QUIET NO MORE

After years of suffering alone, docile Indian techies are now coming together to fight layoffs

Quartz india
Quartz india

Rajesh*, an employee of Cognizant in southern India, has a workday unlike most others in his company. The 29-year-old says he swipes his ID card at office, leaves the workplace, and spends time with friends all day, before returning, swiping the card again in the evening, and then heading home.

This has been Rajesh’s schedule for the last few weeks, ever since his company’s human resources (HR) team asked him to resign as a project associate, which is a software developer role. Branding him a low performer without substantiating the ranking, the company has been forcing him to resign “voluntarily,” Rajesh claims.

But despite the pressure, Rajesh has managed to hold on to his job, which he’s had for about a year now. And what’s giving him the confidence is the support of a small but growing group of techies like him, working under the banner of the Forum for IT Employees (FITE).

By supporting the likes of Rajesh, FITE and others like it are gradually laying the foundation for the unionisation of India’s $150 billion IT sector, which employs 3.9 million people. These groups say that they are essentially fighting for greater transparency in the appraisal process at IT firms, and job security for employees.

In recent weeks and months, as the sector has come under increasing pressure from growing protectionism in key markets and an urgent need to transform their core business models, these diffident voices of troubled white-collar workers seem to have become louder. But can they actually make a difference to the lives of ordinary Indian techies?

A different war

FITE has an unusual history. It came into being nearly a decade ago, during the civil war between Sri Lankan forces and Tamil rebels, after a group of young IT professionals came together in support of their fellow Tamilians, says Vasumathi, president of the forum’s Chennai chapter. Once the Sri Lankan Tamils issue settled down, the team named itself as Ilam Tamilakam. They fought for issues such as gender inequality and caste-based suppression, Vasumathi says.

 FITE will become only the second IT employee union in the country, after the New Democratic Labour Front–IT Employees Wing 

In 2014, when news broke of mass layoffs at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), now India’s largest IT company, the group began a campaign and then rebranded itself as FITE. “By then we have realised we cannot do campaigns every time… there should be a standard system in place, that’s why we have started this,” Vasumathi said.

Now again, as the chorus of layoffs at Indian IT companies grows, FITE is back in action. Over the last few weeks, the group’s membership has been growing. It already has chapters in Chennai, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kochi, Kolkata, and Bhubaneswar, and has close to 300 registered members. In all, it claims to back over 1,000 employees, like Rajesh, who are pushing back against their employers. It fulfils all the requirements to be recognised as an union for IT employees, according to Vasumathi.

If and when that happens, FITE will become only the second IT employee union in the country, after the New Democratic Labour Front–IT Employees Wing (NDLF-IT Wing). An offshoot of the 20-year-old NDLF, which operates in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, the union was launched in January 2015, when software professionals feared mass layoffs from TCS, according to S Kumar, a member of the NDLF-IT Wing. The union has about 200 registered members, and caters largely to employees from Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry as of now.

Opaque appraisals

Despite being new and small, the two groups have made sufficient noise lately. On May 18, a group of employees from the NDLF-IT Wing gathered on Chennai’s “IT corridor,” a wide boulevard that houses the offices of most IT companies that have operations in the city. After raising slogans to protest mass layoffs, the members of the NDLF-IT Wing met with the labour commissioner in Chennai requesting his intervention in the issue. Members of FITE, too, have filed petitions with the labour commissioners in various cities.

The list of complaints includes allegations of ill-treatment of employees, sudden layoffs on grounds of unsatisfactory performance, lack of transparency in the appraisal processes, and threats by supervisors.

IT companies deny that the appraisal process is arbitrary. Cognizant, for instance, says that the company follows a process of quarterly performance feedback that culminates in a year-end appraisal process, starting in January and ending in December. Employees are given continuous feedback, Cognizant insists, so the company can provide real-time evaluation of their performance.

In all, between January and March, 2017, Cognizant’s annualised attrition (i.e. the ratio of employees who leave to the average number of employees for the year) including BPO and trainees was 14.7%, roughly in line with the corresponding period a year ago, the company said.

“We have performance-related discussions with all employees irrespective of their ratings, based on their performance details and scores recorded in our HR systems,” Cognizant wrote in an email to Quartz. “Managers and talent managers have additional conversations with relative under-performers to counsel them on career opportunities available to them in light of their appraisal rating.”

Employees like Rajesh flatly disagree. “I argued with my manager, like, I don’t deserve this rating, why have you given me that. So he was giving vague arguments only,” he said. “He hasn’t given me any substantial reason why he has given me that rating.”

Techies from all the major IT companies, including Cognizant, Wipro, Tech Mahindra, Infosys, IBM, and Capgemini, have similar stories to tell, FITE and the NDLF-IT Wing claim. “In Wipro, they are calling them ‘Band Inertia’,” said Suresh Sakthi Murugan, legal advisor for the NDLF-IT Wing. Wipro insiders have told him that nearly 6,000 techies have been classified under this band and are at risk of being laid off, Murugan, also an advocate at the Madras high court, said. Wipro did not respond to emails from Quartz.

In all, union members say that dozens of employees from various IT firms have such complaints, and hundreds more are reaching out and seeking help, fearing they’ll be sacked.

Infosys, India’s second-largest IT firm, said that there have been no layoffs at the company. “The separations taking place are performance related,” Infosys said in an email. The company explained that it has a bi-annual assessment program under which “continued low feedback on performance could lead to certain performance actions, including separation of an individual and this is done only after feedback.”

 “While HR of IT companies would claim to be transparent, those laid off are likely to consider appraisal to be the perfect tool to confirm poor performance” 

Capgemini, too, said that its employees are “evaluated based on strict performance criteria in an objective process, consistent with industry norms.” Over 50,000 employees in India have undergone its up-skilling and emerging technologies training program, a spokesperson explained. “We have not announced any layoff plan. We expect to recruit more than 20,000 new team members in India this year,” Capgemini added.

Tech Mahindra did not respond to emails from Quartz; IBM declined to comment.

Some observers feel that there is a clear need for the appraisal process to becomes less opaque. “While HR of IT companies would claim to be transparent, those laid off are likely to consider appraisal to be the perfect tool to confirm poor performance and go ahead with layoff, when the real reasons are fall in demand and the likes,” said Piyali Ghosh, an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ranchi, who has studied the Indian IT industry’s workforce management.

“I welcome transparency in appraisal, as it would promote fairness at workplace in terms of hiring and firing,” she added. “IT companies must maintain clarity and transparency in assessing performance, right from conveying expectations.”

Intervention

Loaded with complaints, FITE and the NDLF-IT Wing are now seeking government intervention.

The NDLF-IT Wing has had three rounds of meetings with the labour commissioner in Chennai, while FITE has approached labour commissioners in Chennai, Hyderabad, and Pune.

There have been tripartite meetings between the members of the FITE, representatives of the IT companies, and the labour commissioner of Chennai as well. “In the first round, CTS (Cognizant Technology Solutions) management came down and they refused such layoffs, so we have submitted the proof also to them. They said they will investigate and get back,” Vasumathi of FITE said on May 24. “In the second round of conciliation that happened two-three days back, they did not even turn up… and without reason also.”

A third meeting was held on May 24, and FITE said in a statement that “Cognizant representatives had met the labour department commissioner before the scheduled time and had just repeated same words, ‘No layoffs happened.’ They had also left before the meeting started.”

The NDLF-IT Wing says that in addition to the ongoing layoffs, there is a larger issue that needs to be addressed.

“These IT companies are getting so many subsidies every year. In the MoU (memorandum of understanding) between government and IT companies for the first five years there is no tax for them. After that also (they pay) minimised taxes,” said the NDLF-IT Wing’s legal advisor Murugan. “This is public money. Why the government has given money to people (IT industry), because they are creating employment… but now they are creating non-employment and in illegal manner. So, now government has to intervene in the matter.” The union plans to file a public interest litigation before the Madras high court seeking the state government’s intervention, he added.

 “These IT companies are getting so many subsidies every year…This is public money.” 

HR consultants, however, are sceptical of what all this will lead to. Private companies are allowed to let go of employees as long as they fulfil the severance terms promised in the offer letters or contracts, says Alka Dhingra, assistant general manager at staffing firm TeamLease Services. “They are supposed to give the notice and companies have done that, paid (severance packages) out to these people… there is nothing legal that can happen at this stage,” she said. Unless, of course, companies let go of employees without notice, and refuse to stick to the terms agreed upon when the person was hired.

In any case, these layoffs and the agitations that come with them aren’t exactly new. “This happens every year, it is just this year it has happened a little more in terms of numbers as compared to last year, but this is going to be there for next two years too,” said Dhingra.

Every year, techies who are laid off make a lot of noise on social media but nothing really comes out of it. Eventually, the frustration dies down after a while and they go on to find other jobs. “But the problem is the other opportunities are not much right now,” Dhingra added.

For the IT industry, this growing spectre of unionisation is not without risk. “With inclusion of software companies in the ambit of Factories Act, 1948, the IT industry as a whole might gradually come under the purview of many labour legislations so long restricted to manufacturing processes,” said Ghosh of IIM-Ranchi.

“If IT workers do form or join a workers’ union, that would not change the way the industry functions, as long as such a union does not interfere in the way the company works,” she added. Yet, there are countless examples of disruptive unions that have hamstrung industries across the country.

It is now a waiting game for Rajesh. With backing from FITE and other colleagues in the same situation, he is clinging on to his job. And hoping for some “good news” from the labour commissioner.

(*Employee’s name has been changed to protect his identity)

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