Opinion: Palash Baruah and DL Wankhar.
Work-life. There is no consensus on the optimum weekly work hours. But working hours must be linked to productivity and output
Arriving at an optimum and acceptable work hours has been a continuing debate in labour and employment discourse and we are far from a consensus.
The debate was triggered again when recently Infosys co-founder NR Narayana Murthy advised young Indians to work 70 hours a week to level up the country’s productivity, even as there is little evidence of a significant positive correlation between the two.
Not surprisingly Narayana Murthy’s advice attracted a lot of attention, given how he linked long working hours with nation building. Instantly and invariably it sparked a debate with divergent voices of both applause and criticism.
It is also interesting that it has come at a time when in a post-Covid era people have, more than ever, been mulling over how to maintain work-life balance and the F.I.R.E (financial independence, retire early) movement gaining momentum. At the other end of the spectrum, workers in certain sectors are engaging in ‘moonlighting’, an indication that they are not averse to putting in more hours at work for supplementing their income. But legislation in India provides that no adult worker shall be required or allowed to work for more than forty-eight hours in any week (Section 51 of the Indian Factories Act, 1948).
However, some States empowered with Section 65(2) of the Factories Act, 1948 have increased the working hours up to 12 hours a day. Another legislation, the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code (OSHWC), 2020 provides that no worker shall be required or allowed to work, in any establishment or class of establishment for more than eight hours in a day. There is a proposal to amend the OSHWC Code to provide for a 12 working hours inclusive of intervals for rest.
As it stands, these existing provisions in India is somewhat in consonance with Article 2 of the ILO’s “Hours of Work (Industry) Convention, 1919 (No.1)” which mandates that working hours of persons employed shall not exceed eight in the day and 48 in the week.
What does empirical data say about the time spent by workers at work? The National Sample Survey Office’s 2019 Time Use Survey (TUS) revealed that there is wide variation in the amount of time that people spent at work across occupation and gender. For instance, male workers put in on average 354.4 minutes of work a day on agriculture and allied activities, while it is on average 295.5 minutes a day by female workers. The nature of such activities is such that long hours at work are not required all through the year. Also, commuting time would be small or negligible.
Relatively, on the other hand, male workers put in 30 per cent more time at 461.6 minutes of work a day on average and female workers spent 10 per cent more at 326.3 minutes of work a day on average in services related activities as compared to those engaged in agriculture and allied activities. This is without taking into account commute time and work breaks.
Further, it is seen that in corporations, government, non-profit institutions and other household enterprises (producing and processing goods, construction activities, other ancillary activities) male workers and female workers spent on average about 441.2 minutes a day and 345.8 minutes a day at work, respectively. Thus, male workers spent 25 per cent more and female workers about 17 per cent more time in these activities as compared to those engaged in agriculture and allied activities. It would be much higher if the commuting time and breaks are taken into consideration.
The analysis shows that male workers on average spent about 83.3 minutes and female workers about 72 minutes in commuting time, perhaps indicating that females would prefer a much nearer work place. It is safe to assume that it would be much longer commuting time in congested cities and metros.
Data also shows that on average male and female workers utilise about 50-56 minutes as breaks during their working time. Cumulatively, it is seen that excluding those engaged in agriculture and allied activities, male workers spent on average more than 10 hours a day at work including commuting time and work breaks, while it is relatively lower for female workers at an average of 7-8 hours a day. This works out to 48-50 hours in a five-days working week for male workers, while it is 37-39 hours.
Considering both male and female workers, persons employed in activities, other than agriculture and allied activities, are spending around 47-48 hours at work (including breaks and commuting time) in a five-day working week. It would be much higher for those with a six-day working week. This is in line with the findings of the ILO data (2021) where it found that Indians are among the hardest workers in the world, averaging 47.7 hours per week per employed person. It is also comparable to the amount of time put in by the workers in China.
Data as per the TUS further revealed that on average, workers (aged 18 to 60 years) engaged in activities other than agriculture & allied activities spent more than 9-10 hours a day at work (including breaks and commuting time). Interestingly, even those who are 60 years and above are not far behind as they spent on average 8-9 hours (including breaks and commuting time) at work.
It is complicated to determine or fix a general optimum level of working hours. But it is without doubt that working hours should be linked to productivity and output, and a fair and adequate compensation to the workers should mandatorily be a natural outcome. Working hours, productivity and compensation are required to be in alignment. These factors can never work in isolation.
John Maynard Keynes in 1930 had speculated in his essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” that tremendous productivity growth would enable us to eventually work only 15 hours a week! Alas, that is still a distant dream.
Baruah is Associate Fellow at NCAER, New Delhi and Wankhar is a retired Government officer. Views are personal.