A visual that most people cannot forget in a hurry is that of migrant workers walking back home as the coronavirus lockdown closed down cities in March 2020. The blue-collared workers had no jobs, incomes or the means to stay back in cities, and this started an exodus to their native villages.
This incident put the spotlight on a subject that had not been discussed with as much emphasis before — the need for responsible businesses and successful businesses to co-exist; the need to make worker welfare a top priority.
Nalini Shekar, Co-founder and Executive Director of Hasiru Dala, a member-based cooperative of waste pickers in Bengaluru, said the pandemic has clearly shown that businesses are not looking at sustainable human capital support. “What we need is a business with values,” she said, while speaking at the Sankalp Global Summit 2021. The virtual event, held from October 12-14, brings entrepreneurs, investors and policymakers on a platform to share ideas and grow together.
This community’s members know the nuances of sorting and grading waste and making it a tradable commodity, she says. “They are innate entrepreneurs. These are all skilled labourers who can sort and grade plastic into 74 categories, which none of us can do. We should not look at them as labour, but rather as people with skills, and we should leverage their entrepreneurial skills.”
Echoing similar sentiments, other industry experts were of the view that the system needs to work differently for informal migrant casual workers.
Rajiv Khandelwal, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit organisation working with migrant communities, said if the bigger industries implement such practices, it will encourage the smaller players as well. “It is just not CSR activity, but if we do good and look after our workers and improve labour standards — not just within our factories, but also in the larger ecosystem — then our bottom line will also flourish and be healthier,” he said.
Factors such as enforcement, legal obligation, compliance, or law are simply not enough to bring equity and dignity to workers. Instead, he suggested, other standards should be set to achieve such a purpose. “These standards have to do around wages that make sure all workers have at least a living wage. There should be safety in the workplace. India has some of the most dangerous work conditions for workers, with the number of accidents and deaths at workplaces possibly being the highest anywhere in the world. Besides this, we should also make sure that there is gender parity and equality of opportunity, especially in terms of wages between men and women,” he said.
The role of corporations in ensuring that best business practices and corporate social responsibility (CSR) are implemented can bring greater dignity to workers. This has assumed even greater significance since the pandemic.
Namrata Mehra, Head of Design, Marketing & Customer Centricity Vikhroli; Lead – CSR & Sustainability, Godrej Properties Limited, said their workforce, of formal and informal migrant workers, is seen as an integral contributor to what they build. “Worker strength, in fact, is one of our proxies for company productivity across our organisation, which means that we check worker strength across each and every one of our sites at a daily level.”
She said they also check if workers can get a certification, as that would help them once they leave the site. “When we did some of these social context studies, we found that not everybody wanted to attend a course for skilling. We are now actively trying to see what we can do if they have learned on the job and if they can get a certification,” she added.
The welfare of workers is an important factor in businesses that have a focus on environmental, social and governance (ESG). Even investors like to look at such companies.
Farhad Forbes, Global Chair, Family Business Network, said the investment community and large institutional investors are restricting investments in certain businesses. This is putting pressure on companies to fall in line. “As a result, many Indian companies and multinationals operating in India as well and many socially responsible Indian companies are taking this on board and feeling that they need to do something about it,” he said.
Citing the example of family businesses, which contribute significantly to India’s GDP, Forbes said getting enough family businesses on board can help to maximise the impact of this effort. “We are used to dealing with paradoxes in family businesses. We have to think about profit and purpose. And so, you can think about profit and addressing ESGs as well,” he added.
Making informal workers a part of the business chain is critical if a company wants to earn respect. Corporations can no longer treat informal workers as an “invisible” workforce, and the pandemic has driven this reality home in no uncertain terms.