Chakan (Pune): For much of her life, Bhagyadhri Taur, 36, was a home-maker who occasionally helped her husband as labour in cotton and sugarcane fields in the Pune area.
Now, unmindful of the sparks that fly all around her, she deftly welds bolts onto a car frame at the Autoline Industries unit in Pune’s Chakan.
“When I saw these big machines and sparks flying, I was scared at first and thought I would not be able to do it,” Taur said. “But after I got the training and became familiar with the machines, I am now comfortable and confident.”
Workers such as Taur are now at the forefront of resuscitating India’s automobile hub in Chakan in Pune, which engages over 2.5 lakh unskilled workers and is spread across 3,101 acres.
After three months of shutdown and most of its skilled labour having returned home, the industry was on the brink of collapse in June.
But over a month into Unlock 2, businesses are once again up and running in the region that not only houses automobiles majors such Mahindra, Volkswagen and Mercedes but also companies that supply them with parts and other components.
Apart from local workers such as Taur, the companies have also been rescued by new unskilled workers from Jharkhand, UP, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh who had never before set foot in such factories.
Workers such as Shiva Verma, 31, from Jhansi, who painted walls for a living before the Covid-19 pandemic struck. Today, he is busy welding the door of a TATA 407 truck at a factory in Chakan.
Similarly, Ajay Kumar, from Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh, is today carefully crafting the frame of a TATA Safari. He worked as a mason before the lockdown left him jobless.
The arrangement seems to have worked out well for both — the labour seeking employment and factory owners, who incurred loss of hundreds of crores and were struggling to resume operations.
“After the lockdown, 80 per cent of the plants shut down. They could not resume even after lockdown was lifted as there were no workers,” said Motilal Sankala, chairman, Automobile Association, Pune. “The small industries that supply auto parts to big companies incurred a loss of over Rs 500 crore. It is only after workforce from other states were hired that the operations resumed.”
For workers such as Taur, the employment has been a boon amid the economic slowdown. Hailing from a village near Pune city, Taur’s husband worked as a labourer on cotton and sugarcane fields in the area.
“After the lockdown, the landowner stopped calling us to the farm and we ran out of money. We had to dip into our savings, which too got exhausted soon,” Taur told ThePrint. “Then one day my husband told me about this job at the production unit.
“Initially, I was not sure but then I took it for money,” she added. Both she and her husband work at the same Autoline unit and make Rs 400 a day each. Both work on the 8 am-5pm shift and their two children stay with their grandmother when the two are at work.
The recruitment drives & training
With the old skilled labour refusing to return to work after Unlock 2 in June, contractors across Chakan planned to conduct a recruitment drive, first in Maharashtra and then across the country.
“It was impossible to restart production without the workforce; so all companies approached us and we carried out a drive in the nearby local areas,” said Rajendra Gore, a labour contractor and MD of Adhiraj Manpower Service. “We, however, did not get a good response as many were not interested in engineering work that involves decasting, welding and the like.
“We then sent our people to UP, MP and Bihar to speak to the local contractors there. We dug out old contacts, conducted drives and convinced workers that companies in Chakan will provide food, accommodation and a safe working environment and that is how we could recruit them,” he added.
Gore said that the drives are still on as despite recruitments, there is a massive shortage of staff.
“We are trying to convince our old workers to get back,” Gore said. “We are hoping that once the lockdown lifts and trains and buses start in full capacity, many of them will return but till then these companies are working with limited staff.”
After the new recruitments were confirmed, many auto companies sent buses and even arranged for train tickets for the workers to reach Chakan.
According to Sudhir Mungse, promoter and director of Autoline Industry, they had no option left but to hire new people as they had already incurred massive losses due to their plants being shut for over three months.
“We incurred Rs 75 crore sales loss a month when the production came down to zero,” he said. “In addition to that, Rs 45-50 crore in a month was also lost on operations. This is just a rough estimate without all the components.
“We did not have any option but to tell our contractors to find us new people who could be trained on the job,” he added. “We could not have let the plant remain shut for any longer. That is when the contractors connected with people willing to work here from other states and now 80 per cent of our workforce is newly appointed.”
His company has also made an exception and hired 100 women for their production plant.
“Women never took up this job of handling big machines, welding before,” said Rahul Shorghe, AGM and HR of Autoline Pvt Ltd. “Also, many companies only preferred men for this work, but now we have hired women and they are doing a great job.”
The training of the new recruits was conducted at the manufacturing units itself.
“We first give them three-day training on the campus, where we have experts to teach them about different machines, functioning of the plant, safety measures that need to be taken around machines and more,” said Umesh Chauhan, executive director, Autoline Industries.
“They then work for a week under strict supervision before they are sent to the unit where they learn the rest on the job,” he added
Lockdowns disrupting chain of work
Although the production in most factories has resumed, the intermittent lockdowns like the one imposed in Maharashtra until 31 July, is further hurting the businesses, stakeholders told ThePrint.
If the local markets get shut, the supply of raw material to these auto spare part manufacturing units gets disrupted, which further delays production and then assembly of vehicles.
“When the local market is shut due to the lockdown, procuring raw material gets difficult,” said Chauhan of Autoline industries. “Moreover, there are other consumables like oil, grease, hardware that are required while running a manufacturing unit. If markets selling these things are shut, it affects production.”
“Moreover, in the past a lot of our staff got stuck at home as their residence fell in containment zones and in this business, if one person from the team is not present, decisions cannot be taken,” he added.
Delay in production leading to losses in export
Although the new recruits helped restart work in these automobile units, the production time has become longer than usual as most people are new to the job. Also, the units are still working at 40 per cent strength.
“We are working with our full strength to ensure social distancing. Also, most of the workers are new to the job and not skilled for it,” Chauhan said. “Although we have trained them and they have picked up well, the work is not as smooth as it used to be.”
“In addition to that now we have to take extra precautions while the production is on,” he added. “Regular thermal checks, oximeter tests of workers, sanitizing the place every two hours, making sure that they use sanitizers, masks, takes up a lot of time.”
Because of delayed production, the exports too are being hit.
“Since there is a delay in the production, the deliveries are not happening on time and that is what is leading to a loss in export business,” said Sankala, chairman, Automobile Association, Pune.
“Many companies, which were our clients, have now started sourcing material from elsewhere,” he added. “Sometimes the production gets delayed and at times when that happens on time, the transport to ship the produce is unavailable due to lockdowns.”
“Until the lockdown is fully lifted, all the workforce returns and production begins in full swing, it will be hard to start making profits or even cover up for the lost time and money,” he said.