Govt norms on resuming work may come as a burden to firms: Experts

Experts said these measures have the potential of increasing the cost of operations for companies
Industries operating in rural areas and manufacturing units in special economic zones and expert-oriented units will be allowed to resume operations from April 20, provided they follow hygiene and adequate social distancing practices at the workplace.

The focus of the home ministry’s fresh guidelines, which will be effective till lockdown is in place until May 3, is to revive rural economy, where the impact of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) is less compared to cities, and to help the informal sector get back to work.

However, firms will have to follow a standard operating procedure for social distancing at work,  factories, and establishments. To begin with, all the premises will have to be disinfected — be it elevators, walls, washrooms, entrance gates or canteens. Wearing face masks will be compulsory for all at the workplace.

Companies will have to make special arrangements to bring workers to office, with ‘30-40 per cent passenger capacity’ in each vehicle, so that there is no ‘dependency on the public transportation system’, which has come to a grinding halt.

Workers will have to go through a mandatory thermal screening while entering or exiting the workplace. Importantly, medical insurance for all workers will be mandatory.

Experts said these measures have the potential of increasing the cost of operations for companies. “Protecting health will come at a cost for firms. They have to provide with all these necessary measures, including dormitory and transportation. The cost to the company will go up considerably,” K R Shyam Sundar, professor, human resources management at XLRI, Jamshedpur, said.

A senior executive at the Confederation of Indian Industry said ensuring health insurance for all workers might come as a major challenge to the industry, already grappling with cash crunch, and the government should have ideally borne the cost.

According to the guidelines, there should be no overlap in shift timings, though this might not be a big issue as this is already a mandate under the Factories Act, 1948. But lunch breaks of employees will have to be staggered to ensure social distancing.

“Large gatherings or meetings of 10 or more people to be discouraged. Seating at least 6 feet away from others on job sites and in gatherings, meetings, and training sessions,” the guidelines read.

Sundar said this will lead to one-third of workers in a unit being left out, according to a back-of-the-envelope calculation. “But with negotiations between employers and trade unions, there can be an arrangement made where all workers are called, albeit in a staggered and rotational manner,” he added.

The employers will also be responsible for drawing up a list of nearby hospitals or clinics, authorised to test Covid-19 patients, available at the workplace ‘all the time’.

At manufacturing establishments, intensive communication and training on good hygiene practices will have to be followed.

Importantly, employees with children below the age of 5 and those with co-morbidities will be encouraged to work from home. The employers will ‘encourage’ the use of the Aarogya Setu mobile application launched by the government, which tracks and traces Covid-19 patients.

“These measures are largely targeted at reinstating the informal-sector economy. It will certainly support the workforce that has left cities and gone back to villages, whether it is in the construction sector or the tea and plantation industry. Besides, there is very little to support the formal workers,” Rituparna Chakraborty, senior vice-president at staffing firm TeamLease Services, said.

She said that though the order also helps the e-commerce sector in some ways, the real challenge for firms would be to find workers, as most of them have gone home. “Given the lack of demand and harassment that the e-commerce employees faced on the streets, more than half the workforce has disappeared,” said Chakraborty.

She also agreed that though the cost of companies will go up in the short run in making workplaces safe, that is going to be the new normal. “You cannot afford to restart work at the cost of health,” she added.

Sundar said since the circular gives a lot of leeway to open up the rural economy, the government should make an effort to transport the migrants stuck in urban areas back to their villages. “Opening up of economic activities in rural areas and in semi-rural areas, and partial resumption in urban areas will provide incentives to migrant workers to go back to their home states. It would make economic sense to facilitate it,” added Sundar.

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