Thinc session examines need for jobs with dignity for migrants in urban areas, policy changes needed

It may fall on the private sector, as much as the government, to figure how to change this if India has to sustainably grow. What can be done in terms of corporate policy and labour policy to improve livelihoods?

Since the pandemic began, “migration” in India has gained a negative connotation. But the problem may not be migration itself, but the fact that large chunks of migrants come from source states or regions that are facing acute economic distress. In the destination areas, there is the problem of finding jobs with dignity, coupled with states that are politically driven to keep migrants out. It may fall on the private sector, as much as the government, to figure how to change this if India has to sustainably grow. What can be done in terms of corporate policy and labour policy to improve livelihoods?

The latest edition of Indian Express Thinc, presented by Omidyar Network India, focused on this subject, starting with thoughts from keynote speaker Meher Pudumjee, chairperson of Thermax Limited. In September last year, Thermax joined hands with like-minded corporates across Mumbai, Pune and Ahmedabad, in partnership with NGO Dasra, to launch an initiative called SoCo or Social Compact to ensure greater dignity and equity for industry-employed informal workers in India. The initiative aims at assuring certain standards for the workforce, including safety at the workplace and social security cover.

Speaking about SoCo, Pudumjee said it mainstreams the aspiration that “a responsible business is equal to a successful business”.

“SoCo aspires to address a million informal workers spread across the ecosystem of 150 companies in India. It started as a pilot phase with just 15 companies. It’s a self-driven journey by companies who are committing to ensure a set of standards for their workforce,” Pudumjee said, citing the example of health insurance, which is usually set for a minimum of one year, despite the fact that some employees stay for only six months. How can companies ensure that they get insurance for that period?

Similar concerns set the tone for a panel discussion, hosted by Udit Misra, Deputy Associate Editor, The Indian Express, which followed the keynote speech. Pudumjee was joined by Rajiv Khandelwal, founder of Aajeevika Bureau; Manish Sabharwal, chairman of TeamLease; Radhicka Kapoor, fellow at ICRIER and Deepak Mishra, professor at JNU.

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Mishra, who has recently come out with an edited volume on contemporary migration in India, shed light on what’s holding back employment generation for migrant workers. He stressed on the fact that migration flows in India are incredibly diverse and there are specific patterns of vulnerabilities associated with them.

“The first thing for a policy maker is to move away from a generalised description of migrant workers to look at the specificities of groups of migrant workers and how they are incorporated in the larger labour market,” he said.

Policy makers will have to start with addressing structural vulnerabilities in origin areas, not to reduce or to stop migration, rather to have evidence to argue that minimal targeted interventions, like investment in rural health and education, improve the bargaining power of migrant workers.

Assessing the impact of Covid on India’s already strained migrant workforce, Kapoor said that it was “the circular migrant who bore the brunt last year”.

Kapoor was looking at cross-country studies which show that productivity in urban areas is about 7-8 times that of productivity in rural areas. The High Powered Expert Committee (HPEC) on Urbanisation in 2011 made an observation that despite this relatively high growth, the Indian economy had witnessed less urbanisation that would have been normally expected at that level of growth and development. This meant that while people were moving to cities, the ability of the cities to actually absorb this labour force productively was limited.

She explained, “Basically the ability of the manufacturing sector to exercise a pull away from the agricultural sector has been weaker than normally expected…so where were people being employed? They were either ending up in the construction sector or informal services sector. The fact that basically cities were generating relatively lacklustre employment opportunities meant that much of this migration was circular and reverse in nature and not permanent.”

Looking at what policies are needed to change the situation, Sabharwal said that the tool available is structural productivity of our regions, sectors, firms and individuals. He said, “Urbanisation is an unstoppable and actually a powerful technology for prosperity. Urbanisation isn’t shoving more people into [existing cities]. It’s creating more cities with more than a million people. We need better cities is the debate here…My submission is that we have run out of fiscal room and all those solutions may not solve the problem. Let’s just focus on making our cities better and structural changes to the Indian economy…”

Khandelwal, the founder of Aajeevika Bureau, which has collaborated in SoCo’s initiatives, pointed out that if Covid added to an existing migrant crisis last year, this year people went back to cities quickly, warnings were not heeded and people got jobs. “There was no employment crisis. It is actually a wage, quality of work and work condition crisis, which already existed, and that has continued,” he said. The changes are that wages are down, number of days of work are down, a number of markets that were hosting waged workers have moved to piece-rated work. The minimum wage crisis continues to unspool, too.

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