SynopsisThe pandemic has left an indelible mark on the future of work and workers. It is time we grapple with the impact of digitalisation and automation at workplaces.
India’s massive workforce – whether it likes it or not- is set for a radical transformation. With technology and automation fast transforming manufacturing and even corporate workplaces, the future of both work and workers is in for a major overhaul in a pandemic-ridden era. However, this inevitable reality presents both an opportunity and a threat for the stakeholders.
The country, that’s home to about 400 million people working in its informal economy stands at a critical juncture as it grapples with a surge in unemployment because of the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown.
In India, sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing have traditionally remained the backbone of its economy, giving employment opportunities to a sizeable population. While about 58% of the country’s population is still dependent directly on agriculture, manufacturing accounts for about 12% of the country’s labour force. But, with automation being the buzzword in the changing times, it’s yet to be seen how the two key sectors embrace the fresh change.
For the nation’s service sector that employs about 25% of the labour force, the imminent challenges might not be unusually unique and brutal. Considering the sector’s long-held bonhomie with the digitalisation and automation, it is relatively better placed to face those newer challenges compared to the other two traditional sectors.
In a nutshell, a significant share of the Indian workforce today appears to be staring at a future shrouded in uncertainty and ambiguity.
As policymakers mull over the roadmap for the Indian workforce, a host of structural patterns, requiring long-term solutions, also surface.
“We are one of the youngest countries in the world, with over 8 million people joining the workforce each year. We have also been growing as a GDP at 7-8% over the last few decades, but our rate of employment creation has been fairly low,” highlighted Vikas Bali, CEO, Intellecap at the Sankalp global summit 2020.
A good job, please
The reverse migration by scores of daily wage earners at the start of the lockdown in March is etched in everyone’s memory. The pandemic laid bare the stark reality of people caught up in dead-end jobs with low pay and no social security.
Securing jobs for the masses is not the only issue that the country faces, particularly post Covid. It’s also the lack of meaningful employment opportunities that commensurate with the skill-set of the candidates that plague the nation’s workforce. Experts cite, future-ready jobs compatible with the evolving paradigms should now be a priority.
As automation and digitisation are set to emerge as the winners out of the crisis-ridden times, securing jobs for a burgeoning workforce, whose sizable share is said to be characterised with a lack of industry-ready skills is going to be an uphill task, believe industry observers.
Among those that represent the country’s white-collar working class, the issue of academia-industry mismatch has surfaced again. For years, the nation’s education system focussed more on churning out graduates rather than making them more employable at workplaces, that’s the common view held by many in the industry circles. Hence, to meet the aspirations of the incoming workforce, experts believe there is a need to take a long hard look at the country’s education system too.
The current education system in the country is not tuned to addressing the emergence of machines and technology and its interplay with labour. According to Bali, the phenomena that started on the manufacturing floor is going to affect all sectors, including the service sector where buzzwords such as AI and ML is already making their presence felt.
Bali adds that ultimately the nature of the work itself is in for a radical makeover in coming times.
“Long term employment records of 20, 30 years are all going to be the things of the past. We all are going to move into short-term contacts depending on the skills one brings to the table….just as actors or musicians are hired. Several blue-collar workers and semi-skilled workers may lose jobs or may have jobs only till the time machines come to manage machines,” he adds.
The great shift
Besides the obvious pressing challenges that now confront the Indian workforce, there exist several fast emerging yet uncontrollable paradigms, with potential to further exacerbate the shift.
“There is a huge phase of de-globalisation and make in one’s own country, that’s gathering momentum. This also has challenges for the developing economies from the exports’ standpoint,” highlighted Bali.
Highlighting the challenges of existing workforce Samar Verma, Program Officer, Ford Foundation, pointed out there remains a large section of the people who are at the bottom of the value chains and are constantly “being driven along that path”.
In India, with a share of almost 90% of people working in the informal economy, about 400 million workers in the informal economy are at risk of falling deeper into poverty during the crisis, reveals The International Labour Organization’s ‘COVID-19 and the world of work’ report. It’s in this context, Verma likens the pandemic as one low tide that has exposed widespread inequalities in India’s various sectors and systems. And these have repercussions for its existing and incoming workforce.
“Globally, when you see that the richest countries and the richest people own most of world’s natural resources and wealth-when you also see that they are responsible for most of the global emissions, yet are least affected by its impact and in fact, their incomes are defying gravity. When you also see that the world’s poorest people owning less than 10% of the wealth, are also the ones least responsible for the carbon emissions and to climate change. Yet, these are the worst affected by these challenges affecting their livelihoods; then clearly, something is fundamentally broken in the economic system we are part of,” Verma said.
Citing an Oxfam study that states that out of the total selling price of a bag of Assam black tea sold in the market, over 90% of its share goes to the retailers and brand owners, and only about 7% comes to the labour, he reiterated that the existing economic order needs an urgent overhaul.
In his view, the collective view he is hearing is that the current economic system which is driven by ‘greed is good’ is broken and is in dire needs of a reset.
Increasingly, there are now calls challenging the point made by Milton Friedman, i.e. ‘the business of business is business’, and instead, people are now showing faith in the slogan — ‘the business of business is responsible business’, he added.
“It’s about the triple bottom lines-people, planet and profits. There are scores of success stories that show that companies that work for people and the planet also drive profits in the long run, that too, in a more sustainable way.”
For India’s policymakers, it is going to be a tightrope.
(Illustrations by Sadhana Saxena)