Can Technology And Unionism Co-Exist?

by Sohini Bagchi    May 24, 2017

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Technology as an industry has largely been anti-union, perhaps because the Internet is seen as a libertarian oasis, where everyone has equal access to free information. The Indian IT industry too, continued to shun trade unionism - and the sector over the years became synonymous with plush offices, foreign postings, attractive perks and stock options. Times are however changing. The USD150-billion Indian IT industry is now set to get its first union, in the backdrop of widespread lay-offs in the sector.

The Forum for Information Technology Employees (FITE), representing the rights of IT employees, is set to form a registered union. “The FITE will be getting itself registered formally as the first union for IT employees in India,” forum’s vice-president Vasumathi said. “We are expecting this to happen within the next five months,” Vasumathi told PTI [Read the full report here]

FITE, a group of young software professionals, has been operational since 2008 when it kicked off a protest to bring attention to the state of Tamils in Sri Lanka. The forum has over 1,000 online members and around 100 active members. It has opened chapters in nine cities, including Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Pune, Mumbai and Kochi.

The group had in the past, defended IT employees who were indiscriminately sacked by various companies. However, those were small in number. The formation of an IT employee union gathered momentum after reports of large scale layoffs by several IT companies in view of toughening stance of developed nations on work visas and increasing automation in the industry.

Read more: IBM India Trims Workforce; Indian IT Fears More layoffs

In recent months, insecurity has been running high among India’s IT employees. Companies such as Cognizant, Infosys, Wipro, IBM and others recently resorted to lay-offs, in an effort to show improved profitability as they go through a shift in business model.

“The digital tsunami will trigger jobs cuts in a big way in the IT industry that currently employs about 40 lakh people and about 24 lakh of them will have to be re-trained……but there are limitations here,” Kris Lakshmikanth, Chairman and MD at Head Hunters, told IBTimes in an interview.

He explained that of the 24 lakhs, only about 50 percent, or approximately 12 lakh, can be re-trained and about 6 lakh can manage with existing skills. The rest, approximately 6 lakh, will lose their jobs over the next three years.”

According to the research firm, job cuts in IT sector would be around 1.75 lakhs and 2 lakhs annually for around next three years. While stating the reasons for this huge layoff forecast, the research firm reported that the IT companies are still not prepared to adopt newer technologies and in dealing with the fallout from US President Donald Trump’s protectionist policies. It added that at least 56,0000 employees of top software companies such as Infosys, Wipro and Cognizant are expected to lose their jobs over the next year.

Read more: Global Headwinds Hit India’s IT Growth: Report

Majority of employees in job level six and above including group project managers, project managers, senior architects and higher levels are expected to be shown the door.

There is a lack of structure when it comes to employee termination, and hazy HR practices follow highly subjective guidelines for employee evaluation. “We do not want to disturb the business and are for employee performance. But in case of a lay-off, they should be suitably compensated,” Vasumathi told the agency.

This uncertainty has made employees realise the need for collective action. J Jayaprakash, a member of the forum said, “Since we ourselves are IT employees who have started this, people trust us to take up their issues. It is a homegrown solution to their problems.”

Jayaprakash said in a statement, “The companies call this ‘trimming the extra fat’,” he said. “But they do not realize that each and every employee has a family to support.”

An IT executive said on condition of anonymity that the entire thing about automation and laying off staff is kind of constructed. “With automation underway, IT employees, who are generally skilled workers, need to be retrained and not sacked at this rate.” Moreover, he pointed out that the actual number of employees being fired are much more than those reported by the companies. 

In other sectors, such as in banking, manufacturing and healthcare, issues like pay, career trajectory and job security were addressed by forming unions, but those drawn to the IT sector have been resistant to this approach. With plenty of jobs available in the sector, workers, even if mistreated, choose to keep quiet rather than risk spoiling their careers by organising themselves.

Nonetheless, technology and trade unions do exist. WashTech represents a portion of Microsoft employees. Alliance@IBM, possibly one of the oldest computer technology unions, represents IBM employees. Then there’s IEEE for electrical engineers that has some union-like characteristics, aimed at bettering the programmer and technical workers who operate on their own. But these groups represent a tiny fraction of the total workforce.   

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While trade unionism need not be glorified in any sector,  IT employees have realized that it is a fundamental right of an Indian citizen (under Article 19) to form associations or unions and in places such as Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, many resorted to joining unions in an effort to challenge HR practices of IT companies.

As employment editor of Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor noted, “No matter how much IT sector can boast of its ‘independence, must realize that for every dot-com millionaire, there are most likely a thousand IT employees that will never see an IPO. These are the workers that struggle as contractors and freelancers, often without benefits or job security.”

In such a scenario, only organized unions could come as a rescue towards progress for IT workers - helping employees realize the need for collective action.