Flexi working hours: Why Tamil Nadu’s new labour law is contested

Updated: April 25, 2023

The Stalin government will meet representatives of trade unions to build consensus on an amendment to the Factories Act that the Assembly has passed.

Amid concerns expressed by Opposition political parties and workers over legislation to extend working hours, the Tamil Nadu government will meet representatives of trade unions on Monday (April 24). The state government last week passed The Factories (Tamil Nadu Amendment) Bill, 2023, which proposes to provide exemptions in special cases.

What is the change proposed by Tamil Nadu?

The amendment brought in by the Tamil Nadu government has proposed to insert a new Section 65A in the Factories Act, 1948, to enable factories to have flexible working hours. “Notwithstanding anything contained in section 64 or section 65, the State Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette exempt, subject to such conditions and restrictions, if any, and for such period or periods as may be specified in the notification, any factory or group or class or description of factories, from any or all of the provisions of sections 51, 52, 54, 55, 56 or 59 of this Act or the rules made thereunder,” it has said. Sections 51, 52, 54, 55, 56, 59 of the Act deal with weekly hours, prohibition, inspection, working hours, spread over hours, and overtime.

So, what are the concerns that have been raised?

The amendment does not mention specific changes, which are expected to be notified separately. But in essence, it proposes to extend daily shifts of factory workers to 12 hours — from the existing eight — in case they opt for a four-day work week. The government has stated that the total working hours in a week will remain unchanged at 48, and that it will provide flexible working hours to workers, especially to women workers. Trade unions have argued that the provisions of the Bill are open-ended, and can be misused by employers. “…The provisions of the concerned Bill are aimed at open-endedly to empower the employers to evade all their statutory obligations in respect of working hours in the workplaces through such mass-scale exemption mechanism in respect of almost all provisions of the Factories Act, both directly and indirectly related to regulations of working hours. “It will be disastrous for the workers in the state besides provoking absolute anarchy in industrial relations management,” the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) said in a letter to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin.

And what is the Tamil Nadu government’s justification in pushing for these changes?

Tamil Nadu is trying hard to expand its manufacturing base and take advantage of the prevalent geopolitical situation where large corporations are exploring options other than China. Many manufacturing companies, including multinational corporations, have been requesting the state to provide flexibility in working hours, working days, number of shifts and holidays, such that production schedules can be managed better keeping global demand-supply dynamics. While the state acknowledges that some of these changes may be perceived as anti-labour, it has pushed ahead with the conviction that any change in work schedule cannot be forced on employees by an employer. The choice will ultimately rest with the employees, the government argues. However, once in employment, a shop-floor employee does not usually have enough bargaining power.

How have political parties, including the BJP, which rules at the Centre, reacted to the proposed legislation?

Most political parties have opposed the move, stating this will impinge on labour rights, and will hurt labour interests. The DMK is particularly worried about its principal rival, the AIADMK, which is also an ally of the BJP in the state. While the BJP-ruled central government has introduced the four labour codes and pushed through labour reforms, it has left it to states to notify their own rules and regulations after passing required laws in their legislatures. Some BJP-ruled states including Tamil Nadu’s neighbour Karnataka too have pushed through such legislation, creating a competitive environment for attracting investments. In Tamil Nadu, while the BJP called for a review of the Bill, the AIADMK members were not in the Assembly — having walked out earlier in the day. Former CMO Panneerselvam wanted it to be referred to a Select Committee. Monday’s meeting is an attempt to build a consensus.