Trade unions trying to mobilise technology employees grappling with drastic changes confronting India’s IT industry have made their first breakthrough.
The labour commission of Karnataka, home to the country’s largest tech hub in Bengaluru, has certified the formation of the Karnataka State IT/ITES Employees Union (KITU) under the Trade Union Act, 1926, and Karnataka Trade Unions Regulations, 1958.
“This is a significant moment for us, being the first dedicated IT employee union,” said Vineeth Vakil, general secretary of KITU, which presently has about 250 members. “The formation of the union was possible because there were enough number of IT employees facing (various) issues. We will be able to address these issues with vigour with the formation of an IT union.”
Bengaluru alone has about 1.5 million employees in the IT and IT-enabled services sectors, out of nearly 4 million employees across the country.
Over the past year, a growing number of aggrieved IT employees have been turning to the courts seeking redressal of grievances such as indiscriminate layoffs and long working hours. Automation and protectionist measures adopted by key markets including the United States are badgering India’s $150-billion IT industry, forcing large-scale layoffs, smaller increments and other pullbacks.
In June, India’s IT industry body Nasscom forecast that growth in the sector’s export revenue would remain mostly unchanged at 7-8% in fiscal year 2017-18 because of troubles in its largest market, the United States. This month, however, Nasscom president R Chandrashekhar told PTI that the industry could see an upturn next year as investments in technology, particularly in the US, had started gathering momentum. Thus far, aggrieved employees have been approaching pressure groups such as the Forum for IT Employees (FITE), the National Democratic Labour Front-IT (NDLF-IT) and the Union for IT/ITES (UNITES) for help in waging legal battles.
Unionisation in India is usually associated with the manufacturing industry, where labour unions have helped factory workers fight for higher wages, job security and other demands. As for the IT sector, employees have been wary of forming unions because of whispered stories of a blacklist of troublemakers by companies. In this backdrop, “a registered union will definitely encourage more distressed employees to approach us without any worry,” said Vakil.
The Karnataka IT union is backed by the Centre of Indian Trade Union, he said. CITU is an affiliate of the CPI(M).
The adoption of digital automation and artificial intelligence technology has been widely cited for low headcount addition in a lean demand environment. Four out of the top six Indian software services companies, including Infosys and Cognizant, reported a decline in their headcounts for the quarter ended September.
According to industry estimates, the top four Indian IT services companies may let go 12,000-15,000 employees in the coming months. Nasscom has said the industry added close to net 170,000 people in the last fiscal year and expects to add upwards of 150,000 in 2017-18. Nasscom said it has yet to study the finer points of the registered union in Karnataka and its ramifications on the industry.
“Ultimately, any union is the collective voice of the people. IT companies have been the best paymasters and there has been no need for one,” said Ganesh Natarajan, chairman, 5F World, a startup focused on skill development and the social and digital sectors. “The only companies that should be concerned are the ones that haven’t been giving a fair deal to their employees. Companies should be transparent and communicative while letting go of employees.”
That said, Natarajan insisted that the progress of technology cannot be thwarted and “anyone who wants to be relevant in the future will have to reskill themselves. Forming lobby groups is not going to come in the way of technology.”
Historically, the formation of IT unions has turned out to be a double-edged sword, deterring international companies from setting shop in certain markets with tough labour laws. Instances of unions backed by the government intervening in the workings of companies resulted in the relocation of near-shore centers in Eastern Caribbean Island and Barbados at the height of the labour arbitrage movement. The formation of KITU plays into the global trend of the emergence of a ‘Tech Left’, which has employees beginning to confront employers.