By Karuna Kumar
Fighting with dismal work environments, relocating to new jobs, fearing the axe of job cuts falling down on them, living on a hand-to-mouth existence with meager incomes. No, it isn’t a Stalinistic Gulag. It is just the plight of blue-collar workers in a recession, which to them is more of a depression.
The state of blue-collar employees has been a heartening one. The West is drowned in corporate restructuring, while the East is slowly realizing how significant a role blue-collar workers play in their labour intensive economies. The colour coding is reflective of a socio-economic class and stands in contrast to the white shirted men sitting at their desks. The difference is stark and apparent – literally and metaphorically.
Inequalities and disproportions
There has been a growing income inequality and labour market displacement in developing countries like India. Income growth has been disproportionate in recent times. Sandwiched between the increasing demands of their work and lower wage growth, blue-collar employees struggle at their work. Engagement is considered more of a privilege rather than a fundamental need. However, one cannot ignore the effect that has on productivity, eventually leading to disruptions in work caused by unions.
In India, the local and national economy has been dependent on the blue-collar work force for most of its manufacturing units. In addition, a tide of global companies are outsourcing labour from India. This combined with the growing demands of expanding the manufacturing and agriculture sector has made staffing companies identify the blue-collar segment as a future growth driver.
Structuring the blue-collar workspace
Companies like TeamLease Services Pvt. Ltd., India’s largest staffing solutions company is on a major recruitment spree in Rajasthan, the northwestern state of India, known to have a large pool of untapped blue-collar workers. The company plans to increase that head count throughout the city, from 10% of the workforce to 15% by this fiscal year.
Platforms like www.bharatmazdoor.com are being created to facilitate corporates to reach out to skilled blue-collar workers. Companies are also identifying the need for better integration and collaboration with the rest of their work force.
Fundamental problems of lower wages, instability in the work place and low growth prospects surround blue-collar employees. Aniisu Verghese, an independent industry observer and a global management consultant, says, ‘In India, blue-collar workers work with lower pay and lesser benefits. There also exists a fear of losing the job at hand during a downturn. The other challenge is that blue-collar workers tend to have contractual obligations that make the amount of information provided to the them, limited.”
While the need for blue-collar employees is well established, what requires some deliberation is whether organisations are working hard enough to make them feel valued in the work place?
Case Study – Max India Pvt. Ltd.
Nitin Thakur, Head of Communications at Max India Ltd., a multi-business conglomerate focused on service oriented businesses, is focused on unveiling this situation. Max India Ltd. is one of the largest private sector service companies in India. A visit to their website indicates a clear seven point agenda to serve human capital. From providing meaningful role to individuals to measuring performance objectively and paying fairly, the company aims to practice a carefully developed charter for the greater interests of their human resources.
“Max India’s operating model is to have all business vested in its subsidiaries. Our manufacturing unit at Okhla in New Delhi forms one of our most vital SBUs. We depend majorly on blue-collar employees for that unit. The ratio of blue-collar to white-collar employees, is 70:30. As part of our operational structure, we have integrated all our manufacturing operations in a single location and largely have people from similar ethnic groups,” explains Thakur.
He adds, “Being a large unit, the issue of engaging blue-collar employees is crucial to us. We work through forming employee committees and empowering the employees by making them a part of these committees and giving them decision making powers. Not only does this produce high engagement levels amongst committee members, but also creates a positive buzz about the particular initiative through word-of-mouth.”
The notion of ‘labour’ as we know it, no longer exists. The blue-collar worker today is skilled, tech-savvy, ambitious and as much a part of modern India’s consumerist culture as any other segment of society. The nature of work for the blue-collar employee has also changed over the years. Previously, painting car bodies would be the job of the blue collar. Today, handling the painting robots, is the task at hand.
Thakur feels that practices should be put into place to ensure that the interests of blue-collar workers are protected.
He emphasizes, “To be able to communicate with blue collar employees, it is important to use tangible and interactive mediums. Often, the communication mediums we use are event-led. For instance, if we want to promote the feeling of social service, then we would do it through an event, say a blood-donation camp, which will be organized by the employees themselves. This sense of ownership leads to the message being internalized.”
Worker empowerment and job enrichment
Managing people is difficult especially when the nature of their work and workplace environment is fundamentally different from the Manager’s. Despite efforts of team building, worker empowerment and job enrichment, there still exists a barrier between employees and management.
“Most organizations do realize the importance of integrating this group in every possible way. Through town halls and engagement sessions, leaders attempt to address the concerns of blue-collar workers. Opportunities for them to blend in with the rest of the workforce and to join the higher levels based on high performance measures are catered to. The workers are included in most organizational communication, official connection programs and every viewpoint is considered during decision-making,” Aniisu points out.
Action vs reaction
When asked how responsive blue collar workers are to Max India’s event led initiatives, Thakur says, “If you use event and engagement based tools, then the blue-collar workers are more responsive. From my experience, creating a sense of involvement amongst the blue-collar employees can help register the message far better. They feel valued and wanted, which helps break the class-divide that invariably develops amongst the white collar and blue collar work force.”
A hopeful outlook
Nitin and his team are optimistic of blurring the great divide between white collar and blue collar employees and are committed to changing the blue collar work landscape.
“India Inc’s mindset towards the Internal Communication function and managing the blue collar workspace has undergone a change. However, this function cannot be self-serving. It will get importance and weight only in those companies and sectors where it has the possibility of making the maximum impact.”
Could the gap between the employee who irons his shirt first thing in the morning and the worker who wears fresh ones only once the whistle blows, be narrowing? If communicators like Nitin have their way, it just might be possible.