A blue-collar labour shortage might soon create obstacles for several business sectors that are already grappling with a deficit due to a rapid rise in coronavirus cases and additional restrictions in states, according to job market experts and economists.

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A survey conducted by staffing and human resource agency Teamlease Services found over half of the 850 employers polled across 21 industries expect to hire blue-collar workers in the next three months. However, some industries, including manufacturing, engineering, construction, real estate, healthcare and pharmaceuticals, are finding it difficult to locate qualified workers. The current labour shortfall across industries is 15-25%, and the gap may widen in the next few months as the latest Covid-19 wave sweeps across the country.

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Blue-collar labour refers to workers who engage in hard manual labour, typically agriculture, manufacturing, construction, mining or maintenance. If the reference to a blue-collar job does not point to these types of work, it might imply another physically exhausting task. The environment may be outdoors or require interaction with heavy machinery or animals. The blue-collar worker may be skilled or unskilled.

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“Mobilisation of labour is likely to be a challenge in the months ahead. Many migrants were already wary of returning, causing the current shortage, and the exponential rise in infections across major cities will further dent their confidence,” said Amit Vadera, assistant vice-president, Teamlease Services. Even sectors such as fast-moving consumer goods, e-commerce and logistics, where the supply of labour is marginally (3-4%) higher than demand, are also likely to feel the pressure as the number of infections rise and more interstate restrictions kick in, said Vadera.

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Some senior corporate executives and economists, on the other hand, remain cautiously hopeful, believing that organisations are more prepared this time than they were in the previous two waves, and many are using a series of steps to retain their current staff.

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“We are better prepared and ‘able’ as government, businesses and individuals this time around. But given the sheer size of the economy and the population, thousands, especially in the informal sector, will be impacted for some time,” said Sachchidanand Shukla, chief economist at the Mahindra Group.

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To retain labour, companies such as Thermax, JSW Steel and Forbes Marshall are implementing innovative schemes such as attendance allowance (an extra cash incentive above and beyond salary for regular attendance), mobilization cost (including travel cost), linking wages to production-linked incentives, paying higher than minimum wages, providing health coverage and employment insurance.