India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrated his party’s state election victories last month by describing his vision for a “new India” – one that “stands for development” by giving the poor a “leg-up, not a handout.” Offering a boost is India’s largest online job portal for entry-level and informal work, Babajob, which connects even illiterate low-skill workers to employers through digital technology.
Despite maintaining an impressive 7 percent gross domestic product growth rate, India’s labor market is lagging. The country’s job creation rate is only two-thirds the global average, and extreme poverty rates in South Asia are higher than any sub-region in the Asia-Pacific.
“Modi must pull the airplane out of a nose-dive to lead the country to a vision of an inclusive India, where good jobs are available to all people everywhere, including Dalit [the lowest caste of]men and women in the backwaters of India’s heartland,” Arun Maira, a management consultant and former member of India’s Planning Commission, wrote in an opinion piece for LiveMint.
But according to Babajob, the problem is often one of accessibility, as people are limited by their social networks. For the poor, the boundaries of who they know where they are can be particularly limiting as they seek opportunities to better themselves.
Yet according to studies, income diversification – which, of course, requires new opportunities – is a key component to moving people out of poverty.
“While poor health, high health-care expenses, high-interest private debt, and large social and customary expenses constitute major reasons for households declining into poverty; diversification of income sources is the most important reason for households’ escape from poverty in this region,” Anirudh Krishna of Duke University wrote in a 2003 paper after studying 35 villages in Rajasthan state.
That paper inspired Sean Blagsvedt and Vir Kashyap to start Babajob in 2007 on the premise that if income diversification is that crucial for reducing poverty, then better jobs must be accessible to the people who want and need them.
At the time, social networks like MySpace were just beginning to pop up online. But according to Kashyap, chief operating officer at Babajob, they only filled a “white-collar space.” Nothing was available for the illiterate or those without access to internet or computers.
“We thought, ‘Hey, now in India a lot of people are starting to get cell phones. What can we do to connect them with job opportunities and kickstart their income diversification that this paper said is a real way to benefit people moving out of poverty?'” Kashyap told Humanosphere.
Babajob posts openings mostly for low-skill and entry-level positions, like drivers, cashiers, maids and data entry. Applicants can fill out candidate profiles and apply online, or if they don’t have access to the online portal, they can “give a missed call” – ring Babajob and hang up. Because the calls never connect, callers do not get charged.
Shortly thereafter, an interactive voice response (IVR) system – developed in-house with support from USAID – calls back the job seekers and guides them through a process of filling out a candidate profile and searching for jobs. The system is available in six regional languages so far, and the whole process is accessible through a basic mobile feature phone – no smartphone required.
But for Babajob, it’s about more than just helping the poor find work.
“Definitely part of what we thought would be a big benefit is that people from smaller villages who move into cities in search of work do often get exploited by employers in the city who pay them below-market wages because they’re just not informed or they may not move to the right place,” Kashyap said.
The built-in transparency of the highly visible platform also allows the company to act as a “bridge between the informal and formal sector” – an important transition for the country’s long-term development. The informal off-the-books sector employs more than 90 percent of India’s workforce, according to the Economic Times, but connecting those workers to larger employers opens up opportunities for formal banking and even health care.
Babajob has also been able to share with the World Bank valuable data from its employers and 8 million job seekers to better inform labor market and education policy. As governments and organizations strive to create jobs through skills development, they need to make sure they’re training people in the right skills that are in demand in that region, because not all skills are in equal demand everywhere. At the same time, those with a certain skill set who are looking to migrate need to know where they should go.
Looking forward, the company is working on a chat bot to further increase accessibility as well as integrating India’s fingerprint-identification system to bolster the credibility of its candidates. Though the technology will never stop changing, according to Kashyap, the mission is always the same: “Let’s empower people to make better choices.”