As factories are cranked back to life after weeks of lockdown, Indian states are diluting labour laws. A key change made by at least seven states is to raise maximum working hours from 48 to 72 a week. In most cases, these rules, notified from around mid-April, will stay in place for three months. Uttar Pradesh has suspended most labour laws for three years.

The Centre had been mulling over an increase in working hours after industries were hit by the lockdown to contain the coronavirus. But it seems to have been left to the states to quietly introduce the contentious change.

In effect, the states have junked one of the defining rights of workers in an industrialised world: eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what you will. It seems to be an act of amnesia. Historically, pandemics in India have prompted workers to demand more rights instead of settling for less.

‘Exempt’ from the Factories Act

Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have made sweeping changes, suspending a number of labour laws. Uttar Pradesh has magicked away the Factories Act of 1948 altogether for three years. Other states issued notifications which “exempt” workers from specific provisions of the act.

The law caps working time at 48 hours a week and provides for a weekly day off. Spread over six days, that translates to an average workday of eight hours. The law also stipulates that daily working hours should not extend beyond nine hours, spread over ten-and-a-half hours with breaks included. Moreover, a five-hour shift should be followed by at least half an hour’s rest. Overtime, under Section 59 of the act, should be remunerated at twice the hourly rate of regular wages.

Now, factory workers could be required to work 12 hours a day, with six-hour shifts spread over 13 hours. While Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana will pay overtime rates specified under Section 59, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh have ignored the law to say they will pay regular wages. Rajasthan is silent on overtime pay.

The Rajasthan order is blunt: since factories have to make do with a workforce reduced by 33% the new rules would ensure the “minimum presence” of workers, now needed to keep the flow of essential supplies going. Extended hours would allow for three shifts and so limit the movement of workers. Instead of heading back home at half time, they would only travel twice a day – show up at the factory in the morning and head back home late at night. Gujarat claims the new norms are for the “safety and social distancing” of workers.

Madhya Pradesh, which also exempt new factories from inspection by the Labour Department, for good measure, brightly termed its changes “reforms”, meant to attract new industries, allow flexibilities for employers and create jobs.

On the factory floor

What will these changes mean in real terms for Indian workers? The enforcement of labour regulations is weak at the best of times. A large number of factories are unregistered, hence untethered by such rules in the first place.

In Tamil Nadu’s garment industry, workers, mostly women, are paid by piece rather than by hour. According to Sujata Mody, who is affiliated to the New Trade Union Initiative and the Garment and Fashion Workers Union, employees in these units are routinely made to work 10 hours without being paid overtime. In order to circumvent the rules, workers were made to swipe out and then labour away for an extra hour or two, she said.

In larger sectors like the automobile industry, which have stricter mandates, regular workers are paid overtime, Mody said. The same cannot be said of a range of smaller manufacturing units, where workers do 10 to 12 hour days, besides long hours spent on the commute.

Older factories have greater regulations than those in sectors that boomed after liberalisation in 1991, Mody explained. About 92% of 61 million jobs created in the 22 years after liberalisation were informal jobs, one survey found. As offices and housing complexes rose up overnight, construction workers on short-term contracts put in 12-hour workdays before heading back to their villages. Manufacturing companies also shifted towards informal employment.

Overall, this has led to a lower quality of life, poorer working conditions and less job security. While an informal workforce meant employers were encumbered with fewer regulations, it also reduced the bargaining power of regular workers.

No matter how state governments try to pitch it, the suspension of legislative guarantees, such as they are, is likely to make conditions worse.

'Raj mistri', or master craftsmen, at a construction site in Amritsar in 2016.

Eight hours work

The orders suggest India is rapidly forgetting pledges made in forums like the International Labour Organisation. That includes its ratification of the very first convention adopted by the ILO in 1919 – the Hours of Work (Industry) Convention, which guaranteed an eight-hour workday. That it was first on the newly formed organisation’s agenda gives a sense of its symbolic weight in labour movements.

Welsh manufacturer Robert Owen had coined the “Eight Hours Work” slogan in 1817. For the rest of the century, workers in Europe and the United States marched in demand of shorter workdays. It entered in revolutions in France. It became a rallying cry for European and American labour organisations, uniting workers across countries. Marx wrote about the “werewolf hunger for surplus labour” that drove capital’s predations on a worker’s time.

On May 1 in 1886, workers across the United States went on strike to demand an eight-hour workday. Three days later, workers still protesting in Chicago were shot by the police and May 1 became Labour Day, consecrated in blood.

In Britain, a Factories Act passed in 1847 granted women and children a 10-hour workday and by the 1870s, several trade unions had won nine-hour days. The colonial government then turned its attention to workers in India, still living in a regulatory wilderness.

Early factory law flowed from debates that referred almost solely to Bombay’s growing textile industry, writes historian Aditya Sarkar. Officials writing on the mills took note of the “physical wear and tear of the employed” and, in a burst of paternalistic regard, recommended shortening the 14-hour days. The Factories Act of 1881 granted workers the grand concession of a 12-hour day.

About half a century later, in 1921, India’s colonial government would be among the first to ratify the ILO’s eight-hour workday convention. The years in between had seen a world war and at least two pandemics that ravaged India.

Plague pandemonium

Both the plague of 1896-’97 and the Spanish flu of 1918 shook up labour relations in India’s urban industrial hubs. Sarkar’s account of the plague in Bombay finds grim resonance in the events unfolding today. Contagion spread like wildfire across the city. So did panic, created by the disease as well as the administration’s attempt to survey and control the bodies of the poor. Workers fled to the countryside only to be driven back by famine.

The strikes and riots that broke out during the plague years, Sarkar writes, created fleeting solidarities among disparate groups of the working poor. As the cities emptied of workers, creating labour shortages, employers tried to offer lucrative concessions – higher wages, no more holding back arrears, bonuses. “The attempt to retain these concessions later on, as a matter of perceived right, by the millworkers, led to industrial conflict of an intensity that had not hitherto been seen in Bombay,” writes Sarkar.

But working worlds in colonial India would not change significantly for decades. Chitra Joshi, writing on the mills of Kanpur, describes public beatings and managerial attempts to police even the time spent in lavatories. Working days in the early 20th century still ranged between 12 and 15 hours. The management seemed to justify the long working hours in the old language of paternalism: it was better for boys to spend their days in the “sanitary surroundings” of a “well-managed mill” than to while away their time in “a dirty bazaar”.

Accounts of workers from the time, Joshi notes, equate long hours in a factory with “ a sense of unfreedom”, with time robbed from family and friends. “Work is a jail,” says one employee. The First World War made conditions worse. Work hours were increased and managerial control grew tighter, lapses punished even more severely.

The flu pandemic of 1918 was the final straw. It made industrial cities like Bombay and Kanpur, worst hit by the virus, unbearable. Both cities saw workers’ strikes in 1919, marking a shift from individualised to organised protests, Joshi writes. Some link the Bombay strikes to the larger currents of the national movement. Joshi also points to the inspiration of Russia, still in the throes revolution. But the nightmarish conditions created by the war and the pandemic played their part in the workers’ agitations.

Segregation camp, Bombay, by Clifton and Co., c. 1903

When it comes to labour

Labour reforms followed soon afterwards. The Factories Act of 1922 shortened working hours for adults to 10 and guaranteed an hour of rest. In 1934, a new Factories Act capped weekly hours at 48 and daily hours at nine. Sundays were a day of rest. But legislative guarantees were often suspended in seasons of high demand or war.

Independence brought no radical legislative change and the Factories Act of 1948 bears the traces of its colonial forebears. Trade union leader Raja Kulkarni, appraising the law in 1949, was not impressed. On industry, he wrote, the government encouraged cutting-edge technology that would put India on par with the world. “But when it comes to labour, its working conditions, standard of living and labour-management relationship, neither the employers nor the Government, ever seem to think that they should not lag behind anybody in the world”.

Seven decades later, his words seem prescient. The eight-hour workday is receding further into the mists. Even the inadequate provisions of the 1948 Act are to be shelved once again in a season of distress. For this to work, the government counts on the acquiescence of workers. But does it account for the energies a pandemic may unleash?