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Why An Organisation That Finds Jobs For The Unemployed Changed Tracks Post Covid-19

By Anjuli Bhargava
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Why An Organisation That Finds Jobs For The Unemployed Changed Tracks Post Covid-19

The pandemic and the introspection it allowed humankind fundamentally altered the thinking of many. But in the case of Gayathri Vasudevan, co-founder and CEO of Bengaluru-headquartered LabourNet, it brought home the stark reality of the lives of those she worked with in a manner that nothing else might have.

LabourNet is an enterprise that helps workers upskill themselves and also links them to job opportunities.

In 2008, when Vasudevan was working with the International Labour Organisation, she noticed a gap — workers were looking for jobs which they didn't seem to find and the market was looking for particular kinds of workers which it didn’t seem to get. She quit her job because “the two were passing each other like ships in the night” and she wanted to see execution on the ground, policy alone was not resulting in execution. That’s when LabourNet was born to bridge this divide.

Things were progressing smoothly and with not too many ripples till the pandemic hit in February-March 2020. It was during 2020 and 2021, the plight of those they worked with — migrant and self-employed workers from all around the country — became evident as a horrific reality unfolded. A majority of the labour and women they worked with lived a hand-to-mouth existence without any kind of security net, often with a crumbling roof over their heads lacking most of the basic amenities including sanitation. Most were uninsured and had no fallback whatsoever. It was not a life worth living, yet most had no choice. Lack of opportunities and family circumstances forced them to eke out some kind of living in the alien city environment.

Fundamental Shift To Create Sambhav

If Vasudevan had been unhappy in the years since 2008 over what she saw as a failure of the system, she was appalled at how quickly it crumbled under pressure. That’s when she made two fundamental shifts in her own business.

One, she set up Sambhav, a not-for-profit organisation to work in the area of health, education and livelihoods. In the livelihood area, the NGO aims to improve lives and to support first-time learners to become first-time earners in an environment they are unfamiliar with. Above all, daily-wage workers need mentoring, guidance and support as they are unaware of how they could convert or upgrade their existing skills to become employable in the formal economy — to move from earning Rs 0 per to Rs 200 per day. Sambhav handholds the learner, student or young adult in their journey and helps them find paths to enter the formal world of work since most of their parents are unable to provide even the most basic guidance as they themselves have never entered this space.

The NGO also works in the space of education to help adolescents and teenagers find their paths, explaining the relevance of technology and skill upgradation and the doors this might open for them, helping them access such options and bridging the digital divide. It also set up a school for children with disabilities. In the healthcare space, the NGO is helping ensure that medical and non-medical workers get the right training, bridge availability gaps they find and create awareness about preventive care.

The trust operates with philanthropic grants and CSR money from corporates — the outlay for the current financial year is Rs 75 crore -- employs 300-odd staff who work closely with such earners. These first-time earners find Sambhav through their colleges, institutions and a platform called SAHI, which has been set up to ease the connection between the two. Many who need support find them through word of mouth with the help of SAHI.

How It Works

An even more significant shift was made by Vasudevan and her top team in the for-profit segment or LabourNet. The company began to measure its own success on its ability to accelerate the wage growth journey of an individual, the number of livelihoods it’s able to impact and the sustainability of its efforts. In concrete terms, this means that LabourNet’s revenue and profitability are directly linked to how much a worker it mainstreams or helps place earns and the numbers - the higher the number of workers they mainstream, the higher their earnings too.

Upon seeing the state and reality of many of their workers post-pandemic, LabourNet also started collaborating with other organisations to provide better living conditions including sanitation, medical and other insurance and so on that would help improve the lives of the workers. “Betterment goes beyond just monthly earnings. Due to the pandemic, we became very acutely aware of how inadequate the quality of life of the migrants and the communities we worked with were”, said Vasudevan. It is to change this that LabourNet is now partnering with many other organizations that can provide services and facilities that it can’t directly.

The model works either by word of mouth or through the colleges, institutions and other organisations that LabourNet works with. Workers find them and register on their SAHI (https://sahi.ai) platform. Many youngsters are pulled in through the vocational training programmes it conducts in government schools, currently across ten states. Over 1000 schools have been covered. To cite an instance Lata, a young student from Mandi in Himachal Pradesh was drawn into the vocational programme at Vallabh Degree College in Mandi and has subsequently been placed at the Firstcry store in Mandi at a monthly salary of Rs 9000. For the small family of four with only one breadwinner, her income provides a much-needed buffer to her shopkeeper father’s erratic earnings. What’s even better is that she gets to remain in her own hometown.

The company works with several clients across a spectrum of industries to meet their worker requirements through their pool. It has provided workers across a range of sectors right from CEAT and Bridgestone to Zomato and Eureka Forbes, working with approximately 100 companies, of which around 60 are active at any point. More recently, it conducted on-site training for NASH, a manufacturing solutions provider with capabilities of design, precision sheet metal stamping, fabrication and assemblies.

LabourNet partnered with NASH in Bengaluru, Pune and Chennai for a work-integrated training programme for youth which had both fresh candidates and existing NASH workers. Over 200 workers were trained and placed to perform welding, powder coating, press and punching operation and quality inspection. Similarly, it partnered with Hindustan Lever to train 34,000 workers across 16 locations of which 60%t were women. Of these, 70 % were placed in retail sales, beauticians, plumbing, automotive service technicians, welding and other such jobs that require a set of skills.

Where Does LabourNet Find Support?

In FY 2022-23, the total revenue clocked in from its for-profit business was Rs 125 crore against a target of Rs 145 crore. This year’s target is more ambitious at Rs 300 crore. As LabourNet pivoted, its model moved further and further away from most other skilling companies like Manipal Global Education Services, Imarticus, EduBridge or other biggies in the space like NIIT. A former Nasscom and NSDC head said that in his experience, many of these smaller players reach a certain size and are unable to scale up as promised. He argues that this could easily be the biggest challenge facing LabourNet too.

With the Micheal and Susan Dell foundation as an observer, the LabourNet board and Vasudevan have the support and advice of C4D Partners co-founder and CEO Arvind Agarwal and Mahesh Yagnaraman, India Director for Acumen as board members and Hari Menon, co-founder of Big Basket as an independent director to try and break the barriers to scale. Between Sambhav and LabourNet, she has embarked on the lofty-sounding and easier-said-than-done goal of improving the lives of migrants and unskilled labour across the country. Her biggest competitor: the Government of India.


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