The idea of the 9-to-6 job is a creation of the Industrial Revolution and the urbanisation that followed.
The Industrial Revolution constituted the most profound set of events in human history, more radical and more transformational than any other revolution or set of events in the past. But in the initial days, factories dehumanised workers with long hours of work and inhuman working conditions.
‘Modern Times’, a 1936 social comedy film written and directed by Charlie Chaplin, brought this aspect of the factory era very powerfully.
Exploitation During Industrial Revolution
With the Industrial Revolution, work ceased to be seasonal or limited by daylight hours, as it had been in the past. For the first time in history, the constraints imposed by nature on how humans made a living, or spent their time, were removed, and this would irreversibly alter the nature of work.
However, this did not automatically mean freedom or salvation. Factory owners were now free to exploit workers unconstrained by the limitations of seasons and daylight. Long working hours was one of the dark sides of the Industrial Revolution. The norm was 80-100 hours a week. It was common for children to also be working these long hours in textile factories, iron and coal mines, gas works, shipyards, construction, match factories, nail factories and even as domestic help.
Social reformers had begun calling out the exploitative working conditions of factory workers in England and legislation began getting introduced progressively from the start of the nineteenth century to ameliorate the working conditions and terms of employment. Early legislation was mostly on paper and largely ineffective because there were no mechanisms on the ground to enforce them. Further, industries with the worst working conditions were exempt from this legislation.
Evolution Of 8-Hour Day, 48-Hour Week
Over the next few years, there were further pieces of legislation, which by 1847 limited working hours for all children under 18 and for women working in the textile industry to 10 hours a day. The 1864 Factory Act extended the regulations to all factories.
Trade Unions across the developed world continued their fight for fair working conditions and focused their demand on an 8-hour day and a 48-hour week, and finally in 1919 the International Labour Organization (ILO) made a recommendation supporting these demands.
The politics of England in the twentieth century would be shaped by the nuances of the labour movement and the constant tussle between workers who wanted better pay and job security and the factory owners who needed some flexibility in hiring and firing and reasonableness in wage levels, to be able to compete in global markets.
Jamsetji Tata: Ahead Of His Times
In India, Jamsetji Tata was able to imagine and understand the long-term positive relationship between labour welfare and sustainability of a business. At the Central India Spinning, Weaving and Manufacturing Company in Nagpur, he tried experiments in technology and labour welfare never before attempted in India or for that matter any part of the world.
He offered his workers shorter working hours, well-ventilated workplaces, a crèche for young mothers, and provident fund and gratuity long before they became statutory in the West. He installed the first humidifiers and fire-sprinklers in India. In 1886, he instituted a Pension Fund, and in 1895, began to pay accident compensation. He was decades ahead of his time and miles ahead of his competitors.
Tata Steel pioneered several labour welfare benefits well before they would be introduced in the western world. These included an eight-hour working day, free medical aid, establishment of a welfare department, leave with pay, workers' provident fund scheme, workmen's accident compensation scheme, maternity benefits, profit sharing bonus and retiring gratuity. Seen in this context, it is hardly surprising that the company hasn't seen a single strike for nearly a century.
The 48-hour week is an outcome of decades of struggle. But even to this day many unscrupulous employers in the unorganised and informal sectors continue to exploit workers by getting them to work 60-80 hours a week.
It is perfectly acceptable for individuals who have significant financial rewards tied to long hours to voluntarily put in any number of hours they wish to. It is equally common for individuals driven by a passion to make the world a better place to also put in long hours. But to advocate such long hours for everyone is nothing short of an exhortation to return to the exploitative practices of the early days of the Industrial Revolution.
And to simplistically believe that mere long hours would result in creating a great nation is naïve. Nations become great through inventions andinnovation.
Hard work was a value when humans transitioned from hunting-gathering to farming. Working-smart replaced working-hard more than 200 years ago. Developing new technologies and business models is about innovation and smart work. Providing low cost services to these innovators is about working hard.
TN Hari is Co-founder, Artha School of Entrepreneurship. Twitter: @TNHari. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.