Labour organisation in India's IT industry
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Financial Times, 2002
Software professionals and computer specialists, whose work has fuelled India's phenomenally successful information technology industry, are now taking the first steps in organising a collective voice to defend their interests. The move, unusual among India's office workers, has led to the creation of IT professionals' forums in Bangalore and Hyderabad, two of the country's leading centres for IT.
The Hyderabad forum attracted about 250 people to a public meeting in January this year. It has just opened an office in the city, supported by a grant from a Swedish trade union. Several hundred kilometres to the south-west, the Bangalore forum has about 300 members and hopes to establish an office later this year.
The forums in both cities have been launched with the assistance of Union Network International, the global trade union federation based in Switzerland. However, as befits a young industry with a young workforce - the average age is about 26 - the forums look forward to new types of organisation as much as they look back to traditional unionism. Talk is of "professionals" rather than "workers" and of seeking co-operation with employers. The trade union tag is rejected as being unhelpful.
Nevertheless, many of the issues the IT forums are tackling might feature on the agendas of more traditional trade unions. After a number of suicides among IT workers, the Bangalore forum called in a psychiatrist to offer advice about managing the stress caused by long hours. The forum has also looked at other health issues, including eye strain from monitor use and back trouble from poor work station design.
The shadier side of India's IT sector is also coming under scrutiny. In Bangalore, the forum arranged legal action against a dis-honest training company that had swindled 50 students of Rs60,000 each (about £900) for a non-existent e-commerce course and job placement service. In a similar case, an agent apparently offering to find IT students posts in Silicon Valley was exposed as a fraudster.
Indian IT students are especially at risk from this sort of con. Since the 1990s, the doors leading to work in India's IT sector have been wide open to the estimated 50,000-70,000 engineering and computer science graduates that every year leave the country's universities and colleges in search of jobs. In the 10 years since 1988, the Indian
IT industry has transformed itself from a sector worth $175m (£123m) annually to one turning over $5.7bn a year, according to the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM).
However, in the past year, the cooler economic climate has given graduates a much tougher time. According to one former student in Bangalore who is still looking for work, only five of his class of 60 students have jobs. An additional problem, he says, is that he and many of his classmates were given firm promises that jobs would be waiting for them on graduation. By the time the "we regret" letters arrived, they were too late to take part in other companies' recruitment rounds.
"When the courses started the IT industry was at its peak and students and parents thought 'this is the future'," says N. S. Sahitya Rajan, joint secretary of the Bangalore IT forum. "They invested so much money and time - and now learn that the market is full."
Nasscom is upbeat about the IT sector's prospects, predicting a year-on-year growth of 30 per cent for the financial year 2001-02. Nevertheless, that is sharply lower than the rates of more than 50 per cent that were achieved for much of the 1990s. Also, exports from the Indian IT sector grew by only 2 per cent in the last three months of 2001.
The leaner times may help efforts to establish further IT forums. Though the forums' organisers accept they have some way to go before they have any real clout, they are optimistic the idea will spread. A group recently was set up in the university city of Mysore south-west of Bangalore, and the city of Chennai (formerly Madras) is another target.
The venture comes as the International Labour Organisation has begun to look more closely at the Indian IT sector. The ILO is organising a national tripartite seminar in Delhi in April next year to look at the employment and policy issues arising from the growth of the sector.
The IT forums also reflect the strategy adopted by Union Network International to reach out to non-unionised workers, including those in new sectors of the economy. UNI, created in 2000 from a merger of four union federations spanning commerce, finance, the telecommunications sector and the media, agreed at its first world congress last September to encourage the development of organisational forms of association suitable for IT staff, the self-employed and what it calls "atypical" workers. UNI has pointed to WashTech and Alliance@IBM, two web-based initiatives aimed at US west coast IT professionals, as models for IT workers elsewhere in the world.
Class conflict may not be on the agenda at Hyderabad and Bangalore but something of an old trade union consciousness is not entirely absent. As one young Bangalore Forum member, an employee of Dell, put it, "Unity is strength - and when capitalists get collectively organised, why shouldn't we?"