More than 20 employees of WIPRO gathered at Kuralagam in Parrys on 31st August 2017 to meet the Labour Officer before whom they have filed an industrial dispute alleging that they are on the verge on illegal termination. The workers refused to resign after HR managers pressurized them to resign on the pretext of ineffecient performance and opted to file an industril dispute. The dispute, filed under Section 2K of the Industrial Disputes Act, (as opposed to a 2A petition filed by individual workers) is a collective dispute filed by members of the New Democratic Labour Front (NDLF) who wish to bring to the attention of the government that what is happening in the IT industry is a pre-meditated, unlawful layoff and not just one-off complaints by a few disgruntled employees.
WIPRO, an Indian Multi-National has close to 1,60,000 employees and a presence in several locations around the world. The company boasts of integrity, and treating each person with respect. However, going by the narration of those who have been facing the illegal termination, it seems to have instead resorted to harassment and threats to throw employees out of the company throughout various offices in the country. The modus operandi – starting March this year, management began to give low ratings to employees who have 8-12 years’ experience (usually in B3 and C1 band ) during the appraisal process. These bands refer to the grade of the employees based on experience and skill. The appraisal process is completely unilateral and the employee, although given an impression of having a say, doesn’t even know the rating until it has been finalised. While early on, many employees felt that they had no choice but to resign, eventually unions like NDLF and FITE began to organise in several companies and call the practice what it is – illegal mass layoffs.
As awareness grew, employees have begun to resist and refused to sign resignation letters. “Despite the threats to blacklist us and create problems with our conduct/experience certificate, some of us refused to resign. Soon after our refusal we were ‘benched’”, said one employee who suddenly found himself on the verge of losing his livelihood .
Many of the employees that Thozhilalar Koodam spoke to said that they had received bonuses, appreciation letters, performance awards, etc. Nevertheless, to counter this show of resistance, the management would bench the employee and “lock her/his profile” in the software through which internal recruitment and assignment to projects takes place. This essentially means that the employee cannot apply to any project for which they have vacancies. Similarly, a manager who wishes to hire the employee for a project would not be able to do so and would be asked to “contact the HR.” NDLF’s IT Wing President Shyam Sundar explained “This practice essentially isolates the employee who will then be benched for months together and as per the company’s policy, will then be eligible for a ‘separation process’.” In fact, the company hurriedly amended its policy on 10th May 2017 to reduce the time that an employee can stay benched to legitimise the layoff process.
On this day, the fourth hearing before the Labour Officer, the WIPRO management, represented by their HR and in-house legal team, finally made an appearance. They received the memorandum of grievances by the employees, and have promised to reply by 18th September . The union has also submitted the names and details of 68 WIPRO employees in several other cities so that the government understands that this is a pre-mediatated and conscious move by the management. Another NDLF activist said that they were in touch with several employees who are slowly realising the importance of a union. The only reason that many others are not coming forward is the fear of getting blacklisted. Nevertheless, there is a steady growth in support for the union. NDLF is demanding that all benched employees’ profiles be released, allowances (deducted during the time that employees are on bench) be re-imbursed and their variable pay restored. In the meanwhile, they will continue to be paid their salaries. Similarly, the union is demanding that the employees who have resigned under duress be given their jobs back. Going further than the current layoff issue, they have also demanded that the union be recognised and that all policy changes must be discussed with the union or with individual employees who must consent to it.
In keeping with the practice resorted to by rest of the industry, WIPRO too is targeting the middle level employees with 8-12 years’ experience. Many of them are having a tough time finding another job. One such employee, in his 40s, who was let go in November last year, has been unable to find a job. “They look at the date of birth and if they see we are born in the 70s, we are immediately rejected”, he said. The HR head of the company, in an interview to Business Standard confirmed this. In response to a question on why it is employees with 10-15 years experiences who are facing ‘involuntary attrition’, Saurabh Govil said –
It is more (at that level) because as people grow old the ability to change is becoming lesser. Younger people are much more amenable to change, trying out new things and willing to unlearn much faster and there are people who find it tougher or people who grew very fast when the industry was growing and suddenly they hit a glass ceiling. And they know it.
WIPRO employees observed that Govil too, did not seem that young. Why does this ageism apply only to employees and not the management? By terming this as a “social issue”, the management is blatantly exposing its intent to make profit at any cost. As the pressure on the employers in the IT industry continue, they are coming up with innovative ways to counter the narrative that the industry is laying off workers for no other reason than to maximise profit.
Government turning a blind eye
Despite the overwhelming evidence that thousands are likely to lose their jobs due to the lay offs, the government continues its apathy. NDLF activists reported that on request from IT employees’ unions, the Joint Commissioner of Labour had called for a tripartite meeting with management representatives on the 28th August. However, on that day, some management representatives had gone in and told the JCL that they were not willing to participate in any dialog with the unions and left. The JCL, who then called the union leaders, said that he would gather information from each side separately and report his findings to the government. To this the unions took objection and said that the government was well aware of what was happening – NDLF has submitted detailed memorandums to the Labour Secretary in May. The JCL responded with irritation that he was not willing to talk as press persons were gathered to report on the issue and closed the meeting. With the state clearly giving the industry a free reign, unions have a long battle ahead. NDLF is contemplating filing similar disputes against managements of other companies who are also resorting to the same practices.