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Four-day week

In Indian climate conditions, thoughts of a four day, or even a five-day, week should be avoided. In fact, we get too many holidays as it is. The Centre has a list of 16 holidays annually; then the States have their differing choices. Saturdays and Sundays total up to 104 per year. With approximately one-third of the year thus taken up, the organized office sector of the country is largely on leave


A person I knew happened to visit Germany and one his business stops happened to be Hamburg. In that city he remembered that there worked a dear university friend of his. It was a Thursday when he phoned his friend who was pleasantly surprised and chatted for three or four minutes. In the course of the conversation, he invited the visitor for lunch on Saturday, certainly not on a working day. My acquaintance could not meet his dear friend because he was scheduled to leave Hamburg on Friday. The moral of this little incident was work is worship and leisure is for play and never shall the twain overlap.

This is unlikely to happen in India, where work and play are not so severely separate. Traditionally, Hindus have no weekly sabbath; unlike the Jews who have the Saturday, Christians the Sunday and Muslims the Friday. The Hindus have longish festivals, extended weddings and thirteen days for mourning the death for a family member. Historically, Hindus had no system of weekly holidays; one took one, two or three days off when necessary; otherwise work went on. The working day could be long or short according to convenience. If someone dropped in unexpectedly during work time one chatted with him for say half an hour, unlike in Hamburg.

More leisure for the worker was originally a demand that emanated from the communists. It was a reaction to the 19th century exploitation of the worker by compelling him or her to work for twelve hours or more every day. The wages were also low because the factories were few. What was there in life for the poor worker was a logical question on the lips of the socialist trade union leader. In his mind was the fact that the worker was not a partner, he gained nothing by working hard. The profit was mostly all the factory owner’s ~ either the State or private. If private, by working less, the worker would help in expediting the socialist revolution.

The need for increasing leisure spread from the communists to the social democrats to anyone who believed in a welfare state. For us in India, UK, after World War II and until Margaret Thatcher, is a ready reference for a welfare state.

Productivity became incidental to economic life nor was threatening the State a priority; what mattered most was more pay and less work. When I discussed with factory level trade union leaders, they were frank. When I asked how our developing economy could afford the luxury of leisure, mostly the reply was that if industries fail, the people’s revolution would come nearer.

Once Karl Marx theorized that an economy should produce just enough goods to meet the assessed demand in order to avoid recessions and slumps; the need for productivity was forgotten. So much so that hardly any steps were taken to save the Soviet economy from sinking into lower and lower productivity. The rulers in Moscow looked on while their State collapsed and scattered into 16 splinters.

In any case, in the Indian warm to hot climate conditions, thoughts of a four day, or even a five day, week should be avoided. In fact, we get too many holidays as it is. The Centre has a list of 16 holidays annually; then the States have their differing choices. Saturdays and Sundays total up to 104 per year. With approximately a gross number of 130 days off or well over one-third of the year, the organized office sector of the country is largely on leave. None of these off days apply to the unorganized sector which is very much larger.

Unlike the West, our climate is generally warm, humid and does not lend itself to continuous work of eight or nine hours. The work has to go slow from time to time. A young CPM trade unionist at the National Tabacco factory at Agarpada, 16 kilometres from Calcutta, remarked during a discussion, “One cannot expect a worker in Calcutta to actually produce for more than three or four hours a day”. A six-day week, therefore, should help offset this disadvantage.

Despite our efforts to become a big power, many areas of our economy are developing ones or quite frankly, underdeveloped. In other words, we have less assets and more people, which means we have to get more out of assets. We also have more and more people desirous of obtaining employment. The logical corollary of this problem is to keep 24×7 working hours as our goal. Without much notice, quite a number of vocations can shift to two shifts with a separate set of people working the second shift. Take our law courts for instance, which have huge backlogs to catch up with. They could have a second shift.

The High Courts for example, could begin hearings at 8 am and work till 1 pm without interruptions. At 1.30 pm, the second set of judges could occupy the benches and carry on till 6.30 pm. As far as the advocates are concerned, they would be free to choose their briefs according to their convenience.

Working hours, days, rules and the entire ethos should be redesigned on the basis of Indian conditions and not adapted from the West. So far labour laws have been dominated by ideas set by the Industrial Disputes Act of 1947, given to India by the British on the eve of their final departure from the country. The Labour Party had come to power in 1945 all ready to introduce socialism in Britain. Over seven decades later it is high time not only for reform but also for a complete rethink.

Firstly, socialism has cut no ice in the country as a whole. Most Indians believe in karma and do not expect equality unlike the Abrahamic religions which are embarrassed by inequality. In any case, communism perished thirty years ago except in a few spots on the globe.

What India requires broadly are systems of contracts at most levels of work, including for government officers. The conditions laid out would vary with the type and level of work.

But one rule should be absolutely sacred. When the pay packet is given, at the end of the month, an additional 25 per cent with the help of a public sector bank draft payable at the end of five years, must also be given to the employee. This would be her or his PF, gratuity etc, all in all. so that the employee is assured of post work dues. At present, many employees are in a precarious situation. Many employers have not deposited their Provident Fund money, some including cash deducted from the employee’s salary. Crores upon crores, I am told, are waiting to be lost, not to speak of gratuity funding.

Essentially, so long as both parties agree, contracts should be valid but their enforcement must be strict, which is not always true in our country.

And the courts adjudicating disputes should be impartial. Until now, most labour court judges have been soft in the worker’s favour; sometimes excessively so, which lead to appeals that often hurt the employee.