New Delhi, March 29: Women in India can now legally work late nights in factories, much to the chagrin of Left leaders.
The government today made changes to the Factories Act 1948, allowing women to work night shifts, a facility that was so far available to the information technology industry and that, too, on specific permission in some states.
Announcing the cabinet decision, information and broadcasting minister S. Jaipal Reddy said: 'Flexible work timings for women shall be allowed, provided adequate safeguards are available in factories.'
Late night shifts in government parlance mean working hours of 10 pm to 6 am.
Allaying fears of occupational hazard, Reddy pointed out that enough preventive provisions had been made.
'Safety and health, equal opportunity for women workers, adequate protection of their dignity, honour and safety and their transportation from the factory premises to the nearest point of their residence have been made in the amendment in the act,' he said.
Left leaders were not satisfied with such blanket permission for fear of exploitation.
Brinda Karat, leader of the All India Democratic Women's Association and member of the CPM's central committee, said: 'The amendment makes it mandatory for women to be on night shift. But it should be a matter of choice.'
Legally, it has not become 'mandatory' to employ women on night shifts. Reddy said the law has been amended 'so that women can also work between 10 pm and 6 am'.
But the fear is that women will be forced to work night shifts to be able to hold their jobs, particularly in low-level manufacturing operations.
Reddy, however, claimed the decision to amend the act was taken after strong representations by women's organisations.
Indian industry was happy. N. Srinivasan, director-general of the Confederation of Indian Industry, said: 'It will significantly increase the contribution by Indian women towards economic development.'
An official explained that 'the changes will help mostly factories in special economic zones (export-oriented units) and infotech which produce services for countries in different time zones'.
Manufacturing will be the big beneficiary. Garment-makers, for instance, have to work round the clock to meet overseas demand.
The IT hardware industry, where assembly lines depend on women, had been lobbying for the amendment.
Top women executives were wary. Renu Sud Karnad, executive director of HDFC Ltd, said: 'We welcome the move. It will help women who are really needy. However, safety parameters are of vital importance and we need to have guidelines in place.'
Karat said legislation would have to take into account aspects of security, transport and provision of creche.
'You have to ensure that women are working in clusters and in adequate numbers as a safeguard against any kind of sexual assault,' said Citu leader W.R. Wardharajan.
The new rule will also help business process outsourcing units and many other IT organisations where women are already working late nights. Some states have labour laws which say that call centres need to get special permission to employ women at night. After the amendment, permission will not be needed.