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Independence Day: Freedom to earn a livelihood with dignity

Private companies need to adopt policies and practices that take responsibility for a critical element in their functioning—migrant workers

Published: Aug 13, 2020 02:27:23 PM IST
Updated: Aug 13, 2020 02:35:17 PM IST

Independence Day: Freedom to earn a livelihood with dignityImage: Shutterstock

Girish Rajendra Yadav is a contractual transport driver who lives in a rented house in Nashik. Since the announcement of the lockdown, life has come to a standstill for Yadav, the sole breadwinner for a family of six. With work and his income hit by the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, his biggest fear is not being able to support his children’s education. This has prompted him to contemplate making the difficult journey back to his native Bihar in search of an alternate livelihood.

India’s national statistics on the fallout of Covid-19 reveal a disproportionate economic impact on migrant workers like Yadav. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) reported that an estimated 122 million people lost their jobs in April 2020 alone, and three-quarters of them were daily-wage labourers and small traders. An Azim Premji University survey showed that 81 percent of migrants lost their employment during the lockdown, compared to 64 percent of non-migrants.

The disappearance of income-generation prospects, the rising spectre of Covid-19 infections, and a lack of access to shelter, food and security have prompted millions to re-evaluate their priorities, with the prospects of a journey home mired in uncertainty, exorbitant expense, discomfort, and risk. On a human level, this is upsetting for obvious reasons. However, the other tragedy it reveals is that a large segment of our national workforce, instrumental to the functioning of our economy, is languishing in neglect.

Recognising migrant workers
India is home to more than 100 million internal migrants, most of whom journey from their hometowns to other districts and states in pursuit of job prospects and higher wages. Migration in India is highly circular, with workers tending to move across a range of locations throughout their lifetimes. Inter-state migration is characterised by a flow from economically underdeveloped states to those with urban centres and better economic prospects. Half of India’s migrants originate from Bihar or Uttar Pradesh, with a large part of the remainder hailing from Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Many of them are bound for states like Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and Goa.

Migrant workers tend to be concentrated in construction, manufacturing and agriculture sectors, with many switching back and forth depending on the season. They undertake informal and casual work at urban construction sites, brick kilns or rural harvesting, and stay in communal housing to minimise costs, and avoid dipping into often non-existent safety nets in case of an emergency.

The boom of app-based platforms in recent years has given rise to gig economy employment outside the formal employer-employee relationship. Migrant workers employed as service providers, drivers and delivery staff make up a significant portion of the many millions working in these segments. While the flexible working hours and conditions have allowed many to enter the workforce, the trade-off is irregular and erratic incomes and a lack of social security protections.

The criticality of migrant workers
Like Yadav, many migrant workers have seen the promise of a better paycheque and a chance to build a more comfortable life disappear in a flash. A Jan Sahas survey revealed deep threats to their survival: Many reported an immediate lack of food and shelter for themselves and dependents back home. Such dynamics made the prospect of returning to hometowns and families the only tenable option.

The reaction of industry and states to the reverse migration wave reveals the criticality of migrant labour to the Indian economy is not entirely lost on them. International coverage of the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on India’s migrant workers and the outcry around the economic impacts of the national lockdown prompted central and state governments to begin offering some subsidised transport for migrants returning home. However, concerns about a lack of manpower upon reopening the economy led to industry bodies pressuring governments to revoke these provisions. These reactions fail to acknowledge the human element in the choices migrant workers face, and curtail their freedoms to make the best choice for themselves and their families.  

Independence Day: Freedom to earn a livelihood with dignityImage: Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters

A new goal: Dignity for all workers   
One silver lining of the pandemic is that it has thrust the condition of migrant workers into the spotlight. Recent months have seen a huge uptick in articles, webinars and programming related to their plight, advocating for sympathy and charity to allay the challenges they are facing.

However, sympathy and charity will never be sufficient. The corporate sector has a huge role to play in determining the landscape of choices available to migrants. As the most significant employer of migrant labour, it holds the potential and responsibility to change the dynamics within which workers operate.

More affluent and educated communities will have a collection of considerations for a potential job: Incomes that meet needs as well as wants, leadership and peers to learn with and from, opportunities for growth and development, and social security protections like pensions and insurance. Business leaders know it is this stability and support that motivates workers, creating value for both their organisation and themselves.

In contrast, many migrants, driven by necessity and a lack of education and training, work as unskilled labourers from an early age and are confined to hazardous, low-paying jobs with no upward mobility for their whole lives. It is critical that we do our best to create conditions in which every worker can find safe, fulfilling and gainful employment that is respectful of their needs. In not extending the appropriate support to migrants, business ecosystems lose out on empowered and proactive individuals.

Role of the corporate sector
Understanding migrant workers’ perspectives is, therefore, about businesses acting along the lines of their own enlightened self-interest. Covid-19 has shed much-needed light on the critical role that those in supply chains, distribution networks, and the precarious informal sector play in sustaining the economy, and has fundamentally altered the perception of risk as it relates to the workforce. The number of layers in the hierarchy between a modern-day C-suite executive and a migrant worker driving a taxi or engaged in the supply of raw materials paints a picture of why these concerns fail to be integrated into business priorities. In this context, how might we reimagine the industry-migrant worker relationship?

A particularly useful way of identifying vulnerabilities and addressing them systematically is the Responsible Corporate Citizenship Continuum (RCCC), which seeks to articulate the role of the private sector in society and to provide companies with a framework to include human rights and social and environmental responsibility in their operations.

The RCCC highlights three key ways through which businesses command influence: Employment practices, supply chain practices, and CSR. The framework represents not a graduation, but a continuum of approaches that must be employed synergistically. A few examples can illustrate the value of such an approach:

Responsible Employers: Given the slump in demand, companies in industries such as hospitality and apparel may have to lay off lower-rung workers. Instead of leaving them high and dry, a responsible company could consider supporting their re-skilling and re-deployment in other industries that require manpower (such as logistics, warehousing and healthcare) through models of collaboration.

On a similar note, there have been many calls to action over the last few years for companies to invest in creating safe and enabling working conditions in factories and farms, ensuring adequate ventilation, clean drinking water, hygienic sanitation facilities, basic health and nutrition services, and insurance. Research has shown that these factors are linked to better productivity and business performance. In the present situation, they are inextricable from a factory’s ability to quickly adapt to the needs of the pandemic, resume work, adhere to precautionary guidelines, limit infections, and continue operations.

Responsible Supply Chains: Consider the example of a company that manufactures paints, adhesives and solvents for the construction industry. A fair share of their sales comes from small, independent contractors working as plumbers, masons and painters. Due to the prolonged lockdown and ensuing restrictions, these contractors have used up their limited savings to meet daily needs, and have no funds to kickstart work. By facilitating access to affordable working capital, soft loans or credit lines, the company can not only infuse liquidity to restart businesses but also ensure that its product sales pick up.

The same logic extends to a variety of companies, right from those manufacturing agri-inputs such as seeds and fertilisers and supporting small farmers to those manufacturing vehicle oils and lubricants and supporting small mechanics and repair shops to FMCG companies producing beauty products and helping small women-owned salons. While the government has introduced schemes for MSMEs, these will take time to penetrate the last-mile and small enterprises, and many of them may not qualify. Complementing this with one’s own initiatives is not just responsible, but also good business.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR): CSR is an important opportunity to invest in community welfare and innovation to address social issues, and integrating a sustainable livelihood angle into these efforts can go a long way. One of India’s largest FMCG companies launched a series of programmes delivering skill-building and employment opportunities to underserved communities. As part of this programme, women were trained in beauty and wellness services and long-term support, and guidance from strong NGO partners enabled many to find work in salons and home services or to launch their own businesses, and build a model for income-generation that is suitable to their needs.

Going forward
By articulating a broader sphere of influence, this framework seeks to expand business responsibility to include the social and environmental impacts of its operations, and advocate for a triple-bottom-line that considers people and planet, alongside profit. In the context of a crisis revealing the importance of healthy and resilient business networks and a market that increasingly values business ethics and brand purpose, the incentives to perform along these lines are clearer than ever.

It is now time for businesses to conceive of migrant workers and their wellbeing as valuable and essential assets, rather than optional liabilities. As with all black swan events, the current crisis is forcing everyone to go over their value chains with a fine-toothed comb. As businesses re-evaluate their relationships with key stakeholder groups, migrant workers like Yadav must be given a new, improved paradigm to return to work as dignified participants of the revived Indian economy.

● The writer is founder and CEO of Samhita Social Ventures. Inputs from Ragini Menon (assistant manager, knowledge &strategy teams) and Hrishikesh Bhatt (senior associate, strategy team)

(This story appears in the 28 August, 2020 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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