How the COVID-19 pandemic is impelling big corporates for an ethical reset in India

Care and sensitivity towards stakeholders and society at large are going to be crucial for businesses to survive, earn trust and thrive in the long run  

By Ram Krishna Sinha
Published: Tuesday 10 November 2020
Photo: pxfuel

Circumstances and challenges posed by the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak are compelling businesses to look for new strategies to raise money, cut their budgets and revamp damaged business. 

They are trying to restore broken supply chains and forge reliable relations with suppliers, creditors, contractors and clients which, of late, have become tenuous.

The endeavour to revive cash flow and resurrect business is understandable. But many corporates and businesses across sectors, to trim costs, have resorted to layoffs and salary cuts.

Seen in the context of a predominant informal sector, pre-existing dismal job opportunity and inadequate social safety net in India, the agony of losing job and livelihood has been heartrending. The plight of the hapless migrant labourers during the COVID-19 lockdown, in particular, drew wide media attention.

Yet, whether it is the sufferings of the disadvantaged and marginalised or philanthropic urges, we are witness to many empathetic voices and noble actions, from the corporate world.

Recently, ace industrialist and chairman of the Tata group, Ratan Tata, outraged by the large-scale layoffs of migrant labourers, quipped:

These are the people that have worked for you. These are the people who have served you all their careers and you send them out to live in the rain? Is that your definition of ethics when you treat your labour force that way? The way migrant labourers were left to fend for themselves with no work, food, place to stay, speaks volumes on lack of business ethics

For the record, several Tata group companies including its airlines, auto, hotels and financial services, like others in these businesses, are severely hit but have not retrenched employees to date. Instead, they chose to cut salaries of their top management by up to twenty per cent.

The realisation that businesses need to show sensitivity, openness and sense of fairness to all stakeholders and not just shareholders, is finding expression in a variety of actions of global tech companies as well.

For instance,, Inc, often criticised for using too much plastic and thermocol in wrappings, is eliminating all single-use plastic in its packaging in India. Replacing bubble wraps and air pillows with ‘paper cushions’, it is swapping packaging tapes with other bio-degradable options.

Lately, it also announced the hiring of 50,000 part-time workers in India, introducing flexi working hours and humane human resource practices.

On a different plane, a ‘Social Good’ — Education — is getting due attention from a number of big corporates like never before. The search giant, Google LLC, recently announced plans to invest $10 billion in India over the course of five to seven years.

It plans to train more than one million teachers in India this year and offer a range of free tools and deliver a “blended learning experience” across 22,000 schools in India.

Silicon Valley giant Facebook Inc, has announced a partnership with the Central Board of Secondary Education, the apex board for education in India, to launch a certified curriculum on digital safety, online well-being and augmented reality for students and educators in the country.

Another conglomerate, the Mahindra Group, too has forayed big in education by launching Mahindra University recently. The university aspires to offer world-class education in India with a mission to develop multi-skilled, empathetic leaders.

The progressive initiatives, in the backdrop of the Indian government’s mega push to education through its ambitious New Education Policy 2020, are some positive news amid the pandemic.

Lately, Zomato, the food-tech unicorn and one of India’s biggest food delivery companies, has introduced ten days period leaves in a year for all its women employees, which include transgender people as well. This is a significant milestone in a country where the subject remains taboo.

Care and sensitivity towards stakeholders and society at large is going to be crucial for businesses to survive and do well in the long run. Knee-jerk reactions and impulsive policy responses of layoffs, pay cuts, unscrupulous business practices may yield short term commercial gains.

Yet, displays of conscientious and ethical leadership, especially during stressful times, enable businesses not only to recover fast but, by winning trust of stakeholders, also enhance their brand equity.

The conversations, thoughts, actions and vision of big corporate players steeped in empathy and common good can, through demonstration effects, help reset heart of other businesses as well.

Ram Krishna Sinha is a former bank executive and writes on contemporary issues. Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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