Enough export orders but not enough manpower, say jewellery manufacturers

Most of the skilled artisans are traditionally from West Bengal, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, who have left Mumbai due to the pandemic

The gems and jewellery industry, which is witnessing an increase in export orders, is facing challenging times due to lack of skilled manpower as workers are either unable to come back due to transportation restrictions or reluctant to leave their families in times of crisis, the Gem & Jewellery Export Promotion Council (GJEPC) said on Wednesday.

"Even though the times are tough, demand for jewellery exports is seeing an upsurge, and that is a huge positive. Similar to every other sector in India, the jewellery industry, too, saw a massive exodus of its workforce amid the nationwide lockdown.

"Exporters need to reassure their staff that they will be safe in the factories. Today there is enough work, but not enough manpower. It's a tricky situation. While we would all like to see the worker attendance number raised, we may have to temper expectations given the situation, GJEPC chairman Colin Shah said.

At present, an official government order allows for only 25 per cent of employees to attend work.

Most of the skilled artisans are traditionally from West Bengal, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, who have left Mumbai due to the pandemic, he added.

Rahul Dholakia, Managing Director, Shree Ramkrishna Exports, said his company runs only one shift. While there is good demand for their products mainly from the US and China as well as other destinations, he adds that we cannot carry out even 50 per cent of the demand as the output is only 25 per cent due to the skeleton staff.

Even skeletal staff in the Customs division, consignments are being dispatched at a slower pace, he said.

"Each and every worker of ours hailing from Mumbai or Surat, has been paid since the lockdown was declared in March. The rest of them, who are unable to come to work, are being paid enough to run their households on a monthly basis. Unfortunately, the world is in the grip of the pandemic and it would be inhuman to pressure the workers to come back to factories. They have to come back willingly, he added.

Priority Jewels Founder Shailesh Sangani opined that the Indian jewellery export sector, especially Mumbai, is facing a tremendous shortage of manpower, specifically in the SEEPZ area.

"We are coaxing workers to return by offering more money, and even air tickets for a few highly skilled workers. But they are hesitant to leave their families after having been at home for such a long time. Then there is the constant fear of the ongoing pandemic and its proliferation across Mumbai, plus their family pressure. At the moment, working 2-3 shifts is the only answer to bridging the gap between increasing orders and the lack of workers, he added.

GJEPC further said that there is a fear that if exporters are unable to fulfil orders, they may lose business to other countries such as Thailand, Vietnam or China, all of which are working with a larger capacity at much closer to normal than factories in India.

Fine Jewellery Mfg owner and Director Sohil Kothari said the export demand is picking up faster than expected, especially from western markets like Europe and the US.

Most high-skill workers from West Bengal, are willing to resume work as they need a source of income, which is currently not available to them in their home state, he said.

Most exporters reveal that they are asking for longer lead times from clients and orders that normally took 4-5 weeks are now being delivered in 6-7 weeks, GJEPC said.

Mukesh Shah, Director, Jasani India said his company is getting substantial orders for jewellery from the US.

We are getting orders for polished goods for certain categories. But it is not possible to carry out orders because of lack of manpower. We don't want to let go of the business that is coming our way, but we are trying to do with the staff available, he added.

Almost all companies in SEEPZ, Mumbai, have created stringent safety protocols in-house as the local trains are not operating.

All companies in SEEPZ have arranged private transportation for their employees, have made wearing masks mandatory and the sanitised buses ensure that social distancing is maintained, GJEPC said.

Even within the factories, social distancing is being observed and the premises are being sanitised on a daily basis, it added.

Sunjewels owner Shishir Nevatia echoed the sentiment and said it is becoming difficult getting back the skilled workforce due the perception that Mumbai is a Covid hotspot.

And then, there are transportation issues. Currently, we are working in two shifts with all norms in place. We are only hoping that the government relaxes the 25 per cent workforce attendance rule to 50 per cent, he added.

The jewellers' apex body further stated that the Christmas and Holiday Season demand from western countries accounts for half of a jewellery exporter's annual business, making September-November the busiest period of the year.

Output is also getting bottlenecked as karigars with high skill sets are missing, leading to more production delays, the GJEPC chairman said.

More importantly, new product development is suffering significantly because high skilled workers from West Bengal, who are typically model makers, are not available, he added.

The current export demand is about 50-60 per cent of the same period last year, but most factories are operating at a quarter of their total capacity, thus creating a huge gap between demand and production, Shah added.

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