Govt plans changes in law to allow 12-hour shifts in factories

The change by Union government will allow companies to extend the daily shift, from the current accepted norm of 8 hours, six days a week (or 48 hours) to up to 12 hours, six days a week (72 hours).
Longer shifts, a change being considered by the Union government, will help in this context -- as long as the workers are paid proportionately more, something that is part of the plan.(Bloomberg)
Longer shifts, a change being considered by the Union government, will help in this context -- as long as the workers are paid proportionately more, something that is part of the plan.(Bloomberg)
Updated on Apr 11, 2020 12:05 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | BySaubhadra Chatterji

The Union government is considering a change in a 1948 law to allow longer shifts in factories as it works out ways to help factories cope with fewer workers and high demand -- and all against a context where the ongoing nationwide lockdown is likely to continue beyond April 15.

The change will allow companies to extend the daily shift, from the current accepted norm of 8 hours, six days a week (or 48 hours) to up to 12 hours, six days a week (72 hours).

According to two senior officials in the know of the matter, a proposal is under “active consideration” to amend the Factories Act of 1948. Section 51 of the Act says “No adult worker shall be required or allowed to work in a factory for more than forty-eight hours in any week.”

Although there are provisions of overtime in the same act, which has been providing the key legislative framework in Indian industries for the past 72 years, the feeling in the government is that exceptional circumstances call for exceptional provisions.

One of the eleven empowered groups of senior bureaucrats, the one on “facilitating supply chain and logistics management for availability of necessary items such as food and medicine” is pushing for the amendments to allow up to 12-hours of daily shifts from the 8-hour schedule in factories making essential goods.

An executive at a large consumer products company that also makes essential products said on condition of anonymity that the shortage of workers is a real problem -- not because his company employs contract workers (it doesn’t) but because local administrators have to take a call on how many workers they will allow so-called curfew passes to. In some cases, this person adds, it is 50%. In some, lower.

Longer shifts will help in this context -- as long as the workers are paid proportionately more, something that is part of the plan.

The proposal is being backed by a bunch of senior officials including consumer affairs secretary Pawan Agarwal and Guruprasad Mohapatra, secretary of Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade, according to the two officials.

Both Mohapatra and Agarwal are part of the empowered group mentioned in the first instance, that is headed by drinking water and sanitation secretary Parameswaran Iyer.

The first official official, who is directly involved in the discussions said: “It can ensure lesser physical movement of a large number of workers amid restrictions. But longer working hours would also mean restarting production lines to higher capacity. Since workers will get paid extra money it will also solve their liquidity issues.”

While a factory worker is already entitled to overtime, the factories act restricts such overtime to a maximum 120 hours over three months.

The law also stipulates that for each hour of overtime, a worker is entitled to double the normal rate of wages.

“The amendments will ensure higher earnings for a worker and also reduce the requirement of workers by 33%. The entire scheme perfectly fits the current situation when a large number of workers are at home or in the shelters provided by the states,” said the second official.

According to the two officials, the government is also aware that only 270 out of 700 districts in India have reported Covid-19 patients. It has already received suggestions, they added, that in the remaining districts, industries should be allowed to reopen . On Friday, union commerce and industry minister Piyush Goyal interacted with industry bodies over their concerns which included shortage of labour, liquidity issues, cancellation of orders and massive losses.

Trade union leaders, however, remain unimpressed with the proposal of extending the shift hours. “In some enterprises, workers are already working overtime. This is the government’s long term project to extend working hours and eventually, workers will work more with less payment. Instead of these cheap tactics, the government should look into the large-scale retrenchments that is talking place in industries across India now,” said CITU general secretary Tapan Sen.

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