Union in Kolkata

Print edition : December 01, 2006

While the debate goes on whether trade unions must be allowed in the IT sector, the CITU forms one in West Bengal.

At the launch of the ITSA in Kolkata on November 14, West Bengal CITU president Shyamal Chakraborty and others.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

November 14 was a historic day for the labour movement in West Bengal and the Information Technology (IT) industry. It marked the launch of the West Bengal Information Technology Services Association (ITSA) by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the first foray into the IT sector anywhere in the country by the trade union wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Bangalore, Gurgaon, Hyderabad, Pune and Chennai in any order may well be the next IT hubs to have trade unions.

The debate - to have or not to have trade unions and the right to strike in the IT sector - continues, but the ITSA seems to have tilted the scales in favour of unions. On stage at its official launch were, among others, West Bengal CITU president and Adviser of the ITSA Shyamal Chakraborty, Member of Parliament and president of the ITSA Amitava Nandy, and State Transport Minister Subhas Chakraborty, who is also the vice-president of the CITU.

Although Shyamal Chakraborty reassured the people that the ITSA posed no threat to law-abiding IT companies and was aimed at the errant ones, the IT industry is clearly jittery. The chief executive officer (CEO) of one of the biggest home-grown business process outsourcing (BPO) companies in Kolkata told Frontline on the condition of anonymity: "Nobody in this sector is going to take this lightly. This is not a step in the right direction. Ours is a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week global service and very time-specific. Logging in and logging out has to take place on the dot. There is no concept here of catching up on work."

In an industry where the average age of employees is 23 years, the CITU's ideals, however lofty, may not be of much attraction. "Take a look at the situation a few years ago," said the CEO, "when there were no job avenues for those with B.A., B.Sc, or B.Com degrees. Today's kids want to have the latest cell phones, trendy watches and the money to afford them. This sector gives them a profession and the means to afford their aspirations."

He is emphatic that the sector will not allow its employees to participate in the ITSA. A senior BPO worker confirmed it. "If I am known to be a member of this association, I might as well change my line of work because I will be considered untouchable by all companies in the sector."

Undoubtedly, the CITU also realises this. At the ITSA launch, Shyamal Chakraborty announced the names of five establishments, which he said were notorious for firing employees "without any reason". They were: Octogon, Papyrus, Pritam, Bishnu Solutions and Oxygen. Ten employees fired by these organisations, who have joined the ITSA, were present on the occasion, but refused to heed Chakraborty's requests to them to come on the stage and speak out. Chakraborty explained: "They were reluctant to go on stage because their present employers have threatened to sack them if they did."

The fact is that even those 10 new anonymous ITSA members have not remained jobless after they had been laid off. "If you have an experience of just three months in this line, you can be assured of a job if you lose one. You may have to settle for a lower salary, but you can always bounce back," a BPO worker, barely two years in the profession, told Frontline. "Which industry can give you such an assurance? Which industry gives you a hike every six months?" he asked.

Contrary to popular opinion, the employees live more in fear of their employers than of the CITU. Seven out of 10 BPO workers said that they were extremely frustrated in their jobs. The nine-and-a-half-hour work schedule was an assurance only on paper. In most cases actual work time stretched to over 11 hours. Only the time between login and logout was accounted for, but there was work beyond that in the office.

It is true that most companies provide transport, but that again, in most cases, is hardly of much help. Said a call centre worker in a top company: "If my shift starts at 7 a.m., the office car picks me up at 5 a.m. and then picks up others. Similarly, if my shift ends, say, at 11 p.m., I can only be dropped once the car is available. It may be available only after it has finished dropping the employees of the previous shift, and I am dropped home well past midnight. So we are actually in `office-gear' for around 14 hours every day, with just one day off and that day, too, is not fixed." But then, the overall job situation in West Bengal is still such that for the majority of them it is a choice between sweating it out at work and no work at all.

The apprehensions of the IT bosses have to be understood in terms of the provisions of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. On the question whether IT is an essential service or not, a lot of discussions, and even altercations, among Left stalwarts, including Jyoti Basu, M.K. Pandhe and Subhas Chakraborty, have been reported in the press. However, the IDA speaks only of `public utility services'.

Section 22 of the IDA says: "No person employed in a public utility shall go on strike in breach of contract without giving a prior notice of six weeks... or during the pendency of any conciliation proceedings and seven days after conclusion of such proceedings." Similar provisions apply to the employers' lockout also.

Section 2(n) defines public utility services to include "any industry specified in the First Schedule which the appropriate government, if satisfied that public emergency or public interest so require, by notification in the official gazette declare to be a public utility service... " for a specified period not exceeding six months, which may be extended thereafter by six months at a time.

The list of public utility services in West Bengal include jute, fertilizers, batteries, distilleries and even go-downs used for storing export articles, which do not necessarily involve activities of grave emergency.

There is apparently no bar in law for a person (that is, an individual or a legal person like an association such as the ITSA) to go on strike after giving due notice, even though IT services have already been notified by the State government to be a public utility service.

The real risk involved in any disruptive activity, such as a strike, by employees is that the IT sector, which is now the prime mover of industrial development in the State, may fly to other destinations as other industries did in the turbulent 1970s. Even if technical personnel do not join the ITSA, a strike by the supporting staff such as drivers and security guards is enough to cause dislocation.

But the CITU can be expected to live up to its promise, keeping in view the importance of this sector to the State's economy.

As Shyamal Charkaborty said, "union does not mean only strike".

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