The erosion of hard-won labour rights

By extending the hours of work and ensuring job insecurity, we are setting the clock back in the name of ease of doing business

Updated - May 01, 2023 07:40 am IST

Published - May 01, 2023 12:15 am IST

A handloom weaver at a workshop in Nalgonda district.

A handloom weaver at a workshop in Nalgonda district. | Photo Credit: AFP

On May 1, 1886, Chicago in the United States became the major site of a demonstration by labour unions in support of an eight-hour workday. Police brutality and the victimisation of protesting workers by employees did not subdue the spirit of the protesters. To condemn anti-worker actions, labour anarchists called for a meeting on May 4, 1886, at the Haymarket Square. The peaceful meeting turned violent when a bomb exploded in the police ranks, and the police fired in response. The violent confrontation between the workers and the police became a symbol of the international struggle for workers’ rights.

In 1889, the International Socialist Conference declared that, in commemoration of the Haymarket Square affair, May 1 would be an international holiday for labour, or May Day. In 1919, the International Labour Organization adopted the Hours of Work (Industry) Convention, which limited the number of working hours to eight a day and 48 hours a week. British India ratified the Convention on July 14, 1921. In the subsequent decades, the working class in various countries held several agitations to secure the right to an eight-hour working day.

Today, affluent countries in Europe such as Switzerland, Denmark, and the Netherlands have reduced the hours of work.

Regulating working hours

The theory of economic development anticipated that due largely to technological inventions and innovations, and with economic prosperity, people will have more leisure time to engage in sociocultural activities and that social welfare will improve. However, the itch to regulate or rather increase the number of working hours continues to persist. When COVID-19 hit India, several States amended the Factories Act, 1948, using the ordinance route. Recently, the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments also increased the number of working hours a day. Following opposition, the Tamil Nadu government put a hold on the amendment to the Factories Act on work hours.

Employers, especially in the garment and electronic industries, have clamoured for a flexible worktime regime so that they can manage export orders. In India, mainstream economists give the green signal to any initiative as long as it increases exports, even if it is at the cost of labour rights and human rights. They recommend emulating countries like Bangladesh (for garments) and Vietnam (for electronics). In 2022, according to the Global Right Index, launched by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Bangladesh ranked among the 10 worst countries where labour rights are not guaranteed. On a scale of 1 (best) to 5+ (worst) on the degree of respect for workers’ rights, the ITUC rated Vietnam 4, which indicates systematic violation of labour rights. The comparator countries that neoliberals refer to are known for their poor record of labour rights.

Under the pretext of ‘ease of doing business’, regional governments offer many subsidies and exemptions to attract global and domestic capital. Apart from quantitative subsides, these global companies press for qualitative subsidies. Employers prefer no unions or weak ones in an industrially peaceful context where cheap and skilled workers are available. While India bears the cost of skilling the workers, multi-national corporations reap the benefits. This low road to development employed by most capitalistic companies leads to a race to the bottom. We see one State after another amending labour laws despite the fact that these companies do not help significantly reduce unemployment rates; they mostly provide high-skilled jobs, which leads to jobless growth.

The typical demand is to increase the number of hours of work a day while adhering to the eight-hour-day rule. For instance, Karnataka has increased the number of working hours a day, including rest periods, to 12, while complying with the weekly threshold of 48 hours. We are also moving from the three shifts regime to the two shifts regime. What is the economic reason for this demand? The worker spends about nine hours in the factory. The companies believe they can enhance production by maximising the workers’ time at the factory. This would help them cut travelling allowance and transaction costs.

As far as the workers are concerned, they are likely to be away from home for at least 14 hours since some of them spend two hours travelling to work. On four successive days, workers may work for 12 hours and travel for two hours each day, which is daunting, even for younger workers. Eventually there is bound to be diminishing marginal productivity and employers may not benefit. As workers age, they become less efficient, highly fatigued and prone to industrial accidents.


By extending the hours of work and ensuring job insecurity, we are setting the clock back to the 19th century in the name of ease of doing business. Due to lack of political unity as well as trade union cooperation, save a few instances, States are able to change labour laws without much opposition. The move of the Karnataka government close to May Day was disappointing. Companies employ Human Resources professionals who preach about a work-life balance, but don’t say anything when workers are treated shabbily. The delay in the implementation of the new labour codes is hardly a concern for the Union government. Trade unions have a lot to be concerned about this May Day.

K.R. Shyam Sundar is a Visiting Professor, XLRI, Xavier School of Management, Jamshedpur

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