IT workers turning to unions as tech layoff tsunami reaches India

Around 160 workers attended the first conference by a major IT union, AIITEU, in New Delhi on Nov 25, 2022, as mass layoffs hit the tech sector. PHOTO: AIITEU

BENGALURU - Thousands of tech professionals at risk of losing their jobs are fighting retrenchment by complaining to government authorities and, most surprisingly for the elite industry, joining trade unions.

Last week, Amazon India e-mailed its over 100,000 employees across the country, offering a voluntary separation programme (VSP). It said eligible employees across eight levels can resign by Nov 30 to avail themselves of a severance package that included at least 22 weeks’ base pay.

Mr Harpreet Singh, president of the 2,700-member strong Pune-based Nascent Information Technology Employees Senate (Nites), said he received 18 to 20 distress calls from Amazon employees there.

Nites sent a letter on Nov 19 to Indian labour minister Bhupender Yadav, alleging that the VSP at Amazon India violated labour laws by laying off staff without government permission. Amazon India on Wednesday denied this in a hearing before the ministry, saying it had not sacked any employees, but only let go of those who chose the VSP.

Amazon India did not respond to The Straits Times’ queries at the time of publishing.

Most Indian IT workers are employed by local software giants such as Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services and Wipro, which have laid off thousands of workers since the pandemic, save for a short hiring bonanza late last year.

This month, as big tech multinationals like Meta, Google, Amazon and Twitter lay off staff globally, their India offices are also seeing painful exits.

“The mass layoffs and lack of jobs in the IT market has caused a lot of stress to employees. But most of them have no idea how to fight this,” said Mr Vinod AJ, general secretary of the Chennai-based Forum for IT Employees (Fite).

The first IT union in India, Fite has more than 15,000 registered members, the majority of whom joined in the last five years.

Nites’ Mr Singh said that recent layoffs had “broken many myths prevailing in the IT industry”, including that IT employees are not covered under labour laws, and that they are not allowed to unionise.

Fite’s Mr Vinod, who works in a major tech company, said the “IT mindset” for at least a decade has been that they were not workers, but professionals. “We thought unions were for factory workers in failing industries,” he added.

Seeing employees of Google, Starbucks and Amazon form unions amid layoffs in the United States in recent years has legitimised the organised mobilisation and collective bargaining for Indian tech employees too.

Most IT unions in India, however, are not related to a specific company. Unlike unions in other sectors, most are also unaffiliated to political parties.

The West Bengal secretary of the All India IT and IT-Enabled Services Employees’ Union (AIITEU), Mr C. Das, said IT staff from over 90 companies asked for help during the pandemic.

AIITEU reportedly helped 32,000 people in various states keep their jobs by creating awareness about the legal procedure companies were required to follow to retrench employees.

Mr Surya Prakash, secretary of the Delhi chapter of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions, said that unlike manufacturing sector workers, IT employees “are very difficult to mobilise because most of them belong to the upper class and upper caste, and don’t consider themselves oppressed”.

They often “treat unions as service providers rather than solidarity groups”, but if layoffs continued for longer, attitudes may change, he added.

Mr Das admitted that he too had refused to join a union in 2009, saying it was for “stupid and lazy people”, but joined AIITEU in 2017 after a close friend committed suicide over the fear of losing his IT job.

“We techies turn a blind eye to many things because we are paid well, but the shine of our sector is already fading,” he said.

He cited examples of shrinking increments, illegal bonds in work contracts that impose hefty fines on employees who quit before two years, unclear salary breakdowns, and 15-hour work days as the norm.

A 2021 study also found that many women employees were fired while being pregnant.

“With or without unions, we must learn to question all these injustices and illegalities that we have accepted as the IT work culture,” Mr Das said.

As awareness grows, Indian tech workers are growing less shy of using political pressure too.

A group of employees from Byju’s, the world’s biggest edtech start-up, met Kerala labour minister V. Sivankutty on Oct 25 alleging that the firm was forcing more than 140 workers to resign as it looked to discontinue operations in Thiruvananthapuram.

Byju’s said a few days later that it would not close the office. 

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