IT’s right to unionise

| Updated on June 07, 2019 Published on June 07, 2019

India’s tech industry’s fear of workers’ unions is unwarranted

Karnataka’s decision to exempt the IT/ITeS sector for another five years from implementing the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946, which, among other things, allows workers to form unions, is unfortunate. In Karnataka, only the IT sector enjoys this preferential treatment; it was introduced at a time when IT was a sunrise sector in need of flexible rules to power growth and muster scale. That no longer is the case. IT services account for over a third of India’s exports pie and more than 76 per cent in Karnataka’s case. At last count, India’s $181 billion IT and ITeS industry employed nearly 3.7 million people and had a 55 per cent share of the global services outsourcing market. Clearly, the industry is not a cluster of start-ups; it can easily rub shoulders with manufacturing or similar sectors, where unions are present.

The time has come for the IT industry to shed its knee-jerk attitude towards unions and collective bargaining. IT managements argue that the industry is known for its generous treatment of its employees, offering them lucrative compensation packages, flexible working hours and re-skilling opportunities. This is undoubtedly true but actually strengthens the case for allowing IT workers to organise, rather than negate it. Unions, particularly of well-looked-after employees, are likely to work as stakeholders in the productive process, rather than as antagonists. There are enough examples the world over of unions playing a key role in corporate strategy and performance. The spectre of militant unionism is no longer present in India or elsewhere as it was a few decades ago. Further, the Constitution (Article 19) allows workers the right to ‘form associations and unions’ for collective bargaining. Denying them the right to unionise does not augur well for democracy or social stability, at a time when the very nature of work is changing on the back of cutting edge, rapid and overarching developments in technology. There is palpable uncertainty in the IT sector in India and abroad, given the way new technologies such as automation and AI imperil low-skill IT jobs. Giving tech employees the right to unionise can, in fact, lead to a constructive industrial relations environment; workers can be incentivised to move up the skills ladder so long as managers invest in them to stay in the game.

That said, the current corporate apathy towards unions must force workers in technology industries to introspect on ways in which unions in other industries have historically abused their bargaining powers and the constitutionally guaranteed right to organise. They must be ready to understand the changing contours of work across the globe and prepare their members to adapt to the transformations in the IT employment landscape.

Published on June 07, 2019

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