Labouring for better employment

LabourNet, a Bangalore-based social enterprise, links informal sector workers with clients

jasleen

Jasleen Kaur | July 25, 2011




Mohammad Nasir, the only earning member in the family of four, is a painter by profession. A daily wage labourer, Nasir’s monthly income hardly ever touched Rs 4000 till few months back. Some days, work was hard to come by. On some others, there was no work at all. Each time he managed to find it, he had to fight hard to get the right pay.

“There was no fixed wage. And the customer never paid us the right fee,” says Nasir.

In October last year, Nasir’s friend suggested that he become a part of LabourNet, a social enterprise based in Bangalore working to create sustainable benefits for workers in the informal sector. Nasir joined, depositing a sum of Rs 150. Today, he has health insurance cover for his family.

He no longer has to run around looking for work. LabourNet connects hims with every opportunity that suits his skills. From being a nameless worker, Nasir is now a registered painter.

“I did not have insurance, I did not even know its importance but now I feel it will always help me and my family,” says Nasir.

By far, the biggest benefits of enrolling with LabourNet, he says, are full and timely payment.

“Customers have started valuing us,” he says with a smile.

In the last three months, he has earned around Rs 40,000.

“I can think of giving better life to my children now. I even gifted a gold chain to my wife which I could not even think of earlier,” he adds.

Nasir is among thousands of workers in 20 informal sectors who have benefitted from of their association with this social enterprise that offers a platform to access services.

LabourNet focuses on workers in the construction and maintenance industry including carpenters, painters, electricians, plumbers, domestic workers and housekeepers.

It is an initiative of Movement for Alternatives and Youth Awareness (MAYA), a Karnataka-based development organisation working on issues of livelihood and education since 1991.

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Nasir (right) and Chandrasekhar Reddy agree that the biggest benefit of joining LabourNet has been the health insurance cover for their families

The organisation initially worked on issues of child labour and its earlier intervention at the policy level aimed at bringing children back to schools.

MAYA focused on working with the community and parents and to make them understand the importance of education and ensure that they send their children to school.

Under this programme a massive survey of government schools was undertaken. The survey focused on core issues like number of teachers and children attending schools and infrastructure available.

The information collected through survey was given back to the community and a sense of ownership was developed.

Also, it undertook a study on types of income in relation to quality of life. Study showed that those who had more stable and reliable income planned their life in a better way. And among those who had no fixed income, spending and approach to sending children to school were erratic as the informal sector created a culture of hand to mouth existence.

Initially, the organisation started giving on-job training to children, aged 14 years and above, who had never attended school and were out of reach of the formal education. These children were mainly trained in carpentary and traditional toy making and later, they were given work in the small scale industries.

But soon it was felt that short-term vocational training or one-time income generation programme will not help to eradicate poverty. And this led to establishment of Maya Organic, a for-profit company in 2002.

It proved to be a success. The makers of wooden toys in Channapatna, on the outskirts of Bangalore, were trained and Maya Organic helped them to connect better with customers. After this success, Solomon, the founder of MAYA decided to replicate this model with construction industry workers as construction industry is one of the largest employers of the informal-sector workforce in the country. Thus, LabourNet was born in 2005-06.

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Alex Rodrigues, one of the co-founders and director of LabourNet says, “We wanted to create a platform to register workers from the informal sector and provide them with social security.”

There were many hiccups initially. But the organization ultimately became a facilitator between the demand side (customers) and the supply side (urban informal sector workers).

Initially only meant for construction-sector workers, it has been expanded to include maids, cooks, and drivers and so on.

LabourNet identifies concentrations of workers' dwelling, like slums and construction sites, and then visits these sites. Throough campaigns, it encourages workers to get associated.

It also has three Workers Facilitation Centres (WFC) in Bangalore where workers can directly register themselves.

The organisation works to address basic needs of workers - health, social and financial security.

A worker is charged Rs 150 at the time of registration. Of which Rs 75 is paid a s premium for insurance. The insurance cover is of Rs 1 lakh, of which Rs 20,000 is meant for hospital expenses and Rs 80,000 on accidental deaths. The rest goes into expenses of generating a identity card, basic assessment, Identity management system and overhead costs. The amount charged is annual.

After the registration is complete, the worker and his/her family get a free health check-up.

Chandrashekhar Reddy, a plumber, has been associated with LabourNet for last four years. His monthly income has increased during this time but the major benefit, he says, is the regular health check-up which he and his family get. “Whenever they (LabourNet) are planning a health check-up camp, I get the information through SMS,” he adds, “We even get free medicines for minor health problems in these camps.”

LabourNet provides identity to workers and create job linkages. It has a call centre which provides information to the customer about the worker according to their needs and requirement. And when it matches, the worker is informed about the availability of work. Along with the call centre, the organisation also has a website (www.labournet.in) which is linked to the local search engine. Customers can log in and can book the service according to their needs.

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Workers at a training session conducted by LabourNet

At LabourNet, workers are trained for safety. Skilled workers are paid more and this acts as an incentive for workers to attend vocational training sessions. They are also regularly assessed on their skills and their profiles are regularly updated. “Most workers have no formal training and they work for economic necessity. The training and assessment helps them to improve,” says Sridevi N R, the project officer at LabourNet.

LabourNet has an identity management system which contains detailed profiles of workers. The profiles also include the feedback a worker got from his previous clients.

“There is no permanent employer to whom they can go for certification. Nor there are any standards in their field. But with the assessment done here, they do not have to prove themselves again and again,” says Rodrigues.

Started as a pilot in 2005 in Bangalore, LabourNet currently operates in two states – Bangalore, Karnataka and Gurgaon, Haryana. It has a database of 43,000 workers and it aims at a million in next five years.

LabourNet has partnerships with builders and large companies to source workers for large scale construction projects and it also serves individual customers.

While delivering services to the customers, LabourNet also addresses other needs of the workers. It provides early child care support to the children of the construction workers so that they are provided personalised care and attention, while their parents are at work.

Gayathri Vasudevan, advisor and one of the founding members, explains LabourNet as a grant-funded not-for-profit organization. It got its first funding from Ford foundation for starting the pilot project in 2005. Today it gets funds from organizations like American India Foundation, CHF International and many others.

“We do not just look for money but we expect more on table from our funders. Because only funding cannot solve the complexity of this sector,” says Gayathri. She adds that many of these funders helped in building partnerships with other organization. Like American India Foundation helped in building partnership with Punjab National Bank and workers got their bank account, which was a huge challenge.

All payments by customers are routed through LabourNet into bank accounts of workers. Similarly, Ayur Vaid hospital provides health services to workers in Bangalore. Bosch partnered with LabourNet to train construction workers. On completion of the training, it also provides the required tools to the workers.

Gayathri believes there is nothing innovative in what LabourNet is doing. “We are just trying to set up a model so that these workers do not have to prove themselves again and again. There is nothing big in what we are doing which government cannot replicate.”

LabourNet aims to scale up this project to other cities as well which have high migration rate like Hyderabad, Mumbai, Pune and Delhi. It is also working to ensure that the identity cards could be used even when the worker migrates to another city.

LabourNet has target to reach cities which have large migrated population like Hyderabad, Mumbai, Pune and Delhi.

It has pressured the state government to do similar work for labourers associated with the state construction welfare board. Karnatka government has even promised to open bank accounts of construction workers who are associated with the state construction welfare board.

All pictures courtesy LabourNet.

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