Culture and Society,  Education,  On Management

The Blue Collar Aspirations

Happy Worker

To set the context, I’ve been building Hammer and Mop for the last three years. Started as a complete freshman with no experience of doing business with people (leave alone employing them), it has been a journey of constant learning. I’ve been astounded by the things experienced, opinions heard and perspectives discussed.

The Next Big Thing

We have been blessed with a huge population, and most of them are unskilled, uneducated and seek stable employment. The task of uplifting them (not as a philanthropic initiative, but one which generates wealth for all stakeholders) is the next big thing. This involves education, skills training and all sectors which seek labor. There is an abundance of talent available, it simply needs to be polished and channeled through a pipeline that’s yet to be built. Thankfully, our government considers this as a priority and private sector is jumping into the fray too.

Dignity of Labor

Though we have been taught mutual respect in school, it hardly exhibits itself when people scoff at workers at the lower rung. Do we treat maids and helpers with respect? Why is cleaning (and utility related jobs) considered lowly? If their work helps us thrive, giving us time to do what we do best- don’t they deserve better treatment? Better pay, perhaps? Better policies? Absence of this factor leads to a vicious cycle where the top of the pyramid ends up dismissing the needs of the bottom, and the latter plays victim. Unless the section blessed with education and resources makes an effort to bring the blue collar workforce into the mainstream, little will change. We cannot keep blaming them since they don’t turn up for work regularly. They don’t know better.

Surprising Perspectives Indeed

As a freshman managing a team of blue collar staff, it was frustrating to communicate the necessity of reporting to work on time and on a daily basis. While salary was a must (and a sensitive topic), the requirement to report on a daily basis and prior intimation in case of leave was simply lost on them. While I initially thought they are being careless, we ended up realizing that they have no clear reason to stay absent. From guests arriving at home to erratic public transport – the slightest reasons deter them from doing something which we view as a responsibility. They are not irresponsible, which is a term for someone who is aware of the consequences. They are unaware of what responsibility means, what commitment means and playing the victim in case of ‘presumed injustice’ is hard wired. This is perhaps the result of a deadly cocktail of years of casteism and political benefit reaped out of it; but hey, it is what it is now. And we have to figure a way out.

Elaborating the Issue at Hand

They will see it fit to stop coming to work without even a day’s notice because of a minor issue with employment, yet demand a severance pay irrespective of policies. Festivals and rituals hold sway over requirements of a job, and money is spent unwisely. Illnesses and accidents are common due to poor living conditions and lack of healthy food alternatives. Commercial advertisements praising ‘health benefits’ of processed foods with high sugar content don’t help, and mothers feed infants instant noodles and biscuits with glee. Entertainment shows push misguided aspirations and values, which do not help due to ignorance and lack of education. Money is spent without a single thought. Bank Accounts and Insurance policies are absent. It is the employer’s responsibility to salvage the situation.

Why it’s Easier to Shrug and Walk Away

Labor intensive businesses face intense struggle to find and retain talent. Despite rise of the property sector and associated services, the recruitment pipeline remains surprisingly unorganized. Random contact people source laborers from far flung rural areas for major facility management companies across the country. Pay is low, living conditions are unmentionable but no one cares, it is not financially viable to do so. Labor force demands salaries, but is reluctant to deliver what is expected of them. Labor force fails to understand what’s written on a salary slip, doesn’t really care to know what the name of the employer is, and plays victim every time their (irrationally ever rising) expectations are not met. A retail consultant I recently met questioned my keenness to do something about this. He attempted to explain why it’s not viable to work on this ‘problem’ instead of the main business of cleaning, by giving an example of major FM companies paying a blind eye to the situation. I stated that it is an ‘opportunity’, something that will create a win-win solution for all stakeholders. It is easier to focus on the business, of course, but all players in this sector dream of an ideal employee pipeline. Someone will have to build it, though it’s easier to walk away for now. There will come a time when everyone would be thankful for it.

Why We Insist There is Hope

One reason why Hammer and Mop has been able to deliver consistent quality on the field is because of the people it has on board to clean properties. We owe everything to our field teams. Though there has been a significant churn, with entire teams being replaced, almost everyone (even the trouble makers we weeded out) worked with a great deal of focus and honesty when we needed them to. I will humbly attribute this to an intangible work culture we have managed to develop. While it is something that is not a formula on paper, all of us understand how sincere we ought to be when we are cleaning a property. I have seen the smiles on my team members’ faces as they receive a compliment from a customer. I have seen their eyes sparkle when we taught them how to pronounce the company’s name. Irrespective of whether they remember what we teach them during the training sessions, their keen ears when we communicate why their work matters says a lot about my boys. There is inherent goodness in everyone, it is crucial for us to tap into it.

Why We Insist They Aspire

An interesting trend, if you have noticed, is that many of the blue collar workers prefer wearing full sleeved shirts during non-working hours. Despite the burning heat of a summer’s sun (when you and I might simply have a cotton tee thrown over a denim), they will button their sleeves down. It makes them feel better, like a well dressed gentleman, perhaps helping them cover up for their low self esteem. Absence of education is a disability for those who are quick witted and bright. They are hard workers and quite a few of them have dropped out of education because of family circumstances. They are like us, only without resources and resultant lack of clarity. The will to do better is present, they do not know how. They have the aspiration in their minds and they copy their media-influenced idols. It is the employer’s responsibility to channel these aspirations and create win-win situations.

Defining a Career Ladder

They do not understand how the ladder looks, even if we dangle it in front of them. They need to be taught what a ladder is, what it is used for and where it will take them. They have a general idea of what they want; they do not know what is required of them to achieve it. They look up to their employers and seek answers. But the questions are not framed right, the ability to understand what the employer communicates in common tongue is absent and the communication gap widens if the employer doesn’t really care. The onus is on us to define a ladder, teach them how to use it and build a system where they achieve what they deserve.

The Rising Pyramid

Everyone has to gain when an individual at the bottom of the pyramid rises up and brings his fellow people with him to the top. All employers need employees who will learn and work hard. All employees need good organizations to enable them to hone their skills and pay them deserving salaries. All customers seek a workforce that understands service, and the nation needs more entrepreneurs to create such valuable organizations. The aspirations of a blue collar worker are present and making themselves known in all ways possible. The iron is hot, the needs are real and this is a golden opportunity to channelize these aspirations and create a new breed of workforce.


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