May Day: The eight hour day, the labour Codes and unfree labour

The failure of the new Labour Codes to guarantee an eight-hour work day and limit the minimum wage amounts to forced labour. The agitation against the Labour Codes must begin at the root as a struggle against unfree labour.

This is part of our special issue on May Day 2022.

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MAY Day, or the International Workers’ Day, is an annual marker in the life of the world’s working class. It is the day of celebration of victories won, sacrifices made and, of course, also a moment of reflection for the challenges that lie ahead. It is symbolised by the right to an eight hour work day.

The length of the working day has been the central contention between labour and capital since the world began to industrialise two-and-a-half centuries ago. By the early twentieth century, May Day and the demand for an eight-hour day became widespread across the world; unsurprisingly, ensuring the eight hour day was introduced within days of the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. The principle of the 8-hours day or of the 48-hours week was adopted as Convention No. 1 at the founding conference of the International Labour Organisation. Read with the reference in the text to a weekly day of rest, this became the bare minimum acceptable standard of work a century ago. It reflected a compromise of sorts between labour and capital, which in many ways defined the twentieth century.

Also read: May Day: 12-hour working day notifications

Eight-hour workday still a pipedream for most workers

Yet, the eight hour day still remains a mirage for the overwhelming number of working people in our country and across the world, and increasingly so. Stretching the hours of work still is the oldest trick in the employer’s manual – of how to get more work for less wage cost paid. Even the highest end organised industrial worker in India no longer works just eight hours in a day. The meal break during the shift is typically counted out of the eight hours of work.

For workers whose wages are ‘piece-rated’; in other words, computed on work done, whether they work as home-based workers or as industrial workers or are employed in the so-called gig economy, regulation of working hours is never accounted for. As the number of part-time workers on low wages rise, as the nature of work changes, working hours have become endless in order to eke out a minimum existence. This time it is portrayed by employers as a workers’ free choice – their choice to work longer to earn more – their aspiration to live a better life. What is unstated is that by keeping the piece rate low, employers push workers to work longer hours. This is true not just for a home-based beedi worker trying to roll a thousand beedis to make their daily wage or an Uber driver driving up to 18 hours in a day to make a living that allows them to survive in a city where they drive. It is not their free choice that pushes them to work such long hours – it is desperation.

Read with the reference in the text to a weekly day of rest, the eight-hour work day became the bare minimum acceptable standard of work a century ago. It reflected a compromise of sorts between labour and capital, which in many ways defined the twentieth century.

The question of choice and freedom is advanced most in the ‘new’ economy of digitally aligned app-based services. Earnings are linked directly to each task, be it a delivery or a ride, with payments for each individual task kept at poverty levels, pushing each worker to, through their ‘free choice’, outperform the other in order to earn an ‘incentive’ so as to earn a basic wage.

Also read: The gig is up: international jurisprudence and the looming Supreme Court decision for Indian gig workers

Low minimum wages mean that even workers in full-time jobs, earning the legal minimum wage, undertake overtime not because they want to but because they have no ‘choice’ but to work the longer hours in order to earn a wage that will allow them to barely survive, especially in urban centres. Of course, in a large number of workplaces, workers are ‘forced’ to undertake overtime or not refuse additional work. The fragility of the employment situation is such that a worker with a full-time job lives in fear of losing the job itself by declining overtime. Why do employers force workers to work overtime?

How automation exacerbated, rather than alleviated, the situation

Quite early, by the middle of the eighteenth century, workers began to recognise that they were exploited not just by the length of the working day, but by the speed of the machine as well. As technology advances in the first instance, machines become faster. Simply put, in the first instance, what better technology does is that it produces more output in less time. This is well documented through the history of mechanisation of the textile industry through the nineteenth century. Automation of the assembly line in automobile manufacturing through the twentieth century is held up as the prowess of manufacturing technology. Better technology has in many instances reduced the drudgery of manual work.

At the same time, in most cases, workers have to work harder and with more concentration. If these workers are made to work overtime, the productivity gain to the employer is more than the overtime wage paid to the worker.

The transformation of automobile manufacturing from the Fordist model to the Toyota system has meant that workers now perform multiple tasks calibrated to the second. In the service industry too, technology has meant, in delivery services, for instance, bicycles have been replaced by motor cycles and hand-held internet-connected devices have replaced manual records. More precision is expected and, of course, more output is expected in the same time period. Automation also comes with more employer-supervision and control over work and, in the digital age, increasing surveillance over workers, all directed at increasing productivity.

Also read: How does AI-surveillance at the workplace affect workers?

Both longer hours of work and increase in work intensity contribute to the physical and mental exhaustion of workers, who are not quite just another factor of production but human, after all. This pressure, whilst at all times makes workers push themselves to do more and do so faster, also leads to natural human errors, in turn leading to accidents that can be fatal or at least body-impairing, affecting lifetime earning capacities. Alongside, employers prefer to spend on compensation to affected workers rather than on collective workplace safety provisions, as this ensures greater profit at less cost. They see money spent on health and safety in the workplace as an ‘unproductive’ investment. This cost cutting by employers undermines the very right to life of a worker.

Keeping the piece rate low, employers push workers to work longer hours. It is not their free choice that pushes them to work such long hours – it is desperation.

Failure of the new Labour Codes

The four Labour Codes legislated by the Bharatiya Janata Party government, everything else apart, have taken existing statutory provisions on the regulation of working hours, and health and safety in the workplace, off the statute book and made them the prerogative of the executive. The provisions for collective bargaining, between employers and trade unions, that traditionally is the site for resolving disputes on work intensity, have also been written down. Employers have been cushioned with a ‘floor wage’ that shall now rest below the already abysmally low minimum wage, and legal justiciability of the minimum wage has lost its sanctity.

An eight hour work day, with adequate rest and at an acceptable level of work intensity, at a just minimum wage in a safe workplace so a worker can work for their entire working life, is what could be imagined as the level below which no worker must work. Legislative provisions that undermine this push an overwhelming majority of workers into conditions of unfree or forced labour.

Employers prefer to spend on compensation to affected workers rather than on collective workplace safety provisions, as this ensures greater profit at less cost. They see money spent on health and safety in the workplace as an ‘unproductive’ investment. This cost cutting by employers undermines the very right to life of a worker.

Also read: New Labour Codes dilute workers rights and collective bargaining

The struggle against unfree labour in our country has, for the most part, addressed bondage and non-payment of the statutory minimum wage. The Labour Codes at their core seek to provide legislative sanctity to forced labour. The failure of the Labour Codes to guarantee an eight-hour work day and limit the minimum wage amounts to forced labour. The agitation against the Labour Codes must begin at the root as a struggle against unfree labour.

The Leaflet