Wrong to bar night shift for women

The Karnataka Legislature’s Women and Child Welfare Committee has recommended that women working in Information Technology (IT) and Bio-Technology (BT) companies in the state not be assigned the night shift. This is necessary, the 21-member committee says, to ensure the safety, security and privacy of women employees. This is a retrograde recommendation. It draws on gender stereotypes. Committee chairperson and Shantinagar MLA N A Haris said that women are needed at home at night to fulfil their maternal responsibilities. If a woman is working during the night, she will be neglecting her child, he said. What will Haris recommend next? That women not work outside the home so that they can stay at home to cook, clean and produce more children because that is, according to stereotypical gender roles, the responsibility of women?

The panel has also said that working night shifts makes women unsafe and vulnerable to harassment and violence. While women do indeed feel unsafe, the solution is not to lock them up at night or restrict their mobility, but to improve safety and security at workplaces and streets. Not allowing women to work night shifts is disempowering. It will reduce their opportunities at work and obstruct their movement up the hierarchy. Women constitute a third of the workforce in the IT and BT sectors. They have made careers in these sectors after much hard work and fighting deep-seated prejudices against employing women in general and women in the technology sector in particular. This struggle will suffer a setback if rules preventing them from participating as equal employees are put in place. If women are not allowed to work night shifts, employers will simply not hire them.

In the previous decade, women could not be assigned work between 8 pm and 6 am. That changed for the IT and IT-enabled sectors in 2008 when these sectors opened their doors to women in night shifts. Then in 2016, the door was cracked open even more, when the Karnataka government amended the Shops and Commercial Establishments Act 1961 and Factories Act 1948, to allow women across sectors to work night shifts. It is unfortunate that at a time when the government has begun taking steps to amend laws that discriminate against women, the legislature’s panel is suggesting putting back these restrictions. It is not working the night shift that is problematic for women, but the fact that strong safety and security measures are not in place. That needs to be rectified. Neither the state nor employers can escape the responsibility for ensuring the safety of women and men. Preventing women from working night shifts amounts to skirting the problem.

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