COVID-19 has caused employers and employees to explore innovative modes of working. Flexible working is the new norm across the globe and Indian lawmakers seem to be alive to the prospect. The Labour and the Employment Secretary recently commented on the possibility of a 4-day work week with a 3-day weekend and this has created a buzz amongst corporate circles. The change is part of the broader revamp of Indian labour laws brought about by the new labour codes which are expected to be implemented soon.
The idea of a 3-day weekend is an attractive prospect at first but may pose a challenge for employees in the longer run. The draft rules under the new Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020 (Code) permit employers to require employees to work up to 48 hours a week comprising 8 hours a day and half an hour's break every 5 hours worked. The period of work and rest cannot be spread over more than 12 hours. The intent behind the longer spread seems to have been to allow for overtime work with wages or break shifts which are common in industries such as hospitality, motor transport and journalism. This is reflected in the fourth report of the Standing Committee on Labour on the Code (2019-20).
What this means is that unless the 48-hour week is shortened, a 4-day week could involve employers requiring employees to work for 12 hours per day with 2 breaks of half an hour each. In effect, employees could be asked to be at the office for up to 13 hours. If the earlier spread of 12 hours is increased further to accommodate the additional hours of work per day, the time spent at the office could be even longer. This could potentially cause a reduction in productivity especially for industries that involve physically intensive work.
Another issue is how the reduced work week would impact the leave entitlement of an employee who opts for it. The Code would need to cater to this. For instance, under some of the local shops and establishment laws of the various states, employees' earned leave depends on the number of days worked (for example, 1 days earned leave for every 20 days worked). The position is the same for certain employees even under the Code. Calculated in this manner, an employee who works fewer days would be entitled to less leave. This aspect would need to be considered and addressed.
Finally, any flexible working arrangement under the Code and its rules would need to be supported by effective implementation. The shops and establishment laws already prescribe limits on the permissible number of hours of work per day and week, leave entitlements, etc. but these are often not followed by employers given the low penalties that these laws prescribe for violations (often a few hundred rupees). The Code provides for higher penalties ranging up to INR 3 lac.
The Labour and Employment Secretary has clarified that an employee would have to consent to the reduced work week option which seems like a fair proposal. The idea is certainly a novel one and if supported by a clear set of regulations and effective implementation, it could perhaps prove to be a workable option for employees at least on a short term or rotating basis.