India: The fight over the working day

8 hour day

First published at Liberation.

Co-founder of Infosys Narayana Murthy recently stated that in order to increase work productivity in the nation and increase India's competitiveness, young Indians should put in up to 70 hours a week of labor. Naturally, this comment has caused a stir. However, it is not surprising that business titans like Bhavish Aggarwal of Ola, Sajjan Jindal of Jindal Steel Works Group, and Chairman Emeritus AM Naik of L&T have publicly supported the proposal for a 70-hour work week, citing the nation's low productivity. Congress Leader Manish Tewari, jumped in, suggesting that if "India has to truly become a great power," then one or perhaps two generations must adopt a 70-hour work week "work ethic."

The regurgitating of the debate of the length of the working day highlights the capitalist ruling class's relentless effort to take away the eight-hour workday, one of the main victories of the decades-long working class struggles of the 19th century.

Unending conflict between capital and labour

Attacks on the working day's duration that have been revived (and renewed) show the capitalist class's never-ending quest to impose its rule and control over employees' time. Marx teaches us that absolute surplus value (exploitation) increases proportionally to the increase in working hours and days. Thus, if a worker produces output to the value of his wages in 4 hours, then the remaining 4 hours she expends her labour (in an 8 hour working day) constitute surplus value for the capitalist, which increases as the working day is extended. This, however, cannot be limitless as workers have finite working capability, and overwork would result in the destruction of labour power. Yet Marx had warned that “…Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society.  To the out-cry as to the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of over-work, it answers: Ought these to trouble us since they increase our profits?”. And there is always the “reserve army of labour”, which can quickly replace a fallen worker.

Marx further argues that the lower the price of labour, the greater must be the quantity of labour, or the longer must be the working-day for the labourer to secure even a miserable average wage i.e. “the lowness of the price of labour acts here as a stimulus to the extension of the labour-time".

Thus, capital will seeks to expand the working day for as long as feasible. “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him”, said Marx.

The battle over the working day

Whether or not Murthy's proposal is shocking, it is definitely an illustration of how business magnates covertly attempt to mask their greed for wealth by promoting virtue while citing duty, discipline, and patriotism. History, has shown, time and again, that the length of the working day is a product of the struggle between capital and labour, between the capitalist class and the working-class.

However much capital would like to increase the time spent by a citizen as a “worker”; however much capital tries to reduce human beings to machines, it has to contend with the workers’ need and desire for a larger social role, as a citizen, parent, lover, friend, intellectual, romantic among others. Because they are driven by a desire to maximize their profits, capitalists will do everything in their power to extract the maximum surplus labour from the workers, but their ability to do so is limited by the relative strength of the working class.

Struggles across the world since the 1850s brought out the eight-hour day as prominent concern of labor. The historic May Day struggles on this demand was preceded by the declaration of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions at its Pittsburgh Convention in 1884 that "eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor from and after May 1, 1886". Of course, it was commonly asserted that the contemplated reform was not a complete solution to the problems faced by workers, but was definitely a step in the right direction — towards more leisure, better standard of living and better wages. Writing in the late 1900s, Samuel Gompers, a key trade unionist in the United States, declared, in regard to the movement for 8 hour working day, that in its "magnitude and grandeur ... will, while benefitting us immediately, be written in golden letters of praise and reverence in time to come. We are making history."

Indeed, the glorious struggles of the working class compelled the declaration of the 8 hour working day as the norm, one of the basic labour entitlements. A slew of legislations were introduced in various countries  mandating the 8-hour working day. The first International Labour Organization (ILO) Director Albert Thomas reported that, “during the years 1918-19 the eight hour day has, either by collective agreements or by law, become a reality in the majority of industrial countries”. The stage was set for the ILO’s first International Labour Standard — the Hours of Work (Industry) Convention, 1919 (No.1) .

India’s legalised 8 hour working day came with the 1946 Amendment to the Factories Act of 1934 — a result of the Bill introduced by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar as Labour Member in the Viceroy’s Executive Council.

Yet, now we have Murthy’s proposal for a 70-hour week almost a century later, epitomising the relentless assaults carried out by the capitalist ruling class globally against this hard-earned right of the working class.

This attack has been two pronged. Firstly, de facto increase the number of working hours in the name of overtime or otherwise. Secondly, repeated efforts to dilute the law. This has picked up post the Modi government coming to power. During Covid various governments issued notifications relaxing the number of working hours from 8 to 12 hours – UP, HP, MP, Gujarat and Rajasthan. The Union Labour Ministry issued a communication dated 05.05.2020 to all State governments to do “labour reforms” including increasing daily working hours to 12 hours. Then came the Modi government’s Labour Codes specifically the Code of Wages, 2019 which allows for the work day to be 12 hours including rest period and overtime. This has every potential of being misused by employers to make the workers work beyond the stipulated eight hours. These Labour Codes are currently on hold owing to the opposition from the Trade Unions. More recently the previous BJP government in Karnataka and the present DMK government in Tamil Nadu passed legislations amending the Factories Act 1948, to allow for extending the working day up to 12 hours a day. These labour changes, it is argued, is necessary if India is to compete with China and become the world’s new manufacturing hub. Interestingly the previous BJP government in Karnataka frankly concedes it has been done at the behest of Foxconn to bring labour conditions in line with the competitive sweatshops operating in China, Vietnam and Taiwan. Even so, bowing to Trade Union pressure, the DMK government has kept the amendment on hold.

Working longer does not ensure increased productivity!

Inevitability, like Murthy has done, a correlation is sought to be drawn between longer working hours and productivity. Incidentally this argument was refuted as far back as during the First World War, when nations such as the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, and others, who were eager to boost armaments industry production, commissioned studies which proved that the returns from overworked and exhausted laborers quickly decreased. Famously, in 1918, the Ford Motor Company acted on these findings and reducing the working day to 8 hours while increasing workers’ wages, to find that production increased and profits doubled.

India already has one of the most hardworking workforce in the world. The International Labour Organization reports that, in 2023, Indians will have the longest average workweek among the world's ten largest economies. Only Qatar, Congo, Lesotho, Bhutan, Gambia, and the United Arab Emirates have higher average working hours than India, which comes in at number seven in the world. Productivity is low, though. Evidently, the productivity problem persists despite the already lengthy workweeks. Meanwhile, several other countries like Norway, Finland, Switzerland, etc. which have lower working hours have achieved higher labour productivity.

It is clear that longer workdays will not increase labour productivity, which instead calls for significant capital infusion, technological advancements, more R&D, and better production techniques.

Leaving aside Murthy’s false claim that extended working hours in Germany and Japan have resulted in their advancement, it is incredulous that he chooses to place the onerous burden of increasing productivity on the already exploited shoulders of the workers. It is a known fact that advanced countries have witnessed a continuous decline in working hours per worker during the past 150 years. According to reports, the two nations that Murthy specifically mentioned also exhibit the same pattern. In 1870, there were 68 hours of work per week in Germany; by 2017, that number had dropped to less than 28 hours, or roughly 59% less. In the meantime, the working week in Japan has decreased from 44 hours in 1961 to 35 hours in 2017.

Running workers to the ground

One of the serious impacts of long working hours is on the health of the workers. Several studies have linked long working shifts to negative impact on general health, including problems with cognitive anxiety, musculoskeletal disorders, sleep disturbance, and stress. There is also the associated fatigue created by excess working hours that “also spreads to other organs affecting the neuromuscular mechanism leading to reduced sensory perception, less attention, reducing the ability of discrimination, weakening the muscles, reducing the gland secretions, reducing the heartbeat or irregular heartbeat, and dilating the blood vessels”. There is enough evidence now that that longer working hours badly affect the occupational health of workers.

Moreover in a country like ours, where the workforce is already overworked and underpaid, and also undernourished, Murthy’s proposal of a 70-hour working week is nothing but a recipe for disaster.

No need to race to the bottom

Working hours tend to decrease when incomes rise and people can afford more things that they enjoy, including more leisure. In fact, in more productive economies, workers work less, while in the less productive poorer economies, workers have to work more to compensate for lower productivity.

Enough data confirms the obvious — shorter working days and better pay improves productivity and even profits. As such, Mr. Murthy’s 70-hour prescription comes at a time when there is a growing demand for reducing working hours to 6 hours per day.

Moreover, it is the obligation of the State to ensure that the workers enjoy such working conditions so to ensure their participation as citizens in a democracy.

In effect Murthy is asking for the State to effectively wash its hands of the workers, and turn them into machines for the capitalist class to exploit. What are the consequences of such a deregulatory policy? Dr. B. R. Ambedkar clarified that the argument that minimisation of state intervention would mean liberty, must be tempered by asking to whom and for whom is this liberty? He argued as follows: ”Obviously this liberty is liberty to the landlords to increase rents, for capitalists to increase hours of work and reduce rate of wages. This must be so. It cannot be otherwise. For in an economic system employing armies of workers, producing goods en masse at regular intervals some one must make rules so that workers will work and the wheels of industry run on. If the state does not do it the private employer will. Life otherwise will become impossible. In other words, what is called liberty from the control of the state is another name for the dictatorship of the private employer.”

Murthy, a capitalist, does what capitalists do — fight any legal protection that the workers enjoy so that they can be taken back 200 years to the Industrial Revolution era. What is required though is better wages, lesser working hours, job, wage and social security and socialisation of profits. Workers are not just workers – they are citizens with a role to play in a democracy (and not limited to voting once a few years), and a larger role to play in the revolution.