All work and play is the life story of many Indians. With the exception of the owners, some of us have denied this, even though we used a model. However, as the recent Mint report confirms, this is actually true: we are among the most working people in the world. With an average working week of 48 hours, the International Labor Organization (ILO) ranks fifth among countries tracking this parameter (using household surveys for its estimates). Workers work longer hours only in the Gambia, Mongolia, Maldives and Qatar. Those in the US, UK, Israel and China spent 37, 36, 36 and 46 hours, respectively. If you think that hard work equals high pay, think again. According to the ILO Global Wage Report for 2020-21, India has the lowest minimum wage in the world. The data spent away from our daily grind is equally tedious. A 2019 study by the National Statistical Office found that we spend less than a tenth of our day on leisure activities. Indian numbers are distorted by high levels of self-employment and, of course, our entrepreneurs may not take the time or like it, but this is not enough to explain the phenomenon. For others the job schedule is even longer.
Let’s leave the workaholics and see how fewer human beings work in India. Sociologists can argue that a hierarchical social structure with a Raj hangover exerts extraordinary authority over those who receive orders in a way that defines boss-subordinate relationships. As true as this is, job insecurity in the absence of a safety net exacerbates the power gap, at least in the private sector. In addition, in Douglas McGregor’s Theory X we always have reliable and often unknowingly rigorous task-masters, workers who are generally lazy and need to be encouraged, in contrast to his Theory Y, who see themselves as occasional pep talkers maximizing their potential. And then, there’s also this familiar old lament: our low labor productivity. Many Indian ailments have been pinned on it, resulting in a lot of excitement. While dim companies need to lose weight, relentless efforts to squeeze more output from fewer workers can only provide declining returns beyond a point. In many cases, trying to make the workforce more productive by slogging is a misleading exercise, it is not a very enduring, complex concept of productivity. Analysts have not yet rounded its heads, though it is unclear how it will work harder rather than smarter and will vary widely from one office to another. Finally, we also have policy issues that are burdensome. Our restrictions on layoffs, for example, have been translated into low hiring, even though companies are using capital-intensive methods to make money.
Although our work stress is huge, we also have high unemployment. Clearly, our economy is doing very little. Another aspect of this, which is strange to India, is the rapidly declining rate of female participation in the entire workforce. The World Bank was at 20.3% last year, from healthy figures over the past decades. Paid work is not widely shared enough. Perhaps state intervention could solve this problem. But, it takes courage to rely on statistical solutions.