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Dear Kangana, India is already among the most overworked and underpaid. “Obsessive work culture” is not a solution

Dear Kangana, India is already among the most overworked and underpaid. “Obsessive work culture” is not a solution
India has the largest population in the world. By pure statistics, we should produce the highest number of successful geniuses and entrepreneurs than any country. On the other side of that coin, however, we’re also confronted by an overabundance of celebrities who insist on preaching a sludge of unscientific rhetoric that unfortunately becomes the next hot topic of discussion in the country.

Despite ranking fifth in the world for GDP in 2024, India remains classified as a “developing” country, according to the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. While the journey from developing to developed is certainly no small feat, the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has repeatedly insisted that their leadership will undoubtedly conjure a “Viksit Bharat” by 2047.

However, actor and BJP leader Kangana Ranaut, who recently won the parliamentary election from Himachal’s Mandi, has stirred up an age-old controversy by commenting on what it would take to reach this prestigious national goal — an “obsessive work culture”.
Ranaut (read: Murthy)
In an Instagram story, Ranaut reacted to Modi’s first address after taking the oath in Delhi for his third term, where the Prime Minister reiterated his goal for a Viksit Bharat by 2047. The actor wrote: “We need to normalise obsessive work culture and stop with the waiting for the weekends and cribbing about Mondays memes.” She goes on to call the practice “western brainwashing” and remarks that “we can’t afford to be bored and lazy at all.”

If Ranaut’s statement sounds familiar, it’s because we’re still reeling from similar discussions that surrounded Infosys’s Narayana Murthy’s somewhat recent call for a 70-hour work week. According to Murthy, such long hours would be crucial to boost productivity enough to help India compete with other economic powerhouses. Such statements can find roots in a patriotic desire for the betterment of India, but fall flat when substance is concerned. Even in the past, ‘hustle culture’ has been promoted relentlessly on social media, especially by entrepreneurs and billionaires.

However, the ‘Indians must cease to be lazy’ narrative is not just non-factual in a multitude of ways; it can also end up harming the millions of overstressed and underpaid labourers in our country.
Are people reluctant to work nowadays?
If you run a simple search for ‘Are people getting lazier?’, you’ll find Google in turmoil, mainly because of mixed answers to the topic. According to a 2019 survey by Pew Research Center, most Americans believe that people are far lazier now than they used to be in the past. Heck, a soundbite of Kim Kardashian proclaiming that “nobody wants to work these days” even became a TikTok phenomenon a couple of years ago.

However, the claim is anything but true, depending on how you choose to see it. Yes, an increasing number of people are noticing a gradual decline in their motivation levels, which may reduce the number of physical tasks they perform on a daily basis. However, labour productivity has only risen by 1.5% every year since 2000 in the United States. In fact, according to the country’s Department of Labor, US workers produced a whopping 60% more goods between 2000 and 2022!

One way of looking at this is noting that while we may not be out and about as much as before, that is because we don’t need to be. Technology has simplified and automated much of our laborious daily tasks into one neat device on our desks, and most employees rarely have to get up to be “productive” today. This is a huge health hazard on its own, but that’s a story for another day! But using this to build an erroneous illusion of laziness, despite record output levels, is plain wrong.
Do longer hours boost productivity?
Beyond a certain point, the answer is a resounding — or eventual — no. But don’t take it from us; research by Stanford University has come to the same conclusion. According to their study, the average productivity of employees working a 60-hour work week was actually lower than that of employees working 40 hours.

This can be explained by two factors. The first and obvious is that humans are, well, humans. Performing any strenuous task for too long, even if you live and breathe an “obsessive work culture,” can and will lead to stress and fatigue. Even if you adapt quickly to the increased workload, your overall performance is likely to drop enough that the extra working hours become meaningless.

Secondly, the researchers explained that average productivity drops in two stages for overworked employees. The first, smaller drop manifests after the first few hours of work. The second drop is usually a lot more catastrophic and occurs after a prolonged period, such as after 8 hours. This dip can be so dramatic that it can cause fatigued workers to make more mistakes and oversights, eventually creating accidents that reduce productivity to a negative. As per a myriad of studies, working beyond 50 hours in a week can lead to this outcome.

As a result, many developed countries are even testing out a four-day workweek, such as Denmark, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Many of these pilot trials have even proven successful, finding that four days of work retains or boosts the employee’s productivity levels, while improving their well-being. Even the Japanese government has been insisting that its workers work less to prevent ‘karoshi’ — death by overwork.
Indians are not lazy
Despite what Ranaut, Murthy, and many others might believe, Indians are already a hard-working bunch. According to the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) 2024 estimates, Indians rank sixth in the world for having the longest average working hours at 46 hours per week. Our country is only outranked by Bhutan, Lebanon, Lesotho, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan.

If you’re noticing another pattern here, it’s because every single country in the top ten longest-working countries, including Bangladesh, Liberia, and Mongolia, belongs to the Global South. Even Japan and South Korea, two developed countries often cited as the hardest workers, have labour laws that cap working hours at 40 hours a week. According to the ILO, weekly hours worked in these two countries average between 36.7 and 37.9 hours.

This means that Indians average nearly ten hours of extra work per week compared to these “model” states! On the contrary, some of the happiest developed countries are those with the shortest working hours, such as Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, with under 30 hours of work every week. This does beg the question: must the staunch aspiration to become a developed country come at the expense of declining happiness and overall well-being?
Indians aren’t getting the credit (and money) they deserve
Now that we have established that Indians are, in fact, some of the hardest workers in the world, we need to examine why so many think otherwise.

For one, equal amounts of work don’t necessarily equal the same amount of profit for the average worker, despite what our current “meritocratic” society might think. As a result, many point to the abundance of wealth as a surefire indicator that someone has “worked hard,” and an empty bank account means that someone has been lazy.

However, just the slightest amount of pondering will reveal that this is a massive fallacy. If you consider meaningful work to be physically intensive, construction workers and maids get paid abysmally low in our country. And yet, these careers are often frowned upon, especially by the higher economic classes.

Further, in a bid to acquire work amidst fierce competition and soaring unemployment rates, Indians accept work for far lower rates than they deserve. In fact, a study by Haver Analytics has even shown that while manufacturing wages have risen in China through the years, surging by eight times since the 1990s, they barely tripled for Indians in the same period. According to The Reshoring Institute, the average annual salaries for production workers come to about $2,500 in India, while Chinese workers get paid around $12,500. A similar disparity can be observed among production managers in India and China.

This means that while Indians may have mocked the Chinese for their cheap labour and substandard practices earlier, we have fallen to the exact same level — what’s the saying about pointing fingers? As India, Mexico, and Vietnam become the global low-cost labour market, the effects of such low wages and soaring inflation translate into terrible and unsustainable working conditions for the lower economic classes.

Further, as renowned Indian economist Jean Dréze puts it, there has been no significant growth of real wages at the all-India level in the last eight years. Growth of real wages, which is the rise in wages after taking inflation into account, fell to a record low of 3.5% during the 2023-2024 financial year. In comparison, the index stood at 8.9% between FY 2022-23 and 12.6% between FY 2021-22. The growth of real wages has a massive impact on the consumption of goods and services in the country, and therefore on its GDP growth.

As such, India’s workforce deserves recognition and fair compensation instead of accusations of laziness. The country needs to balance economic aspirations with the well-being of its people. Prioritising sustainable and humane working conditions as well as just remunerations are essential for true progress toward becoming a developed nation, despite what a rich few may feel.

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