India’s labour relations are due for a big reset; hostels and better conditions are the new normal, & more reskilling too
Given how they suffered during the lockdown period, it is likely a good many migrant workers will stay back in their villages, preferring to earn a livelihood in the agri-rural economy. Given the very limited opportunities though, especially at a time when the economy is decelerating, the majority will probably have no option but to take the train back to industrial centres. In fact, Larsen & Toubro has seen its workforce increase to 1,20,000 from 70,000 in the last fortnight and is adding 2,500-3,000 workers every day. However, given the dangers of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important they are housed in clean premises and are covered for health and medical benefits. Whether they are local labourers, living close to the factory premises, or migrants, from now, employers will have no option but to ensure that workers are looked after.
As S Ramadorai, chairman of the National Skill Development Agency (NSDA) and also of National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC), pointed out in an interview to this paper, the living conditions of workers in the cities are truly appalling; it is unacceptable that four dozen people are sharing a toilet in slums like Dharavi. The numbers are large—even if around 60-70% of about 100 million migrants go back to the states where they were employed, that is 60-70 million people—so there can be no overnight solutions. But India Inc and the local governments must work together to start addressing their needs.
There are tax incentives available for companies that want to set up accommodation for workers, but hostels can also be set up by third parties, say, in industrial hubs, so that the scale takes care of the economics. Meanwhile, the government must fix the PDS and make sure workers have access to public health facilities. Whether companies locate their factories in places where workers are available in large numbers or whether workers migrate to faraway states in search of a livelihood, living standards need to improve.
More critically, as automation allows companies to use less labour, workers need to be skilled for different jobs. In the villages, mobile training centres can be used to train them, and the skills mapped electronically so they can be tapped. This is already happening in many districts in the country with corporate houses playing a role, and some programmes, like the one in Jharkhand, have been successful.
But the initiatives are hopelessly inadequate in relation to the number of workers that require to be trained. India probably spends less than 1% of GDP in skilling whereas anything less than 5-10% is insufficient if the country harbours ambitions of becoming part of the global supply chain.
Over the next few years, job opportunities are expected to be created in areas such as agriculture and food processing where reforms are being rolled out. It is up to corporates and government to invest in education and skilling programmes so as to create a workforce capable of being employed in high-tech industries. There is also the opportunity to incorporate skilling within MNREGA given the scheme’s reach and budget. In all this, the labour unions must co-operate so that workers become increasingly productive. Unless we step up our efforts to train workers, perhaps by incorporating skilling into school curricula, a few years down the road, we will end up with large numbers of both unemployable and unemployed.