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Narayana Murthy Has Soared So High That He Can Only Have a Top-down View of Work

It seems that there is almost a sense of pride in undertaking a punishing workload.

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By no account was John Maynard Keynes an excitable chap. Yet, in his essay “Economic Possibilities” written in 1930, he predicted an “age of leisure” in the “destination of economic bliss.”

He talked of a time to come when “three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week” will be the norm for most in the US/Europe.

I wonder what Mr Narayan Murthy (and the many others who chimed in support of his 70-hour week idea) would make of this proposition by the noted economist.

If one were to parse the statements made in support of the need for a 70-hour work week in India, it seems that there is almost a sense of pride in undertaking a punishing workload. There is a sense of comfort in being productive as it makes “us” feel like we are in it together – us, the country, and many others.
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'Karoshi': Death by Overwork

However, the painful truth might be that it is easy to mistake productivity for progress, though when one owes nothing to the other.

The Courts in India have taken notice. For example: in January this year, Justice Jasmeet Singh, while ruling in an abetment of suicide case, mentioned “Karoshi”, the Japanese term for death by overwork.

It was observed that “death caused due to overwork and toxic work environment is a social problem which requires the government, the labour unions, the health officials and corporates to formulate appropriate policies. What is needed is an examination of the issues of overwork and occupational stress focusing on mental health at the workplace.”

When or how did we get like this?

Lucas Ronconi, a Senior Researcher at the University of Buenos Aires, writes about the “paradox in labor regulations around the world”. He has proposed that “the reason for protective labour codes but very low levels of enforcement” can be attributed to the impact of “European colonization strategies.”

According to his thesis, “in those territories where the Europeans pursued an extractive strategy, they created an economy characterized by monopolies and the exploitation of labor. This situation led to social unrest, and ultimately to the introduction of stringent labor laws in an attempt to buy social peace”. India as the “feeder economy” to the British empire knew well the “extractive strategy” based largely on the notion of “exploitation of labour”.

Labour Laws in India

In India, labour is on the Concurrent List which allows for both the State and Central governments to draft laws.

The Central Government has recently published four Labour Codes (Code on Wages, 2019; the Industrial Relations Code 2020; the Code on Social Security, 2020; and the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020).

The Occupational Safety, Health, and Working Conditions Code, 2020, caps the maximum hours of work for a worker at eight hours a day.

'Worker' means any person employed in any establishment to do any manual, unskilled, skilled, technical, operational, clerical, or supervisory work for hire or reward, whether the terms of employment be express or implied, and includes working journalists and sales promotion employees. This excludes a person employed in a managerial or administrative role.

Note: the effective date of the Codes is yet to be notified by the government.

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Mr Murthy has soared so high that he can perhaps only have a top-down view of work and productivity.

It was, therefore, refreshing to see the Instagram post of Mr Yash Bhanage whose company (co-founded with Mr Sameer Seth) reminds us about the excruciating nature of work in the cities done by those who remain almost unseen – the guards, the drivers, the hospital staff (Mr Bhanage’s company Hunger Inc which owns three restaurants in Mumbai announced a five-day workweek policy for its employees. It is one of the handful in the F&B industry to do so).

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The Significance of 'Informality in the Indian Labour Market'

The International Labour Organization in its “India Decent Work Country Programme 2018 – 2022”, underscores the “persistence of informality in the Indian labour market”.

It mentions that “the share of informal workers in the organized sector (that is workers without access to social security in larger enterprises) increased significantly through greater utilisation of contract and other forms of casual labour.”

The report states that “the percentage of workers in informal employment in India has remained stagnant at around 92 per cent.” This coupled with various “non-standard forms of employment” are formidable challenges to be taken on to create better working conditions.

I end with the account of the Assistant in Primo Levi’s heart-wrenching book, “The Periodic Table”. He writes “A few hours of contact were sufficient for the assistant’s personality to become clearly defined……….He also loved physics, but he was suspicious of every activity that set itself a goal: therefore, he was nobly lazy and, naturally, detested Fascism.”

To be “nobly lazy” is to be an outlier, and to be well–rested is to be a unicorn (a mythical creature that is unlikely to exist).

We should be grateful to Mr Murthy, not just for all that he managed to achieve; but for initiating a discussion on this crucial topic which impacts us all.

A good place to start would be the distinction between labour and employment. And to acknowledge that ease of doing business and labour/employee welfare need not be mutually exclusive.

(Sangeeta Chakravorty is a lawyer and currently a student at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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