Addressing the crowd gathered in the ballroom of Bengaluru’s Royal Orchid Hotel on Wednesday, 51-year-old Ajit Isaac seemed tentative. This wasn’t usual for the normally self-assured Isaac, the chairman and managing director of staffing firm Quess Corp. But these weren’t ordinary times. Isaac was addressing an annual meeting of the company’s shareholders at a time when the company’s shares were in a downward spiral.

Quess Corp was having its worst month ever. The stock is down 22% in July. And as the street wisdom goes, the stock market knows when something is off.

There were only a handful of serious investors in the crowd. “I came here to see if there are any red flags to be worried about,” said one investor. Another, who travelled from Kochi, wanted to know if the management loves the stock. The rest of those assembled were either employee shareholders and senior citizens shareholders, who cared more about the venue and dividends. 

Once Isaac sensed the audience wasn’t panicked by Quess’ stock market rout, he slipped smoothly back into his usual confidence. After all, staffing is still a billion-dollar opportunity, and Quess Corp is India’s largest staffing firm. It is the second-largest private employer in the country after IT services firm Tata Consultancy Services.

Quess employs over 300,000 people—from receptionists to shop floor workers to janitors to call centre executives—across as many as 2,000 companies. At a time when India’s unemployment rate of 6.1% stings and criticism abounds that not enough jobs are being created, temporary staffing companies are expanding their workforce. They say, in fact, that they aren’t able to find enough candidates even for entry-level job openings. 

“In other countries, staffing is about finding employment for highly skilled people. In India, staffing is about employing people with zero skill,” says Raja Sekhar Reddy, founder of staffing company Innovsource Services in 2004. Reddy sold Innovsource to rival staffing firm First Meridian in 2018.

The opportunity for staffing firms is as large as it is simple. India has an employable workforce of 400 million. Of this, nearly 250 million are self-employed, with another 40 million in the organised workforce, according to the Indian Staffing Federation (ISF). The ISF acts as the staffing industry’s representative to the government and other agencies.

By the ISF’s calculations, this leaves around 110 million people who are not permanently employed and fall in the no man’s land-version of employment. An unorganised workforce, where people work without the usual markers of employment. No minimum wage, Provident Fund, health benefits, etc. Think house help, drivers, construction labourers and the like.

These are the people staffing companies like Quess Corp, TeamLease, Switzerland-based Adecco and the like find jobs for, serving as gateways into the formal workforce.

AUTHOR

Arundhati Ramanathan

Arundhati is Bengaluru-based. She is interested in how people use money in the digital age and how new economies will take shape based on that interaction. She has spent over 10 years reporting and writing on various subjects. Previous stints were at Mint, Outlook Business and Reuters.

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