Techies fight back

Print edition : June 23, 2017

Members of the IT Professionals Welfare Association at a protest in New Delhi against lay-offs and illegal terminations in IT companies. A file picture. Photo: Ramesh Sharma

FOR long endearingly referred to as “knowledge professionals”, IT employees now, facing the prospect of being sacked, are seeking to make common cause with other workers. Aloof for long, and fed on the mythology in the media that they are a class apart from the others and constitute an elite section of the Indian workforce, they have stayed away from any form of collective action. This summer that has changed. Nothing illustrates this change in the self-perception of the IT worker better than the spate of recent disputes with their respective companies raised before labour departments across the country.

Forget unions, even associations of any kind among this section of the IT workforce have been difficult to form. Even now, despite the real threat of unprecedented numbers of terminations, they are too scared to reveal their identities. That they talk about their terms and conditions of employment to the media is, in itself, a new development. For this reason, the names of all the employees quoted in this story have been changed.

Rakesh, who was employed by Wipro for the last 15 years and has more than two decades of experience, was asked by his human resource (HR) manager to quit. “I have consistently got a good rating [appraisal], but in my last appraisal cycle I was given the rating More Contribution Expected [MCE in the company’s jargon].” He claimed he received a bonus in November 2016 and had even been sent on an overseas assignment three months later. “For 14 years and three quarters I had always got a good rating; naturally I was taken aback by the sudden assessment of my slide in performance,” he told Frontline.

Normally, according to Rakesh, Wipro’s HR policies require that those with below-par ratings undergo a period of remedial training, termed Performance Improvement Plan. But, on May 10 this year, Wipro abruptly changed its policy. “The HR manager called me and asked me to leave within two months. When I asked why and on what grounds, I was told that if I did not put in my papers, I would be issued a termination notice,” said Rakesh, aged about 45.

By May, when media reports from across the country started pouring in, a clutch of smaller trade unions stepped into the fray, trying to organise IT workers. Notable among them are the left-wing New Democratic Labour Front (NDLF), which has constituted an IT Employees Wing, and the Forum for IT Employees (FITE), which drew its core from radical Tamil organisations. Both the unions shot into the limelight a couple of years ago when reports of large-scale sackings at TCS sparked off unrest (“Layoffs and lessons”, Frontline, February 20, 2015).

A much smaller group confined to Bengaluru is the Information Technology Employees’ Centre (ITEC), which has also been active among IT workers. In fact, the FITE was instrumental in taking up the employees’ fight before the Tamil Nadu Labour Department and the Madras High Court, where some employees managed to get some relief. In the current, and much bigger, round of layoffs, both unions have been active, although the FITE appears to have a wider reach, while the NDLF remains mostly confined to Tamil Nadu.

When the sackings gathered momentum in Tamil Nadu, particularly in Chennai and Coimbatore, the NDLF stepped in and attempted to organise employees from several IT companies. That is how Rakesh came in contact with the union. The NDLF even organised a demonstration in Chennai in mid May. “The union, because of its wider reach, attracted workers from various industries to the demonstration, but the IT workers stayed on the sidelines, evidently not seeing themselves as working class,” said S. Kumar, an NDLF activist who is organising IT workers. But that is changing, he said, because IT employees now realise that wider solidarity requires them to participate in wider social movements.

“Initially, we felt that the social consciousness of these workers was at a low level, but we are realising that we know so little about the nature of their work, their working environment and the wider economic and technological processes that are shaping their industry,” Kumar said. He added that the IT workers are finding it difficult to gather enough critical mass to form a union. The NDLF is exploring the possibility of forming a union around its IT wing. It is also attempting greater coordination with other unions such as the FITE. “We cannot afford to remain disunited against a powerful industry,” Kumar said.

Today, more than 75 persons from Wipro are active in a WhatsApp group that connects them. Employees from several top IT companies have come forward to challenge their retrenchment. On May 17, representatives of the NDLF, affected employees from Cognizant, a representative of the company and a Nasscom representative participated in a meeting organised by the Tamil Nadu Labour Department.

“After hearing all the parties, department officials said a dismissal would be a fit case for raising a dispute under Section 2A of the Industrial Disputes (ID) Act.” Emboldened by this, the NDLF campaigned among workers to refrain from resigning under duress because they would then have no legal recourse. Meanwhile, the NDLF is also seeking to collect affected employees to jointly raise disputes under the provisions of Section 2K of the ID act, which specifically provides for such a challenge against loss of employment from a company.

Lakshmi, who has been with Wipro for more than a decade, was also recently threatened with a termination notice. When she asked for reasons, the HR manager said: “You are talking labour laws? Then we have to issue a termination letter immediately.”

“I understand that the company may need to shift focus or realign its business and to do that it may need to realign its workforce,” Rakesh told Frontline.

“But for an industry that claims to be so process-driven and which claims to benchmark itself to best practices, should it not at least follow due process before it seeks to send out somebody who has been with it for a decade and more? I know I owe a lot to this industry and to this company, but there is at least something that they owe me too; it was because of people like us that they made money hand over fist all these years,” he said.

V. Sridhar in Chennai and Bengaluru

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