As layoffs continue in the IT sector, unions have stepped up their efforts to organise and resist illegal terminations. While in 2014, it was TCS, now it is the American company Cognizant Technology Solutions which employs 1,50,000 people in India and also others like Wipro, Capgemini and Tech Mahindra. IT employees unions – FITE and NDLF have stepped up their efforts to educate workers about their rights through various activities – both through social media and by leafleting outside IT Parks.
On 18th May 2017, the IT Employees wing of the New Democratic Labour Front held a demonstration in Sholinganallur, one of the major hubs on the IT corridor in Chennai. NDLF’s Vehicle Driver and Technician Union members were also present. Com. Karpagavinayagam led the meeting and asserted the need for IT workers to come together.
Forum for IT Employees (FITE), has taken the issue to the government by submitting petitions to the Labour Commissioner in Chennai and Hyderabad. According to the petition, the restructuring process that CTS has adopted by forcing employees to resign, is a deliberate and planned illegal termination. The bucket system which provides four grades that workers are assigned soon after the performance appraisal has been used to carry out the firings. The petition points out that those who have been given the fourth bucket are being made to resign. However, the entire appraisal process is in itself unilateral and undemocratic.
One IT employee who has worked in the company’s office in Coimbatore since 2009 was laid off in early April. Describing the process as a complete shock he said that he was called in for a meeting with the HR manager and was under the impression that it was a general discussion. Having been ‘benched’ for more than three months, he thought the meeting would be related to possibility of a new project. “Instead the HR manager told me that I must resign – I was given only two options. If I give off my ID card immediately four months salary would be given or I could continue to come to office for 2 months, use the facilities and get paid. But I would have to leave at the end of that period”, he said. The HR did not even allow him to go outside the room to think it over. The employee called his family and decided to resign immediately. None of his colleagues and friends knew about what had happened to him. Usually, a send off email and an exit interview takes place – but nothing of the sort happened in this instance.
It is important to note that performance and the appraisal system has been used as a cover to legitimise layoffs. IT unions contend that this system of evaluation is not transparent. According to this note by the NDLF, the appraisal system must be scrapped as goes against the very tenet of equal pay for equal work and is being used as a cover for illegal termination. The note mentions that ‘Performance review is simply a procedure where boss comes up with a story to justify the pre-decided pay; language and tone of appraisals are adjusted to be consistent with numbers.’
The case of the CTS employee who spoke to Thozhilalar Koodam illustrates this as he had received positive ratings in the past, won many awards, received client appreciation mails, etc but after a single sudden negative rating he was retrenched.
In fact the employee said that in the case of CTS, Coimbatore, appraisals have not taken place in a systematic manner for a couple of years. It usually begins with the employee filling in a self appraisal form listing her/his achievements and then the immediate supervisor and the manager giving their ratings. During this process a one-on-one meeting is held with the employee where there is a discussion of performance. In the lead up to the layoffs, these have stopped or are being done on arbitrary basis. The employee received a fourth bucket rating last year, but nothing was done despite his objections. Each of the managers blamed the other for the negative rating.
During the conciliation proceedings initiated under Section 2k of the Industrial Disputes Act before the Joint Commissioner of Labour, Chennai, four representatives of CTS management falsely declared that the employees resigned voluntarily and were not forced. According to Vinodh of FITE who was present during the meeting, the JCL asserted that forced resignations are illegal. The management representatives also asked that the employees not be represented by legal counsel or lawyers. However, according to FITE this is an unjust demand as the management team had their in-house legal advisor with them. Employees who gave the complaint include those who were forced to resign as well as a few who have been given the lowest rating and are preempting that they will be fired. The management has said that they will look at each of the cases individually and will correct mistakes, if any, from their side. The union however, continues to assert that these are only ten individuals who represent thousands of employees who are facing a similar action and that solutions can not be brought about on an individual basis.
Another faction of FITE has also initiated an online petition demanding that a Commission of Enquiry be set up to look into the issue. One of the leaders, Parimala said that a policy level solution is needed to protect the rights of IT workers. The IT employers’ association NASSCOM has, while flatly denying layoffs, also said that employees will have to re-skill or perish,” This is nothing more than a veiled admission of the terminations and an attempt to shift blame to the workers. Infosys has also used creative terminology to hint at this and have told their employees that performance based exits are likely to happen, although no layoffs are planned. However, workers are beginning to realise the need to organise and groups have come together in Hyderabad, Pune, Bangalore, etc to submit petitions to the government and plan the next course of action.