus issues of workplace harassment and safety measurements that employers take to ensure the security of female employees.

On the ground
Even though night shifts for women are currently illegal, women labourers in various industries are often made to do overtime late into the night, and their experiences are not positive.

“In the day time itself, women labourers face regular harassment from their male supervisors, so working at night, without any safe transportation being provided, would make them even more vulnerable,” said Pratibha R, a former garment factory worker and now the vice president of the Garment and Textile Workers Union in Bangalore.

There are more than 1,000 textile factories in and around Bangalore, says Pratibha, and of the 400,000 workers they employ, close to 90% are women. Nearly all of them have low incomes and live in slums that are far away from the main routes of public transport.

Despite this, women are frequently made to work late hours, as overtime, particularly in garment factories where most of the employees tend to be female. Almost none of the factories provide transport facilities to ensure that they reach home safely.

“Most women don’t want to work these overtime hours because they have homes to run,” said Dithhi Bhattacharya, executive head of the Centre for Workers Management in Delhi. “But they do it because they are given no choice.”

Such overtime is also a problem for women with young children, says Pratibha, because they don’t even earn enough to hire nannies for the night.

For most factory owners, having night shifts open to women workers would mean access to a greater workforce at all hours of the day. While most companies would welcome any change in the law that enables them to hire women for night shifts, some factory owners believe it should be optional for women.

“If women are open to night shifts, why should they not be allowed?” said Rujuta Jagtap, executive director of Saj Test Plant, a Pune-based company that manufactures engine and vehicle test equipment. The company currently operates just one shift a day, and at least 10% of its employees are women.

Jagtap is firm that if night shifts are introduced for women in factories, they should be provided with door-to-door transport facilities, adequate lighting and security at work and some alarm system in case of emergencies. “But working at night should be an option and not a mandate for women,” she said.