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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Explained: Behind CM Uddhav Thackeray’s appeal to sons-of-the-soil, the labour shortage

In his address to the state, the Chief Minister urged sons of the soils in the green zone districts to come forward and restart the stalled engines of the industries.

Written by Parthasarathi Biswas | Pune | Updated: May 24, 2020 8:15:19 am
Uddhav Thackeray, labour shortage, Maharashtra lockdown, migrant workers, Indian express news Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackerary. (Express Photo/File)

Earlier this week, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray appealed to bhoomiputras (sons of the soil) from the state’s green zones to take up work in the industries that are starting after the lockdown. These industries are facing a labour problem.

How serious is the labour problem?

A number of workers in Maharashtra’s industries, especially small and medium scale enterprises (SMEs), left have left on Shramik Express trains for their homes in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal etc. Chandrakant Salukhe, founder president of the SME Chamber of India, estimated that migrant workers formed 40% of the 78 lakh workforce in the 14 lakh registered SMEs in the state. “In Mumbai alone 90,000 people mainly from Bihar, UP and Jharkhand were working as drivers in companies and have since left for their state,” he said. Around 80% of the workers were semi-skilled.

Most industry insiders expect that it will be not until August that the migrant labour would make any move to return to Maharashtra. June and July would bring heavy monsoon rain, making travel difficult.

What is this solution the government has proposed?

In his address to the state, the Chief Minister urged sons of the soils in the green zone districts to come forward and restart the stalled engines of the industries. Industries Minister Subhash Desai followed this up with the announcement of an Industrial Employment Bureau with units in the districts, a joint effort among the Departments of Labour, Industries and Skill Development. The government had already enacted laws to ensure 80% direct employment is reserved for local residents.

The Industry and Labour Departments will identify skilled and unskilled labour from the districts while the Skill Development Ministry will take up the task of skilling them. Desai also talked of extending tax concessions to companies that hire local youths on contract. While authentic data about contractual labour is not readily available, estimates say they constitute around 30-40% of the workforce, with migrant labourers forming more than 90% of them.

Suhas Palshikar, political scientist and chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics, noted that the NCP, with its strong presence in tiers 2 and 3 cities, can mobilise the peri-urban and rural youth to get into the workforce. “The political undertone of the move can’t be ignored. Shiv Sena will use this to counter any threat to its core constituency from MNS,” he said.

How has the industry reacted to this?

On paper, this move comes across as a solution to both unemployment and labour shortage. However, industry insiders said there are some major concerns. The task of mapping the labour shortage district wise as well as skilling the unskilled will be time-consuming and might not meet the immediate requirement. Some of the smaller units in the Pune, Pimpri-Chinchwad, Talegaon and Chakan industrial belts are at present unable to restart operations as their labour have left. While an exact estimate of the numbers is not documented, labour unions say around 3 lakh people have left Pune district alone. The majority of them were employed on contract in SMEs that act as vendors and sub-vendors to bigger units. Thus, while the bigger units are slowly restarting, the smaller units are yet to get their act in place.

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One of the reasons why the industry has preferred to employ migrant labour in blue-collar jobs has been because of their flexibility to adjust to many situations. Dilip Pawar, working president of Shramik Ekta Mahasangh, a federation of unions in Pune, said companies manage to employ migrants by paying them much less than prevalent market rates. “The cost of hiring migrants is generally lower as they come alone, stay in shared accommodation and are ready to work extended hours for less pay. This might not be possible with local people,” he said.

What can be the solution to the labour crisis, then?

Pawar, for his part, strongly pushes for zone-wise fixation of minimum payment, which will ensure workers stick with companies. “For a zone like Pune, the minimum payment should be around Rs 25,000 per month which would allow the worker to have two square meals a day,” Pawar said. The government’s move to attract local youth would work only if the payment is lucrative, he said.

Prashant Girbane, director general of the Maharatta Chamber of Commerce Industries and Agriculture, called for immediate execution of the government’s scheme to provide alternative labour to instil confidence in industries.

“A weekly dashboard should be maintained which would give the progress of the work done — that way, the industry would be assured of bridging over the labour problem and planning their activities ahead,” Girbane said.

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