ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Regulatory Myopia of ‘Work from Home’

Work from home cannot be isolated from other types of work taking place in the home.

 

“Work from home” (WfH) finds mention in the draft model standing orders for the service sector, released by the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment on 31 December 2020. Applicable to establishments employing more than 300 workers, Section 10 of the draft states that “subject to conditions of appointment or agreement between employers and workers, employer may allow a worker to work from home for such period or periods as may be determined by employer.” While 2020 saw a hurried passage of the controversial labour codes, 2021 appears to mark the operationalisation of the new labour regime. Many have applauded a separate draft for the service sector and consider the inclusion of WfH as recognition of the changing nature of work, hastened by the contingencies of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, before welcoming this inclusion, WfH needs to be interrogated, recognising the fault lines through which it threatens workers’ rights and entitlements, while continuing to ignore the various precarities that “work” and “home” represent.

In May 2020, NASSCOM proposed a set of recommendations to accommodate WfH for the information technology (IT) sector. These included flexibility in choosing working hours and weekly offs, and exemption from registration where 100% of the employees are working from home. In fact, it suggests complete exemption of the IT sector from standing orders, stating that in a flexible work regime, service conditions change regularly, making certifications expensive. Section 5 of the draft echoes this: “in case of IT Sector, the working hour shall be as per agreement or conditions of appointment between employer and workers.”

During the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns across the world, drastic increase in domestic violence was reported. The household, which as feminist scholars have continuously pointed out, is where women’s unpaid labour contributes to the reproduction of “productive” labour. In fact, the acronym WfH, being widely used, ironically also applies to a far more radical slogan from the 1970s—Wages for Housework—a slogan that defined a movement that sought to transform the notion of production and reproduction, as well as recognise the unpaid and unrecognised labour of women inside homes. The sudden lockdowns permitted the intrusion of the workplace into the household and saw conflicts emerge, rupturing a fragile ecosystem and the illusion of work–life balance, which allows capitalism to function. While workplace violence and harassment are documented, “homes” also represent limits of freedom, and for many escaping from home to work, ­especially women, there is a fundamental emancipatory aspect involved. And yet, a retreat to the home could find a reiteration of social biases and constraints on freedom.

If we explore the many prepositional variants connecting “work” and “home,” we begin to see how the inclusion of WfH in the draft effectively reinforces a deep-seated exclusion in recognising and valuing work. “Home-based work,” largely performed by women in their homes contributing to the different manufacturing supply chains, is ignored. Also, “work in homes,” is absent. In fact, domestic workers have long been demanding legislation regulating their working conditions and wages at a national level.

The intrusion of the workplace into the household allows the entry of exploitative work conditions to have a direct, everyday bearing on the household and its ecosystem. This removes the possibilities of regulatory oversight over workplaces, owing to legal loopholes, diluting the employers’ liability. For instance, what constitutes an accident at the workplace, if the workplace is a home? In the case of domestic violence, is the possibility of a case of sexual harassment in the workplace tenable or does the home not qualify as a workplace in such cases?

The Working Conditions Decree in the Netherlands makes it mandatory on the part of the employer to ensure statutory compliances towards workers’ rights. Conversely, in the draft standing orders, the terms of WfH are to be based on the appointment or agreement between employer and worker, which leaves a lot of ambiguity. Further, it appears to institutionalise temporary, badli, and fixed-term employment causing uncertainty of tenure and ensuring workers’ bargaining capacity vis-à-vis employers could be weak. While WfH, through its tendency to individualise, hampers possibilities of unionising, the draft adds insult to injury by outlining the possibility of a lockout or shutting down of operations in the event of an illegal strike. Such an event would, of course, make the transition to WfH even more attractive for the employer to ignore any protesting workers. Further, gig and platform workers, experiences indicate that remote work sees employers increasing surveillance of work and non-work time, which could possibly overshadow efforts towards collective action.

Notwithstanding difficulties in defending workers’ rights, as WfH grabs attentions, it opens possibilities to forge solidarities with different workers who negotiate “home” as a workplace. This will hopefully challenge the current statutory myopia the government is suffering from, when it comes to upholding workers’ rights.

 

Updated On : 11th Jan, 2021

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