Any takers for decent work?

I was invited to participate in SAARC Sub-Regional Seminar of UNI Apro. The subject chosen was relevant and important for all who are interested in employee relations. For me personally it was [and it is] important. Let me explain the reason. I retired seven years ago and I have been meeting workers, professionals and managers from various industries. I have met union representatives. I have also been interviewing them to learn their view point and their concerns. The reality of employee relations scenario in India is disturbing. It is against this backdrop of my experience that I am considering the subject 'Multi-stakeholder's Collaboration: Way forward for mutual adjustment to stimulate sustainable growth for just transition in South Asia.'

What has been my experience?

1. Carrying Emptiness: The Case of Courier Boy
I interviewed a young boy. Let us call him C. His family came to Thane [we can call this a twin city of Mumbai] from Tamil Nadu in search of job. C enrolled in a school, and when he was 12 he started doing small jobs to supplement family earning. He cleared his matriculation. C has workable knowledge of English. Later he also obtained a licence. His first job was in DTDC. He took up this job when he was just 15 years old. There was no appointment letter. The work was tiring and basic facilities were not provided. After working there for some time, he quit the job to join Trent. Trent has shops in malls called 'West Side.' He was paid Rs 8500 pm. But his working hours were twelve. There was no place to sit. There was incentive paid if the sales crossed Rs 30 lakhs. So C discovered that all that glitters is not gold and left the job. He joined 'Gojavas' which is another courier company. They pay him Rs 12000 pm. Social benefits like PF, ESIC are complied with. He has to do minimum 40 deliveries in a day. If any product is lost, its cost is deducted from his salary. He takes his own bike to work. He is paid Rs 2.50p per Km but he has to meet the maintenance expenses, and traffic fines on his own. His company has procured accident insurance of Rs 5 lakhs.

We have to remember that the Flipkart's couriers had to stage agitation demanding basic facilities like toilets. Interestingly they went to political parties who were not exactly supportive of the demands of the courier employees. Flipkart and Amazon engage contractors to provide product deliveries.

He asked what his future was. I asked him what he thought about it. He does not know. Probably working as a supervisor. Now that he is in his twenties, he is worrying about how he will raise a family. He wonders if his family [as and when he acquires one] can move up in social status.

2. Nursing Injuries: The Case of Hospital Staff
I met nurses and I also met some non-nursing staff. A large contingent of nursing staff comes from Kerala. Their dream is to take up a job abroad, in Gulf countries or in UK or USA. They can make good savings, lead better quality of life and usually find their life partner too. It is necessary to get two or three years of experience in India to land a good job abroad. So a job in India is necessary to acquire such experience and save some money for travel and passport.

The nurses want more cash in hand. The hospital authorities do not want to increase their overheads, namely PF and Gratuity. So a deal is struck! The nurses are appointed as 'retainers.' They get overtime, sometimes the overtime is a fixed amount not connected with salary.

But not all nurses go abroad. Some get married in India and settle down. When it comes to raising a family the first jolt is received. 'You are a retainer; you are not entitled to maternity benefit!' 'Why?' the nurse asks. She is unable to understand the difference between an employee and a retainer. In practice such a difference does not exist. It is a little late in the day when she realizes that she had compromised her future accepting so called retainership.

3. Weak Fundamentals: The Case of Bank M&A
A bank, let us call it K, acquired another bank V. K was a modern, cash rich bank. It took care of its employees. They claimed that they had eliminated the clerical work from bank completely.

A large staff was female, and among them several were 'retainers.' They did clerical jobs, they did specialist jobs, and some of them were professionals. The retainers did everything which an employee did, except that no social benefits were payable like PF, ESIC and Gratuity. Then there was another category. They were called FTE [Fixed Term Employees]. Their contracts were FTC [Fixed Time Contract]. When a FTC comes to an end, for the reason of expiry of the term, you do not have to pay retrenchment compensation.

This proportion of 'retainers' and FTEs among bank K's working population was shockingly large. And now bank K faced a very peculiar problem - it had acquired bank V which had a few thousand employees and a large number of them were organised by a union.

The threat perceived by K was that the newly acquired bank's Union will 'destroy' the work-culture and work-ethic. Being a commercially successful bank, it believed that the culture and work-ethic was the best in the industry. The underlying belief of the Bank K is that Unions tend to destroy exemplary and productive work culture and work ethic!

4. When exploitation is called 'training'
I was speaking to production manager of a company. He said, "We take ITI trained persons as well as Diploma Engineers as trainees. They are engaged for one year. They have to leave after one year. But we teach them the Japanese way to manufacturing so they get a job immediately."

"Do they get a permanent job?" I asked.

"No," he said, "They again find employment as trainees. They go to Bosch, Kirloskar, Mahindra & Mahindra, and Bajaj Auto after leaving us. If they are lucky they find a permanent job."

I decided to meet a group of trainees. They came from Bajaj auto, Tenneco, Hyundai Construction Equipment, Mather & Platt and some other organisations. The trainees from Bajaj said, "When we joined we were told that we will be put on probation of six months after completing training for one year. But that is not how it turned out. About five or six months ago, that is to say, just before the permanent workers resorted to strike, the Management told us that we will have to undergo two years training."

"So did the trainees continue or did they leave?"

"Some left and others continued. The Company employed more trainees when the permanent workers resorted to strike. But it was very difficult to work in those days. They increased the speed of assembly line. Sometimes they made us do the work of two stages. If you make a mistake, they remove the part. You are supposed to repair it after the shift timings but they do not pay us overtime; it has to be done in our personal time."

* * * *

I would like to quote the Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich. She said in her Nobel Lecture:

Many times I have been shocked and frightened by human beings. I have experienced delight and revulsion. I have sometimes wanted to forget what I heard, to return to a time when I lived in ignorance.

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Let us understand the problem in perspective. We have to understand it in the context of our culture.
Geert Hofstede is a highly acclaimed authority on the subject of culture. His model is studied in various schools and organisations. This is what Geert Hofstede has to say about Indian culture [I have copied only the part relevant for the purpose of this article]:

In India, there is acceptance of imperfection; nothing has to be perfect nor has to go exactly as planned. India is traditionally a patient country where tolerance for the unexpected is high; even welcomed as a break from monotony. People generally do not feel driven and compelled to take action-initiatives and comfortably settle into established rolls and routines without questioning.Rules are often in place just to be circumvented and one relies on innovative methods to 'bypass the system'. A word used often is "adjust" and means a wide range of things, from turning a blind eye to rules being flouted to finding a unique and inventive solution to a seemingly insurmountable problem.It is this attitude that is both the cause of misery as well as the most empowering aspect of the country. There is a saying that "nothing is impossible" in India, so long as one knows how to "adjust".

* * * * Obedience to the Unenforceable
The eminent jurist Nani Palkhiwala delivered a convocation address at XLRI, Jamshedpur. It is one of the most persuasive document which preaches quick settlement of all industrial disputes. Arbitration could be a very effective method if we can think and change what comes in the way its effectiveness.

Nani Palkhiwala captioned his speech with characteristic insight: 'Obedience to the Unenforceable.' Values can't be enforced on people. They can only be punished for non-compliance. Nobody can teach us how to practice value based management. In final analysis we have to decide what values we wish to practice.

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We are making laws. But those are not implemented with rigorously - neither by the Government nor by Employers. And not also by Unions.
The ground level realities are very different. Employers like those managing hospitals and banks are taking short cuts to profit. It also suits the convenience of a section of employees. In a sense both are conniving to the breach, ignoring long term implications.

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Ladies and Gentlemen, I have some questions in my mind. I am searching answers to those questions. Let me share:

Can we expect implementation of Decent Work concepts at all levels? Is it even reasonable to expect it? My submission is that rigorous implementation of laws of the land is the first pre-requisite for implementing Decent Work concept.


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