The real challenge of Shramev Jayate: Making blue collar jobs respectable again

The issue is that the debate on manufacturing and 'Make in India' initiative has to move beyond slogans and process improvement as the jargon in manufacturing dictates.

K Yatish Rajawat October 20, 2014 16:22:08 IST
The real challenge of Shramev Jayate: Making blue collar jobs respectable again

Focus on the measures and not the message is the dictum that media seems to have followed on the PM Narendra Modi's announcement on labour reforms. The result is that if you were to read the newspapers you would think that it was not an initiative but an announcement. Nothing but essentials will do for the TV, radio or print.

This means that the message behind the initiative has been lost forever, which is unfortunate as the debate should not be limited to the process and measures. While the measures are important they will not lead to new manufacturing activity it will just make life much easier for SMEs as pointed out here by Firstpost editor R Jagannathan. This is necessary but is not the objective behind 'Make in India' which wants to create India as a manufacturing hub.

That objective is only possible if there is a focus on workmanship, quality and respect for the blue-collar workers. Respect for them is what Modi focused on in his speech - he devoted the bulk of his speech on the need for it.

A movement for quality and workmanship is something that I focused on in anearlier article here. A crucial part of the respect is the salary a shop floor worker gets and a universal access number ensures that his benefits are secured. But more is needed, both in terms of working conditions, temporary workers and health benefits.

The mindset that a white-collar worker banging away on PC that costsRs 30,000 is somehow superior to a person who is handling a Rs 30 lakh or a Rs 3 crore CNC machine is laughable. The Indian mindset of valuingeducation from a college more thantheskill acquired from an ITI has to change. This mindset comes from a generation where there was a dearth of colleges and getting a degree was a process of elimination.

The proliferation of private colleges and universities means that getting a degree is no longer a challenge. The quality of the degree is far more doubtful now than ever before, while skills are something that you may or may not expand while getting the degree. But in an ITI, where the focus is on skills, it is difficult to graduate if you have not learnt them.

Modi spent a bulk of his speech talking about creating ambassadors of workers who would be the new heroes of the movement. As a PM and a political leader he is asking the corporate sector to come forward and create these new heroes because finally it won'tbe the government which will have to drive this agenda forward, but companies in the manufacturing arena.

Take for instance, Mahindra's Rise initiative that talks about entrepreneurship and ideas. As a manufacturing company it will make immense sense to start recognising skilled shop floor workers as the new heroes. Rise rhymes so well with this. The lack of such an initiative in America was the reason for the decline of manufacturing there.

Much before the Chinese manufacturing juggernaut started, American manufacturing had already started declining. Quality wars: the triumphs and defeats of American business, a seminal book by Jeremy Main, talked about the decline of American manufacturing much before the Chinese phenomenon on pricing happened. The quality war was lost to the Japanese and then the Taiwanese.

In 1975, EE LeMasters, a social science professor, also wrote about the declining importance of blue collar or shop floor workers in the American society. Unions, combined with the attitude of looking down on blue collar workers, meant that when Japanese came up with better quality products the American companies just could not compete. India already has a caste-based society where workers are also classified by the work they do, not just their earnings. This manifests itself in ugly forms like the violent conflict that took place between blue-collar workers and white-collar administration in Suzuki Motor Corporation plant in the outskirts of Gurgaon.

Temporary workers in Suzuki's plant vented their frustration by burning an officer alive, such violent reaction not only shows anger against administration but a deeper alienation with the society. Most workers in this factory are treated as temporary workers whose every minute is timed and counted and they can contrast it with their counterparts in BPO offices, who earn the same but are treated much differently. The eventalso showed the even in companies like Suzuki, that pride itself on their manufacturing capabilities, have not addressed the internal angst of their workers.

Other Japanese companies like Toyota have better relations, as they pride themselves on integrating with the local ethos to build the culture of quality. Some Indian family-owned enterprises in the manufacturing space, like automotive component giant Motherson group, are better at managing the aspirations and their workers' need forrespect.

The issue is that the debate on manufacturing and 'Make in India' initiative has to move beyond slogans and process improvement as the jargon in manufacturing dictates. The gauntlet has to be picked up by a Bharat Forge, Bajaj, Motherson, Minda group, TAFE, Sundaram group, Hero group, and Mahindra to showcase a quality that he world has not seen. Only then will the millions entering the employment age in the country can find a place in this country.

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