The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Women night shift awaits safety belt

New Delhi, March 30: The government has not thought through the safeguards it said it would put in place while it announced yesterday that women would be allowed to work nights with an amendment to the Factories Act of 1948.

It now appears that the safeguards would be worked out after talks with trade unions before the actual amendment is made.

When information and broadcasting minister S. Jaipal Reddy unveiled the cabinet decision to remove the bar on women working night shifts (10 pm to 6 am), he had sought to allay fears of sexual harassment with the promise of safeguards.

A CPM-affiliated women's organisation and a trade union owing allegiance to the same party had opposed the decision on two counts ' one fearing that employers would force women to work at night and two that the chances of their being subjected to sexual abuse would escalate.

'We can work out the specific safeguards later. Women's organisations and trade unions are free to come up with their suggestions which can be incorporated into the act,' said a labour ministry official.

Women's organisations and trade unions have already informally suggested some safeguards (see chart).

'The amendment will first be discussed in Parliament and may even have to be sent to a select committee in case there is too much opposition,' the official said.

The second national labour commission, which is the government's guiding light for labour law reforms, said the ban on women working night shifts must be removed. But it, too, echoed the concerns of the trade unions.

It said: 'The number of women workers on a shift should not be less than five. The management should provide satisfactory arrangements for their transport, safety and rest before or after shift hours.'

However, the proposed amendment only talks about general safeguards. 'It will be subject to safeguards for the occupational safety and health as well as the protection of dignity, honour and safety of women workers. It will provide for safe transportation from the factory premises to the nearest point of their residence.'

Citu leader W.R. Wardharajan said: 'The Indian situation is not conducive to women working night shifts.'

CPM central committee member and women's leader Brinda Karat had expressed the fear that 'the amendment makes it mandatory for women to be on night shift. But it should be a matter of choice'.

The labour ministry explained that each establishment would have to decide if it wanted to allow women workers on night shifts.

'It will be a decision taken at the local level depending on the conditions that prevail in a particular factory,' it said.

The ministry stressed that factory owners would have to comply with the safeguards once they were listed or be penalised with a maximum of two years in jail or a Rs 1 lakh fine.

Labour leaders point out how laws are violated even now in spite of punitive provisions.

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