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Home >Mint-lounge >Features >In favour of the ‘5-days, 8-hours’ work life

The coffee chain Tata Starbucks has announced a five-day week for all its 1,200-plus employees. This was done by giving another 52 days off to staffers, meaning they were on six-day weeks till then. The Times Of India report on this said the salary for employees who were associates, meaning the waiting staff, would start at 12,000.

I suspect this is what is called “cost to company", meaning the salary plus whatever else a company sees as legitimate expenses made for the employee’s benefit. Not what the employee actually gets as “take home", in the language of our offices.

In Bengaluru, the staff at French Loaf and Au Bon Pain who do the waiting, billing and serving get about 7,000 in hand (though I am sure the company’s number will be higher, given benefits and so on).

I know this because I often engage with them and if I feel an opening is available, politely and discreetly ask about their salary. I do this because the place I work in needs to hire large numbers of people as face-to-face fund-raisers on the street, a tough job. Coffee shops are a good place to find fairly qualified individuals who are working in trained blue-collar jobs. They might not have degrees—many say they are “second PUC", meaning, I think, class XII—but they speak some English; certainly, they understand it and are willing to work hard. I come from a family of people who have worked with their hands and I know how tough and demanding a job waiting tables can be.

It is a good and humane thing Tata Starbucks has done in giving its blue-collar staff something the rest of us take for granted. The other thing that occurs to me about this is that it is the children of what is now the middle class who are working these jobs that require waiting and cleaning.

The upper class also works today in trained blue-collar jobs, and I mean air hostesses, or flight attendants, as they are now referred to. Their work is as hard as that of those doing the waiting and cleaning in coffee shops, and likely harder. And with the additional aspect of constant travel, and putting up with Indian flyers (I couldn’t do it).

They must also clean toilets, and I think that is a terrific thing. It will help in some way sensitize the upper classes to things we have a horror of. If our upper classes do this work, and let us be honest, in a nation where 1% pay income-tax, all flight attendants are upper class, then surely it will lend dignity to the act of labour.

Older readers will know that the five-day week was not standard in white-collar offices. When I moved to Bombay, as it was then called, all offices worked six days. It was an advertising agency—I think it was Lintas, though I could be wrong—that first started taking Saturdays off. This was around 1995 or so.

On 1 May, the newsletter sent out by my friend Teesta Setalvad’s organization, Sabrang, carried a feature headlined ‘Ever Wondered Why We Have an Eight Hour Working Day (knowing the reality of many offices, it added: Officially at least)?"

It carried a visual offering the logic: “8 hours labour, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest."

The feature, based on a statement by the National Trade Union Initiative, referred to the background of the 8-hour day. It was, of course, rooted in the Industrial Age.

The feature reads: “In the late 18th century, when companies started to maximize the output of their factories, companies attempted to maximize the output of their factories by keeping them running as many hours as possible, typically implementing a ‘sun up to sun down’ work day. Wages were also extremely low, so workers themselves often needed to work these long shifts just to get by, including often sending their children to work in the factories as well, rather than getting them educated. With little representation, education, or options, factory workers also tended to work in horrible working conditions to go along with the bad hours. The typical work day at this time lasted anywhere from 10-18 hours per day, six days a week.

“In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions declared that May 1, 1886 (Haymarket affair) would be the first day that an eight hour work day would be made mandatory. When May 1, 1886 arrived, the first ever May Day parade was held with 350,000 workers walking off their jobs protesting for the eight-hour work day. There were perhaps twice as many people out on the streets participating in various demonstrations and marches.

“The participants in these events added up to 80,000. (The) Haymarket affair began as a peaceful rally in support of workers striking for an eight-hour day and in reaction to the killing of several workers the previous day by the police. An unknown person threw a dynamite bomb at police as they acted to disperse the public meeting. The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and at least four civilians; scores of others were wounded."

This incident is thought to have been the single most influential episode in the long and continuous movement for the rights of workers. Today we take the 8-hour day for granted (“officially, at least"), and rightly so.

I hope the Tata Starbucks decision, which is probably a voluntary concession unlikely to have been produced under pressure (given the high unemployment in India), finds wider acceptance in the industry.

For my part, I will make it a point to ask another question, perhaps not discreetly, of my involuntary interviewees: “How many days a week are you made to work?"

Aakar Patel is the executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at aakar_amnesty.

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