Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin has put on hold a controversial bill that sought to provide flexible working hours in factories beyond the mandated eight-hour workday, quickly dousing a potential faceoff in the DMK-led ruling alliance and with trade unions which had strongly opposed the move as “anti-labour”.
The bill that sought to amend the Factories Act of 1948 had been passed on the last day of the just-ended budget session of the Assembly despite stiff opposition from most parties, including DMK allies Congress, CPI, CPM, MDMK, VCK and IUML. The bill had inserted a new provision, Section 65-A, exempting “any factory, or group or class or description of factories” from key clauses of the Factories Act dealing with daily working hours (which should not exceed 48 hours a week), the spread of working hours, intervals for rest and extra wages for overtime.
Although labour welfare and skill development minister C.V. Ganesan and industries minister Thangam Thennarasu had assured the House that the bill would not dilute the “basic work hour norms” for industrial workers, nor jeopardise their rights guaranteed under the Factories Act and was only meant to make working hours flexible, the Opposition and the trade unions were not convinced.
Ganesan had said that Tamil Nadu being the hub of “major manufacturing companies” with the highest number of factories in the country, industry associations had been urging the state government for reforms to “make statutory provisions for flexible working hours” as it could benefit the industry and the economy, in particular women workers.
The “flexible working hours” in factories were to be subject to the basic norm of not exceeding 48 hours a week and were meant for only specific industries that seek exemption, the ministers had said, adding the move aimed to attract foreign direct investments.
However, even the DMK’s allies protested the bill. Outside the Assembly, trade unions warned of an agitation unless the bill was withdrawn. Soon, the issue became a litmus test for the ruling DMK to keep its alliance intact ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
Stalin on Monday held a meeting with all the major trade unions and government representatives in Chennai. “The trade unions unanimously demanded that the amendment bill be withdrawn,” said veteran Citu leader A. Soundararajan.
While software and IT industries “were already not covered under the Factories Act, but came under the Shops and Establishments Act”, he told reporters that the claim that 12-hour shifts would improve productivity was not valid as fatigue sets in after working for eight hours.
The flexible working hours also meant that firms could make workers toil for more than 12 hours, affecting their health and morale.
Stalin said in a statement issued on Monday evening that in deference to the views expressed by various trade unions and political parties, “further action on the Factories (Tamil Nadu Amendment) Bill, 2023, is put on hold”, implying that it would not be sent for the governor’s assent.