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Women and Work: After the Law

After the Law Things came full circle in August 2005 when Parliament passed an amendment to the Factories Act, 1948 allowing women to work the night shift in factories. The reversal of the ban on night work for women perhaps reflects the course that the struggle for women

WOMEN AND WORK

After the Law

T
hings came full circle in August 2005 when Parliament passed an amendment to the Factories Act, 1948 allowing women to work the night shift in factories. The reversal of the ban on night work for women perhaps reflects the course that the struggle for women’s rights has charted. Early impulses that attempted to shield or save women from, for instance, unsafe or “dishonourable” occupations, have given way to claims that demand freedoms and opportunities of all manner, consistent with full citizenship and human rights. That being said, there is an entire system of support structures and redress mechanisms that must swing into motion to enable women to enjoy those rights, given that we live in a society still riven by inequalities. As the world of work itself is changing dramatically, with far-reaching structural and demo-

Economic and Political Weekly October 14, 2006

graphic shifts in the economy, working conditions for women, the nature of their work and the needs arising out of it are themselves being transformed. Research on the subject of women and work in the country has followed two broad strands: how structures of patriarchy reproduce women’s subjugation in the world of work, particularly in the case of poor rural women, and the psychosocial aspects of working outside the home, that is the stress of the double burden, effect on the family, attitudinal shifts of men in the household, etc. Little has been done in terms of examining the organisational perspective, i e, what facilities are available for women in their work spaces, where they fall short and why and how they can be improved.

Recently, a report by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India entitled ‘Night Shift for Women: Growth and Opportunities’ has assessed four different industries in terms of women’s perceptions of security and an adequate working environment. This is an urban survey covering 216 women workers and 56 employers in nine cities in the business process outsourcing (BPO), health, textile and garments and leather industries. It is noteworthy because it is the first study, after the 2005 amendment came into effect, to assess women’s satisfaction with the safeguards and other facilities that employers are obliged to provide them for working the night shift. The survey has aggregated women’s perception of their “security” in working the night shift and of other parameters such as adequacy of childcare facilities, transport facilities and in-house trainings on health and safety issues, mental harassment by the employer, pay package, etc.

More than 71 per cent of women working the night shift said they did not feel insecure, which could be taken as a sign of the increased mobility women enjoy in urban spaces, though the interpretation of the term itself could vary widely. Not surprisingly, the industry that fares the best on almost all counts is the BPO sector, which counts among its ranks a better paid and more highly skilled workforce. Women in the textile and leather sectors, on the other hand, faced the most mental harassment from their employers, greater commuting problems, and had the worst childcare facilities. Similarly, workers face more problems in each industry than do executives and managers, in that order. The survey throws up some other important findings. Childcare facilities across sectors remain extremely inadequate – only 7 per cent of all women were satisfied with them – although the Factories Act has stipulated their need since 1948. Women receive virtually no inhouse training on health and security related issues, even as they suffer from a plethora of health problems ranging from sleep disorders, high blood pressure, menstrual problems, exhaustion, etc, that could well be related to working night hours. Critics of the amendment might find some validation in the findings of the survey, for it reveals starkly that women work the night shift because the job demands it rather than because of a better pay package – this is more true again for the lower paying sectors. The implications for women’s double burden of work and the new compulsion of working the night shift, when this was not required earlier, might be something to think about. What is heartening though is that as the scale of enterprise increased, women’s satisfaction with the facilities extended to them improved quite dramatically, which implies that certain facilities for women tend to become institutionalised in larger firms.

BPO and health workers were already exempt from the earlier ban on working the night shift, though considering that 60 per cent of the workforce in the textiles sector is female, the findings of the study are troubling, even if familiar. Curiously, though the present study includes questions on sexual harassment in its survey tool, the findings are not presented. Why? More studies in this area are needed, including those that use specific and objective parameters to assess and compare the performance of firms/industries on this count. Perhaps it is time to go beyond mere legalistic solutions.

EPW

Economic and Political Weekly October 14, 2006

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