Is it national interest or corporate greed?- The New Indian Express

Express News Service

The controversy triggered by Infosys co-founder N R Narayana Murthy’s recent ‘advise’ to young people to work 70 hours a week refuses to die down. On Monday, December 4, on the first day of the Winter session of Parliament, three Lok Sabha MPs asked the Union government whether it is considering implementing the suggestion of the Infosys co-founder.

Vinod Khosla, the co-founder of IT major, Sun Microsystems, has also joined the issue and derided those who had opposed Murthy. “For people who ‘felt attacked’ by this, they need mental health therapy. They should learn to “toughen up” and not feel attacked. OK to not work 70hrs/wk and live with the consequences of the choices you make,” he said on X.

In his answer to the Lok Sabha MPs, Rameswar Teli, MoS for labour and employment, has clarified “There is no such proposal under consideration.” It is unlikely there will ever be statutory acceptance of a 70-hour work week, but what Murthy and others have succeeded is to muddy the waters on work ethics in India.

This is not the first time he has pitched for back-breaking hours of work. He had earlier faced criticism in 2020 when he suggested 64 hours a week to make up for lost time during the pandemic. Are these calls in the interest of the nation? Or do they serve corporate greed?

Skilling is the answer

The demand for an eight-hour workday rose from the back-breaking slavery of the 18-hour workday of the 19th Century Industrial Revolution. Progressive entrepreneur Robert Owen was the first to recognise the 10-hour working day in 1819; and it was the collective action by the unions that legalised ‘Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, and eight hours rest.’

Social reformer and father of the Indian Constitution B R Ambedkar was among the first in India to push for an eight-hour workday as the Labour Member of the Viceroy’s Council in 1942. More recently, both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka tried unsuccessfully to amend the law to allow for longer working hours in an attempt to woo investors like Foxconn.

Creating replicas of sweatshops in China is not the answer to improving productivity in India. It has been repeatedly proven that the productivity of employees is a factor of improved skilling, better management, high morale and constantly improving work conditions.

Joining issue in the debate, Ronnie Screwvala, former entertainment entrepreneur and digital investor said on X: “Boosting productivity isn’t just about working longer hours. It’s about getting better at what you do – upskilling, having a positive work environment and fair pay for the work done. Quality of work done > clocking in more hours.”

70 hrs/week the norm

The brutal fact is the exhortation of a 70-hour week (or 11.7 hours a day) is a non-issue. The Factories Act, of 1948, states a working adult can’t be compelled to work over nine hours a day or 48 hours a week. However, the law is obeyed more in its breach.

The informal power loom industry that manufactures cotton textiles and artificial silk employing lakhs of weavers works on the principle of a 12-hour day. So do the diamond cutting and polishing industry in Surat, the brick kilns, security guards, and agricultural labour follow the 12-hour workday.  Official surveys point to a high degree of unpaid work for women, which is never registered. If all the ladies doing their household chores for their families are paid for their jobs, then the amount paid to them would be equivalent to a whopping 7.5% of India’s GDP, according to a March 2023 State Bank of India (SBI) report.

Mr Murthy, look around. Most Indians are already doing 12 hours a day, 70 hours a week!  The repeated calls by the Infosys founder and other captains of industry to work longer hours is maybe directed at ‘intellectual’ workers associated with IT and ITeS, banking and finance. But their calls ignore research in these areas, which shows shorter working hours, and greater access to recreation and family time creates more productive employees.

ALSO READ  | Narayana Murthy wants India’s youth to work 70 hours a week, claims work productivity ‘at lowest’

The International Labour Organisation (ILO), a United Nations affiliate, studied work schedules during the pandemic, and in its January 2023 report said: “Reduced working hours and more flexible working time arrangements such as those used during the COVID-19 crisis, can benefit economies, enterprises and workers, and lay the ground for a better and more healthy work-life balance.

The report said enterprises that enforced longer working hours faced disruption from high levels of resignations, and concluded: “Longer hours of work are generally associated with lower unit labour productivity, while shorter hours of work are linked with higher productivity.”

ALSO READ | Narayana Murthy’s 70-hour work advice: Doctors caution overwork would lead to early onset of lifestyle diseases

Longer working hours have no correlation to economic advancement either. The most progressive and economically advanced countries have the shortest working hours: The European Union countries have a low average of 36.4 hours per week. Of these the most advanced – Netherlands, Norway, Germany – average between 32.4 and 34.6 hours per week.

N R Narayan Murthy, worth $4.1 billion, is respected as a pioneering entrepreneur as he is seen to be largely self-made. However, his repeated calls for longer working hours have jarred that resonance as he begins to be increasingly linked with corporate greed.

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