Can print walk the extra mile in these traumatic times? - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

By 29 Mar 2020

Almost 90% print establishments are shut, those in packaging are scrambling to convince authorities about their usefulness, and there are myths about newspapers being a contaminant. The Indian print industry is in despair.

What are the voices of sanity saying?

Indeed, it’s been the most disastrous weeks in the history of global economies. In India too, first with state government and then with the central government imposing a lockdown, the Covid-19 crisis has sent companies of all sizes across all markets in a tizzy.

“Things have taken a 360-degree turn,” says Milap Shah, director at Mumbai-based digital print specialist PrintStop.

“People have gone from being in a state of denial to complete panic about the coronavirus outbreak. This has happened due to the highly contagious nature of the disease.”

Amid all this, the best advice I have received in my life is - This too shall pass. “We are not Gods or supermen to solve all problems. Some problems will be solved in other ways.”

Many print companies have completely shut print production, some have quickly put together a contingency plan to keep the print business running.

“Being a part of the printing industry, which predominantly relies on manual work where physical contact can’t be avoided, this outbreak brought several challenges for us,” says Shah, while putting few sets like spreading awareness, ensuring hygiene and avoiding physical contact wherever possible, to keep the staff safe.

Short-term measures
As of 19th March 2020, PrintStop has closed all its manufacturing operations as per the Government of Maharashtra’s orders.

PrintStop’s office team is following a work-from-home model, where it is harnessing digital technology to serve its customer despite the lockdown.

Some of these include: enabling remote desktop connections to its PCs in office, routing of cloud telephony systems to its customer support team’s personal numbers, giving loaner laptops to employees who do not have their computers/laptops, and buying mobile internet connections for employees.

The Covid-19 has made us pick choices, like work from home and schools going online, change our lives for years to come. Will these short-term measures become a fixture for life?

Technology is helping us do a lot of activities without visiting offices or service providers. “This trend started about 20 years back in the US,” Vimal Mehra, an ink industry veteran. “I have personally worked from home for almost six years and visiting the office only once a week.”

Remote working, Mehra says has its share of benefits. “This would also lead to lower consumption of fuel, lower pollution and faster travelling and each of these improvements will have a positive impact on our lives as well as on the economy.”

Work from home, not for everything
But for manufacturing, security and logistic staff there’s no work from home, particularly where there’s a request from customers producing pharma, household goods, cleaning products and other high-demand items.

With the authorities coming down heavily on both movement of people, and those opening establishments, the print and packaging companies are facing the heat.

A print company which deals with pharma packaging in Mumbai says, these customers issue just a blanket letter.

This may not be enough to convince the authorities that these supplies are really a serious Indian requirement.

Among other things, the company’s key personnel says, the letter from the customer has to be directly addressed to the print company, stating specific points, like the product packaging is for domestic consumption, is for  emergency use, and where possible name the item.

The Bombay Master Printers’ Association has written a letter to the police commissioners of Mumbai, Thane and Navi Mumbai seeking assistance by providing those print and packaging companies the required permission and protocol under which such specific requirement of essential goods’ can be produced by its members in the regions under the three regions jurisdiction.

Packaging – work goes on

While some in the commercial segment worked in two shifts till Saturday, 21 March 2020, were asked to shut shop at 3pm on the day.

With the state and central government ordering lockdown, Tushar Dhote, director at Dhote Offset Technokrafts in Mumbai, say, he has notified his shopfloor workers that the company will observe a complete shutdown till the restrictions are lifted by the state government.

“Staff has been requested to work from home and do whatever best possible. We have sent a mail to all our clients whose orders are in print or were in the dispatch stage, that these orders will be executed once we resume office.”

But Baddi-based Marks Group, which caters to pharma and FMCG for hygiene products, classified under essential goods and services, it is working with leaner teams, staggering shift timing.

“We have been able to work with the minimum workforce at any given time.Only employees staying near the factory are at work. All employees who are travelling from nearby infected areas like Chandigarh and Punjab have been asked to be on paid leaves,” says Aaditya Kashyap, managing director at Marks.

“We are taking utmost care with maintenance of all hygiene, cleanliness, safety, and the screening of employees for any health issues on a daily basis,” he adds.

Maintenance during shutdown 
While the best time for performing maintenance of machines in a plant is during a planned shutdown, this shutdown could be much longer shutdown, and will need a plan.

One print company made separate teams in production, cutting, binding, fabrication, CTP, dispatch who shut down machines and material like they would when it was closing for Diwali.

“Only this time it’s going to be longer,” the company’s managing director informed his employees.

There are a set of points (see box below) which are to be followed. “It will hopefully enable us to get back to work, when the crisis is over,” says the managing director.

Seeking relief
For the print industry, it’s a mixed bag. One print CEO of a commercial printing firm informs me that he is facing difficulties as he has had to shut shop, and there’s no revenue coming in.

“I just paid my advance income tax and GST. I was expecting some GST relief from the government, but what we got was an extension of the filing date.”

Another says, “As entrepreneurs, we are faced with many expenses like wages, rent, bank EMIs, electricity bill though. Now that our revenues are under stress, I wish the central government had also come out with some financial package.

The print federation and associations have made representations to Prime Minister and the Finance Minister of India seeking immediate relief amid Covid-19 pandemic.

All India Federation of Master Printers (AIFMP) messages say, there are two-lakh printers in this country employing around 15-lakh persons directly and 10-lakh persons indirectly.

“The unfolding Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis has significantly affected all of us,” says Kamal Chopra of AIFMP.

There are more 30 state governments which have imposed lockdown in 548 districts. 

Further, the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment has also issued a directive to all employers of public and private entities not to deduct wages or resort to layoff their employees due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Under the circumstance where the establishments are shut and avenues for income, how will the owners of the small and medium print enterprises shoulder these financial burdens,” asks Chopra.

The AIFMP among other concessions has asked for commercial electricity bills to be cut to half for the next 3 months, companies be allowed to retain 10% of GST payable for the next 12 months.

 A moratorium of interest payments for the next 6 months, property tax for FY 2020-21 to be reduced to half for all commercial properties, and package for the trade loss with the reduction in tax rates for individuals, proprietorships, partnerships and LLPs.

The Indian Printing Packaging and Allied Machinery Manufacturing Association (IPAMA), which represent 80% of the printing machinery manufacturers industry and a majority of the printing and packaging manufacturers, most from the MSME sector has requested the government to consider an extension of financial years from March 2020 to May 2020, wages of the workers during the lockdown be paid by ESIC or permission may be given to adjusting the same against the casual or medical leaves as immediate relief to the industry, relaxation for the payment of GST, and relaxation of Bank Interest relating to working capital.

“We believe these measures are not only for the revival of our industry, but also to bring the industry on its the original track,” says Dayaker Reddy, president of IPAMA.

Conclusion
While one segment of the print business has become dormant, there’s the packaging, particularly where there’s a demand for supplies to cater to Covid-19 related issues, in some reprinting of packages because of changes after Covid-19. Either way, they are victims of restrictions.

And the precautions being taken notwithstanding, there seems to be more bad news than good, at least for now.

As my colleague in PrintWeek UK, Jo Francis says, “A lot of firms in lots and lots of sectors are going to need assistance, or the alternative is going to be a widespread industrial and services sector meltdown.”

She adds, “One thing seems certain in a world of uncertainty: the government is going to have to print a lot of money.”

This too will pass
I was talking to an industry friend from China. She tells me, that China is not reporting any domestic cases, only some imported cases. So, it will in time to come, be the case in our country too, and I am hoping it will happen soon.

But, for now, stay safe, stay healthy. And thank you for keeping the distance.

PS: Do share with me what you are doing or have done, on my email: noel@haymarketsac.com

 

Some good news

  • One piece of “good news” is that air pollution has been reduced
  • Government of India has announced a Rs 1.75-lakh relief package aimed at alleviating the woes of the poor
  • The RBI has drawn a battle plan to minimise market volatilities
  • Unilever supporting global and local authorities by donating hygiene products
  • Google launching an educational website and resources for parents home-schooling their children
  • LVMH switching to hand sanitiser production
  • Facebook’s USD100m programme to support small businesses
  • Ford easing payments on new vehicles
  • Dentsu is working with a pharmacy, client to provide free online consultations
  • Havas is helping its people stay healthy with meditation and yoga via Instagram Live
  • BBDO brought some humour by creating a 'logo generator' for its people’s home offices

 

Machine upkeep tips during the shutdown

  • Oil spray in machines where rusting is possible
  • Water mains to be closed
  • Electricity mains to be closed where possible
  • Instructions for CTP – aircon to be on and off, dehumidifier
  • Stretch film wrap any cut paper, semi-finished material.
  • All material to be moved indoors and under shade, nothing to be left in the open
  • All doors to be locked – no compromise on this.
  • Security to be briefed up, not allowing any unauthorised people from entering premises.

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