How job loss, insecurity are driving IT professionals towards labour unions
Beginning 2017, a number of IT majors, including Wipro, Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services and Tech Mahindra, have shed thousands of workers across India.Updated: Sep 02, 2017 19:50 IST
Until a few years ago, not many could have believed that IT workers in India’s Silicon Valley would ever need to visit the Labour Commissioner’s office in central Bengaluru. But today, software professionals with employment-related grievances are regular visitors here.
They dress alike (jeans, T-shirt, backpack), stand in a huddle and look around nervously. Sunil Kumar, a 38-year-old software developer with nine years of experience didn’t know a thing about workers’ rights until 24 April.
Three days after he was promoted as “project manager” at Tech Mahindra, he “got a call from his HR manager informing me that the company didn’t have any project that required my skills. I was told it was in my best interest to resign.”
- On 20 August, 200 software professionals in Bengaluru formed India’s newest trade union for IT industry, called Karnataka State IT/ITeS Employees Union.
- In Bengaluru, FITE, which has 3,000 members, has filed 20 petitions at the labour commission challenging “forced terminations”.
- In Chennai, NDLF-IT, which has 1,000 members, has filed a petition at the labour commission on behalf of 75 Wipro employees.
- 1,600 petitions have been filed so far at Hyderabad’s labour commission by various unions.
- In March, a labour court in Hyderabad reversed the forced resignations of eight employees of Cognizant and ordered the company to give them another chance.
Like dozens of his colleagues who had faced a similar fate recently, Kumar reached out to the local unit of the Forum for IT Employees (FITE), a union mobilising employees in IT hubs such as Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad and Pune against “forceful resignations” and “unfair terminations”.
Beginning 2017, a number of IT majors, including Wipro, Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services and Tech Mahindra, have shed thousands of workers across India. The largescale axing comes in response to a shift in the global market for software services, including automation, a transition from back-office programming to cloud computing and the new outsourcing policies of the US government.
According to a report in livemint.com, seven of India’s biggest IT companies including Infosys, Wipro and Cognizant plan to lay off 56,000 engineers this year. Employment solutions companies expect an annual layoff of 200,000 jobs over the next three years. A McKinsey report says nearly half of the IT services workforce—the $150 billion industry employs 3.9 million people—will be “irrelevant” over the next three or four years.
Faced with shrinking options, a section of IT workers are forming unions, poring over labour laws and making the rounds of government offices, courts and ministries. “I don’t know much about labour laws,” says Sunil Kumar, waiting his turn outside the commissioner’s office for the fifth time in three months. “But I am ready to go to the high court. The company has to take me back or give me a compensation for life.”
Since March, 31-year-old Rajesh Natarajan, the Bengaluru coordinator for FITE, has received an average of 50 calls every day from IT workers anxious about their future. A product tester at a software company, Natarajan has to step away from his desk to take these calls. Why bother when he still has a job? “For the future of the community. A job that took 50 people five years ago takes five people today. I know I won’t have a job in five years.”
IT professionals have remained outside the purview of labour laws such as the Factories Act, Industrial Disputes Act and certain state-specific regulations because these cater only to the rights of “workmen” or those without any executive powers. But in hearing after hearing at labour commissions and courts, IT unions are challenging its fairness, arguing that the impacted workers merely carried out tasks they were asked to do. “If we are not workmen, then what are we?” asks Natarajan.
However, not many are sympathetic to their plight. “I will never take up their case,” said Umesh GN, a labour lawyer in Bengauru. “They didn’t care about anyone else when they were earning salaries of Rs 2 lakh a month.” Some point to the irony that their jobs came at the cost of livelihoods in countries such as the United States.
Their fight isn’t altogether doomed, though. In July, Hyderabad’s high court asked Tech Mahindra to explain the “illegal terminations” of four employees. For Lokesh Vasana, one of the four, the high court’s notice is the first instance of validation in months. “Forget rent; my 6-month-old son has been down with dengue and my family suddenly has no health insurance.”
For the Forum of IT professionals (FITP), a city-based union that made the appeal under the Shops and Establishments Act that prohibits termination of an employee while their case is in a labour court, it’s victory. “We are more hopeful about the 70 petitions we have filed at the labour commission,” said Kiran Chandra, the coordinator for FITP. “More people are coming forward.”