Coronavirus lockdown has left informal workers high and dry without daily wages. CMIE data shows that of the 12.2 crore people who lost jobs in April, 75 per cent were small traders and daily wage labourers. This reminds one of Charles Dickens' literary masterpiece Hard Times where he referred to factory workers not as individuals but 'Hands', reducing people to their value producing part. The government recently announced that it is working on an action plan to upskill and reskill workers once the lockdown is lifted. The rationale is to enable them to be gainfully employed and restart economic activity.
But, one of the problems is 90% of India's workforce is employed in the informal sector where no efforts are made for skilling. "When firms get work from informal workers, they remain as hired hands, as mazdoor and no effort is made for their skilling and training," says Ravi Venkatesan, Founder of coalition Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurship (GAME). Carpenters, electricians will continue to do shoddy work which means they have no alternative to increase income or the option of improving their lives.
For the quantum growth of the economy, investments in education and skilling of informal workers are key, especially because a huge share of population has very little skills. The government has spent a lot of money in skilling but it hasn't had much impact. "We need to think of ways to increase the skill set of those who are working in the informal sector right now as most of these workers do not have the luxury of time or any buffer savings to get skilled," says Partha Chatterjee, Professor and Head of the Economics Department at Shiv Nadar University. This is important to avoid the distress of labour in the COVID-like situation again in the future.
For this, he suggests, the employers have to be involved. Right now, employers do not spend anything on skilling their employees. That needs to change. "We need to think how we can incentivise the employers to upskill employees. We also have to bring the skilling programs to the workers than the workers going to skilling centers."
PriyaNaik, Founder and CEO, Samhita Social Ventures says that employers in sectors like apparel, textiles, hospitality, and tourism should imagine ways to up-skill and re-skill workers to enable them to be absorbed by other sectors in which there are better and more opportunities to earn.
Take the case of Gujarat based textile manufacturer Arvind Ltd. that has been using the approach of "planned attrition". Punit Lalbhai, Executive Director of Arvind in a webinar "Protecting Human Capital to emerge from crisis" said the firm takes responsibility to "upgrade the skills of those who work with us into planned outplacement into industries that have better potential to augment income". He added, employers need to think about how to "re-calibrate, retrain, and redeploy parts of the workforce in a way that's not only ensuring that short term needs are met, but also in a way that prepares a skillset for Future India."