Tuesday, April 19, 2005

New labor rules in India and the effect on information work globally

Recently the government of India passed changes to its labor laws that change the spatial-temporal, and by extension also the technological and social, division of labor between men and women. As the Calcutta Telegraph reports that "The government today made changes to the Factories Act 1948, allowing women to work night shifts" -- that is, hours between 10 pm to 6 am -- "provided adequate safeguards are available in factories". Note that information technology firms in some states in India had already secured such an exemption, but now exemption would not be required anywhere in the country and any firm could take advantage of it. Industry officials predicted that firms in the highly-competitive export garment industry, the IT hardware assembly industry, and the call center industry stood to benefit the most from such rules.

Further insight can be found from an article in The Indian Express, where the new rules are reported as "Meeting a longstanding demand for gender parity in the workforce" (but by whom?) and as a "win-win for India Inc." since "Garment units already employ 60% of women workforce" and "Women [are] preferred to men as workers, considered more patient, attentive, [and] loyal." No mention of whether women are also paid less (which in aggregate I have no doubt they are).

Labor and women's rights advocates were apparently split by the decision. Some applauded the fact that legal equality for women in access to employment was now being achieved; however, others feared that now night shift work would be made mandatory for many women: "women will be forced to work night shifts to be able to hold their jobs, particularly in low-level manufacturing operations." Further some pointed out that "You have to ensure that women are working in clusters and in adequate numbers as a safeguard against any kind of sexual assault".

I think this raises a thorny issue of the difference between equality, equity, and justice in the workplace. In a universal sense, subjecting female workers the same set of regulations over their labor as male workers brings "equality" to the two groups in the labor market. However, if the normative social world of women and men in a given context differs so dramatically that women are regularly exposed to assault in particular spaces and/or at particular times, according "equality" in these spaces and times without addressing issues of equitable safety and security protection would, I think, arguably amount to an injustice. And of course if wages accorded to women are substantially less than those accorded to men for the same work in a given social circumstance, due mainly to cultural norms legitimizing wage discrimination -- which I have to believe is the case in India, just as it is here -- then "freeing" women to work longer hours amounts to an inevitable downward pressure on the wages of all workers, male and female alike.

Of course, these aren't just questions for the Indian citizenry to ponder, as the article makes clear that it will be in export processing zones -- areas of global trade, foreign direct investment, and transnational "offshoring" well-used by firms which are ostensibly based in our country -- where these new rules will have the greatest impact. Interestingly, the new Indian labor law did not affect the services sector -- the sector of such activities as retail sales, food preparation, janitorial cleaning and security provision -- where firms are unable to substitute global labor.

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