Indian workers overworked, underpaid, have very little leisure: Global report

Indians clock in longer working hours than their counterparts in other countries, and India's minimum wages are the lowest in the world. In this scenario, will the new draft labour codes bring some relief to underpaid and overworked Indian workers?

Factory labour

Indian workers are known to have the longest working hours than other countries in the world. To them, the new draft labour codes may seem to offer a way out. However, labour and data experts say that the new codes may not have much of an impact on the sprawling informal workforce in the country.

According to data from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Indian workers are an overworked and underpaid lot. With a 48-hour working week, workers in India clock longer working hours than other countries in the world. It ranks fifth among all countries in terms of mean weekly hours actually worked per employed person, reported Mint.

These estimates are based on data (some 2019 and others of later years) collected by national agencies from household surveys. It is only in countries where a large proportion of the population are Indians again, like Gambia, Mongolia, Maldives, and Qatar, an average worker works longer than an Indian worker.

Long hours and low salaries


However, despite slogging away for long hours, Indians are not taking home a fat pay package nor anywhere close to commensurate their long hours of work. The 2020-22 ILO Global Wage Report, India’s minimum wage is one of the lowest in the world. It is only Bangladesh, which fares worse by offering the cheapest labour in the world in 2019, with  minimum wages of $48 in terms of purchasing power parity. While India’s minimum wages, one of the lowest among other countries in the Asia Pacific region, even behind neighbouring Sri Lanka had a statutory minimum wage of $215 in 2019.

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Urban men and women in Indian cities get the short-shrift at work by burning the midnight oil, toiling longer hours than their rural counterparts, says data from the 2018-19 Periodic Labour Force Survey. The urban workers may be better-paid than rural workers but they also have to work harder. For example, a self-employed person in a city works for 55 hours a week, while his counterpart in rural India will put in 48 hours.

Incidentally, when India defines hours worked it also includes time spent on actual work, on travel between work locations, and on short bathroom or tea breaks. Time spent commuting to work and longer meal breaks are discounted.

Even as India’s new labour codes propose a four-day week, most Indian workers in reality are working every day at the moment. Especially, entrepreneurs and those who work for themselves work virtually every day. While salaried employees work more than six days a week on average and the western concept of a five-day week is still a mirage.

Also read: Number of women in the workforce falls to 18% from 37% in 13 years

Actually, the average salaried workers get less than a day off.

Ashwini Deshpande, professor of economics at Ashoka University told Mint that the new proposal for a four-day week will mean very little to most of India’s workforce, as fixed hours apply only to the formal workforce.

In this scenario, she added that women who are weighed down by unpaid domestic work and childcare, will have to bear the brunt of this 12-hour work days in the formal workplace. Even if it is work-from-home. Her research has shown that the gender gap in housework in India has not only returned to pre-pandemic levels, but for some reason, the gap has actually widened further. This prompts her to suggest “conversations” around leisure, and work-life balance in India.


According to a survey titled, Time Use in India 2019 conducted by the National Statistical Office (NSO), data shows that Indians spend less than a tenth of their day on leisure activities, with women getting even less time than men to spend on leisure.

According to the draft labour code, companies that choose a four-day week will have to provide 12-hour shifts and three consecutive days of holiday. The four labour codes were passed by Parliament in September 2020 and the ministry of labour and employment has released the first draft of the rules in December 2020. Now, government sources say that they are working on the next draft after receiving comments.

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However, the representatives of labour unions are against any increase in the weekly hours of work over 48 hours, but the government has assured them that the 48 hours limit will not change.

In India, seven out of ten workers in the non-farm sector are in the informal sector, seven out of ten salaried workers in jobs have no written contract, while half of the population do not have  paid leave nor social security benefits. In this situation, changes to India’s new labour codes will at best provide some “degree of flexibility” to a small sliver of India’s overworked, underpaid workforce, says Mint.

But for the bulk of India’s workforce working in the informal sector – and for many skilled workers too – the new proposal will mean little or even, potentially, worse conditions.