Between exploitation and unemployment


The workers fought for an eight-hour workday when they had to work 10 to 16 hours every day in the late 19th century. The International Workers’ Day is observed on 1 May to commemorate the eight-hour workday movement in Chicago in 1886. Australia got a 40-hour workweek by 1948, and Canada in the early 1960s. Most European countries had implemented a standard 40-hour workweek by the 1970s.

The progressive 40-hour workweek is still nowhere in the unorganised sector in India. We need labour movements in India more than before as we are heading towards privatisation and gig economy.

Working at a stretch for long causes exhaustion and health issues. It also triggers unemployment. To get 24 man-hours daily, an employer needs three workers if each worker works for eight hours daily (8×3). But if the employer forces each worker to work for 12 hours per day, he will employ just two of them (12×2). So, the latter scenario causes unemployment for one in three workers.

Recently, a suggestion for introducing a 70-hour workweek has been floated. This is like taking us from the constitutional guarantee of becoming a welfare country to the days of brute capitalism in the nineteenth century when poor children had to die young after working as chimney sweepers.

Even government workers are victims of overwork. Two freight trains collided and hit a third on 19 April, 2023 in Singhpur, Madhya Pradesh. A loco pilot was instantly killed. The loco pilot, Rajesh Prasad Gupta, had worked 14 to 15 hours of duty at a stretch when the accident took place. The commissioner of the railway safety report observed that, most likely, the loco pilot became sleepy because of exhaustion, and as a result, the collision took place.

A study was conducted on 10,000 Indian cab drivers and gig workers by the People’s Association in Grassroots Action and Movements and the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers, with technical support from the University of Pennsylvania and a German foundation. It was published in March this year.

According to the study, almost a third of app-based cab drivers work for 14 hours a day, while more than 83 percent work over 10 hours and 60 percent work over 12 hours. According to the study, almost a third of app-based cab drivers work for 14 hours a day, while more than 83 percent work over 10 hours and 60 percent work over 12 hours. While 78 percent of app-based delivery persons spend over 10 hours each day at work, 34 percent earn less than Rs 10,000 per month.

This is nothing but a loot of the lifeblood of our youth. Long work hours make drivers physically exhausted. This, plus the 10-minute delivery at the doorstep policy of certain e-commerce platforms are two of the reasons behind many road traffic accidents in our country.

Given that workers can be fired at the drop of a hat, exploitation like withholding of wages, debt bondage, holiday hijacking and even physical and sexual torture have become rampant because it is difficult for a worker in an unorganised sector to fight against the employer alone. Informal workers are highly vulnerable to exploitative practices as no record of contract has properly been maintained, giving ample opportunity to the employers to adopt use and throw methodology.

In this scenario, a worker is between the devil and the deep blue sea, or in other words, between exploitation and unemployment.

The government needs to ensure that no worker has to work more than eight hours daily to where she or he has been employed. It would safeguard the physical and mental wellbeing of the workers and check train and road accidents.

Sujit De,