India’s IT workers must unionise to check blatant exploitation
“You think this man is the enemy? Huh? This is a worker! Any union keeps this man out ain’t a union, it’s a goddam club! They got you fightin’ white against coloured, native against foreign, hollow against hollow, when you know there ain’t but two sides in this world – them that work and them that don’t. You work, they don’t. That’s all you get to know about the enemy.” Joe Kenehan ( Chris Cooper) in Matewan, 1987
This year’s May Day rally in Bangalore drew attention for a very interesting reason. The event saw participation from a number of workers belonging to a sector notorious for collective bargaining or unions — Information Technology. Several IT workers took to the street that day in solidarity with their working-class comrades. Obviously, the industry as well as the rest of the IT community looked at this development with amusement and fury. They have all the reasons to frown: this was the first time India’s Silicon Valley witnessed such a phenomenon, with such display.
Information Technology jobs are known for their excellent pay package, flexible working hours and the ability to change jobs at will. Though there have been talks about unionizing in the IT sector, most the trade unions have stayed away from forming unions among IT employees. Given the flexibility offered by the industry, many of the IT sector employees also have looked at unions as an evil thing which impacts productivity. Information Technology industry has been a growing industry providing a fair share of jobs and boosting the job creations number for Indian Economy.
The fat paychecks offered also added strength to an India shining story. But things have started changing a lot within the industry in recent times. Massive layoffs have become a reality. Robotic process automation is threatening to take away a lot of jobs. Trump presidency in the US is very vocal against outsourcing and this could impact the numbers of Indian IT industry. There are rumours of large scale job reductions by Indian IT majors, the numbers amounting to thousands. The recent enthusiasm associated with May Day Rally should be seen in this context. Are we really seeing a change in the attitude in the IT sector? Are they willing to really take up the task of protecting their jobs via unionization?
Automation is threatening to gobble up a lot of jobs especially in the BPO sector and some in the IT sector. Robotic process automation is eliminating the need to employ humans to do routine work which is currently handled by a significant workforce within the Indian IT Services industry. Experts say that automation is going to bring about a new set of jobs which demands a new set of skills and retraining of the workforce is needed. Here is where the importance of reskilling and retraining the existing workforce becomes important. But some of the IT companies seem reluctant to do so. Right on the heels of a survey declaring nearly 80 per cent of the Indian Engineering graduates unemployable, CEO of Capgemini India made a statement that 65 per cent of this entire workforce is untrainable.
This could also be seen as an effort to normalize the salaries in a sector where salaries were skyrocketing a few years back. The workforce which cannot be retrained, as per some of the industry leaders, are mainly the ones falling inside the 10+ years experience bracket which usually commands a better pay package within the industry. Given the context, employees in the IT sector are an anxious crowd worrying for their jobs. Trade unions might be looking to make use of this anxiety and must be thinking this is the right time to unionize this crowd.
IT and ITeS are exempted from the Industrial Employment Act for fixed periods and ‘business-friendly’ governments extend this exemption from time to time. None of the IT employers would encourage their employees participating in Trade Union activities. Given they are exempt from Standing Orders, it would be easier for them to prevent their employees from being a member of a union. Another argument from these employers is that they take care of their employee welfare without the standard rules and regulations and hence need not have to be covered by the act which is also said to be archaic since it first came into being in 1946. Given the current economic scenario, these IT majors are forced to demand more working hours from their employees.
It is to be noted that many companies increased the number of working hours in a week and started closely monitoring the logged hours of work. Since the IT/ITeS sector boasts of flexible working hours, there is no concept of overtime pay in this sector. Employers could fear the demand for such things when trade unions enter the sector. Soon after the images of May Day rally came up, many industrialists openly called for IT employees to stay away from unions in the interest of the industry.
So how would the IT employees respond to this? Tamil Nadu allows Union within the IT sector and the first union of IT employees are registered in the state. Karnataka which hosts the largest number of IT employees in India, still not allow the formation of trade unions among IT employees. There is still an aversion among the IT employees to the concept of unionizing given some of the benefits they enjoy at the workplace. Being a knowledge industry, there is also an option of changing jobs if you are a domain expert. This makes most of the senior pros look at the idea of unions with a lot of doubt.
But then, some of these comforts are available to a smaller section of the IT crowd. A larger section, including women employees, are facing hardships when the demands for additional hours impact the much-celebrated work-life balance within the industry. One thing is sure that in the coming years sheen of an IT job is going to make way for larger restrictions and it would start looking more like just another job. Once that happens, we might witness many wanting to protect their interest and rights which could make way for unionization in the industry. As the cliché goes, watch this space.