Reports that the NDA government is all set to change the law to allow women to work night shifts in factories is a welcome one, but should come with some caveats. India’s call centres are global leaders with women working night shifts on a large scale but they are white-collar work-places. The proposed law will enable women to work after 7 pm in blue-collar shop floors, knocking down an outdated 1948 provision.
The issue, however, is tricky. Recent developments in Delhi and Bengaluru, where crime has hurt working women, and a parliamentary panel have raised questions on safety. In truth, freedom of participation for women in the workforce is a matter of principle concerning equality and choice. On current indications from the labour ministry, a revised Bill of the Factories Act set to be tabled in the winter session of Parliament plans to make employers legally responsible for providing safety to women workers in night shifts. While precedents in the call centre industry can help formulate best practices, the government should offer tax breaks to factories in offering facilities such as transport, night crèches, rest rooms and meal rooms. We cannot have men-only factories while an ambitious ‘Make in India’ programme gets going. It is vital to remember that electronics manufacturing, in which China and Taiwan have made strides, has an active participation by women.
A study by the McKinsey Global Institute said last month that India could increase its GDP by 16% to 60% simply by enabling women to participate in the economy on the same footing as men. An International Monetary Fund paper said this year that India’s female labour force participation rate — defined as the share of women that are employed or seeking work as a share of the working-age female population — stood at 33% compared to a global average of 50% and East Asia’s 63%. This implies that only 125 million out of 380 million eligible ones are seeking work or are employed. Conducive factories and laws can certainly aid in bridging the gap.