IT sector

From war protestors to labour activism: India’s first IT workers union is being formed in Tamil Nadu

As the sector faces massive lay-offs, the first independent employees' union is in the process of getting itself registered.

In 2008, as Tamil Nadu erupted in angry protests against the killings of Sri Lankan Tamils during that country’s civil war, a group of young software professionals in Chennai’s Tidel Park banded together to form a human chain. “Stop the War, Save Tamils” was their demand – a slogan that featured on posters, T-shirts and Orkut posts.

Nine years later, their agitation has led to the formation of India’s first independent union for information technology employees. Amid reports of large-scale layoffs by several Indian software firms companies, the Forum for Information Technology Employees, which evolved from the campaign to protect Tamils in Sri Lanka, is in the process of getting itself registered formally as a union for technology employees in India. It will be the first independent association of its kind in the country.

Previous attempts to organise the estimated 2.8 million employees of the country’s information technology sector have failed to make much headway. “Normally, the middle class has an aversion to political activity,” said J Jayaprakash, a member of the forum.

But in recent months, insecurity has been running high among India’s information technology employees. Approximately 4.5% of employees are expected to lose their jobs over the next few months, reported Mint, attribution the turbulence to the companies’ “under-preparedness in adapting to newer technologies and dealing with the fallout from US President Donald Trump’s protectionist policies”. It added that at least 56,0000 employees of top software companies such as Infosys, Wipro and Cognizant are expected to lose their jobs over the next year.

This uncertainty has made employees realise the need for collective action. Said Jayaprakash: “Since we ourselves are IT employees who have started this, people trust us to take up their issues. It is a homegrown solution to their problems.”

Hard times

Jayaprakash said professionals who joined the industry around 2005 and have 10 years to 20 years of work experience will be hit the hardest by the turbulence. In their place, younger employees on lower salaries are expected to be hired.

“The companies call this ‘trimming the extra fat’,” he said. “But they do not realise that each and every employee has a family to support.”

After starting off as a protest lobby to bring attention to the state of Tamils in Sri Lanka, the group went on to become the Young Tamil Nadu Movement, highlighting problems such as caste oppression, minority rights and gender inequality in the workplace, among others. Since most of the members were technology professionals, they decided to form a support group for their coworkers, listening to their grievances and finding ways to tackle them. Today, the Forum for Information Technology Employees has over 1,000 online members and around 100 active members. It has opened chapters in eight other cities including Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Delhi.

The leaders include Vasumathi, who once worked for Tata Consultancy Services. “I am not a victim of lay-offs or discriminatory practices,” said Vasumathi,who is the group’s vice-president. “But when I saw how people were suffering from job losses, I decided to pitch in to help.”

The group has already fought several cases on behalf of employees who were indiscriminately fired. In one instance, its efforts resulted in Tata Consultancy Services reinstating a pregnant woman employee who had been dismissed despite a good performance record.

Top technology firms are expected to lay off 56,0000 employees over the next year, say media reports. Photo credit: Vivek Prakash/Reuters.
Top technology firms are expected to lay off 56,0000 employees over the next year, say media reports. Photo credit: Vivek Prakash/Reuters.

Long road for unions

Another such group working for software professionals in Chennai is the information technology wing of the New Democratic Labour Front, a labour union that is active across Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. The wing – which came up at around the same time as the Forum for Information Technology Employees – was instrumental in getting the state government to clarify in June last year that information technology employees have the right to form labour unions under the Industrial Disputes Act.

“In Tamil Nadu, we have a tradition of standing up to oppression right from the Dravidian movement,” said Kumar, a member of the New Democratic Labour Front. According to him, this is because the state has a high percentage of reservation in education for members of backward classes and many of them have gone on to become a part of the information technology industry. “Some do get corrupted by their peers,” Kumar said. “But most stay true to their humble backgrounds. Many of their parents still work as farmers in villages across Tamil Nadu. These people have an innate sense of justice and not entitlement.”

But getting the workforce together to protest against unfair company practices has not been easy. Since the industry’s growth in the 1990s and subsequent boom in the early 2000s, resistance among workers to unfair practices such as forced resignations, low pay, indiscriminate firing and wage discrimination has been low. The fear of being blacklisted by companies for voicing their problems is always at the back of their minds, according to Vasumathi of the Forum for Information Technology Employees. “Even if the employee applies for a job elsewhere, they are worried that a background check would show them as a trouble-maker,” said Vasumathi.

In Mumbai, labour lawyer Vinodh Shetty attempted to form a union for business process outsourcing workers, but faced several challenges in getting people on a common platform. The employees often did not have the time or inclination for such group activity.

“But this does not mean it cannot be done,” said Shetty. “All it needs is a core group that is knowledgeable and enlightened, who give up their partisan demands to voice more general demands. If it is an industry-wide demand, instead of that of one section of the company, it will work.”

An executive of NASSCOM said that the software industry lobby group “had no say in the matter”. This person said: “Unions can be formed by employees. It is up to the state government, employees and companies.”

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