This article is part of a special series: Safety of women in Indian cities
Last November, the Karnataka government issued a notification allowing women employees in factories to work night shifts, along with their male counterparts. Until recently, night shift for women was allowed only in the IT and ITeS (IT enabled services) industries.
As per the Factories Act, 1948, women were originally allowed to work only till 7 pm. This law was amended in 2007 to extend timings to 10 pm. With the new notification, factories registered under the Act can employ ‘willing women workers’ in night shifts – that is, between 7 pm and 6 am.
Various sections of society have hailed the government move to do away with the archaic rule that upheld gender biases and promoted inequality in employment opportunities.
But will it really benefit workers?
Ashwathy, a 28-year old employee of a garment factory in Peenya, is not so sure. She says that even if she plans to work night shifts, city transport and last-mile connectivity is very uncertain.
“It’s unlikely that our companies will be able to provide car or security for us and drop us home. We don’t even have a dormitory facility at the factories. We will be forced to wait the entire night in the factories if we finish work early. And then who will tend to our children?” she asks.
Besides garment workers, the new rule will affect women in manufacturing, hotels, pharmaceuticals and other sectors.
More options, more opportunities
According to AIDWA (All India Democratic Women’s Association), an organisation that’s been fighting for equal rights for women, the government decision is a big step in ensuring equal employment opportunity for women. Vimala K S, state vice president of AIDWA, says, “It certainly is a good move for women working in garment factories; it will give them a sense of equality and empowerment.”
However, Vimala adds that the safety of women who work in night shifts cannot be considered secondary, especially in the backdrop of unabated incidents of sexual assault reported across the country.
As per the government notification, employers cannot force women to work in night shifts; rather, they should obtain the workers’ written consent.
“Employers must adhere to strict safety conditions laid down in the notification if more women and their families are to benefit from the move,” Vimala says. “We cannot really oppose the notification, per se. This move will empower more semi-skilled and skilled women to be independent, help them earn sustainable wages and support their family.”
According to AIDWA’s estimation, at least 30 to 35 percent of lower-income households are led by women. Majority of them eke out a living by working in registered factories or in unorganised sectors.
“All this while, these women had to balance work and home. With night shifts allowed, those working in factories can get rest and pick a shift of their convenience,” she points out.
The employer, as per the notification, should also constitute an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) to look into sexual harassment complaints at the workplace. “These committees should be active rather than being just a group of people,” Vimala observes.
What does the notification say?
State government’s notification cited the Madras High Court judgment of 2000, which had struck down Section 66 (1) (b) of the Factories Act that prohibited women working in night shifts. But as per the notification, to deploy women in night shifts, the employer should:
- Put adequate measures in place to check and address sexual harassment
- Deploy female security staff
- Provide transport facilities from the workplace to women employees’ houses and vice versa. Women employees should be accompanied by female security staff apart from security guards, and the vehicle must be equipped with CCTV cameras.
- Employ women workers in a batch of not less than 10; ensure that women employees in night shifts are not less than two-thirds of the total strength
- Ensure proper lighting for women, adequate CCTV cameras, an exclusive canteen and medical facility, and to have women as wardens and welfare assistants. The workplaces should store CCTV footage for at least two months.
- Send a fortnightly report on the employees working in night shifts to the Inspector of Factories in the Department of Factories, Boilers, Industrial Safety and Health, Karnataka. In case of any violations on the part of the employer, the Chief Inspector may withdraw the factory’s license.
While the notification indicates a shift in lawmakers’ mindset, the reality may be different when it’s implemented on the ground, says Lekha, a city-based advocate who works on issues faced by labourers in the unorganised sector.
Checks on sexual harassment already weak in factories
“These days, women face harassment at their workplaces even during the day. Most women working in garment factories are not very educated. It is anyone’s guess how much they’ll know about the provisions in the notification,” opines Lekha. She believes that extending night shifts for women in factories will only lead to a rise in complaints of sexual harassment.
Since 2013, all workplaces have had the mandate of setting up ICCs to address sexual harassment, as per the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act. The Act also puts the onus on employers to educate women workers about ICC and to encourage them to file complaints.
Despite this, many factories in Bengaluru have not formed ICCs. Even where committees exist, the majority are either headless or have remained inactive over the years, Lekha points out.
A 2015-16 survey by the NGO Sisters for Change had found that one in seven women workers in Bengaluru’s garment factories had been sexually assaulted. But 75 percent of the surveyed women said that their factories didn’t have a functional ICC. As a result, majority of victims didn’t report the harassment formally to their management. And of the instances that were reported, action was taken against perpetrators in only 3.6 percent of cases, and criminal charges were brought in none, the survey indicated.
“Unless there is strict supervision by an authority, the conditions may just remain on paper,” says Lekha.
Will the move help women earn more?
While the move may lead to a spurt in productivity for industries, what’s the guarantee that night shifts will help women improve their economic status? “Majority of the industries do not pay extra to men working overtime. Will women working in night shifts have any extra monetary benefits?” wonders Lekha.
She rues that finding even a first aid kit at most of these workplaces is a mirage, but the notification talks about mandatory CCTV cameras, exclusive canteen facility for women, and so on. Only time will tell if these will be implemented.
Lekha opines that the amendment will only benefit employers, who will have more productivity and a larger workforce for lower wages. “Considering that most women who work in garment factories are less educated, taking their consent to work in night shifts may not be implemented, effectively. Besides, their societal conditions will compel them to work at night. Now, with the notification in place, they will have no choice but to take up night shifts to take care of their family.”
Given that many women will end up working in night shifts, and many factories unlikely to provide safe transport, what options do workers have?
Public transport at night
B L Yeshwanth Chavan, Chief Public Relationship Officer of BMRCL (Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Ltd) says they are weighing in on extending train timings if there is more footfall at night.
“We are ascertaining the options in this regard as we need to ensure good maintenance of the track. To meet the growing demand, we need to have things in place, first. If feasible, we will consider extending train timings for women working in night shifts in factories,” says Chavan.
Recently, the BMTC (Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation) also launched the Pink Sarathi project. The Sarathi jeeps offer transport to women who are stranded on the streets after 10 pm, when the frequency of BMTC buses is low. According to BMTC MD C Shikha, about 25 jeeps were inducted since November.
However, Bengaluru Bus Prayanikara Vedike (BBPV), a collective that advocates for better bus services, has demanded that BMTC should instead increase bus frequency in the late hours. Shaheen Shasa of the collective had said that BMTC should also reduce travel costs and ensure last-mile connectivity so that more women will use buses.