Women Can Work Night Shifts

But When Will The Govt Ensure Women’s Equality and Safety in Factories?

Modern industry…. MNC…. Worker in Nokia…. Prestigious….. Valued highly in matrimonial market… Ambika, 22, one such Nokia worker, died on October 31, 2010 in her second shift during working hours. When she attempted to fix some problem in the machinery, her head got stuck in the machine. Workers immediately stopped work and tried to pull her out of the machine. When it was difficult they tried to break the machine. The Nokia management, which was very cautious and concerned in not causing any damage to the machine, intervened and said that the machine is very expensive and that it cannot be broken. By the time Ambika was retrieved out of the machine she was dead. She was actually dying gradually, blood oozing out from her nose and mouth, right in front of the eyes of her fellow workers who were helplessly watching. The management fixed the machine immediately with the help of a technician, wiped away Ambika’s blood on the machine and after a day break, as the following day was declared a holiday by the company apprehending workers’ protest, the machine was put on regular intense operation.

The Modi Government, moving to amend the Factories Act to legalize night shifts for women in factories, claims that this is a historic move to do away with discrimination and usher in equal rights for women.

No doubt, a law that prohibits women from working night shifts is patronizing and patriarchal. Night shifts for women workers cannot be opposed from the point of safety of women workers. After all, women are not safe in this country in any part of the day, and women face sexual harassment and unsafe conditions of work in factories in the day time too. The safety of women workers whether in day or night shifts is the responsibility of the employer and of the government. The question is, what are the measures to ensure that safety?

There were many attempts by different state and central governments prior to the present attempt to amend the Factories Act to allow women workers in night shifts. In a way we can say that TN government is a ‘pioneer’ in this respect.

ILO Protocol 89, adopted in 1990, allowing appropriate governments to amend laws to enable women workers come for night shifts was ratified by the Indian government in 2003 when Vajpayee was the Prime Minister. The same year July, with an amendment to facilitate this, The Factories Act, (Amendment Bill) 2003 was introduced in Lok Sabha. The Factories Act, (Amendment Bill) 2005 was introduced in Lok Sabha by UPA I with the same amendment. This amendment did not allow for women to be dropped off at their doorsteps, but only at the ‘nearest point’. Women opposed this then, pointing out that at night on dark streets, they would need to be dropped off at their doorsteps.

In Tamilnadu, different associations of factories operating in Tirupur have obtained an interim stay for Section 66 of The Factories Act, 1948, in 1997, in the Madras High Court. Since then women are on night shifts in Tirupur garment factories. A December 8, 2000 ruling of Madras High Court ruled that Section 66 (1) (b) which prohibits night shift for women workers is violative of Articles 14, 15, and 21 of the Constitution. The relief was extended only to the units which fought the case. However, it ruled that factories can seek for special permission, which will have to be renewed every year, and introduce night shifts for women workers. The TN government declared that it would appeal against this ruling. But in a letter dated 16 February 2010 to the Chief Secretary of the Punjab Government, the TN Chief Inspector of Factories has stated that there is no appeal pending in this matter in any of the Courts, which means the TN government did not pursue its appeal.

Thus, the 1997 interim stay and 2000 special permission have given enough legal room for the industries in TN to bring women workers in night shift. Nokia and its subsidiaries in the Nokia SEZ employed women in night shifts with special permission. In Tirupur, women workers of garment industries come for two shifts, one from 9 AM to 9 PM another from 9 PM to 6 AM, thus working for 12 and 9 hours, which is again a violation of the 8 hours working day. No existing labour legislation has regulated this violation. Electronic component factories and garment factories in Madras Export Processing Zone are employing women in night shifts. In Coimbatore, women workers in diamond cutting factories and garment factories women work on two shifts from 8 AM to 10 PM.

On 22 January 2014, TN government has amended the Factories Act 1948, by adding a new section 84 B, which charts out 14 conditions that are to be fulfilled by the industries which employ women in night shifts. In the Automobiles and Auto Components Policy 2014 of TN government unveiled by Jayalalitha in February 2014, Jayalalitha has said that TN government will consider bringing women in night shifts.

In 2013, the Gujaraj HC has ruled that Section 66 (1) (b) which prohibits night shift for women workers, violates Articles 14, 15, and 16 of the Constitution.

The Punjab government quoting the 2000 Madras High Court ruling said that it cannot be applied per se in Punjab but released a Notification dated 10 October 2010 allowing night shifts, taking TN as an example. In a GO dated 13 November 2013, it laid down the related conditions on the lines of 2000 ruling of Madras High Court.

In a ruling dated 10 June 1999, Mumbai High Court allowed employing women workers in night shifts. Andhra High Court also ruled that Section 66 is ultra vires. When night shifts became an integral part in the IT sector, Andhra and Karnataka governments amended Shops and Other Commercial Establishments Acts of the respective states in 2007 and ensured that women are on night shifts.

All these instances cited above make it clear that for all practical purposes Section 66 (1)(b) is violated with permission, by notification, by nullification and women are on night shifts wherever and whenever needed. All these jobs, including IT sector jobs, which appear to be white collar, involve monotony. Garment and electronics sector are labour intensive. They employ more women in the day time as it is, but were restricted from doing so at night. Now they also seek to legally employ women a night, because women can be paid less than men for the same work. The Governments – at Centre and States – that are so eloquent in pushing women’s rights to work at night, are silent on women’s rights to get equal pay for equal work.

Rampant Violation of Women Workers’ Rights

The Government proposes various fine-sounding promises to ensure safety of women workers during night shifts. But these are on paper. The fact is that the existing labour laws intended to ensure workers’ and women’s rights are openly, blatantly violated. Garment workers in TN and Karnataka have complained that they don’t even have toilet facilities in many factories. Workers in most factories are prevented even from using toilets as often as they need; and women workers are denied the right even to change menstrual pads as often as they need. Vishakha committees against sexual harassment, likewise, do not exist. As the incident narrated at the beginning of this article shows, most factories do not take elementary mandated safety measures to protect workers from accidents. Workers’ only safeguards lie in unions – but most factories intimidate and deter workers from unionizing.

The proposed amendment says that night shifts will be optional for women. How will it be ensured that women will not lose their jobs for refusing to work nights? Currently, in the Coimbatore Pricol factory for instance, the AICCTU-affiliated Union has used collective bargaining to ensure that women workers’ decision not to opt for night shifts, is respected. But where even the right to have a union is not respected, how will the right of women to choose, be respected and upheld?

Girls, as young as 13 years old, in Sumangali Scheme in TN are already working for even 16 hours a day under duress. If night shift is allowed for them one can imagine the hardships and inhuman exploitation they may face at the hands of their employers.

The question is - why hasn’t the Modi Government talked to unions and women’s organizations to end the systematic ongoing discrimination against women in factories? How to make night shifts viable for women could have been one of the measures discussed there - along with equal pay for equal work, enough toilets, and end to work conditions that do not allow basic hygienic rights to women and men, and expose women to hazards to their health and safety.

It is claimed that women ‘demand’ night shifts. The National Commission of Women conducted an investigation among women working in night shifts, with the help of ASSOCHAM and released a report ‘Women in Night Shift: Growth and Opportunities’. One finding of this report – that 71.1% of the women workers surveyed did not feel insecure during night shift work – is oft quoted by the Governments. But this finding needs to be seen in context of the whole report.

The report found, for instance, that 45% of women workers in leather and 34% in textiles industry felt insecure during night shifts, as compared to 8% in BPOs. 13.3% face mental harassment – and the percentage is much higher in leather and textile factories. In leather and textiles, women complained of having to work the whole night standing. 45% reported that they are always tired, 50% reported that they have digestive problems, 60% reported sleeplessness and high BP, 55% reported fever and cold very often, 10% reported stress, 50% suffer menstrual disorders, 35% pregnancy related disorders, and 45% reported that they always felt sick. Only 8.6% respondents got childcare facilities, separate lounges for nursing mothers etc within company premises.

So, why did women continue doing night shifts? The report observed that especially for women in leather and textiles and similar factories, “Worst is the condition that their livelihood depends on this means only….Only 16.8% of the respondents perceived better pay package to be a major attraction for working nightshifts. The rest responded that there is no other choice…Women workers in the leather and textile mills have to work night shift because the expensive machinery used in these factories are highly efficient; productivity and profitability is greatly increased by day and night utilization of the machinery.” So clearly, night shifts are a compulsion – not ‘optional’ – for most women workers, especially the more vulnerable ones.

The Question of Domestic Labour

A letter dated 17 June 2014 of TN Labor Department circulated among the recognized TUs is seeking opinions of TUs on the proposal of Flexi Career Private India Limited which suggests night shifts for women workers which is supposed to help them better discharge their family responsibilities. This is a remarkably hypocritical reasoning. But a BJP spokesperson on TV, used the same argument. She argued that that women want to work the night shift so that they can ‘spend the day with kids’ and ‘take power naps in the afternoon’! ‘Spending the day with kids’, for women, means cooking and caring for kids all day – i.e a full day shift after the night shift!

The NCW report in fact, found exactly the opposite of this claim. It noted, “We have observed that married women find it slightly difficult to carry night shift jobs because of family demand and their reproduction function.”

Most women workers actually work a ‘double shift’ because after work, they have the burden of domestic labour that the Government glorifies and justifies by calling it ‘family responsibilities.’ This is precisely why many women might not want to be forced to work at night. The argument that women can be ‘empowered’ by exchanging a full night’s sleep for a ‘power nap’ in the afternoon is laughable.

Factories and other work places should be mandated to provide child care and wholesome, affordable meals for workers and their families. Without these measures, women’s ‘double shifts’ can never end, and night shifts would become intolerable.

This part of the NCW report clearly shows that there is neither growth nor opportunity for women workers coming for night shifts. It is indeed an additional ordeal for women who are already under the burden of unpaid work at home. It actually disturbs the natural biological clock and thus night shift for women, and for men too, is unnatural. In reality if at all any section of women are demanding night shifts it could only be from the need of some additional income and nothing about self-actualization or empowerment.

Tug of War Between Labour and Capital Over the Working Day

It is important to contextualize the question of night shifts historically. The working class movement, male and female workers together, struggled to limit what constituted ‘the working day’ while the capitalists strove to extend ‘the working day’ to swallow up the night as well as mealtimes, toilet-time and so on. Karl Marx in Chapter X (The Working Day) of Capital Volume I, explains this struggle between labour and capital at length, with a wealth of historical detail.

Night shifts were employed in 19th century England to maximize the extraction of surplus value from workers’ labour. Trainees from the age of 16 were put on day and night shifts alternately and their beds in their dorms were always warm as they were always occupied by the worn out trainees in days and nights alternately. Capital invested in the machinery cannot lie idle when the worker sleeps. The machine has to be put into optimum use to extract as much profit as possible. This greed of the capitalists invented night shifts. Workers working on night shifts means, in an overall sense, extending the overall period of overall labour put into production and thus increases profit rates.

Thus night shifts have little to do with ensuring equality or acting in accordance with Articles 14, 15 and 16 of the Constitution. If the government is serious in ensuring equality, steps must be taken to increase the number of women workers in engineering and automobile sectors which are relatively better paid and have better working conditions.

Night shifts for women are being legalized, in the backdrop of the moves afoot to dismantle existing labour law protections entirely, and ongoing rampant violations of existing labour laws. Without putting in place stringent monitoring and implementation of labour laws, as well as introducing stringent measures to ensure health and safety rights, child care, as well as measures against sexual harassment and gender discrimination at workplaces, the move to open the doors for night shifts for women is just another step in the campaign to turn our factories into sweatshops, where global MNCs can employ cheap labour to ‘Make in India’.

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