Picture this. A middle-aged woman getting up early in the morning. As soon as she freshens up, she heads to the kitchen. From making bed tea for her husband and in-laws, to cooking breakfast for children, to dressing them up for school, to dropping them at the bus stop, to preparing lunch boxes, to ironing clothes and so on, she does not have a minute to sit.
However, her husband has his own leisurely time, sipping the bed tea, reading the newspaper and then getting ready for office. Even before he leaves the house, the woman is seen standing at the bus stop. She juggles between two-three buses to make sure she reaches her workplace in time.
Her office hours are no less taxing. From computer work to routine meetings, both inside and outside office premises, to meeting deadlines, she is adept at everything. After an eight-hour (which many times gets extended to nine or even 10 hours) drill at the office and an hour-long travel, she reaches home, with a huge pile of tasks, waiting for her.
One can imagine the time she might be getting into bed. Be it a woman from an urban set-up or a rural region, the schedule remains more or less the same. In a rural set-up, a woman is generally seen tending the animals, looking after the crops, from sowing seeds to harvesting and so on. The list is endless.
The story is no less different for men. Of course, they are at a privilege, considering the special status they enjoy in a patriarchal set-up. They are generally not seen doing the household chores, yet their average working day lasts from 12 to 13 hours. In a metro city like Delhi, it might be much higher, considering the commuting time.
In the case of gig workers, the struggle is at a different level. From an auto driver, to a delivery executive to a taxi driver, people toil for more than 15 hours a day to keep their house running! At times, drivers are at the wheel for 20 hours at a stretch with hardly an hour of sleep.
Of course, they are putting many lives at risk, including their own. But this is how their life is? Even after toiling so hard, are they able to earn a decent living? The answer is no. Talk to any of them, you will get to hear their side of the story – from paying rentals to the car owner or EMI for the car to transferring money to their family at their native place to the hefty commission they pay to various apps -- their list is endless.
Still, it is assumed that our people are not contributing enough to develop the nation! Last week, a statement by N.R. Narayana Murthy, one of the founders of Infosys, sparked a debate over the working hours. In a podcast, he said if India wants to compete with economies that have made tremendous progress, youngsters need to work 70 hours a week!
“India’s work productivity is one of the lowest in the world. Unless we improve our work productivity, unless we reduce corruption in the government, unless we reduce the delays in our bureaucracy in taking decision, we will not be able to compete with those countries that have made tremendous progress… Therefore, my request is that our youngsters must say, ‘This is my country. I’d like to work 70 hours a week’.
Had this come from a school-going or a college-going student, things would not have made much difference. However, coming from one of the largest employers in the IT sector, it has certainly made waves. Many have lashed out on social media. “What an elitist take! I can’t even fathom how he suggests such gruelling work hours. Does he know the time people spend travelling? How tough life can be? Don’t they deserve time with family?” wrote one on the micro-blogging site ‘X’.
“With this statement, Mr. Murthy is essentially pushing women out of the workplace. Men are never going to share the load of housekeeping, care-giving and child-rearing. With a 70-hour work week, women will have no choice but to drop out,” wrote another.
Of course, there were people who supported his stand. Someone even said the Prime Minister works for more than 14 hours, why can’t we work the same way. However, it is important to look at the facts.
In the podcast, Murthy cited examples of youth from Japan and Germany and how they contributed to their economic growth in the aftermath of the Second World War. If one looks at the information published by Time Use Survey 2019 -- Our World In Data — one would agree with what he said to some extent. Yes, Germany and Japan did increase their working hours albeit temporarily.
In the case of Japan, the annual working hours peaked from 2030 hours in 1950 to 2175 hours in 1961. In Germany’s case, the annual working hours were increased only for a few years till 1950 – the period when the country reported 2427 working hours – the highest in its history. Technically, this comes to 8.3 to 9.5 hours a day assuming five working days in a week without holidays. Now, this is still 2.5 hours less than what Murthy is propagating. Gradually, as these countries grew, their working hours reduced but their productivity increased considerably.
In fact, in 2019, the year immediately preceding the pandemic, the working hours for Germany stood at 1386 hours, for Japan it was 1691 hours but India had 2122 working hours! Now the question is: are we anywhere close to the productivity of these countries? The report calculates labour productivity in terms of GDP per hour of work.
Germany’s output stood at $68.85 per hour with Japan producing GDP worth $42.56 per hour while India was able to produce only $8.68 per hour! In fact, our productivity increased from $2 per an hour in 1970 to $9 in 2020. Our average annual working hours have stayed above 2000 hours during this period. Now the question is: will Murthy’s appeal to youth serve any purpose? If not, then, we need serious introspection to find out what exactly is affecting us.
The answers too lie within our systems. Let’s look at the State of Working India Report, 2023. It shows that over 40 percent of our graduates under 25 years are unemployed. Not only this, income among the salaried class has remained stagnant. It is our failure to deploy the innate energy that our youth holds. Not the other way round.
If we go deeper, we will understand that our education standards are no way closer to what our industry needs. In other words, a large majority of our youth is unemployable, the very reason why the government announced the mass-scale skilling programme, the effectiveness of which is a matter of another discussion!
There are several reports that have shown how the benefits of development are restricted to the elite, the top 10 percent, so to say. Only a small section of society is able to get the best quality of education or skill-set, so to say, to actually contribute to nation-building.
True, we should reap our demographic dividend. But it is time to understand, whether our youth is actually an asset or a liability. Or are we gearing ourselves to be a gig economy going forward brimming with so-called sleep-deprived, stressed entrepreneurs!
(The writer, a company secretary, can be reached at email@example.com)