October 23, 2020
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In Lockdown, Employers Hung Workers Out To Dry. Now They Should Prepare For Changed Labour Market

The biggest fallout of COVID-19 lockdown, for the millions of migrant workers, seems to be the trust deficit that sprouted between employers and workers since large number of employers abandoned their workers in these difficult times, writes Joydip Dey.

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In Lockdown, Employers Hung Workers Out To Dry. Now They Should Prepare For Changed Labour Market
In this file photo, a group of daily wage labourers on Noida-Greater Noida expressway walk back to their homes after the Centre announced a 21-day lockdown to combat the spread of coronavirus.
Tribhuvan Tiwari/Outlook
In Lockdown, Employers Hung Workers Out To Dry. Now They Should Prepare For Changed Labour Market

Ever since India went into a lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19, tens of thousands of migrant workers trudged the roads for hundreds of miles, for days to reach their home states. Under the scorching sun, on deserted roads and in want of food and water, many of them failed to make it.

Though the journey to home was ardous, it may haveas well made them realise that in the long run, a simple low-income life in a village may be much more comfortable and peaceful than an urban industrial city life. This realisation will have a bearing on the minds of migrant workers in the weeks and months to come.

The biggest fallout of COVID-19 lockdown, for the millions of migrant workers, seem to be the trust deficit that sprouted between employers and workers since large number of employers abandoned their workers in these difficult times. This trust deficit cannot even be bridged by any stimulus package proposed by government and industry bodies. Under these circumstances, Indian labour market is going to witness a massive transformation in near future.

Here are the summarised changes that the Indian labour industry will witness in months to come:

Employers, who have taken care of their distressed workers during the lockdown period with food, shelter, clothing, medicine, health and hygiene support and other essentials, will reap benefits in the post lockdown scenario.
“Balance of Power’ will shift from the employer to workers in the post lockdown period to a large extent. “Take or Leave” approach from the employer will no longer work in hiring and managing workers. Workers will come back to their pre-lockdown role, only on their own terms. Workers with “hard-to-find” skills will benefit the most.

COVID-19 lockdown has very badly exposed the notoriously inhuman safety, security and other essential conditions of living standards in an urban industrial city. In past, a job offer from an industrial hub was considered the “dream job” for a rural citizen. Hence, they never raised any question on the same. However, post COVID-19 lockdown, people will ask very tough question on the living standards offered by urban industrial cities. In the process, millions of workers will decide to stay back in their native villages and earn their livelihood from the local low-income sources instead of seeking employment in large industrial cities since that offers better safety, security and peace of mind. In many cases, old skills will be abandoned and new skills will be acquired.

Workers will increasingly prefer their long-term quality of life. In this process, money will be only one part, and not the sole reason. Hence, companies will increasingly find it difficult to hire good skilled labour only by monitory component and statutory benefits. Salary, perks, statutory benefits are going to become the “Hygiene factor” only. In order to attract skilled competent labour, companies will have to work aggressively on “motivators”. Such factors could be integrated holistic all-round long-term labour welfare policy, plan and programme addressing health, safety, education, work environment, boss-subordinate relation, long-term future of the workers and their family members. Companies failing to come out with such approach sooner will lose out of the competition very soon.

Since, it is now very much clear for millions of workers from the lockdown experience that “emotional bond” has become the past, and in case of all future crisis, they will have to take care of themselves and their “Sethji” or entrepreneur will not come to their rescue (except those who have taken care of their workers during lockdown),“Mungeri lal ka Haseen Sapne” shown by entrepreneurs or political leaders will no longeryield results. Workers will become more realistic, materialistic, more demanding and negotiate hard for their rights.

Unsung leaders will emerge out from workers community to fulfil their legitimate expectation. In order to take control of “Balance of Power”, labour unrest against all forms of exploitation will multiply several times and will become the flash point. We have already seen few such instances at Surat, Vadodara and in few other cities during last few weeks.

In order to improve organisational productivity, coercive measures to deal with labour unrest may work in few isolated cases in the short-term, but in the long run, such measures are bound to backfire. Workers can no longer be taken for granted and they have to be considered as the integral part of the long-term business strategy. Several employers will have to walk the tight rope in this process.

Top management and entrepreneurial team will have to invest more quality time in having meaningful dialogue with the workers’ community instead of offering superficial cosmetic jargon.

Increasingly, workers’ community will put pressure on political class as well as community leaders to create more meaningful large-scale employment opportunity in rural areas since people will try to find out employment opportunities near there native place. They will increasingly avoid long-distance travel in search of livelihood. ”Neighbourhood employment” will become the new normal. Due to the inflow of large number of well-trained competent urban returnee workforce, rural industrialization will get very big push in the form of massive investment as well as rapid low-cost innovation leading to all-round rural development and rural GDP growth as well as better quality of life. In this process, local workforce will get more priority over migrant labour.

“Self-employment” initiative in the rural area will multiply very rapidly. Several highly trained urban returnee migrant labourers will prefer to become “Entrepreneurs” with like-minded people on board, instead of going back to their pre-lockdown roles. As a result, there will be a new wave of entrepreneurshipin several parts of the country. If the latest stimulus package offered by the government through NABARD and SIDBI is implemented properly, we are going to witness massive push in entrepreneurial spirit.

Several new pockets of industries in the non-industrial hotspots will emerge due to the availability of readily available urban-returnee trained workers. In the large industrial cities, manufacturing as well as infrastructure companies will continue to struggle to get readily available trained workers, leading to a large-scale slippage of customer commitment, project delay, enhanced risk factor, NPA and large-scale business failure. Several small and medium-sized companies operating in the “hard-to-find” skillset may be compelled to shut down there shops. Large number of entrepreneurs will be compelled to rely and invest more on automation, artificial intelligence and robotics technologies in order to avoid shortage of available trained labour force.

Due to the absence of adequate number of trained available labour, attrition rate of labour force will increase rapidly. As a result, companies will be compelled to invest more on hiring and training expenses leading to high pressure on operational cost. As a result, company management will find it difficult to maintain highest quality standard, productivity as well as customer commitment leading to large-scale slippage of competitive advantage.

Cheaply available labour force may not be a competitive advantage for several industries and for the country in the global market. This will make India less competitive in the global market on several fronts such as export market, attracting FDI investment etc.


(The writer has over two decades of experience in the Human Resource sector with seveal Indian as well multinational companies (MNCs). Currently, he is associated with a few MNCs as Freelance Management Consultant.)


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