Representational Image. Image Courtesy: Business Standard
Kolkata: Over 400 workers participated in the first formal rally organised by the All India IT and ITES Employees’ Union (AIIIEU) in Kolkata’s Sector V, the hub of IT and IT-enabled services (ITES) in the state on November 18. With this rally, the trade union activists in West Bengal have finally been able to overcome the resistance preventing them from establishing a presence in the state’s IT and ITES sector.
The AIIIEU, affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), has begun its activity in the state at a time when another outfit called the Kolkata Forum of IT Employees (FITE) has sought registration from the West Bengal government’s labour department under the Trade Union Act, 1926. This body applied for registration about six months back and the labour department has held hearing with the office-bearers.
The unfolding situation suggests that if and when this applicant gets registration, West Bengal will have two IT sector unions. This will be a marked departure from the disappointment that the state’s trade union activists have had to face in their attempts to organise employees in the IT sector.
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Previously, CITU had mounted its efforts 13 years back, in 2006, and got a union under the West Bengal IT Services Association registered under the Societies Act. But, it could not register any progress in the then prevailing situation – unity of IT workers was then frowned upon by the IT corporates who were then being feverishly wooed by several state governments at a time.
“Moreover, with higher take-home salary, employees and workers were least inclined to unionise themselves. They were then more content being reckoned as belonging to the creamy layer of the working class”, CITU leader Somnath Bhattachayra, who was actively involved with the exercise at that time, had told NewsClick earlier.
The second instalment of CITU’s efforts for a toehold in the state’s IT sector started in 2012 but even after waiting for nearly five years, it could not secure registration from the West Bengal labour department.
“The aim obviously was to unionise all categories—regular, contractual, casual, full-time, part-time—but the state labour department’s principal query, which proved an impediment, was whether they were workmen or not. This, despite the fact, that there is only a minor difference in definition of workmen under the Trade Union Act, 1926 and Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. Ultimately, we applied for registration in Maharashtra and we got it in about four months. Thereafter, we sought affiliation with CITU and started doing ground work” “the union’s president Prasanta Nandi Choudhury told NewsClick.
It was easy to fulfil Maharashtra’s stipulation – presence in at least four states and at least 100 members in each union. “We had established presence by then in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, National Capital Region, Maharashtra and Telangana. We started receiving requests for intervention as workplace hardship grew,” Choudhury added.
In West Bengal, the union hopes to spread its activity gradually at the other IT centres that have come up at Bantala in Kolkata and district towns such as, Siliguri, Durgapur and Asansol. “We are targeting a membership of at least 5,000 by next year and thereafter take it to 10,000 in the following three-four years. Those in the ITES segment are more easily approachable, compared to the IT segment where people consider themselves as super executives,” the union president said.
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As far as the rule regarding registering of trade unions in the IT and ITES sector in West Bengal are concerned, informed quarters say this trend has become more pronounced under the Trinamool Congress (TMC) regime headed by Mamata Banerjee. This is one sector which has attracted considerable investments in the state. Investments in manufacturing have not been forthcoming despite successive “Investment Summits”. The state government is, therefore, extra cautious in ensuring that trade union activity in the IT and ITES sector does not send a wrong signal to prospective investors in this sector.
“How come registration can be obtained in less than four months in industrially-advanced Maharashtra; but the ‘apolitical union’ has already waited for over five months and still the process of hearing is on?,” said a source talking about the State’s stance.
The union is optimistic of more opportunities for organising coming its way with the increasing incidence of retrenchment and downsizing. An argument being advanced by some IT companies these days to justify downsizing is that, new recruitments were made in anticipation of new business but, as that has not happened, they are forced to “shed excess staff”. Failure to upskill or improve performance is a reason frequently cited for threatening the people with job loss. Not only that, terms and conditions mentioned in the appointment letters which, prima facie, appear to be good, are often violated by the companies. Committed workplace amenities are not provided. Working hours often stretch to 14-15 hours but there are hardly any stress relief clinics and facilities for counselling. The absence of company-built crèches has led to emergence of private crèches, which charge hefty fees. All these issues add to the hardship of the employees in this sector, said Choudhury.