Moral considerations, as opposed to economic considerations, should be the motivation behind this change
Representative Image. Credit: iStock Photo
More than a century ago, American labour rights activist William Dudley Haywood argued that treating employees as merely a means to achieve the goals of the employer was wrong. He was essentially arguing based on philosopher Immanuel Kant’s ‘Categorical Imperative’ approach to principles of morality, which prohibits ‘rational beings’ from using others as means to achieve a certain end, even if that end is for the larger good of humanity. This meant that one shouldn’t use others as a commodity or an object to solely derive benefit from. This principle was rooted in the idea that everybody is equal, and they have basic rights that are inalienable.
There is a moral argument to the idea of a shorter work week with reduced working hours for employees in India. Moral considerations, as opposed to economic considerations, should be the motivation behind this change.
This moral discourse, of treating employees or workers as an end in themselves and not as means to achieve capitalistic goals becomes important in an era when globalisation has intensified competition among economies and failure isn’t an option. The fear of failure among modern-day capitalists and investors has pushed them to acquire an extractive mindset – one that is built on exploiting the vulnerability of their employees.
One of the key components of this exploitation is making employees work for ridiculously long hours on almost all seven days of the week. Such a mindset is further strengthened by a cultural inertia that rewards longer work hours and glorifies the idea of slogging like a slave. The normalisation of a toxic work culture just adds to the motivation of the employer. In India, this has become an unfortunate reality.
A report released recently by the International Labour Organisation found that the Indian workforce, which is the world’s most resilient workforce, is also the most overworked and underpaid in the world. The average working hours in India is 48 hours a week. Only four other countries average higher working hours.
Our society promotes the idea of hard work to an extent that we don’t value the existence and inherent worth of our people anymore. We believe that long working hours is directly proportional to productivity. Our entire education system preaches this to our students who, in turn, find it perfectly normal to try hard and meet those expectations when they become employees of an organisation. Almost all of them consent to be treated as inferior beings to the point that they even brag about overworking.
That is precisely why the ILO report found that the educated and well-paid salaried workers in urban India worked for longer hours as compared to their rural counterparts. Has that improved productivity? Several researchers have argued that it hasn’t.
The 2015 OECD Report states that fewer working hours, in fact, increases productivity and simultaneously also increases employee retention. That is why several countries have now started adopting a four-day workweek, with reduced working hours, and are in fact rolling this out as official economic policy. Iceland has successfully tried a shorter workweek policy. Spain, New Zealand, Finland, Australia and several other countries have done the same. Even Japan has jumped on the bandwagon.
Many researchers have argued that a shorter work week with reduced working hours will benefit the economy as it will allow workers to upskill themselves and, in turn, become more productive. They also believe that such a move, during Covid, will allow workers to spend more time with their families, leading them to spend more money, which will help revive consumption in the economy.
All these arguments, however, originate from the same extractive mindset where the motivation to ease working conditions for workers stems from the belief that doing so would benefit the economic goals of a nation. So, if working longer hours were to in fact increase productivity, they wouldn’t mind going that way, either.
We argue that irrespective of the outcome and the consequences, workers must not be exploited and that moral considerations alone should be enough to grant workers their due.
Our socio-legal structures need to be based on the presumption that humans have an inherent value and worth that needs to be respected. That humanity needs to be treated as an end in itself. That we must stop obtaining consent for exploitation from vulnerable employment-seeking youngsters, which is vitiated, motivated by information asymmetry and a lack of bargaining power on their part. This is an idea whose time has truly come.
(Anurag Tiwary is an Impact Fellow at Global Governance Initiative and is from the National Law University, Visakhapatnam; Priyanka Singh is from the National Law University, Visakhapatnam)