The narrative on women’s safety and security is not one that women have been at the helm of. Time and again, the narrative has been usurped for various other political agendas.
This time, it is a joint house committee on women and children welfare of the Karnataka legislature that has taken control of this narrative, and recommended in its 32nd report that information technology (IT) and biotechnology companies (BT) in Bengaluru must abstain from assigning work on night shifts to women.
Their rationale is that this measure will ensure that women are safe in private and public spaces: A bizarre line of thinking that constrains women for their own safety and protection.
The committee, headed by MLA N A Haris, stated that such a recommendation was made after interactions with IT and BT companies in 2016 wherein women employees approached them such a request.
MLA Haris stated — “We have recommended that companies must avoid having women working night shifts. A lot of women approached us and said working during the night is difficult for them and they are forced to work in the night.”
The root of such a recommendation is the concept of procuring a ‘safer environment’. “We have to understand that women working on night shifts have children and families to take care of. They also have a bigger moral responsibility of grooming the future generation. Men too have a greater responsibility: To protect women at large.”
What the committee believes is that companies should assign men for night shifts and women should be assigned only for day shifts, and that ‘prevention is better than cure’, thus, automatically shifting the burden of prevention of violence on women, instead of the IT/BT companies and the government.
Moreover, the recommendation is a contravention of the Karnataka state’s historic decision to remove restrictions on allowing women from all sectors to work on night shifts. This decision required an amendment to the Shops and Commercial Establishments Act, 1961 and the Factories Act 1948.
In December, 2016, Karnataka government issued an order under the provisions of the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Karnataka Rules, 1974 and noted that women cannot be employed at night without their consent. This order also had a set of 15 guidelines to safeguard the interests of women workers.
Within the Committee, there were several members who believed that that obligation to prevent violence is the prerogative of the companies, and not of the women who work on night shifts. In their opinion, women themselves should have the freedom of choice to decide whether they would want to work night or day shifts.
Vinisha Nero, a Congress MLA, opined: “Personally, I am of the view that the onus is on companies to provide all the protection to enable women to work at night and then leave it to the women to decide what they want to do”.
In the early 2000s, the Madras High Court, in Vasantha R. vs Union Of India (2001), adjudged that women were free to decide which shift they would work. The petitioner was an employee of textile mill that employed a substantial number of women. She claimed that the Section 66 (1) (b) of the Factories Act, 1948 was restricting women from carrying on lawful employment.
The petitioner challenged the constitutional validity of the provision, claiming that it was arbitrary and violative of Articles 14, 15 as well as 19(1)(g) of the Constitution of India. The high court agreed with the petitioner’s argument and stated that “in the field of employment in a factory as in any other field, the third shift should be thrown open to women and it is for women to decide which shift they would work.”
The recommendation, if taken up by the government, has some palpable repercussions on working women. Firstly, it overrides gender equality in private spaces and endorses the concept of double burden — women are to take up functional roles at the workplace during day shifts, and be present at home, during the “night shift” to undertake significant amounts of unpaid domestic labour.
Secondly, the discourse is shifting the onus of preventing violence, which is immensely problematic. Instead of pushing for the implementation of substantive positive obligations of the state and the private sector, the recommendations suggest oversimplified solutions.
At a time when we have collectives and movements such as Pinjra Tod, which are campaigning against the use of curfew for female students which curbs their movements in the name of safety, such a recommendation seems absurd and an anathema to the spirit of gender equality.
Lastly, such a recommendation, if implemented, will close more doors for women’s employment in the IT and BT companies, a sector that already sees much gender discrimination.
Updated Date: Mar 30, 2017 11:21 AM