Women on night shift: Terms and conditions apply

We all know women who book night shifts in the cyber center, Gurgaon or IT center, Bangalore or in a bank office. But, it’s not as simple as passing multiple rounds of interviews and working hard every day at your job. Nope! In 13 Indian states, women can only be employed for night shifts if their employers meet a set of conditions required by their Shops and Establishments Acts.

These conditions are imposed to ensure the safety, health and ‘adequate protection of privacy, dignity and honour’ of female employees.

Conditions related to transportation, for example, create a mini-inspection of the human resources department and transportation service providers. For example, the security guards at the office must ensure that the woman has entered the vehicle and the driver must ensure that the woman has entered her residence before leaving for the next destination. The control office of the company will design the withdrawal route from the office and delivery to the worker’s home. Routes must be designed in such a way that no woman is picked up first or dropped off last. States like Karnataka and Telangana also require the movement of these vehicles to be tracked by the company’s control room/travel desk. Adult women have to give up their right to privacy to work at night.

Legislators missed an important detail: What happens if an adult woman wants to use her own vehicle to get around at night? No State accounts for this situation, at least not in the acts, regulations and notifications available to the public. Women’s safety is a contentious issue, and any slip-up can take the company to court. In the absence of clear instructions, companies have come up with their own ways of dealing with gray areas. Conversation with industry insiders suggests that companies ask female employees to sign a statement that they do not want to use office transportation and therefore will be responsible for their own safety.

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There are also days when you call a friend to pick you up at the office. Although the list of conditions does not tell companies what to do in such a situation, we understand that companies try to ensure that employees are picked up only by their ‘blood relatives’. That too preferably from the reception area where the CCTVs can at least capture the person who is there to be picked up.

In Haryana, companies are required to keep a shipping record and a movement record. The boarding record records the “date, vehicle make and model name, vehicle registration number, driver name, driver address, driver phone/contract number, and employee pick-up time from the destination establishment .” The movement log records the employee’s pick-up and drop-off time, her destination, along with her signature during the drop-off on a daily basis. One human resources officer we spoke with caustically referred to himself as a hostel manager and pointed out the irony of asking his boss to sign the company register every day before leaving the office.

Some states require that women can only work at night if they are accompanied by a minimum number of female employees. In Andhra Pradesh, a female employee can work at night only if she is accompanied by four other female employees. In Kerala, an employee can work at night only in groups of five, of which two employees must be women.

Karnataka and Kerala exempt women in managerial positions from restrictions on night work. It is almost as if the issue of women’s safety vanishes when women take on managerial roles. We can apply similar reasoning to states like Assam, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh that exempt women working in central and state government offices from restrictions on night work.

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We understand that there are public order problems in India. We understand that women’s safety is a serious issue. We also understand that some of these ideas can help attract women to the workforce. But perhaps these options should emerge from negotiations between employees and companies, without the whip of the state.

Our research for the State of Discrimination index shows that the State repeatedly pampers adults on the basis of sex. The problem of the first order is the way in which these conditions trivialize a woman’s agency. Even starting with the second order issues, such as the cost of complying with these conditions and the disproportionate burden they place on women’s employment, would require another article. The International Women’s Day, 2022 called to break the bias. When will we break the bias in our laws to allow women to burn midnight oil freely?

The authors work at Trayas, a research organization