The History of Work in India.

Over the past year or so I have been working with the team at Sanscubicle (launching later this month) on a concept that explores the future of work in India. During this time there have been many debates on what the future of work could look like based on which I wrote my last post: What will the future of work look like in the 2020s and beyond? I guess we can all agree if you want to build something for the future you need to dig into it’s past a bit.

So what has the history of work looked like in India? How did we get to where we are today? Following is a quick post that covers the history of work in India into the 2000s . Enjoy.

Why the 5/6 day work week?

Out of the seven days, originally six days were for work and a single day was given off. The day off was religion or region-specific — Friday for Muslims, Saturday for Jews and Sunday for Christians. The US pioneered the 5-day work week due to companies giving Saturday off to let Jewish workers adhere to the Sabbath and then Sunday for Christian workers. A lot of companies in the US started adopting this and eventually, it spread globally. Here, in India, many companies follow a 6-day workweek, a legacy bequeathed to us by the British (more on this later).

Why is it 8 hours/day?

Campaign by Social Reformer Robert Owen in 1810.

During the Industrial Revolution, the average workweek for full-time manufacturing employees was an astounding 100 hours. To keep the factories going 24/7 the average worker had to put in 14–16 hour shifts.

August 20, 1866:

A new organisation named the National Labor Union asks the US Congress to pass a law mandating the 8-hour workday. Their efforts fail but inspire Americans across the country to support labor reforms.

September 3, 1916:

The US Congress passes the Adamson Act, a federal law, to establish an 8-hour workday for interstate railroad workers. The Supreme Court gives the act constitutional recognition in 1917.

September 25, 1926:

Ford Motor Company becomes the first major company to adopt a 5-day, 40-hour workweek.

June 26, 1940:

A provision of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act mandating a maximum 40-hour workweek comes into effect in the US; a 2-day weekend is adopted nationwide.

A Reflection — India.

Pre-Industrial

For centuries, India has predominantly been an agrarian society. Work through the day from sunrise to sunset, all seven days in a week was common practice. Traditional festivities were occasions when people took a break from work and engaged in recreation.

Later, during Islamic rule in the middle ages, Friday (or Jummah) gained prominence. The royal courts were closed as the Sultan and noblemen offered prayers, while other government duties remained suspended for the day.

Industrial Revolution & British Colonialism

Hartmann Maschinenhalle 1868

By the mid-18th century, Industrial Revolution had set in mainland Europe and UK. Factories and employment grew considerably in the manufacturing sector, making labour an important commodity. Men worked for 14–16 hours a day, through all 7 days. There was little or no flexibility for women and child labourers. Rising trade union movements and labour law advocacies played important roles in persuading local governments to reform labour practices.

One landmark achievement in the UK was to get an amendment in the Factories Act 1850 (famously called the ‘Compromise Act’). Sunday working was abolished for mill workers, a privilege which till then was enjoyed only by government employees.

While the Industrial Revolution in Europe set the pace for economic growth, people-centric regulatory frameworks introduced in the UK and elsewhere also improved the living and working conditions of workers. Unfortunately, the same was not true for the newly colonised world in the Indian subcontinent and the Far East.

By the 17th century, European traders had already anchored at various ports along the long Indian coastline. Cochin, Madras, Bombay and Calcutta (present-day Kochi, Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata) evolved as prominent trading hubs. As the Europeans increased their influence on trade, they started dictating terms on the monarchies across the country and gained large tracts of land, where European settlements, factories and ports cropped up. Goes without saying, soon, the factories, mills and mines were mechanised and run on native labourers, mostly drawn from nearby farms and working them beyond 16 hours a day, with no holidays.

It was only in the late 19th century and the early 20th century that some reforms were brought in against rising trade unionism. The first Indian Factories Act came into force in 1891 to address the working age and conditions of children, but it was not until 1911 that an amended act was enforced to reduce the working duration per day to 12 hours, with a single weekly off.

Early British Indian Cotton Factory

Post World War I, in 1922, with recommendations from International Labour Organisation (ILO), the maximum weekly hour for an adult worker was brought down to 60 hours.

A revised Factories Act of 1948 (independent India) further reduced this to 48 hours per week and 9 hours a day, as the maximum permissible working duration for an adult worker in India.

1990s — 2000s (BPO + Service Industry)

Dr. Manmohan Singh. Finance Minister during the Economic liberalisation of 1991

In 1991 the government decided to adopt a new framework for economic growth — Liberalization, Privatization and Globalization (LPG) — opening up to global markets, corporates and technologies, and promoting private sector investments.

Multinational corporations made a beeline for India, attracted by the vastness of the market and availability of cheap manpower. Soon, with the global IT revolution of the 90s, India evolved into one of the most important links in the global IT services ecosystem. More and more American and European firms shifted their software development, customer relationship and telemarketing practices to India — a country with a large English-speaking base and quality IT talent that thinks in English and codes in English (one of the major reasons the same didn’t happen in China).While the Indian Factories Act of 1948 lays down stringent guidelines for blue-collared workers, there is no regulation in place that is all-encompassing and covers the welfare of white-collared executives in the private sector. Studies unfortunately showed that this new “extended hours of work” with odd-hour shifts (‘graveyard shifts’) to match the working time of businesses in America, Europe and Australia led to many employees suffering from a wide variety of physical and mental ailments due to stressful and sedentary work environments.

The 2000s would soon see the acceleration of gross domestic product in every sub-sector of the Indian economy but interestingly construction jobs would see (specifically in rural areas) the highest growth. It’s in these 2000s where we would see the expansion in the population of students. This would eventually lead to the massive metamorphisation of work as we see it today in the 2020s. During the 2000s the rural wages would also rise and average educational levels of the workforce would improve. Government interventions in rural India since the mid-2000s, particularly the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, seemed to have aided these positive transformations. However this increase in per capital wage from the rural worker led to one of the largest withdrawal of women from the labour force that India has ever seen. This was mainly due to now slightly “better off” rural households not requiring women to do field (agricultural) work and instead move into a more domestic role, fulfilling domestic duties. Although we saw in general the rise of rural wages, education and lifestyle in general — one thing we lost was women from the workforce. Relative to other developing / developed countries in the world we still have one of the lowest percentile of women in the general workforce. Did the pandemic of the 2020 change this? Did rural India see the return of women into the workforce due to economic hardships due to the pandemic? I digress off topic… but this question is definitely worth exploring in a future post.