Feminists, as often misconstrued, do not want women to be given a higher pedestal than men. They advocate for equal rights for both the sexes. The recent amendment to the Factories Act 1948 would give them a reason to rejoice. Maharashtra, the third largest state in India, recently brought an amendment to the Factories Act by way of which women can work night shifts from 7 pm to 6 am. Section 66(b) of the Factories Act which prohibited women from working between the hours of 7 pm and 6 am was amended. The other states which have brought about similar amendments to enable women to work in night shifts are Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, making Maharashtra the sixth one.
REACTIONS TO THE AMENDMENT:
The amendment has been welcomed by many industrialists and has been claimed as a much required change.Former policy makers and lawyers have also lauded the amendment. Maharashtra’s Industries Minister Subhash Desai is of the opinion that it will create more employment opportunities for women. However, there have been negative reactions as well. Congress has opposed the amendment and taken the stand that due to the prevailing conditions of unprecedented sexual harassment against women, they should be refrained from working in night shifts. On the argument that women are already working in night shifts in BPO and other IT industries, the Congress’ spokesperson has differentiated between a BPO and the factories. While the women working in BPO’s are better off financially and most of the companies employing them have both pick up and drop facilities, the factories that come under Factories Act 1948 mostly involve ground work and the women working here often rely on public transport. Speaking on similar lines, a former Labour Commissioner considered this a -” bold move which might backfire”.
However the majority claim has been to approve of this change and the only contention is with regard to women’s safety.
IMPLICATIONS OF THE AMENDMENT:
Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has put the onus of ensuring safety of women on the employers. They would be responsible for the safety of the women workers both inside the factory and to ensure that they reach home safely to their doorstep. According to a report reflecting the crime rates in India issued by the National Crime Records Bureau, Maharashtra is one of the least safe states for women. In another report specifically addressing the problem of rape, Maharashtra stands second in reporting the highest instances of rape. Although these reports are a year or two old and have no connection with women working in night shifts, these statistics somehow support the doubt expressed by those who have opposed the amendment.
The factories have the responsibility of ensuring the safety of the women working in night shifts but on a practical note, how many times have policies been enforced in India? The other major drawback is the health repercussions. Studies have shown that women working in night shifts suffer from breast cancer and obesity. A study was conducted which revealed that women working in night shifts have a 30% higher chance of having breast cancer. In addition to this, her fertility and reproductive capabilities are seriously affected. Her Social and personal life can get chaotic too. Most of the women working in India are solely responsible for managing their household and children. Working in night shifts disrupts their work-life balance .However, a survey by the National Commission of Women has found that working in nigh shifts has been beneficial for women in terms of monetary compensation and most women agreed to sacrifice their social life in order to get more benefits.
Another difficulty that the women might have to face is that of childcare facilities. Often only a few industries can afford such facilities and most of them cannot provide adequate facilities. This may pose a problem especially for women who have little children and live in nuclear families. While the situation is better off in cities, rural areas and lower middle class women suffer the most. With the amendment, the Government and the employers must take care of these additional factors also.
Despite these problems faced by women, there are numerous advantages also. Factories would be more inclined towards hiring women as now they can work for longer hours. Improving gender diversity can be another advantage. One of the views taken in support of the amendment was that women were already working in night shifts in IT sector and hence this change is just a step forward in the same direction.
There have been mixed responses to the amendment. However, the amendment has undoubtedly been a positive change and will act as a precedent for other states to follow. While Gujarat HC has scrapped this particular provision, the Kerala HC only extended the 7 pm deadline to 10 pm but has prohibited women from working for the entire night.
Apart from enabling women to work in night shifts, there were other significant changes that were introduced. Earlier the industries using electricity and 10 or more workers or not using electricity but employing 20 or more workers fell under the jurisdiction of the Act. After the amendment, it has been changed to 20 and 40 respectively. The other significant change is the reduction in the number of hours from 240 to 90, to be eligible for paid leave. The number of extra permissible working hours has also been increased. In a nut shell, all the amendments have been pro-labour.
A woman should have the complete liberty to decide whether she wants to work in a night shift or not. Excluding women in selected areas of work, apart from being discriminatory prima facie, also raises the question – whether the state is concerned only about the safety of a particular class of women working in the industries which fall under the purview of Factories Act. The fact that only 6 states have amended the Act to explicitly allow women to work in night shifts speaks volumes about our country’s parochial mindset .However, it is pertinent at this juncture to keep in mind the various problems that women might face due to working in night shifts. What remains to be seen is how these provision are executed and to what an extent can the employers guarantee the safety of women. If they are successful, it will surely help open new avenues and encourage other states to follow suit while in the bigger picture, assure citizens that Indian politicians can keep to their promises.
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Photo Courtesy: http://www.moorecommgroup.com/blog/entry/we-can-do-it-five-women-focused-campaigns-that-did-it-right