IT Workers Brainstorm on ‘The Way Forward’ for a Crisis Ridden IT Sector

A Report on the Two Day Conference of IT Workers Organized by FITE

IT Workers at FITE Conference

Forum for I.T Employees (FITE) organized a two day workshop on 17th and 18th of June, themed The Present Crisis in the IT Industry and The Way Forward. Apart from IT workers in Chennai, members of FITE West Bengal Chapter, trade union leaders, academics studying the sector, and labour activists participated in the two-day conference. During the conference the delegates discussed the neo-liberal foundation for the present crisis, while recognizing the role of emerging technological disruptions in shaping the present crisis in Indian IT sector. They also highlighted the particular conditions existing in India, such as the caste and gender based discrimination, the lack of protection for workers and poor quality education as key reasons for the problems that IT workers face. At the end of the two-day conference the delegates passed a series of resolutions demanding that the government enact and implement policies that protect workers in the IT Sector. The public meeting on 18thJune was addressed by Justice (retd) Hariparantham, Com. Sanjay Singhvi (TUCI) and Com.C.P Krishnan (BEFI) and Com. J Chidambaranathan, (DTUC).

Click here for a copy of the Resolutions

The two-day conference began with a briefing by Com. Parimala, the president of FITE. Her opening statement touched on various aspects of the broad history of the IT industry that currently employs over 40 lakh people as direct employees all over the globe. She spoke about  the separation of hardware and software by IBM to the founding of Tata Consultancy Services in 1974 to the huge boom for India that came with Y2K. With the separation of hardware and software development, outsourcing was possible and since the 1970s, the United States has been the de facto market for Indian IT service. With software development picking up in the 1990s, the US was the source of 60% of India’s IT business. India’s big jump happened when a big chunk of the estimated 600 billion dollars that went to deal with the Y2K scare came to the country. The period after 2000 has been a kind of golden age for the sector with whole cities being built around it. But with the recession of 2008, things are changing all around. Pre-2008, the industry was slated to grow at 20-30% but after the recession, growth has been limited to 10%. Employment growth has also shrunk from 20% to about 6%.

India also faces increased competition from countries in latin America, Africa and South-East Asia. Automation threatens to permanently eliminate the need for 10-15% of jobs currently available in the industry. These entry-level jobs which are usually around software testing will be the first to go. Simultaneously, the managerial jobs associated with these tasks will also disappear. The industry has decoupled employee headcount and revenue so future revenue growth need not be accompanied with further hiring. Recent NASSCOM and ASSOCHAM reports hint at 25% of the IT workforce being under threat. This might be up to 10 lakh people according to some estimates. India’s IT Minister has described it as the ‘usual cleanup process’, saying only 0.5-3% of the workforce need worry.

Delegates at FITE conference

Dr. Ernesto Noronha, professor at IIM Ahmedabad who has been studying the IT industry for around 10 years, discussed the results of his research. He agreed that suddenly the tenor of NASSCOM reports has changed and they now talk about ‘degrowth’ by 2025. The Indian IT industry has tried to minimize its need for ‘onsite’ employees to cut costs by using remote access technologies. But as you move up the value chain in terms of projects, the more the need for close interaction with clients becomes vital. High value projects require serious co-operation with the client at their offices and companies located at the client’s country have the advantage. According to Noronha, “If they are unable to move up and not get into those markets, the industry is itself in crisis. It looks bleak.” He sees the use of Donald Trump as an excuse to shed jobs and reorient towards hiring in the United States while the real reason is business logic. The domestic market for IT goods and services (with the government as one of the customers) might be the one ‘saving grace’ according to Noronha. But he also maintained that Indian companies have not invested in research and development within India, that could not only employee Indian talent more effectively but also generate high value demand internally.

There was a brief discussion around the potential for start-ups to be a force for change in the industry. Advocate Ramapriya said that the government’s relaxation policy seems to mostly revolve around inspections under 9 labour laws which now cannot be implemented without a ‘credible threat’. Professor Noronha pointed out that technology companies abroad comfortably follow labour laws in Europe which are much more stringent than ours.

Comrade Deepthi with the All India Airport Workers Union emphasised the need for workers to understand the root of their current situation. She said that many of the issues faced by the IT workers such as increasing contractualization, long working hours and precarious nature of employment were common to  other parts of service sector as well as manufacturing sector.

“They are in deep shit, and need to understand what has put them there” she said. She also said that it was union’s primary task to explain to the IT workers that they were a class pitted against another class and this required a clear articulation of the nature of capitalism and neo-liberal agenda of the state.

Advocate Usha Ramanathan stressed that the leadership of the IT sector has no alignment with the workers. She mentioned Nandan Nilekani as the guiding light of technology policy but remarked that he had no vision. His aim is to see a government that is ‘a series of start-ups’. The aim of this leadership is to create information technology products that make huge profits at the minimum cost. They do not aim to solve real world problems or anything else. She stated that there is a huge gap in the imagination for the future of the industry and that unions might contribute by utilizing the workers themselves to contribute to this imagination.

In the afternoon session, Com.Sathish who is a general secretary of FITE and who is an IT employee himself gave a detailed presentation of the nature of the IT industry in India today. Highlighting some of the challenges before the IT workers, he raised the issue of increasing gender disparity with higher pay scales. “while at the entry level, women are over 50% of the work force, mid management their proportion falls to mere 10% and senior managerial positions have only 2% women” he said. He also raised the issue of stress fueled depression among workers citing a ASSOCHAM report that estimated that nearly half the workers suffered from various levels of depression. Intense discussion revolved around ‘Performance Appraisal’ systems, which came for serious criticisms. Com. Vijayan, a manager in an MNC, ridiculed the ‘bell curve’ stating that senior management and HR’s force worker’s performance to fit into the bell curve, rather than gauge it objectively. Bank union leaders described how even in the banking sector, there is an increasing trend towards incorporating performance based incentive systems. The consensus opinion was that the appraisal system was flawed, open to abuse, insensitive and should be abandoned.

Dr. Aravindan, psychiatrist pointed out the recent report of WHO (World Health Organization) regarding depression, in which WHO links depression to loss of productivity and extols nations and corporations to invest in mental health to reap the productivity dividend. Lamenting the reduction of humans to the scale of humans, he also suggested that the report was sponsored by World Bank. Discussing further, he said that psychiatry is being used as a way to reduce health issues arising out of a socio economic condition into personalized issues by claiming genetic causes. “This way, corporations can relieve themselves of the responsibility as well as the cost of their profit maximizing labour practices” he said. He sought that unions take active role in promoting and preserving workers health and resist attempts to personalize and penalize the victims.

Sathish, Gen Sec FITE addressing the delegates

The morning session of the second day continued the discussions from the previous evening while focusing on giving shape to the charter of demands.  The discussion centered around the pressing demands that IT workers have and difficulties involved in unionizing them. Com. Parimala spoke about how IT workers do not consider themselves as workers but employees and have a fear of getting involved in unions. She also said how due to the fact that NASSCOM keeps database of all the IT employees which is accessible to all the employers, it is difficult for an employee to be part of a union activities. Charter of demands required a detailed discussion on labour law reforms and com. Com. Singhvi gave a wonderful impromptu lecture on current reforms that central and state governments have brought in, in factories act, contract labour act, ID act, minimum wage act and even child labour act. Com. Singhvi, Com. Deepti and other delegates emphasised the need for the union for focus on demands of the IT workers which were most pressing. There was a detailed discussion regarding the demands of the women IT employees, especially regarding their working in night shift, their treatment by IT firms during pregnancy where they are often marginalized from projects. The discussion went on for over 3 hours with charter of demands being scrutinized in great detail. The charter, currently being circulated among delegates for their comments includes demands for minimum wages of Rs.22000 per month, immediate intervention into the mass terminations and layoffs, safety at the workplace in view of the recent news of employees deaths in Infosys (Pune and Chennai), implementation of labour laws, abolition of the Performance Appraisal system and a host of other issues.

Delegates also voted on a series of resolutions that demanded a government policy that protects workers jobs, regulates the sector, abandoning the failed appraisal system that is abused by senior management. It also sought the implementation of reservation policy in private sector to improve social inclusiveness.

The concluding session was open to public. The session was addressed by veteran trade union leaders from Bank Employees Federation of India (BEFI), Trade Union Centre of India (TUCI), DTUC as well as retired judge Hariparanthaman who all pledged their support to this historic initiative of IT workers to unionise. Com.Sathish, General Secretary of FITE introduced the audience and the speakers to FITE’s initiatives across the country and said that the first such national conference of IT workers being held in Chennai is significant given the city’s history of labour struggles, especially since the first May Day event was held here in the early 1920s.

Com.C.P Krishnan of BEFI shared his experiences of union formation in the banking sector and said that it was for dignity and respect that employees first unionised decades ago in the early 60s. He said that despite the long history, there are still weaknesses as some operations such as cash filling in ATMs, cheque clearing and housekeeping have all been outsourced. He did however assert that it is important for workers in every industry to come together (just as employers do).TUCI leader Com.Sanjay Singhvi also spoke about the importance of IT employees to demand that they be considered as workers. “It is not a matter of status but of rights”, he pointed out saying that workers are eligible for several rights under labour laws. He also laid out a history of several of the labour laws and said that they all came through workers’ struggles and not out of benevolence of the capitalist, urging IT workers to begin the fight.

Com. Chidambaranathan spoke about the importance of “one union in one workplace” principle and how the state has led the charge in this regard.Talking about the various resolutions passed in the conference which was read out by Com.Sathish, he cautioned against the reliance on the law and the parliament.

Justice Hariparanthaman urged IT employees to begin to see themselves as workers rather than professionals or “gold collared workers” as he called it. Listing out various victories that workers have won through unions such as security of tenure (TN Conferment of Permanent Status Act), collective bargaining agreements or settlements, dearness allowance, retirement benefit etc, he said that IT workers will lose out if they do not identify themselves as workers. Talking about the present layoffs in the IT industry, he said that it is unheard of for an employee to be fired due to “under performance” and that this a feature peculiar to the industry. He provided several suggestions to the union based on the resolutions passed and expressed his confidence that the IT workers can take the lead of working class movement.

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