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Home >Opinion >Views >Indians are overworked while millions go jobless

All work and no play is the life story of far too many Indians. Except for employers, few of us would deny this, even if we use a sample of one to conclude as much. Yet, as a recent Mint report confirmed, it is actually true: We are among the world’s most overworked people. With a work-week that averages 48 hours, India ranks fifth among nations that the International Labour Organization (ILO) tracks on this parameter (using household surveys for its estimates). Workers put in longer hours only in Gambia, Mongolia, the Maldives and Qatar. Those in the US, UK, Israel and China clock 37, 36, 36 and 46 hours, respectively. And if you imagine harder work equals higher pay, think again. Minimum wages in India are among the world’s lowest, according to the ILO’s Global Wage Report for 2020-21. The data we have on time spent away from our daily grind is equally dismal. A 2019 study by the National Statistical Office found that we spend less than a tenth of our day on leisure activities. Indian numbers are skewed by a high level of self-employment, sure, with our entrepreneurs either unable or unwilling to take time off, but that is not enough to explain the phenomenon. Others also have highly demanding job schedules.

Let’s leave out workaholics and look at what makes lesser mortals work so hard in India. Sociologists may argue that a hierarchical social structure has combined with a Raj hangover to define boss-subordinate relations in such a way that an extraordinary degree of authority gets exercised over those at the receiving end of orders. To the extent that this is true, job insecurity in the absence of a safety net has only worsened the power gap, at least in the private sector. Plus, we have always had tough task-masters who are ardent—and often unwitting—believers in Douglas McGregor’s Theory X, which posits that workers are typically lazy and need to be prodded, in contrast with his Theory Y, which sees them as self-motivated maximizers of their potential who need an occasional pep talk. And then, there has also been this familiar old lament: our low labour productivity. Many Indian ills have been pinned on this, with the result that much zeal gets expended on driving it up. While flabby organizations do need to shed weight, relentless attempts to squeeze greater output out of fewer workers only offer diminishing returns beyond a point. In many cases, trying to turn a workforce more productive by making it slog is a misguided exercise, not just because its very endurance might snap, but because productivity is a complex concept. Analysts still haven’t wrapped their heads around it, though it is vaguely about working smarter rather than harder, and could differ widely from one workplace to another. And finally, there are policy factors that burden us too. Our restrictions on firing workers, for example, have translated into under-hiring, even as companies employ capital-intensive methods to make money.

While our work pressure is heavy, we also have high joblessness. Clearly, our economy has too few doing too much. Another aspect of this, one that’s peculiar to India, is our rapidly falling rate of female participation in the overall labour force. The World Bank places it at 20.3% last year, down from healthier figures in past decades. Paid work is simply not being shared widely enough. Perhaps state intervention can address this problem. But then, it takes bravery to rely on statist solutions.

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