The information technology (IT) industry’s demand to state governments to relax labour laws for the services sector invited flak from employees’ union, according to whom, bringing in such reforms would push tech workers to further “precarity”.
Industry lobby group National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) sought permission to temporary lay off surplus employees and an extension in work-hour limits among other demands, The Economic Times reported on Friday. The sector felt “left out” from the recently announced labour reforms since it is not covered under the Factories Act, 1948.
Union representatives allege that such exemptions from labour provisions – a long pending demand of IT companies – are being pushed by the lobbies in the garb of coping with economic repercussions arising from the novel coronavirus outbreak.
“The IT industry, unlike the manufacturing industry, has not come to a halt. The companies have not seen much impact on their revenues due to the lockdown. The employees are being made to work from their homes,” Kiran Chandra, President of Forum of IT Professionals (ForIT), told NewsClick.
“It is utter nonsense to demand labour exemptions since the argument of companies does not hold water,” he said. It will have “overarching” effects on the employees, he added.
“Relaxing labour laws for the service industry will usher in a devastating future for its workforce – the same as for workers from any other industry,” Padmaja Pawar of the Forum for IT Employees (FITE), told NewsClick.
Pawar added that the service industry was already marred by contractualisation and the outsourcing of jobs; factors which have resulted in the prevailing job insecurity among IT employees. Further exemptions will ensure that the companies do not adhere to even the “bare-minimum” of labour standards, she added.
Alagunambi Welkin, general secretary of Union of IT and ITES Employees (UNITE), held similar concerns. “Adherence to labour provisions has always been rare in the service industry – even among the big IT giants. This is because of the existing ignorance of workers’ rights among the employees, who are over-burdened with work at times,” he said.
According to Welkin, a relaxation in laws would only regularise illegal industry-friendly practices that have been ubiquitous for years within the service sector.
Both Welkin and Pawar agreed that the relaxation from labour laws will present a challenge to unions – formed not so long ago – which will be left with no legal framework to fight for the rights of IT employees.
Adding to their woes, the GDP numbers released by the Centre on Friday revealed a drop in India’s key service industries, which slumped to 1.6 per cent growth from 4.7 per cent in the previous quarter. The story has been similar for other sectors as well, which have seen economic activity coming to a grinding halt due to the lockdown.
On one hand, while this explains the reported lay-offs, even among white-collared jobs, IT unions believe that it is only a continuation of the trend which began last year and has now been triggered by the pandemic.
“The world was already reeling under a ‘synchronised slowdown’, effects of which were pronounced in India as well. Lay-offs and retrenchments began last year only due to the dipping profit rates. It is a ‘structural crisis’ that we are witnessing in all sectors, which had been in the making for years,” explained Welkin.
He argued that the narrative that IT companies were looking to ‘cope’ with the economic downturn is an “eyewash”, when the pandemic has actually “benefitted” these companies who can be seen pushing for several sweeping changes in the work environment that would not have been possible in normal times.
“Due to the lockdown in place, most of the IT companies have allowed their employees to work from home – which has actually resulted in overburdened employees. It is because now the difference between work-time and personal time has been blurred,” Welkin said. “Our union is receiving several complaints of employees who are now being forced to work for twelve hours from home or face a pay cut,” he added.
Furthermore, costs of maintaining office spaces have been hugely reduced, which, thereby, improve the dipping profit margins of these companies, he added.
The government must come forward to actually support the IT employees who will be pushed to the edge if such demands by lobby groups are accepted, according to Welkin. To avert this, UNITE has come up with a set of demands which includes reduction of work-time to six hours and a right to ‘disconnect’ from the work.