I’m an Indian and Being Overworked AF is My Duty

Social Commentary

I’m an Indian and Being Overworked AF is My Duty

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

There I was, standing in a rather gorgeous open-plan office, excited at the first week of a new job. New folks to meet, new chatter, new work that I could be proud of putting on both my LinkedIn and Facebook profiles. God was in his heaven and all’s right with the world.

Fifteen minutes later, my boss walked up to me and said, “Dude, you’re so lucky! You get to go to the North-East in the first week of work. We leave on Friday.” Oh, yay! There’d be pork and red rice for dinner, and video production for lunch. In the headiness of the first week, it didn’t matter so much that I’d just given away my first weekend in under two days of fresh employment.

It set the tone nicely for my first month and a half at this job, where I managed to get my first weekend off after sacrificing five more Saturdays and Sundays – that too because I accidentally missed a flight. Every day was a 12-hour shift, which I dedicatedly did for 40 days straight, without a single day off to even spend this alleged salary I was earning.

My friends and my brother (who lives in the same damn house) hadn’t seen me in over a month. They were alerted to my presence (absence?) by the wet floor in the shower, and the dirty dishes in the sink – signs that I was still alive, still functioning.

Maybe it’s because for every job, there are often five other people willing to do it – probably for a lower sum of money. No one is indispensable, and everyone is replaceable for cheap.

I didn’t need the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, for I’d just stumbled upon the urban Indian yuppies’ myth: work-life balance.

Certain industries amplify this overworking, exploitative employment culture further in favour of employers. Lawyers, in a fine case of being lawyer-ed, are typically hired at law firms as associates and professionals, not as employees. If you take away the sharp shirts, pencil skirts, and degrees, they often work hours that would make Narendra Modi’s 700-hours-a-day schedule look like a trip to Goa. Film technicians work days that likely lead to them burning out. In this story from The Wire, a film editor goes from highly skilled and specialised to a worn-out rubber tyre, leaving his family with little recourse for compensation from his employers.

In a recent tweet by the Spectator Index, a handle run by the British weekly magazine, the average Indian between the ages of 20 and 34 – the millennial – works 52 hours a week. That is 30 per cent more than the mythical 40-hour work week that the goras seem to have.

What’s more, this 52 hours a week is not exceptional, it’s the mean. It’s what’s expected, it’s the norm. To break it down, that’s over 10 hours a day from Monday to Friday in front of a glowing screen facing a wall, not accounting for commuting time. If that statistic isn’t causing a mild existential meltdown in you right now, please back off, you bot.

However, if you have a pulse rate and you’re still barely just shrugging, try this on for size: In 2016, Arcadis, a consulting firm based in Amsterdam, rated 100 cities across the world on the metric of work-life balance. The five Indian cities that were surveyed were Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, New Delhi, and Mumbai. While overpriced places in SOTC brochures like Hamburg (where the balance is a cool 100 per cent), Rotterdam, Paris, Lyon, Vienna, Milan, and Copenhagen expectedly filled up the top ten slots, the Indian cities brought up the rear. Kolkata at 81, Chennai at 82, Bengaluru at 83, New Delhi at 88, and Mumbai at an appalling 91.

And here, we can’t even hide behind the bogey that at least we’re better than Pakistan: Our friends across the sarhad at least know how to enjoy a kebab after the slaving is done. But the engines propelling India to the wonderland of super-economic status are more overworked than the BJP’s IT cell.

When you add in other aspects like the strain on urban infrastructure anywhere in the country, I’d say this generation is getting an extremely bad employment deal. Neighbouring China, which not only is a significantly bigger economy, but also manages similar growth rates, works four hours less every week. Japan – known as the nation of workaholics, the very embodiment of “work is worship”, and the subject of alarmist articles headlined, “The young Japanese working themselves to death” – clocks in at 46 hours.

Since we’re definitely not as productive per person as China or Japan, why are we working harder?

Maybe it’s because for every job, there are often five other people willing to do it – probably for a lower sum of money. No one is indispensable, and everyone is replaceable for cheap. This, combined with the fact that we are a culture that fundamentally disrespects time, especially that of others. Think of all the times two minutes turns into 10, and 10 minutes is basically code for, “Bhai aaj nahin hoga”. The lack of clear communication and an odd idea of treating time as abstract, doesn’t help one think well of how a collective of the world’s largest, youngest workforce is spending it’s most precious resource: time.

I’ve seen friends, colleagues, and people I hate in the media, my own industry, spend hours turning into days waiting to hear back on one tiny change from clients who are only better at wasting time than they are spouting jargon in PPTs, shirts tucked in, and smiles easier to see through than silky négligées.

Yet, in these industries, designed on the nuances and subtleties of communication, no one has a say in how we spend our days. It’s rare to see someone assert the value of their time, the very means of their existence. To turn down work. To put their foot down about working all night. To working on weekends.

I’d do it too. But I’m sitting in office at 3am, solitarily digging away at a mutton biryani. Maybe right after I make this deadline.