Most of us have no trouble responding to whims about picking up a master’s programme in anthropology, or a PhD in archaeology even when we are 30. We know our career will begin unfolding graciously at any point we choose to say go. But for a labourer, their clock starts ticking the day they turn 14. No provision of obtaining a basic education, let alone the luxury to study further and no degree in our current education structure would help them on the career path they are destined to walk on, so they might as well embark upon the journey as soon as they can. While most of our 35-year long careers might just begin at 30, for a labourer working in a physically strenuous field, the best of their abilities have been burnt out by 30.
“For a labourer, everyday spent not working is a potential day’s wage lost. Hence, in this race against time, a lack of access to jobs could be detrimental, resulting in a sub-optimal utilisation of their potential,” says Gayathri Vasudevan, Co-Founder, LabourNet.
Gayathri, always inclined towards Gender Studies and Labour problems, spent six months in a small village near Coorg in the early stages of her career to learn everything she could about the ecosystem – their needs, their conditions, and the quality of their lives. She learnt that there was merit in working as a researcher, but mainly, there were policy implementation issues, which took her to the Indian Labour Organisation, and eventually, to LabourNet, then, a subsidiary company of the Movement for Alternatives for Youth Awareness (MAYA), which she eventually took over as a private entity, and inculcated in it, all the principals and values she had come to feel most strongly about.
In the informal sector, 85–90 per cent of the labourers and daily wage workers are school or college dropouts. There will be 500 million people in the working class by 2017, out of which 90 per cent will be employed with the informal sector, without stable contracts, without benefits, or job security. At best, they are hanging by the thread of verbal contracts, never on the payroll of the company. No policies would dictate compensation of accidents and deaths. Blue collar or grey collar jobs end up being unorganised too. Moreover, there is no clear career path for the informal sector. They keep switching fields based on their physical constraints. And switching fields can be daunting.
LabourNet started out as an entity that augments the careers of labourers, by uniting labourers seeking jobs with corporates and organisations. Hence, their initial model was linking the informal sector to jobs. It was a little ahead of time, using call centre operations, where the labourers belonging to rural areas as well as urban pockets would be in the network.
But eventually, the way they decided to do it is not simply by requesting assignments and projects for their labour force, but actually creating value in the eyes of the organisations for the labourers associated with LabourNet. With Angel funding as well as Series A, like $ 2 million from Acumen and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, not to mention government grants under the National Skills Development Corporation, the plan now was to make the labourers marketable, by making them experts.
“We want to do it through skill imparting. With all my experience, I have learnt that for creating employment, the solution has to be market-driven – and the market will only pay for value delivered. If anyone wants to go up the career ladder, and if they expect to create any value in the eyes of the market, the market only evaluates them in terms of their productivity and the work delivered. The higher the productivity, the higher the opportunity and better quality of life. The labourers’ real wages go up. Hence, we laid our emphasis on vocational training for various skills.”
These vocational skills are crucial to their work, which, until now, they could not afford to take time off from work. “Since we could not take a labourer away from his site of work to be able to train them, we structured our initiative on two legs – Continuous training and vocational learning and earn while you learn. Keeping them up-to-date with new facets of their industry, new technology, and skill sets, so they stay relevant was our main aim.”
During the six years of its existence, the pan India network soon grew from 18,000 trainees to 1.5 lakh trainees to a total of 3 lakh people. With a network of 1000 employees, more than 50 per cent are trainers who are deployed to every corner of the country to meet, interact, train, and mobilise. Their unemployed trainees land up with starter salaries between Rs. 6000–10,000.
As a for-profit enterprise, most of its operations are funded under the Corporate Social Responsibility budgets of large corporate houses and factories, who want to not only have a pipeline of skilled workers coming into their factories, but to also contribute to the development of the communities around their factories.
Through their productivity assessment mechanisms, a worker’s performance is evaluated before and after they are trained by LabourNet. A rise in productivity was recorded, and an equally significant reduction in wastages.
Women also constitute 40–50 per cent of their trainee force. “Their confidence, their empowerment, their renewed outlook to life is our greatest gratification. Even women who are bogged down with filial responsibilities are granted part time work opportunities so that their vacant time does not go unutilised.
“Many of our trained professionals even go on to become entrepreneurs – especially in fields like beauty services. That is a huge upgrade in their income and quality of life.”
LaborNet speeds up the path for workers to escalate up the ladder on a much swifter pace by being continuously engaged, continuously trained, and continuously becoming better versions of themselves.
LabourNet is also currently working with the NSQF on compiling a list of core competencies and occupational standards for every single field of labour work, so that the labourers have reference points in building their skills pertaining to every industry, and organisations looking to employ labourers know what the industry standards of treating their workforce are.