LabourNet not only matches available skills with requirements of employers, but also upskills and cross skills workers in the unorganised sector to improve chances of employability
LabourNet was started in 2006 as an initiative of the Movement for Alternatives for Youth Awareness (MAYA), a Bangalore-based non-governmental organisation that links employers and employees in the unorganised sector. But, during the course of this matchmaking, the organisation realised a few things. There was a strong need to equip workers with the right skills to make them employable. It also needed to intervene at multiple levels – in imparting vocational education at the right age, creating awareness for this need, identifying the right employment opportunity and equipping the workers accordingly. It also understood that commonly used terms such as decent work, wage increase and skills training required some amount of standardisation.
All these learnings went into hiving off LabourNet as an independent organisation in 2008, to place workers on construction sites. More specifically, the company forged alliances with external training partners to help upgrade the skills of these workers.
Standing on its own feet
The transformation from being a project subsidiary of a larger organisation to an independent social venture required tremendous change in mindset. “We had to have commitment, focus and most importantly, sustainability and profitability,” points out Gayathri Vasudevan, CEO of LabourNet. It had to be scalable and have efficiencies built into it. The venture started off with investment from individuals, debt from Washington-based Grassroots Business Fund and other sources.
Again, by 2010, the management realised that the idea was not working the way they wanted it to. “We thought we had the workers on one hand, and vacancies on the other. We setup a call centre and thought that would take care of meeting the needs,” explains Vasudevan. But on-ground facts indicated something else. Neither the employers nor the employees were happy. The employers found the labourers still short on skills while the employees complained of poor pay.
Thus, LabourNet team went back to the drawing board and in the same year, re-launched by providing internal skill trainers instead of using just external trainers. And, apart from construction, it ventured into few other industries like engineering, manufacturing and wellness. This required intervention programs relevant to the different industries they work in. Over the years, LabourNet has partnered with companies such as DLF Foundation, Gammon India, Godrej and Schneider for curriculum development and training.
It has been funded through debt from National Skill Development Corporation, investments from friends, and through funds such as Hyderabad-based Sankhya Partners, Mumbai-based Acumen Fund and Texas-based Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. “Earlier, we had tied up with training partners and given certifications on completion of courses,” says Vasudevan. But, this was obviously not enough and so the venture enrolled trainers and developed training content. “More important than content is the delivery tool, since we are talking of a primarily illiterate population,” she points out.
Training at its centres as well as at sites is the two means of upskilling workers. Other interventions also look at acclimatising the employees to improve their comfort level on-site.
The LabourNet team has grown from 30 employees in 2008 to 50 to 55 in 2011 and 500 this year. Trainers/educators and community workers/counsellors form the bulk of the organisation given the profile of its target audience. The company earns revenues through the fee it charges for its courses. The fee is paid in part by the student, the client or the industry and the government. The company hopes to break-even this year.
LabourNet, apart from skilling and employment support, provides workers access to health insurance, bank accounts and identification cards. The company has provided various accident insurance covers to about 30,000 workers. LabourNet also ensures that under the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana scheme, workers avail benefits through sector-specific welfare boards in the field of insurance, maternity benefits, tools, housing loans, as well as health insurance.
The segment is not without any challenges. On one hand, government schools tend to orient students only towards higher education or provide vocational skills without focusing on the vocational education aspect; the difference being, preparing students to be employable rather than merely training them in a skill. The second hurdle is that, the various government freebies lead to the youth adopting a relaxed attitude to earning and employability. By the time they realise, it’s too late to be able to help them meaningfully. The third is the attitude that people beyond an age cannot be trained in new skills, which works as a severe mind-block against upskilling existing labour. Over and above that is the attitude of the workers themselves. Many find leaving behind their roots and adjusting to city life or the life of a labourer difficult transition “There are at least 10-15 thousand people who will not take up full time employment either because they find the pay too low or the environment not conducive. We just don’t know how to motivate them after the training and benefit from the opportunities,” she explains.
And the last but not the least is the question Vasudevan asks – where are the permanent jobs? There is no job security for the workers and most of the work is seasonal. Therefore, cross-skilling is another area of focus for LabourNet to equip the unorganised sector against unemployment. “More than unemployment, I would say underemployment is a bigger challenge,” she adds.
The Depth and Width
Given the ground realities, LabourNet is not deterred by these limitations. As of March 2014, LabourNet has trained close to a lakh people in various skills catering to the industrial requirements. The venture currently has a presence across most states in the country and has centres near sourcing locations (rural areas, tier II, III cities) and destination locations such as industrial estates.
The venture mostly works directly with the unorganised sectors, except in smaller places where it works with small NGOs that can benefit from its model.
“The dream is to be present in every district of the country, but in the coming years, the focus will be on West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Bihar and backward districts of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The aim is to facilitate mediated migration,” states Vasudevan.
In addition to internal systems and audit teams to gauge the impact, LabourNet also encourages external visitors to walk in freely to study the LabourNet activities and its impact. Students and professors of Columbia University and Lloyds University are among the visitors. NSDC does its own audit. LabourNet also encourages its clients to be actively involved in the training and performance improvement processes of its people. “This keeps us on our toes,” Vasudevan admits.
The greatest impact for LabourNet would be for others to replicate their model since the problem requires greater participation from more organisations in the field.
LabourNet started as a project of MAYA, a not-for-profit organisation that works with the unorganised workers to fill the gap between the job seekers and the employers. Over time, it ventured into training people in meeting industry requirements and ensuring appropriate job skills and commensurate pay, thus satisfying the needs of the employers as well as the employees. Though vocational education is its core strength, even post-training, the social organisation continues to handhold and introduce several interventions to equip the labourers in a way that they can grow meaningfully. Till March 2014, the company has touched a lakh lives and plans to focus on the backward states and districts of India in the coming years. It also believes that the more the merrier, and looks forward to more ventures entering this segment, given the magnitude of the problem.
Founder: Gayathri Vasudevan
Funding: Sankhya Partners, Acumen, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation
Core: Upskilling the unorganised sector and helping find employment in relevant industries