Knowledge Workers gauge the Wisdom of Collective Bargaining

Software Employees respond to the ‘Right to Unionize’

There was a lot of buzz in the IT Sector lately after leading dailies in Tamilnadu had published news reports suggesting that IT employees can form trade unions. Reports cited a notification by the Labour secretary of Government of Tamilnadu that all relevant labour laws applied to the IT sector and there were no general exemptions.

NDLF poster on IT Unions

NDLF poster on IT Unions

This notification was a consequence of legal action and RTI enquiries by New Democratic Labour Front’s IT wing. NDLF is one of the many federations of trade unions in Tamilnadu. Its IT wing was established in 2015 amidst emerging issues around TCS Layoffs. During that time it had initiated a petition in the High Court of Madras, demanding that TCS stop these layoffs as it was against the ID Act. The Court, while not entertaining the petition, had asked the government to clarify its position on this issue. As the Government Departments procrastinated, NDLF sought the RTI route to find out if action had been taken. When the RTI queries were not answered for almost a year in spite of appeals, they moved a contempt petition. It was in this context that the State Government hastily published the notification clarifying its position.

While Forums and Unions working among IT workers including NDLF responded positively to this news, employees are dealing with mixed emotions. The not too distant lay-offs by major companies such as TCS and ongoing layoffs such as Flipkart, L&T InfoTech, the increasing insecurity among experienced software engineers in a fast changing sector, the spectre of automation have increased the anxieties of the employees. Yet there is unease that it will open the gates to Unions as disruptive political agents who might threaten the business environment and scare away corporations.

NASSCOM, the advocacy forum of IT companies, has maintained that this was not a new development and IT employees had largely kept away from unions not because of legal hurdles but because they did not find value in unionizing. Some of the top leaders also responded with little concern as they felt that unions could not thrive in the IT sector. Yet, some oft quoted commentators of the Industry like Mohandass Pai suggested that it might have a detrimental effect on the sector in Tamilnadu. He maintained that unions would hinder competitiveness in the long run and investors would do well to keep away from Tamilnadu. A few others have also suggested long term impact as growth slows down in the sector.

Having heard all sides of this debate, what do the IT employees feel about this notification and the long term prospects for unions and the employment in the sector? What impact has the notification had on the organizing activities of the most popular IT employees forums? Here is a short report based on interviews with IT employees and employee organizers.

Lingering Skepticism…

“It wont work, for sure, 100%” asserted a Praveena, software developer with 5 years of experience in a leading Indian IT service provider. “there is no unity among the workers, they don’t take up the issues of their colleagues. Another female colleague and I faced serious problems with our previous manager, every one knew about it, even senior level managers, but none stepped up to settle the problem, they were happy to let us deal with the problems. As far as women are concerned, you have to be assertive and voice out, if not you will be taken for granted, not in the wrong sense, but at work your needs wont be considered” she said.

Though not as candid as her, others too expressed scepticism at the prospect of unions in the IT sector. Some questioned the relevance of unions within the present corporate structure while others felt that the software developers were driven by managerial aspirations and would not come together. Yet, everyone felt that the notification itself helped clear the legal provisions and if conditions turned to the worse, it was a comfort to know that they could form unions.

The notification has cleared the legal position on IT Unions atleast in Tamil Nadu, but it’s far from enough to encourage workers to join unions or other forms of association. Karpagavinayagam, an organizer with NDLF, mentioned that there was a heightened awareness about the notification and that calls requesting information and support have gone up. Their own membership has also seen a modest increase, but he was of the opinion that this by itself would not lead to a rush of workers interested in joining. “these young workers are not exposed to the discourse of Rights; all they want is to become skilled technicians. In a factory, the workers get exposed to exploitation rather soon, but in the white collar sector it takes more time” he said.

Digital Surveillance…

The other aspect is also the threat of losing jobs if they are to raise collective issues. There is also the fear, when they apply for vacancies, they might be black-listed during background checks undertaken by other IT firms. Discussing about this, Bharani, an organizer with Knowledge Workers Forum, mentioned about the ‘National Skill Registry’, a centralized repository of ‘knowledge workers’ background information with bio-metric tags. “NASSCOM has initiated this system, with most leading companies in the sector signing up to this system. Every probable employee is asked to register with the National Skill Registry. He/she also submits their bio-metric identifiers and gets a unique id. Employers have access to the data base and can write feedback about the employees and also use it for background checks. This is a serious threat to employees if they voice against the management or HR. They won’t be able to find jobs elsewhere” he said.

A Human Resource manager at a leading Indian IT firm, speaking anonymously, maintained that it is not their go-to site for background checks and though employees are encouraged to register, it is not mandatory. He also assured that they don’t rely on views and opinions of supervisors from previous companies as it can lead to bias in the data. Instead they have their own background checking agencies. But the fear is real and it has caused self censorship among the employees. Employees, who spoke about this, mentioned how problems with previous companies can infact ruin careers. “Sometimes, employees don’t know why they are not being recruited by any company, they come to find out that they have been blacklisted. When there were a lot of opportunities and demand for IT workers, these things were looked over, but as vacancies reduce and many more people apply these issues can gain significance in their choice” said Rahul, a functional consultant who has moved multiple companies in the past 5 years. The concern was also raised by Parimala, coordinator with Forum for IT Employees (FITE) that emerged as a response to the layoffs in TCS. Parimala said “background checks are a sure way to stifle any dissent or attempts to challenge pathetic working conditions. We have been demanding that the process is made transparent and background checks by third party are stopped.”

The Spectre of Automation…

Industry experts and commentators have mentioned earlier that unions cannot flourish in high skilled sector with very high growth rates and attrition rates. The logic of such assertion is that, given the plenty of high paying jobs available, dissatisfied employees will just leave rather than fight it out. But this objective condition is fast changing. “There is a lot of discussion about automation. There are claims that over 40% of jobs would become redundant by the next 5 years. Most of this would be at the middle level technicians. This will lead to lot of retrenchment but also increased pressure on the remaining to perform” said Prasanna, a project manager with over 10 years experience.

There is also a sense that if an employee is not currently occupied in any project, there is no value and sooner than later he would be shunted out. “Layoffs keep happening all the time, it is not as if it only happened once or in one company. TCS issue became big as many people were being removed at the same time. But in many companies, there is a pressure to move out. This is not a recent trend but it is becoming a problem as there is increasingly less vacancies for experienced employees” said Renuka, a female software developer working at a mid cap IT company.

Similar sentiments were expressed by others too, who felt that the senior level management in IT companies are only geared towards profit maximization even if revenues are not growing. “Cost cutting is the new mantra. To maintain profits even as revenues are falling, companies are reducing human resource and increasing work pressure. This is not a people centric approach. Experienced people are being replaced with freshers as this will also cut costs. All this is adding to the job insecurities. May be such situations will prompt formation of unions, though I am not too confident about that” said Prasanna.

Praveena complained about the distinct problems working women face in striking a work-life balance in an industry that demands flexible work hours rather than specified timings. She also felt that the male dominated project leadership is not very receptive to these issues. “as far as women employees, not all are primary wage earners and therefore some of them are able to forego work for family, but my case is different, I cannot do that and it is hard to fight individually on these issues.”

At the Cross Roads…

Ironically, the very workers who ushered in the age of automation in manufacturing and service sectors through the digital revolution, are now at the receiving end of its consequences. Employees, unions as well as industry heads concur on the emergence of automation. While the industry views automation as the next stage of evolution and an inevitable consequence of technological progress, employees have clearly begun to feel extremely insecure.

“Many in our sector are dependent on sustained incomes, they have housing loans and family expenses that can be met only with a sustained income. Our lifestyle has changed and we cannot afford to lose jobs now” said Rahul. He was also critical of the pay structure that made mid level technicians noncompetitive. “why pay us disproportionately high salaries in comparison to other sectors, but then retrench us very early in our working life, I would rather prefer a lower scale at entry and moderate increments over a longer period, than this.”

Others are seeking investment options and diversifying into other businesses in order to expand their financial options. Very few are trying to re-skill themselves at high costs. There is clarity and even consensus on what they demand. They want the companies not to offload the burden of profits on to their salaries, They demand a more secure job that can last their working lives rather than an abrupt disruption to their lives, they demand a transparent appraisal process and an end to background checks that make them vulnerable to the management. These demands had also been highlighted in a report by a fact finding committee that enquired into the layoffs at TCS in 2015.

Yet only a marginally minor section has begun to come together to protect their jobs, working conditions and wages. They have imbibed the values of individualism and do feel that remuneration and incentives should be based on individual performance rather than on collective performance. Radhika, a senior software developer in a start-up found this to be a paradox. “While software development is a highly collaborative process that works most efficiently when developers pool their knowledge and skills, the industry has been able to sustain a counter culture through individual centric performance appraisal process that has led to fear of sharing knowledge.”

Their reluctance to unions also stems from what they consider political intervention and abuse of the collective bargaining strength. Parimala of FITE considers these opinions to be a reflection of the false consciousness of the working class, yet it is these notions that she and others trying to organize the sector confront as the greatest hurdle.

“I do feel it would be much better if we can come together to present our opinions to the management, that would be more fruitful while also protecting us from being identified. Union is a big word, but it could be a small team of employees” concluded Praveena, who had ruled out unions at the very beginning of our conversation. The greatest challenge to unions would be to find the right language and the appropriate form that can suit a new class of workers, the most recent victims of capitalist accumulation.

(All names of IT employees have been changed to maintain anonymity)

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