Rajesh N. is a senior developer at a US-headquartered multinational product company. A decade-old veteran in the IT industry, he now spends most of his free time boning up on labour laws of the country.
There is a reason for that. Rajesh is a spokesperson of the Bangalore chapter of the Forum of IT Employees (FITE), a Chennai-headquartered union of technology industry professionals. FITE says it is fighting for the rights of IT industry professionals and has nine chapters across the country, including Hyderabad, Delhi, Mumbai and Pune, cities where the IT industry employs a large number of people. FITE is part of a trend where IT industry employees, fearing job losses, are joining hands to form unions to safeguard their interests.
The reasons are obvious. With India's $153-billion IT industry experiencing its slowest growth in a decade-and-a-half, the nearly three million people employed in the sector are under pressure. Automation as well as technology shift to digital and cloud are making many existing jobs redundant. And then there is opposition in some developed countries to hiring of foreign workers. Though the industry lobby group, Nasscom, says companies have been investing in retraining employees, all this disruption has led to huge job losses. Some estimates even say that 5-10 per cent workforce may face involuntary separation - something that these unions hope to fight.
FITE, on June 2, issued a press release citing a 'layoff' it claims to have successfully fought. It said it helped an employee of one of the top IT companies 'who was being harassed by the HR department to resign.' It approached the labour commissioner of Karnataka, it said.
A number of other associations such as NDLF (New Democratic Labour Front), ITEC (IT/ITES Employee Centre) and All India IT Employees Association say they, too, are representing the interests of IT employees. S. Kumar, a member of the IT wing of the NDLF, says, "We have been a registered trade union for more than a decade. Our IT wing was started in January 2015 to fight layoffs at Cognizant. Since then we have successfully filed several 2Ks with the labour commissioner in Chennai against illegal layoffs." Section 2K of the Labour Act talks about collective dispute redressal mechanism in contrast to Section 2A, which provides opportunity to aggrieved individuals to approach labour courts. Karnataka, the biggest IT services exporter, exempts the sector from the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act 1946. It has also declared that IT firms will be treated on a par with 'essential services' in the face of a strike or a bandh.
Priyank Kharge, the IT minister of the state, says while these unions have approached him, "We are in the process of checking the veracity of their claims of representing IT industry workers."
The companies have a different take on the issue. The HR head of a mid-sized IT company who did not want to identified said, "IT workers on an average are highly educated and highly paid. They are not labourers requiring unions as they are capable of protecting their interests. Similar so-called unions had sprung up during the slowdown of 2001/02 and 2008/09 also. Where are they now? There are some structural shifts happening in the industry leading to these pressures. Those who retrain and relearn will thrive. Others will have to look at other opportunities."
"This time the scale of the layoffs is huge. Where will they go? They have families to support. We will fight it," says Kumar of NDLF.
With Indian IT still trying to adapt to changed market conditions, such demands are likely to only increase.