A career wasteland in the pandemic's wake

In some garment factories, workers have stiff hourly targets. Where workers stitched 50 shirt pockets or collars in an hour, they are now clocking 150 (Photo: Mint)
In some garment factories, workers have stiff hourly targets. Where workers stitched 50 shirt pockets or collars in an hour, they are now clocking 150 (Photo: Mint)

Summary

  • As the pandemic ebbs, more Indians are finding work. But many made damaging career compromises
  • In rural India, where career options are sparse, people are falling back upon the government’s rural employment scheme. In urban India, several have sought refuge in gig work

NEW DELHI : Bad news arrived with an email notification in Sahil Madan’s inbox. A cabin crew with a work experience of 13.5 years, over half of which he had spent in Etihad Airways, Madan took pride in being a “people’s person", making thousands of flyers feel comfortable and cared for.

He had relocated to AbuDhabi with his wife just a year before the pandemic wreaked havoc around the world. In June 2020, as countries began shutting their borders for incoming flights, Etihad began retrenching its employees in multiple rounds. On 11 November, he was fired over email. “I cried as if I had lost everything," he recalls.

Back in Delhi, he wanted exit from a battered aviation industry. “I remember during those months, in my desperation, I had even applied to vacancies for security guards," the 32-year-old recalls.

Last July, he got hired in a hospitality company’s sales team for a salary that was eight times less than his last pay cheque. It was either going to be this or nothing at all. He swallowed his pride and took the job.

Madan’s is the story of India’s skilled workforce destabilized and devalued by the uncertainties of covid-19.

Even though the recent Economic Survey shows that jobs have bounced back and CMIE data for January shows the lowest unemployment rate (6.57 percent) since March 2021, economists point to the need to pay closer attention to two indicators which reveal more than what meets the eye—lower household incomes and mounting debt.

“Household incomes are still only 80% of pre-pandemic levels. That tells us that although people are finding work, it’s not as remunerative. People who held salaried jobs are getting into more informal and tenuous arrangements. We’re seeing a fall in the quality of jobs," says economist Amit Basole, head of Azim Premji University’s Centre for Sustainable Employment.

Falling quality of jobs apart, Basole also says that field level surveys show a distressed workforce that has incurred debt up to ten times their monthly income in order to stay afloat during the lean period.

Last month, Salil Tripathi, a 36-year-old hotelier turned Zomato delivery executive, died in a road accident. The news touched a collective raw nerve, revealing how people’s careers have been upended by a virus.

What’s undeniable is whether it’s Madan or Tripathi, dignity of labour continues to be at stake no matter the colour of one’s job collar.

Lowering the bar

All my life I’ve trained people and made them fit. I know nothing else," says Amar Dutt Shukla, a 42-year-old gym instructor and fitness trainer who worked at a gym in south Delhi for nearly 10 years. Shukla lost his job in March 2020 when gyms were the first to close down. When the lockdown lifted, he offered to train clients at their homes. But given the uncertainties, they offered to pay 350 to 500 per session rather than for the month. Shukla’s wife got a cashier’s job to pitch into the family income as he reoriented himself.

In the past two years, their family’s standard of living has worsened in tangible ways. The phone and internet bills are overdue. Their two school going kids are forced to share a single phone for their online classes. Since the elder daughter is in 8th standard, she gets to have more of the phone while the younger son who is in 2nd standard is forced to miss his class. Food is cooked to carefully last one meal. And Shukla cycles to cut down on fuel expenses that he would normally spend riding his Bullet. He has a debt of over 2 lakh with no means to repay it.

On a good week, he caters to two to three clients. The stress of income loss manifested as diabetes and hypertension. When he tried switching careers, he was offered 5,000 to work at a shop for nine hours. Shukla weighed his options and decided he didn’t want to settle for indignity. “I will stick it out as a personal trainer even if it means only two sessions a week and cycling to far ends of the city," he says.

By the end of 2020, CMIE data shows that of the permanent salaried workers (estimated to be 11% of the total pre-pandemic workforce), only four out of 10 employees remained salaried. Half of them, like Shukla, moved into informal work—either as self-employed (30%), casual wage (10%) or informal salaried (9%) workers.

Government data shows that nearly 40% of recognized startups in India emerged after the pandemic hit in states like Maharashtra, Karnataka, Delhi and UP.

Prashant Nakwe makes it clear at the outset that he’s not looking for sympathy. A photo editor with a news daily, Nakwe was one of the 20-member staff who lost his job when the media house shutdown its Mumbai bureau in 2020. He decided to support his wife’s passion for cooking by starting a catering service based out of their home in Matunga. Hema’s Veg Rasoi, named after his wife, has delivered over 10,000 meals till date. The duo has had to dig into their savings to pay their home loan EMIs and set up the business. And while they haven’t broken even yet, Nakwe believes that they’re in it for the long haul, carving a space for fresh hot traditional home cooked meals in an era of instant gratification. “The pandemic brought back the allure of home cooked food and we latched on to it," says the 50-year-old.

The two years haven’t been easy. “This is my second stint in life," he says. In the months that followed after his job loss, Nakwe had convulsions as he fell unconscious at his home. He was hospitalized. When the storm passed, Nakwe emerged clear sighted, confronting each day with a sheer will to survive. “The stress is obviously there. How will it go when reality doesn’t change? But we don’t let it bog us down anymore," he says.

Another sector that’s hit is childcare. For six years, Priyanka Pathak ran a successful day care in Noida NCR that was teeming with 40 children. Today she’s an award-winning occult master and a life coach. Of course, what she earns now isn’t even a fraction of her day care earnings but she agrees that the pandemic has made us realize why we all need two wildly divergent careers to better our chances of survival.

In rural India where career options are sparse, people are falling back upon the government’s rural employment scheme. Lalita Verma, 30, was a private school teacher in Bundelkhand’s Banda district. Until last year, the BCom graduate was drawing a salary of 5,000 a month. Verma now lays stones and builds pacca roads under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) because the school had shut down. “Some days the only thing I can afford to feed my daughter is rotis with onions," she says.

“There are compromises happening," says Rajneesh Singh, co-founder of Simply HR Solutions, a human resources firm based in Delhi NCR. According to Singh, sectors like aviation, travel and tourism, hospitality, retail and media have been hit hard. The services sector and the small and medium enterprise (SME) segment has particularly suffered. “We have placed candidates exiting from hospitality into pandemic-proof sectors like fast moving consumer goods. SMEs that we’ve closely worked with have either completely shifted course or wound up with founders moving abroad. Is this a flight of talent? Yes, it is," he says.

The underbelly of gig

Job quality has suffered in other ways. Several have sought refuge in gig work. “Out of every 100 worker members in my union, 30 have joined in desperation after losing their salaried jobs or to earn a side income to repay debts," says Shaik Salauddin, president of the Telangana Gig and Platform Workers Union which was formed during the pandemic in 2021.

“Where a couple of boys catered to a geographical zone (pre-pandemic), today a dozen compete for orders. Kisi ka pet nahin bharta (Nobody’s stomach is full)," he says.

A poor rating here or a few minutes delay there could cost them their jobs. “Rash driving, wrong side driving, jumping signals… our boys risk their lives to bring you a hot meal. All for 20 a trip," Salauddin says.

A report by the Boston Consulting Group says that India’s gig economy has the potential to serve up to 90 million jobs in the next decade, up from about 24 million today. The union aims to help gig workers negotiate better employment terms.

Factory fury

Away from the gig economy, work conditions have soured on factory floors.

Bharathi Palani is general secretary of the Garment and Factory Workers Union (GFWU), which is one of Tamil Nadu’s largest union for garment workers. Palani has her finger on the pulse of 5,000 garment workers, mostly women, from a dozen factories spread across Thiruvallur, Chengalpet, Kanchivaram and Chennai districts. “What we see now is nothing short of exploitation," she says, speaking in Tamil over a phone line from Chennai.

When Palani details what plays out on the factory floor, it feels like a scene from Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times. Firstly, women workers above 40 years of age have been sacked in the wake of the pandemic. The work load on the younger lot has tripled for the same fixed monthly pay. Where workers stitched 50 shirt pockets or collars in an hour, they are now clocking 150. Where earlier each worker worked on one machine and one job, today the worker sits on a revolving chair in the middle, flanked by two machines on either side. She swivels her chair to the right to stitch a pocket and then immediately to her left to stitch a collar. The process continues through nine hours. If they fall short of the hourly target, they stay back to finish the pending pieces with no extra pay for overtime. “Workers sip on their tea while working and they sometimes skip lunch or a bathroom break in their race to meet the target," she says.

The company also handpicks workers to retrench before they complete a five-year tenure in order to save on paying out gratuity. The minimum wage was supposed to be revised in 2019 but the pandemic has delayed a revision.

Student anger

Bipin Kumar Bharti has tried every possible measure laid out by the central government to counter unemployment. A graduate in BA Political Science, Bharti is a 28-year-old from Bihar’s Banka district who has written more than 25 competitive exams to secure a government job. He still refers to himself as a student. Last year, he tried to rent a space with dreams of starting a coaching centre. But belonging to a poor farming family and being visibly unemployed, the bank refused to give him a loan. “It’s easy to say go start your own business. Just be in my shoes and try," he says. Bharti is losing hope that the elusive government job will come his way and he doesn’t have a plan B.

CMIE data shows that the pandemic has shrunk the active pool of job seekers. And a large chunk of the workforce are reporting themselves as students because they see no employment prospects.

“Unemployment rate among the young is higher. There’s a clear discouraged worker effect among the educated youth that speaks of disillusionment about labour market opportunities for their qualification. One of the manifestations of this is the rioting and demand for jobs," says economist Rosa Abraham, an assistant professor at the Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, referring to the recent student protests that rocked Bihar and Madhya Pradesh where 12.5 million aspirants sat for the railways recruitment exams for 35,000 vacancies.

Among these were lakhs of engineers and post graduates applying for Group D positions or maintenance jobs. “They are willing to trade off aspirations for stability," Abraham notes. And nobody should have to make that choice.

Shriya Mohan is an independent journalist based in Delhi.

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