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Byju’s staff reveal harsh work conditions, Indian parents say edtech giant pushed them into debt

Published : Dec 17, 2022 17:55 IST

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Byju’s staff reveal harsh work conditions, Indian parents say edtech giant pushed them into debt

Employees of education technology start-up Byju’s work on content development for the app at their office in Bangalore.

Employees of education technology start-up Byju’s work on content development for the app at their office in Bangalore. | Photo Credit: AFP/MANJUNATH KIRAN/File Photo

Employees say its success is built on exploitation and being made to work long hours under threats.

From parents wanting the best possible education for their children to next-generation tech-savvy professionals striving to build their careers, education technology company Bjyu’s quickly became a beacon of hope for Indians seeking a brighter future. Founded in 2011, the Bengaluru-based startup launched its learning app in 2015 and soon snowballed into a multibillion-dollar behemoth—and India’s leading edtech business—with members of the country’s burgeoning middle class seeking jobs and financial security in one of the world’s biggest tech hubs.

But as the company has grown, so have the complaints. Byju’s employees say its success is built on the back of an abusive and exploitative work environment and unscrupulous sales practices that involve profiling, pursuing and pressuring potential customers from poorer backgrounds to buy its courses.

Context spoke to 26 salespeople—18 current and eight former—who outlined harsh working conditions with excessive hours, incidents of physical and verbal abuse, and a culture in which they are encouraged to mislead clients to make sales by almost any means.

WhatsApp messages, internal emails, company contracts and audio recordings of calls and meetings reveal how some bosses at Byju’s pressure and threaten employees into working more than 72 hours a week, and do not allow them lunch breaks, time off, or even to leave the office if strict targets are not met.

But with their families’ hopes pinned on them, Byju’s staff, many of whom are first-generation college graduates or come from low-income homes, say they put up with the punishing environment over fears of losing their jobs in India’s tough labour market.

Context also interviewed 22 Byju’s clients, with many saying they had been pushed into signing up for courses, duped into taking loans, and ended up losing money with little recourse.

In response to Context’s findings, a Byju’s spokesperson said the staff who spoke out represented an “infinitesimal percentage” of its workforce, and that the company had “zero tolerance for unpleasant behaviour at the workplace”. “We uphold the highest safe workplace standards at each of our business units,” the spokesperson said in emailed comments.

Regarding the criticism from clients, Byju’s said its operations were “centred around customer respect and satisfaction” and that its staff do not “pursue customers who are either uninterested in or unable to pay for our products”.

Pratik Makhija, a former Byju’s salesman who had two spells with the company, said he had endured “daily mental torture”. The 27-year-old said this included his manager shouting at him, forcing him to work seven days in a row, and pitting colleagues against each other.

“You feel like you’re in a bubble or trapped at the bottom of a well, with no way to climb out and enjoy the outside world. There is no work-life balance. Zero,” said Makhija, who first quit Byju’s in January 2021 after 18 months there. “We are treated like slaves. At what cost are they making their revenue, their valuation? By crushing us,” he added.

Makhija said he rejoined Byju’s in July because he needed the money but was suspended in August—for a month—after he complained about aggressive behaviour by his managers. He quit again in October but said he is still “haunted” by the actions of his managers, who he says shouted at and manhandled him. “It got so bad that I had to seek professional help, and eventually got diagnosed with anxiety,” said Makhija, who is now unemployed and looking for a job. “I get terrible flashbacks.”

Bjyu’s did not respond to a request for comment on Makhija’s account.

India’s labour and IT ministries did not respond to repeated requests for comment about Context’s reporting. While the government has raised concerns over edtech firms’ treatment of customers—such as false advertising of products—worker abuses appear to be going under the radar, advocates say.

Labour lawyers, academics and workers’ rights experts are warning that without strict oversight, employees risk bearing the brunt of unchecked exploitation as edtech startups, not only Byju’s, race to become the next big players in India’s economy.

“Currently it’s a free-for-all,” said economist K.R. Shyam Sundar, who has written widely on labour reforms in India, and is calling for regulation of the sector including a dedicated edtech policy to ensure the welfare and protection of workers. “In this scenario, labour rights is always the first victim,” he added.

Job insecurity

Reports of poor work conditions and abusive practices have emerged not just at Byju’s but across India’s edtech industry.

Context also interviewed three workers from Vedantu - two current and one former - and four at Unacademy presently, who highlighted high-pressure environments, being encouraged to mis-sell products, and having their pay cut arbitrarily. These employees also said there is little job security.

Vedantu, which is another Bengaluru-based edtech giant, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

A spokesperson for Unacademy, an edtech startup backed by Japan’s SoftBank, said the company strongly denied the workers’ accounts as “a factually incorrect representation of our culture” and that it was “focused on enhancing and nurturing growth of every employee”.

Byju Raveendran, founder of Byju’s.
Byju Raveendran, founder of Byju’s. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

While labour activists are concerned about conditions across the sector, Byju’s has faced the most scrutiny in recent years. Backed by Tiger Global—one of the world’s largest hedge funds—Byju’s was a big beneficiary of the spurt in demand for virtual learning in India during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It also attracted investment from some of the top venture capital funds and financiers—like China’s Tencent, US-based Sequoia Capital and General Atlantic, and Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan’s Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative—to fund its breakneck growth.

But demand started fading with the reopening of schools and global economic uncertainty, according to industry analysts. The startup, one of the most valuable in the world at $22 billion, in September reported a loss of Rs.45.64 billion ($550.5 million) for the 2021 fiscal year, and revenue fell three per cent.

As Byju’s faces a tougher business climate, more complaints have emerged about its work culture and business model. Criticism has been rife on social media—from former staff to industry watchers—over what they call unethical practices such as aggressive selling tactics, delays in cancellation requests, and a lack of refunds.

Byju’s recent unveiling of football star Lionel Messi as a brand ambassador—shortly after announcing a plan to lay off 2,500 of its 50,000-strong workforce—was widely condemned on social media platforms by former workers and industry experts.

Staff told Context they increasingly fear for their jobs, and feel pressured to work even harder as colleagues are laid off. According to the 26 workers interviewed, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisals, they are often expected to work at least 12-hour shifts six days a week.

Byju’s worker contracts seen by Context do not specify the number of hours an employee has to work in a day or a week. The Byju’s spokesperson said that no manager was encouraged or allowed to make their teams work more than a five-day week. “In cases when an employee has to work on an extra day, it is always on a voluntary basis and with extra compensation paid for the extra effort,” said the company representative.

However, employees said they are regularly expected to work beyond 12 hours a day—sometimes for seven days a week—without any additional pay, and that they have to accept the extra hours and shifts for fear of losing their jobs.

Each state in India has its own rules to regulate wages, work hours, leave, holidays, terms of service, and other work conditions for employees. Fourteen of the Byju’s workers are based in Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka, where regulations state that an employee must not work more than nine hours a day and 48 hours a week. Beyond that limit, they are entitled to overtime pay by law.

‘Suffer like hell’

Byju’s offers online tuition to a wide range of clients - from the parents of pupils as young as six to adults trying to pass competitive exams for engineering and civil services.

Most employees describe work as an endless grind to meet weekly sales targets of at least Rs.1,00,000, which means selling between one or four courses depending on their value. To do so, salespeople not only spend hours on the phone each day but frequent places including schools, malls, and temples to persuade people to sign up, often low-income workers—from market sellers to tuk-tuk drivers—who are not digitally savvy.

“You have to let go of your conscience and be absolutely shameless to do this job,” said a former salesperson who quit in September, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I (was) so wracked with guilt sometimes, I could barely sleep at night,” she said, recounting times when she had barged into people’s homes, shamed them into buying a course for their children, and blocked their numbers if they asked for refunds.

Makhija said Byju’s did not train employees on how to make sales, but expected them to close deals by any means necessary. “It doesn’t matter how you do it - do unethical things, promise fake things, make false commitments, mislead, misguide,” he said. “Do whatever you have to do to make a sale. We want revenue at the end of the day - that’s their message to us.”

On their one day off a week, Byju’s workers say they are bombarded by emails and messages from their managers, many of which were seen by Context.

In a WhatsApp group, one manager questioned attitudes among her team of salespeople and said “trust that I will make you suffer like hell under me” as she threatened to mark them as absent, cut their day’s pay, and place them on performance improvement programmes (PIP) if they did not meet their targets.

“Don’t drop me any kind of message stating you people are not well ... So do not think of even asking for any such kind of leave,” the manager said in a following message. “You wanna tag HR, go ahead.”

The CRUX
Byju’s employees say its success is built on exploitation
Staff describe being made to work long hours under threats
Byju’s says it upholds ‘highest safe workplace standards’
Labour rights experts demand edtech policy to help workers

Many employees said that failing to meet targets means they are not allowed to take lunch breaks, while five recalled how they had been physically stopped from leaving work - with managers locking their bags away or holding them by their arms.

Byju’s said it had a robust mechanism for such complaints, and that it did not set “irrational targets” for its workers. “Managers are encouraged to look at the quality rather than quantity of work,” the spokesperson said. “In the last two years, we have doubled down on fostering an environment where employees feel physically and emotionally healthy, safe, and supported.”

All of the workers said it is nearly impossible to take any kind of leave including their entitled one sick day a month. They said they also rarely get any bank holidays, and almost never take any annual leave because requests are never approved.

One Bengaluru-based employee said her manager did not let her go to see her ill mother after she was hospitalised in Mumbai in August. “He said: ‘You get paid to work, not to go on trips’ as if I was going on a vacation,” she said. “We are treated like animals ... This job is not for the faint-hearted.”

Byju’s spokesperson said the firm’s leave and work policies were on par with the best human resources practices globally. “Employee well-being is a top priority for us at Byju’s and we take proactive steps to ensure that all our employees strike a healthy balance in their work lives,” the representative said.

Crackdown on organising

In recent years, factions of Byju’s workers have tried to rally and unite colleagues—be it on WhatsApp groups or LinkedIn forums—to demand better work conditions. However, they have faced stiff opposition from Byju’s.

One 30-year-old, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of harming his job prospects, said he was fired after he and another colleague set up two WhatsApp groups in September, urging other salespeople to unite and fight for their rights. They demanded workplace changes such as set work hours, being fairly marked for their attendance, and an end to the arbitrary use of PIPs to discipline employees or fire them.

Nearly 1,000 salespeople joined the two WhatsApp groups, which were seen by Context. But that figure fell by more than half within weeks after managers started threatening workers if they were found to be part of “anti-organisation” groups. In WhatsApp messages seen by Context, one manager told her sales team they could “face termination” if they did not leave the two groups in question, demanding screenshots as proof.

The former salesman and co-founder of the WhatsApp groups recalled how senior managers had flown from offices across the country to question his team values and suitability for Byju’s. “(They) asked me to leave ... for standing against them, and I had to because it was really impossible for me to take that kind of pressure,” said the employee, who was the sole bread winner of his family. “I’m getting married (next month) and I don’t have a job,” he said over WhatsApp. “Byju’s is not a firm, it’s a jail.”

About half a dozen workers said that the HR department had turned a blind eye to their complaints, and actively discourages employees from escalating issues to upper management. Byju’s did not respond to requests for comment on the 30-year-old’s account or questions about organising and dissent.

Manjari Singh, a human resources professor at the Indian Institute of Management in western Ahmedabad city, said “there was no easy solution” for workers trying to organise or obtain legal recourse over the abusive conditions they describe. “(Workers) have to come together and fight, but it has to go beyond emails, social media and WhatsApp groups,” said Singh, urging Byju’s employees to take their cases to court.

Sheena Ogra, a partner at Delhi-based law firm Ahlawat & Associates with expertise in employment law, said workers often hesitated to take legal action for fear of being “blacklisted”. “They have a fear that tomorrow, no employer may want to hire them if they take on the company, or that they may not get proper experience letters from their existing organisations,” she said. “It can be very tricky.”

Middle-class aspirations

Tech and labour law experts say the edtech sector straddles a host of laws and regulations such as the IT legislation and national e-commerce standards, and avoids scrutiny in the absence of a specific policy to regulate the industry. While the sector largely operates without regulatory scrutiny, experts fear that edtech companies could exploit the hopes and ambitions of a growing number of workers who come from humble backgrounds.

Nearly half of the Byju’s employees interviewed by Context said they came from low-income households and were the first in their families to go to university. They said they want to provide a better life for their relatives with their education, and stressed that it is one of the main reasons they tolerate abuses at the company. Many also feel trapped because they desperately need their monthly salary to pay off various bills and debts.

Nitesh Kumar, a former Byju’s salesman, quit last month as part of a mass resignation of at least 40 employees, saying he had been mistreated in various ways in two separate stints. The first time, the 26-year-old said he was forced to quit by the company after he fractured his leg in a road accident. After rejoining, Kumar said he had been subjected to 15-hour work shifts, denied lunch breaks, had his pay cut, and ordered to work when ill because he had not met his sales targets.

Byju’s did not respond to requests for comment on Kumar’s account.

He said he had initially planned to stay at the company until the end of the year in order to clear loans for his family car and his sister’s wedding. “(But) they (Byju’s) made the working conditions so awful, so unbearable with ridiculous targets that I thought I would rather default than suffer any more of this,” said Kumar, who is now looking for another job. “I escaped a proper cesspit ... and finally feel at peace.”

Byju’s pushed them into debt, say Indian parents

Rakesh Kumar was playing with his daughter at a park in northern India one evening in September when two smartly dressed salesmen approached the carpenter and father-of-three. The men said they worked for Byju’s and pitched a Rs.36,000 ($435) tuition course for Kumar’s 11-year-old daughter, saying it would be her golden ticket to success.

Initially intrigued, Kumar allowed the men into his home, where they quizzed his child for two hours, said she was academically “weak”, and pressured him to buy the course. At first, he refused as the cost seemed unaffordable with his monthly salary of about Rs.20,000 working at a woodshop.

“But then they said things like ‘Your daughter will end up poor like you’ and ‘You should be ashamed for trying to stop her from succeeding in life’,” the 41-year-old said at his workplace in the city of Faridabad, located on the outskirts of Delhi. “I finally caved and ... made the worst decision of my life,” Kumar told Context.

“We are in a financial mess,” he said, adding that he had borrowed money from his brother-in-law in October and was not sure when or how he would be able to pay him back.

Kumar’s experience with Bjyu’s is not unique - scores of Indian consumers have been airing similar grievances online. Byju’s is facing a range of complaints on social media platforms and consumer websites from customers who say they were exploited and deceived, putting their savings and futures in jeopardy.

Twenty-two Byju’s customers, several from low-income homes, told Context how they had been aggressively targeted by salespeople, with some coerced into paying for courses, tricked into taking out loans, and ultimately left out of pocket.

Most were parents who said Byju’s staff took advantage of a desire to provide the best education for their children, and encroached on their privacy by ambushing them in public, pressuring them at home, or secretly collecting their data.

Complaints to Byju’s and requests for refunds were generally ignored - leaving customers with little recourse, they said.

In response to a list of emailed questions from Context, Byju’s denied any wrongdoing. Regarding the criticism from workers, the spokesperson said that the workplace was the “healthiest and most welcoming” in corporate India.

‘Loss after loss’

In Kumar’s case, one of the Bjyu’s salesmen told him he could get a refund of his Rs.7,000 down payment within the 15-day trial period. The other salesman took his phone and identity cards to sign him up for a loan without his consent, which he only realised later when he started receiving reminder text messages from a third-party finance firm about an upcoming monthly installment.

Kumar said he thought he was only signing up for Byju’s course, not a loan. “The next day I changed my mind,” he said. “I knew I didn’t have that kind of money. I’m just a labourer, with four people to feed at home ... I called the (salesmen) to get my refund. But they disappeared.”

Since early October, Rs.4,000 have been deducted from Kumar’s bank account in monthly payments to Byju’s. He has visited a Byju’s centre a dozen times to try to cancel his course, but said he is still being charged despite being told by various employees that the cancellation process was underway.

Kumar said his brother-in-law has filed a police complaint against Byju’s but that no action had been taken so far. “It is just loss after loss with no help in sight,” he said. Byju’s did not reply to requests for comment on his case.

THE CRUX
Several Byju’s clients denounce ‘aggressive’ sales tactics
Customers report being pressured into buying courses
Vulnerable and low-income people targeted, say advocates
Byju’s says it operates to ‘highest ethical standards’

Staff at Byju’s, consumer rights experts, industry watchers, and digital rights campaigners say Kumar’s experience highlights an unscrupulous business model that preys on vulnerable people. Those targeted are often from poor backgrounds, have little education, and are not tech-savvy, with experts warning they are less likely to understand the possible fallouts of Byju’s offerings, or know their rights or avenues of redress.

Amid increasing criticism of Bjyu’s and its peers, calls have been growing not only for proper government regulation of the sector—which does not function under any specific law or policy—but also for investors to perform more due diligence.

Ashok R. Patil, head of consumer law and practice at the Consumer Affairs Ministry, told Context it had been examining complaints against edtech firms, while the education minister has said a policy to regulate the sector is underway.

The Education Ministry has advised consumers to be cautious about claims made and services offered by edtech companies—such as being “lured” into opting for auto-debit payments on some courses—and warned the firms to act in a transparent way.

Byju’s told Context it strongly refuted customers’ complaints of mis-selling and false advertising, among other criticisms. Its spokesperson said every sale made was verified by an internal audit team, and pointed to a recent audit carried out by global consultancy Bain & Company—at the behest of an investor—which found that Byju’s did not mis-sell “at all”.

Byju’s has more than 7.5 million paid customers, the representative said, adding that of more than 150,000 products sold each month, they only got about 1,500 demands for a refund, which are given without question if within the trial period.

Consumer complaints

For Bengaluru-based Byju’s—which was founded in 2011 and launched its now-ubiquitous learning app in 2015—the COVID-19 pandemic proved a boon as schools shut and students turned to online learning, spurring it to go on a buyout spree of smaller companies and attract major investments from around the world. But its success began to wane as children went back to their classrooms and the global economic outlook turned gloomy.

As Byju’s deals with losses, it is also increasingly facing criticism from parents and students. Many clients recounted how they had called Byju’s customer support to cancel their subscription during the trial period, only to later find their requests had never been registered and that the refund eligibility period had ultimately lapsed.

ConsumerComplaints.in, an independent website, has 3,759 complaints raised against Byju’s - with 1,397 resolved and 2,362 unresolved cases. These grievances include cancellation delays, issues with obtaining refunds, and aggressive marketing tactics. By comparison, the website shows fewer than 350 complaints apiece against other major edtech firms including Simplilearn, Vedantu, Unacademy, and the now-bankrupt Lido Learning.

Customers such as Kumar—who have no knowledge of or access to social media platforms and complaint-resolution sites where they can air their grievances—are left with nowhere to turn.

Shaba Sheikh said she has lost more than Rs.30,000 since enrolling her son for Lido Learning’s classes last December in a year-long payment plan. “I have never felt so stressed,” Sheikh said over the phone from Mumbai.

Even though the startup folded earlier this year due to a major cash crunch, about Rs.2,100 are auto-debited from her bank account every month, Sheikh said, adding that she had no way to stop it until the last installment was taken this month.

Sheikh said she had appealed to her bank to stop the monthly deductions, but was told that only the company could do so. “We stopped eating meat to curb our expenses,” said the mother-of-three, whose husband makes about Rs.20,000 a month driving a taxi. “We are barely getting by.”

‘Buccaneering business’

Lawmakers, digital rights activists, and academics have demanded greater scrutiny and oversight of the edtech sector, which functions under a host of legislation and regulations such as the IT law and national e-commerce standards. These advocates and critics say the absence of a specific edtech policy allows firms to effectively operate with impunity.

“(Edtechs) have been preying on people with very predatory practices ... exploiting the psyche of Indian parents and the lacunae in our education system,” said lawmaker Karti Chidambaram, who has raised the issue in parliament. “They have done completely buccaneering business here,” Chidambaram said, adding that there has not been “any kind of governmental intervention” to date.

However, in January, India’s Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan said he was concerned about edtech companies exploiting students through loan-based courses, and that he was in talks with the IT and law ministries about a common policy to regulate the sector.

Soon after, all of the country’s leading edtech firms formed a self-regulatory body - the India Edtech Consortium (IEC). The body allows consumers to file grievances on its website, and details its code of conduct which includes ethical sales practices, and transparent and clear communication of policies around loans, financing, and refunds.

The IEC did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the number and nature of complaints received and resolved. In July, the Consumer Affairs Ministry warned the IEC against unfair trade practices, including misleading advertisements and fake reviews. For now, social media appears the best—or only—bet for disgruntled consumers desperate to get their money back.

Ranjana Sharma, who said she was “defrauded” by Byju’s and owed a refund of more than Rs.60,000, said the firm got in touch after she complained on Twitter and returned her money. “They mentally harassed me,” she said by phone from the northern city of Amritsar. “Not only did they humiliate and shame us, they surreptitiously put me on a loan scheme, and registered two fake students under my number.

“I went to the police, wrote to the government, the central bank ... I did everything, but finally went on Twitter,” Sharma added. “That was the only thing that helped.” Byju’s did not respond to requests for comment on her case.

‘We know almost everything’

Consumers and digital rights campaigners have also raised concerns about data privacy and the prospect of edtech companies’ apps profiling children for commercial purposes - such as through highly targeted content and advertisements.

When Moushumi Das answered a call from a Byju’s salesman in August, she was shocked by how much he already knew about her son - including his name, his grade and the school he attended. “I felt scared. I felt like he had been stalked. So I kept asking how this (Byju’s) guy knew all this ... but he hung up,” she said by phone from the eastern city of Kolkata.

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report published in May found that many government-endorsed edtech apps, including in India, put children’s privacy at risk by harnessing their data. Byju’s was not one of the apps examined by the organisation.

Many parents, including Sheikh and Sharma, said companies such as Byju’s often partnered with local schools to offer tutoring services, making students fill out forms with all sorts of details—including mobile numbers, emails, and addresses—which were then used by them to make marketing calls.

Several Byju’s employees told Context the company had access to information such as the kind of phone model being used, a child’s name, age and grade, among other things, to target potential leads and fine-tune pitches. “We know almost everything before we call you,” a Byju’s salesman said, on condition of anonymity to protect his job.

In response, the Byju’s spokesperson told Context the company “does not track or store any data for which it does not explicitly seek permission from its users”.

Tech policy experts including Nivedita Krishna of the Bengaluru-based Wadhwani Foundation said that in the absence of a data protection law in India, there are few safeguards and no recourse if citizens’ digital rights are violated. “We very quickly need a data protection or data privacy law that provides enough and more comfort to the average citizen of India, and when we do that, indirectly, we will also address children’s safety online,” said Krishna.

For Kumar, he said his sole focus is now to make ends meet. He has closed his bank account to stop any more deductions by Byju’s, and taken on freelance carpentry work in nearby apartments on top of his regular job to recover his losses.

“I will do whatever I can for my children. I want them to study, get (degrees), work in proper air-conditioned offices,” said Kumar, who dropped out of school when he was 11. “I do not want them to end up like me, because that would be my biggest failure.”

This was originally published as a two-part investigation on the Context Newsroom, which is powered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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