‘The last bastion has been breached’ , lamented the Times of India on 6 January. TOI was referring to reports of growing unionization efforts among IT workers in response to Tata Consultancy Services’ (TCS) decision to fire thousands of workers for ‘non-performance’ in December. TCS is an arm of the immense Tata Group and the largest IT services provider in India. It leads a pack of powerful domestic firms, including Wipro, Infosys, Reliance and L&T Infotech, which dominate India’s dynamic IT industry. This industry was at the centre of the excitement in the last decade about India as one of the new ‘BRIC’ economies that would supposedly shape the 21st century (Wilson and Purushothaman, 2003; Friedman, 2006). In 2004, The Economist saw the IT industry as ‘the most obvious example’ of the Indian economy’s neoliberal transformation. And it remains a world leader, with TCS in the top 10 global IT firms by revenue.
Today, the IT-BPM (IT-Business Process Management) industry directly employs over three million people in India. It epitomizes ‘middle classes’, a collection of ‘upwardly mobile, more affluent, consumer groups who can afford to participate in the growing industrial markets’ such as cars, electronic goods and other trappings of consumer society (D’Costa, 2005: 46). Evidence suggests that the core of the IT workforce tends to come from relatively affluent, forward caste, urban-dwelling, highly-educated and English-speaking background (Murphy, 2011; Upadhya and Vasavi, 2006).
In other words, the social base of IT workers does not seem so favorable to unions. But does the TCS case signify a change in their fortunes? The TOI’s talk of the ‘last bastion’ comes with a dose of hyperbole. For a start, there are much more significant industries in India—in terms of number of workers—where most remain beyond the reach of unions or labour NGOs, such as export garments, construction, not to mention agriculture which still forms the largest section of India’s national labour market. However, TOI is onto something that has been building for a while: in recent years, unions have made several attempts to represent the concerns of IT workers.
To understand what is happening, one needs to look more closely at the structure of the IT industry. The term ‘IT-BPM’ is used to describe the industry by its representatives, led by the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM). This is a composite term that captures a range of quite different activities, including software services (export and domestic), software production, hardware production as well as ‘BPM’ (formerly known as BPO – Business Process Outsourcing – or IT-enabled services), which refers to back-office jobs like accounting, book/record-keeping, auditing and other tasks that can easily be outsourced to helpdesks or call centres. Software services is the ‘high end’ of the industry, where technology and skills are the most sophisticated and salaries the highest, although they can also be quite high (by Indian standards) in call centres. Despite high wages, research suggests that young workers, particularly in call centres, face serious problems related to excessive working hours, undue management pressure and few opportunities for career progression once they hit their 30s. These pressures can produce various stress-related mental and physical problems for workers (Taylor et al, 2007).
While it doesn’t specifically focus on labour issues, the best critical analysis of the historical development of the IT industry is Jyoti Saraswati’s excellent Dot.compradors, which I mentioned in an October 22nd 2014 post on troubles in India’s electronics industry. I’ve also written about the problematic role of the IT industry in India’s recent economic development in academic journals, where I question the disproportionately large public subsidy of the sector and, elsewhere, debunk industry and government claims about indirect employment effect of industry growth. The studies of labour in the IT industry (D’Cruz and Noronha, 2009; Taylor et al, 2007; Remesh, 2008) suggest that there are major problems for workers related to hours and working pressure. In addition, there have also been controversies about the security of female workers moving to and from worksites, especially for those women who work non-standard hours or night shifts.
As a rule, ongoing high wages in the industry suggest that it’s a bit of stretch to call IT workers part of the ‘precariat’, as my article title suggests (yes, I am guilty of hyperbole too!)—but the research, nevertheless, points to modest but real openings for unions.
Hence the importance of recent media reports. While there is some dispute about the scale of the TCS job cuts—some claim 20,000-30,000 out of TCS’s 300,000 strong workforce while TCS says the figure is closer to 2,500, while there are also rumours that IBM will cut 50,000 jobs—there is no question that anger among workers has influenced the response of unions. Various national union confederations have responded, like the Communist-aligned Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU), Congress-aligned Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) and even the BJP-backed Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), as well as regional efforts like the New Democratic Labour Front’s work in Chennai. These efforts come on top of protests in Bengaluru and Chennai by a network called the Forum for IT Employees (FITE) as well as much longer-term efforts by the UNITES union, backed by the global union federation for service sector workers, UNI Global.
The hostility of employers and the Modi government to unions, as well as the centrality of the IT sector to industry policy and the power and wealth of leading IT industrialists, mean that establishing a union foothold will continue to be a huge challenge. But it may be that unions will be able to use recent controversies about job cuts and restructuring to their advantage, and strengthen their influence in this supposedly ‘pro-globalisation’ section of Indian society.
Friedman, T. (2006) The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, London: Penguin.
D’Costa, A.P. (2005) The Long March to Capitalism: Embourgeoisment, Internationalisation and Industrial Transformation in India, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
D’Cruz P and Noronha E (2009) “Experiencing depersonalised bullying: A study of Indian call-centre agents,” Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation 3(1): 26-46
Murphy, J. (2011) ‘Indian call centre workers: Vanguard of a global middle class?’ Work, Employment and Society, 25(3): 417–33.
Taylor, P., D. Scholarios, E. Noronha & P. d’Cruz (2007) Union Formation in Indian Call Centres/BPO: The Attitudes & Experiences of UNITES Members, UNITES Report, University of Strathclyde Business School, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad
Upadhya, C. and A.R. Vasavi (2006) Work, Culture and Sociality in the Indian IT Industry: A Sociological Study, Final Report to the Indo-Dutch Program for Alternatives in Development, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, www.iisc.ernet.in/nias/idpadfinalreport.pdf,
Wilson, D. and Purushothaman, R. (2003) ‘Dreaming with BRICs: The Path to 2050’, Goldman Sachs, Global Economics Paper No. 99.