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Women workers and night duty

Wednesday 13 April 2005

THE UNION CABINET’S decision to amend the Factories Act to enable women to work night shifts has met with a mixed reaction. The Government has not spelt out the rationale behind the decision but with the demands of equality and the growing involvement of women in industry on the one hand and the needs of a modern economy on the other, the traditional restraints on night work by women have come under pressure. The protective framework for women workers has been laid down by Convention 89 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), adopted in 1948 and supplemented by a Protocol in 1990. The basic convention prohibited night shift in manufacturing, mining, construction, and similar establishments. At the same time, it granted exemption in the case of women occupying "responsible positions of a managerial or technical nature"; industries "where the raw material is likely to deteriorate rapidly unless worked at night"; health and welfare services; and force majeure cases.

The subsequent 1990 Protocol, which was ratified by India in November 2003, relaxed the prohibition of night work for women in factories, but with important stipulations. It allows national authorities to permit women to work night shifts in specific classes of industries or individual units after an agreement is reached between the employers and unions. In the absence of such an agreement, the authorities are allowed to introduce night shifts for women after ensuring that the employer puts in place necessary safeguards for their safety and health. It is this protocol that New Delhi is apparently relying on to amend the Factories Act but it is not clear if a bipartite agreement at the industry or unit level will be required as a precondition.

It is important that women workers are provided opportunities to work at night in establishments suited to their skills, and removing the ban could be a significant step towards empowering women. Inexplicably, so important a reform has not been debated widely or examined at the tripartite Indian Labour Conference. Two other caveats need to be entered. First, the overall needs of the economy are not quite obvious and it is unclear in which industries specifically women will be in demand to work night shifts. It will be unfortunate if a change in the law were to lead to the proliferation of sweatshops employing women in night shifts, whether in garments or consumer electronics or in other areas. More important, the record of States in enforcing the existing safeguards for women workers, such as the provision of cr?ches for children or maternity benefits, is far from inspiring. Allowing women to work at night will need additional safeguards relating to their physical security, transport, health, and occupational safety. It is imperative that these do not exist just on paper. While opening up new economic opportunities for women workers, the Government should strengthen, not dilute in any way the special protective role of factory legislation.

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