Mumbai: As Maharashtra moves into the first phase of its Mission Begin Again, an attempt to revive the economy as the Covid-19 lockdown is lifted, the state’s industrialists are faced with a labour conundrum.
There is a massive shortage of labour in the state due to the large-scale exodus of migrant workers from Maharashtra. And while there is a sizeable Marathi workforce to replace them, industry sources say that many Marathi industrialists themselves are reluctant to employ local labour.
The hesitance in employing Marathi workers is driven by perceptions in the state’s industrial sector that they lack work discipline, are unwilling to learn new trades, are inclined towards political and trade unions — seen as pressure tactics by businesses — and are insistent on the implementation of the reservation quota.
This is an unusual situation in Maharashtra, says Sudhir Mutalik, a Nashik-based industrialist. He is the founder and managing director of Positive Metering Pumps (I) Private Limited, which caters to the process industry and counts refineries and nuclear power plants among its clients.
“The Marathis were never pushed to a wall. But today, the Covid-19 circumstances have done it,” Mutalik told ThePrint. “A majority of the Marathis are reluctant to work hard and this will definitely impact the small and medium scale industries who need labour urgently. The problem is that the Marathi worker has a mental barrier about hard work. They have to change their attitudes.”
Mutalik and many others ThePrint spoke to are also uncomfortable with the political connections the local labour force brings with it.
“The problem with the Marathi workforce is that somewhere or the other they are connected to politics and this interference is stifling,” Mutalik said.
“Another problem is the tantrums of the Marathi workforce. Unlike the migrant workers, who take a month off in the summers to go to their native places, the Marathi workers are bound by familial compulsions of ceremonies and family gatherings. If they are not given leave constantly, some local politicians will make calls to us. Accommodating these tantrums becomes very difficult.”
According to Mutalik, the labour void will ensure a slowdown in scores of manufacturing units dotted across the various industrial zones in Maharashtra.
But trade union leader Bhai Jagtap isn’t buying the arguments, though he said he understood the reluctance.
“If a worker wants to be a part of a union, it is his right,” said Jagtap, president of the Bharatiya Kamgar Karmachari Mahasangh.
“The Marathi workforce has to be employed by the industries. This is non-negotiable. They cannot refuse jobs saying that the Marathis are not hard working.”
Marathi writer Sanjay Sonawane agrees with some of the industrialists’ assessment but blames politicians for aggravating the problem.
“Historical reasons are responsible for the killer instinct and competitiveness missing from a majority of the Marathi people,” Sonawane said. “To add to it, the feudal mentality of the Marathi politicians have ensured that they find it difficult to shake off the sense of subservience.”
The labour conundrum
According to the Economic Survey of Maharashtra 2019-20, the number of migrants in Maharashtra from other states stands at 38.13 lakh. The state government data puts the migrants who have left the state during the Covid-19 national lockdown at 12 lakh, with many thousands still queuing up to leave.
The migrants workforce was predominantly employed in refineries, foundries, sugar mills, cotton mills, iron and steel mills, among others. They are engaged in over 48 kinds of jobs, according to the economic survey data.
The migrants have had a historic presence in Maharashtra, particularly Mumbai, as the first of them were brought here by the British in the 19th century. Back then they were brought to work as dhobis (washermen) and were centred largely to south Mumbai.
They later spread to the northern and eastern suburbs of Mumbai. According to a research paper by Professor Aruna Pendse of the Mumbai University, generations of those early UP migrants still live in the Walkeshwar and Malabar Hill areas in South Mumbai.
The migrants from Bihar began streaming into Mumbai from the 1980s, while the major wave began in the 1990s. While the UP migrants belong largely to Azamgarh and Mau, the Biharis belong to Darbhanga and Purnia.
Migrants, however, are a touchy issue in Maharashtra with the native parties such as the Shiv Sena, which is in power, and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), making them the fulcrum of their politics for decades.
But no party has escaped the cloud that has hung over migrant workers.
In November 2008, the then Congress-NCP government brought in a resolution, which stated that priority should be accorded to ensure that a minimum of 80 per cent of the workforce in all micro, small, medium, large and mega industrial enterprises should comprise of local residents.
In March this year, the Maha Vikas Aghadi government announced that it plans to bring in a legislation that would make it mandatory for the private sector in the state to reserve 80 per cent of the jobs to the domiciles living in the state for more than 15 years.
Industrialists say that even when the 2008 government resolution wasn’t implemented in full, they found it difficult to employ Marathi-speaking labour.
“They would rather open a paan shop outside the factory gates than work and earn a consistent salary inside it,” said one Marathi industrialist who did not want to be named.
One major concern is the effect that local labour will have on the wage bill.
Sources say that the advantage of employing migrant labourers is that they are not affiliated to the workers’ unions or local politicians. The migrant labourers are recruited by agents who, in turn, supply this workforce to the small and medium scale industries and the construction firms often at lower than minimum wages. These agents get hefty commissions from the small and medium scale industries and the construction firms for providing them cheap labour.
Depending on the nature of the work, the minimum wages range from Rs 50 to 300. Local labour, however, does not come cheap, thereby higher wages will have to be paid.
“The local politician and the unions will step in now to decide on a wage rate for the local workers. This may not be in parity with what we can pay them post the lockdown. It is a no-win situation for us,” said an industrialist who has a manufacturing unit in the Aurangabad MIDC (Maharashtra Industries Development Corporation).
According to another industrialist based in Amravati, the Marathi workforce can do much more but they simply do not want to.
“They are in a comfort zone, so lack the will power and killer instinct to grow or develop skills. The fact that the son has to be employed when the father retires is not working for many of us as many of them are not skilled,” said the industrialist.
Those industries that have foundries will be worst hit as the migrant labourers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar enjoyed a monopoly here.
“The migrant labourers can work in very high temperatures without complaint. Somehow the local labour does not want to work in the foundries,” said Mutalik, the Nashik industrialist.
Echoing Mutalik’s sentiments, another industrialist said that employing local labour will have a cascading effect on the price of goods.
“Now hundred per cent of the labour force, whether they are skilled or unskilled, will be from the local population. We have no choice. The immediate fallout of this will be a steep increase in the cost of labour,” said the industrialist who has a medium scale manufacturing unit at the Pimpri-Chinchwad industrial belt in Pune district. “This is bound to increase the price of the goods we manufacture.”
The fear of strikes
The Marathi affiliation to workers unions has made small and medium industrialists fearful of work disruption.
Prolonged workers strikes are not new to Maharashtra. Even after 38 years, the 1982 textile mill workers strike called by union leader Dr Datta Samant in Mumbai is a case pointed out by many.
The year-long strike, for better wages and a bonus, crippled the textile mills and pushed the workers towards poverty. Many families are still recovering from the after-effects of that strike.
The strike and violence at the switchgear division of Crompton Greaves located in the Nashik MIDC in May 2016 is another example of disruption. The incident earned Nashik the moniker, ‘Manesar of the South’.
This workers strike for better wages turned into a flashpoint between two unions — the Congress-backed All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) and the CPM-backed Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). It eventually took a violent turn.
Violent strikes at the Pimpri-Chinchwad MIDC too are quoted as examples by industrialists to support their reluctance to employ the Marathi workers.
But not everyone is batting for the migrant labour force.
For M.N. Lakhote, who recently retired as the plant head of Ashok Leyland, employment of the workforce depends on the nature of the industry.
“The local population is preferred in the engineering and machinery industries. The idea of setting up industrial zones in the rural areas is to give employment to the local population. We have to develop their skills and make them employable,” Lakhote said.
Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, in one of his Facebook Live addresses, has now requested Marathi workers to take up jobs vacated by the migrants. His views were echoed by Maharashtra Minister for Industry Subhash Desai.
“This is the best opportunity for the Marathi manoos as there are thousands of jobs available,” Desai said at a press conference last month.
“The Maharashtra government will set up an online employment registration board for the local workforce. The employers and the workforce will share this platform. This will help employers find suitable and skilled workers. The workers can register at this online centre and find jobs suited to their skills.”
The MNS is also pushing the Marathi workforce to grab the jobs.
MNS leader Sandeep Deshpande told ThePrint that recent job losses across various sectors had made the Marathi manoos more accepting of the available jobs.
“Over the past week, the MNS has been surveying the joblessness amongst the Marathi people and we found that they are willing to do any kind of work,” Deshpande said. “They are not inclined towards hard work because of the literacy factor. Why will an educated Marathi worker do a job which was being done by an illiterate person?”
Deshpande added that there is a change in Marathi mindset but warned that even if there isn’t, industrialists will have to employ the local workforce. “No industrialists can refuse to employ the Marathi manoos. The locals have to be given jobs, if they do not do so then we will have to intervene,” he said.