On November 20, the Karnataka government issued a notification allowing women to work night shifts (7 p.m. to 6 a.m.) in all factories registered under the Factories Act, 1948. States that already allow this are Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra. In line with the Night Work Convention, 1990 of the International Labour Organization, these States amended the Factories Act to remove both sex-based discrimination in night work and restrictions on the fundamental right to practise any profession, occupation, trade, or business of one’s choice. This move has to be read alongside the State’s attempt to improve ease of doing business, investor friendliness, and flexibility in a macroeconomic climate vis-a-vis increasing female work participation rate, which is only 25% in India. Welcoming the decision, industrial bodies and chambers of commerce have said it will benefit the trade and manufacturing sectors, especially the garment industry.
In principle, this is a welcome move. However, several concerns have been voiced by women garment workers who are estimated to constitute over 90% of the five lakh garment workers in Karnataka (according to data by Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a global coalition of trade unions). The amendment suggests that night shifts for women will only be allowed if the employer ensures adequate safeguards concerning occupational safety and health, protection of dignity and honour, and transportation from the factory premises to points nearest to the worker’s residence. The amendment stipulates 24 points related to occupational rules and regulations, most of which have been in existence for years. Yet, women workers fear that when there is no safety or dignity in the workplace even during daytime, how will employers ensure all this during night shifts?
The Garment Labour Union, a women-led trade union working for garment workers in Karnataka, organised a protest in Bengaluru on November 27, arguing that if gender equality is a concern, the state ought to first ensure better working conditions and higher wages in garment factories. GLU says they were neither consulted on this matter nor given a circular for their perusal.
Workers remain pessimistic as they are still not given the promised minimum wage. They are puzzled that the night shift amendment does not address the issue of pay structure for night work (overtime in the garment sector is only an extension of regular work time with questions on extra payment rarely entertained). Though the amendment places the onus on employers to prevent sexual harassment, workers say existing mechanisms aimed at addressing workplace violence, including abuse of workers’ rights and verbal abuse, which are primarily driven by unrealistic production targets, are simply absent or dysfunctional. Against this background, they feel the new rules recommending monthly meetings with the representatives of the employer are farcical. Workers also express scepticism about strengthening the role of inspectors in factories, as past experience shows improperly conducted inspections or negligence towards grave violations. The reality is that workers face the threat of losing their jobs if they report such violations. Also, while the amendment has prioritised installation of CCTV cameras, workers point out that there is no guarantee of their operational status, or clarity on who handles the footage.
The amendment has also failed to address child care, an important concern in a women-dominated sector, especially when paid care is beyond their means. Other promises such as 12 consecutive hours of rest between the last shift and the night shift, separate canteens, and more rest rooms also appear unconvincing in a context where even rest room breaks are infrequent due to high production targets.
In a sector where there is systemic failure and worker-management relations are turbulent, putting the onus of worker safety and security in the hands of the management alone can be risky. Moreover, it is well-known that in supply chains the brands call the shots. Involving them in discussions on worker dignity and equality is important. Omitting workers and trade unions from discussions about the amendment is also seen by the workers as a short-sighted measure. Women garment workers are concerned that while the amendment has stipulated many ‘new’ guidelines amidst the plethora of unaddressed concerns, allowing night shifts would only extend daytime exploitation.
Neethi P. is with the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bengaluru, and works on labour and informality. Nandita Shivakumar is the South India Coordinator for Asia Floor Wage Alliance