An interview with an organiser


January 26, 2019

Jamie interviewed Balaji, an organiser from the Forum for IT Employees (or FITE). The interview took place in Bangalore in January 2019, just after the general strike. What follows is a transcript of the discussion.

JJamie Woodcock is an editor of Notes from Below

BBalaji is an IT worker and organiser with FITE


BI’m Balaji from the Forum for IT Employees or FITE. We have been organising IT employees since 2014. We started organising with IT workers, but not for the IT cause, after 2008. It started with a general cause, campaigning around the Sri Lankan civil war and the genocide around 2008/2009. Almost everyone, every sector, in Tamil Nadu was very angry about it. People were pouring into the streets and people were even self-immolating. The situation was in turmoil.

At that point some of my comrades who are now part of the movement and are leading had started mobilizing the IT workers through social media and organised protests to stop the war against Tamils. Until that point there were neither political movements nor union activities among IT workers. Most employees come from a semi-urban or rural background so they would have come to big cities like Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad where mostly now in South India IT is typically concentrated. There are IT companies in other cities, but they are very minimal.

JCan you tell us a bit more about how the Sri Lankan civil war fed into organising?

BThe genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka had changed the political situation of Tamil Nadu completely. Youth in Tamil Nadu, including IT workers, realised that the state government had no power to stop the civil war. Instead we witnessed the genocide helplessly while the Indian government was helping Sri Lankan state and whole world was silently watching. This made section of IT workers politically active and speak for the rights of Tamils. Previously, there used to be the opinion that: “IT workers have no care for society and are isolated from society”. They don’t take part in any socio-political issues.

Around 2008, during the recession there were also a lot of employees who lost their jobs and most of them went back to their hometowns looking for alternative jobs, or went to smaller companies for lower wages. At the time, no one protested against it or did anything about it. Then 2009 was a turning point when a lot of employees were looking to do something to stop the genocide that was happening in Sri Lanka. We organised protests under the slogan ‘stop war and save tamils’, human chain, rallies, hunger strikes, and so on where thousands of IT workers participated. After that a few of the people who came on streets wanted to continue their activism for the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils. We formed a core team and working as ‘Save Tamils Movement’ we slowly started focusing on other socio-political issues happening around us including caste, fishing community issues, women rights, anti-nuclear plants and so on. We started educating our IT workers on various socio-political issues.

JSo how does caste affect organising in IT workplaces?

BSo caste composition varies widely between South and North India, it also differs in how it is laid out in the hierarchy of the corporate ladder. Now that education has advanced in South India, a lot of people from the middle castes and the lower castes (who are at the bottom of the society) are entering into private sector. As part of social justice, Tamil Nadu has ensured 69% in government jobs for the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and backward castes, but this is not followed in private sector. Especially in IT sector, the rightful share for low caste people belonging to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes is not ensured. The topmost and senior positions in the corporate power hierarchy like CEO, CFO, board of directors, senior HRs and so on are occupied by upper castes like Brahmins and other forward castes while the lower positions are filled by backward and low castes people.

JHow has the composition of workers in IT changed?

BThe outsourcing business model in the service industry and growth of IT have changed things. There is a cheap and skilled English-speaking labour force that has given a big opportunity for the growth of IT Industry in India. A few states have realised this and focused more on developing IT Industry including Tamil Nadu. So, the IT Industry is one of the big private sectors in India which employs around 40 lakhs1 people as of now, with comparatively better salary and working conditions for the youths. So, irrespective of their academic studies, the youth are knocking the doors of the IT Industry to get a good job as they find no other good employment opportunities. Which until then, we have only seen other countries in movies and in songs. If a person who comes from a rural or semi-urban culture, if they get an opportunity to work in a foreign country for at least one year, they will be able to save enough money so that they could settle their education loans, secure a house, secure the old age of their parents, or choose business as an alternative option of livelihood in their hometowns.

JHow common is it that people actually do get to work on-site?

BIt was very common before the 2008 recession, after that the opportunities have gone down, that’s what I’ve heard, from my seniors and my cousins in IT during that time. I only joined after 2010. Even now, there are a lot of on-site opportunities, but people actually fight for these. Especially in the big companies, every switch they make from one company to another they would have this on-site opportunity in mind, like a lucky draw. If they get it they feel like they are settled for life, so it’s a big deal, particularly for people in the middle and lower castes, it’s quite a big opportunity. It was like in the early 1990s, people used to go from rural areas as migrant labourers to the Gulf countries, that improved the economic conditions of a lot of lower caste and most backward caste workers. For so long they were living only in thatched huts, they built concrete houses and a lot of them were able to do that after they came back from the Gulf countries. As there is no job security in IT sector as like other private sectors, people will try hard to get an onsite opportunity at least once for the monetary benefits and a better living conditions.

In our journey as political movement, when Modi was elected in single majority hoping to bring in development for the country in 2014, we started a campaign against the shutdown of Nokia facility near Chennai, which left at least 8000 workers jobless. Nokia was working for quite a long time in Chennai, producing mobile phones. Both State and Central government could not do anything to retain the jobs of the 8,000 poor workers. It was the largest mobile manufacturing company in India. All of a sudden, they closed the industry by 2014. The reason was that they had an outstanding due of several thousand crores2 to be settled as tax.

The government had a lot of tax exemptions, especially for the first five years: they don’t have to pay tax, the electricity is free, the water is free, and they have special economic zones where the workers have no rights, so they cannot form unions and so on. Both state and central governments are justifying the special economic zones (SEZs) in the name of creation of thousands of direct and indirect jobs. So, locating them inside these SEZs, they were hailed for providing employment and it did indeed provide a lot of employment to the people around Chennai.

But around 2014, unpaid taxes exceed a huge amount (a lot of crores3). The government issued a notice and it went to the Supreme Court and so on. But instead of paying their taxes, Nokia sold their company to Microsoft, and Microsoft was not willing to pay the taxes to the government instead of Nokia, so they just closed the industry within a very short span of time, so workers were left jobless. Nokia has opened its mobile phone manufacturing centre in some other parts of the world. It simply used all the benefits offered by the governments and exploited the cheap labour for around 10 years in India, took away all the profits earned here, just sold the company and started its business in some other parts of world where it can get similar benefits like in India. So, we have written pamphlets criticizing these neoliberal economic policies of India and the benefits that corporates enjoy, the workers’ rights and did wider campaign among IT workers.4

JHow many workers were involved?

BBasically, along with the auxiliary companies that provided parts to Nokia, they say around 30,000 workers were affected. It was a lot of workers. Mainly the manufacturing unit, as well as the companies that supply parts to Nokia. Nokia was at the centre of the system, so a lot of small companies were affected, because they were there for ten years. So when it closed, a lot of orders were cancelled and a lot of small companies closed too. Our campaign aimed to educate IT workers on the plight of workers in the neoliberal economy because IT industry is also part of it. So we campaigned for Nokia workers, asking for the government to address the their issues, to not allow Nokia to close its company or for the government to take over the company and provide employment to its workers, or provide alternative employment. So we were asking for assurances from the government for the Nokia workers, and we were campaigning for it among our own people. There is a huge IT corridor in Chennai, which is a 20 km stretch with most of the IT companies. So we were doing campaigns as well as street meetings on that part, this was happening around August 2014.

In the same year 2014, one woman IT employee from TCS was sexually assaulted and murdered. Her body was found in the SIPCOT campus. We immediately conducted a protest demanding the safety of the women workers in the IT corridor. Also we conducted a survey on Gender Sensitiveness at Workplace among women IT employees to understand gender discrimination.

By 2014 I remember we started receiving complaints from our movement members who were working in TCS5. So it’s like, people used to say it’s like working for the government, your job is very stable. You won’t get a very high income, but you will get a lot of opportunities and benefits. Once you get in you can settle in until you’re at least forty. So that is what people say. But what actually happened was, by 2014 TCS announced that it was going to give pink slips to around 25,000 employees - this means firing them. Most of them were not junior employees, they were middle level employees who were project managers and program managers, assistants and so on, in their mid 30s and 40s. Most of them had worked for TCS around ten years. The reason that was cited by TCS, through their online websites and in the media, was that the middle level hierarchy, managers, that level was getting very fat. Because around 1990s, late 1990s, IT boomed and until 2008 and it was a very high growth area IT.

When I was studying in college, everyone used to look upon IT. So every one of our cousins went into IT, everyone would be talking about IT. We didn’t know what it even meant, but we wanted to do it. Our parents and everyone was excited about it. Until 2008. So people went into IT during this period, and they stayed for ten to fifteen years. After 2010 these members who entered then were in the middle of the corporate ladder, some of them had moved into the top, some had started their own companies, but many of them were in the stuck in the middle, especially in the top companies like TCS and so on. All these big giants had big middle levels, so these middle level workers, they most of them were into people management rather than the development work, the technical work.

By 2014 it was also clear that automation was coming in and much of the people management repetitive work was automated. They first started to put the axe to the middle level. The manager would be coming in, and the senior manager would call him and he would give him one week’s time and termination letter. There were even stories we heard of people being told the same day to get out! They just call you for a meeting, the manager gives a termination letter which has the skill sets and business requirements which did not match, so they are relieved from the company. One months pay is credited to your bank account so you can walk. It was very harsh. A lot of people were shocked.

JWas this a big shift in how workers were being managed?

BEvery year there is a period called the appraisal cycle, so out of twenty members in a team one or two will get a poor/low rating and they will be relieved from the company. Most of them will be sent out in a single day, and these managers used to do it, but now it was their turn to get out. Our movement, now renamed as Young Tamil Nadu Movement, got to know about it and started to campaign against the TCS layoff. We started a ‘We are Against TCS Layoff’ Facebook page - lakhs and lakhs of IT workers across world were participating in the social media campaign. We started like that and arranged a protest in the heart of the IT corridor. Lots of people came, but the police interrupted and obviously the company management was watching all of these developments. So, once we started the page it was the first of its kind and we were all over the media and everyone started talking about it and TCS was not done with its layoffs, it was just starting and we launched the campaign the week after. So the police came, a lot of interruptions happened, but then people started to get aware that there is a group that is working for the IT employees.

Then all over India calls came to us, even from Gurgaon, all over India. Some of our friends travelled everywhere, staying in places for one week or two weeks, we tried to get support from legal experts through our political contacts we had through our political activities, and we filed cases against TCS illegal terminations. The process here is that when an employee gets fired, they can approach the labour commissioner, then there will be three rounds of conciliation that happens and the labour commissioner will organise the conciliation between the company and the employee, so the labour commissioner will not give any order, no judgement based on those hearings, it is just a conciliation. If it gets settled within that process it’s fine, otherwise it will move to the labour court.

A lot of people came for the conciliation, but the legal process is very slow and tiring, because it is very new to us and it was the first time that we learned about it. With the help of our other comrades into trade union activities we were able to file cases and a lot of employees were frustrated at the end of the process. One woman employee from TCS who was terminated filed a writ petition in the Madras High court. As she was pregnant at that time, TCS had withdrawn the case saying that it cared for women workers and did not know that she was pregnant. She was reinstated and is working with TCS still! This victory was a ray of light to the IT workers! A few other TCS employees filed cases at labour court and still cases are going on. TCS is saying that IT employees are not workers to deny the rights ensured in the labour laws.

JWhat was your experience of following this legal route overall?

BIt was very long. The labour commissioner’s office, though it has been in existence for a quite a long time, and the manufacturing industry unions were always trying, but it was not very effective. For example, I was dealing with a case here in Bangalore around 2016, where an employee from Tech Mahindra was terminated in three days time. He recorded the call which HR made to him, so he had all the evidence and we filed a case. We released the audio recording on Soundcloud and Facebook, so it went viral and even the Tech Mahindra managers admitted that the process they followed was wrong and incorrect and so on. The employee’s identity was kept secret. We filed a dispute at the labour commissioner’s office, the first conciliation came after around two months. The second conciliation came after three months. So the total process of three conciliation, and sometimes Tech Mahindra would not come, and this guy was from Hyderabad, he got a job back in Hyderabad, so he switched jobs and moved back, so sometimes I had to go instead of him. There was a lot of confusion and it took one and half years for just the conciliation alone to be completed. By law, it should be 45 days. So usually people get frustrated!

JI can imagine!

BThe labour commissioner’s office also deal with situations, especially relating to the IT sector, which are quite new and had a lot of people coming in. The IT companies are leaning on the commissioners, corrupting the officers, giving them money, and so on. There has been no evidence, but there are at least cases of that. We heard from some of the manufacturing workers’ unions that the officer was very corrupt. When we went to the commissioner’s office to file the complaint, they were protesting outside from the manufacturing union of the Communist Party. They had been protesting for more than a hundred days because some of the employees, union members, tried to form a union for the first time in that company and were all removed. They started to protest against it there outside the company’s office. The labour commissioner did not come to meet them, so they moved the protest to the commisioner’s office for another twenty-thirty days. This was the same officer that we had to deal with, so it’s typically like that.

JSo did that help you to form a connection with that union?

BYeah. So, since we are already politically active - we were working in Tamil Nadu on various issues - we have connections with some of the parties, especially the two parties: the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), so we had contacts with the activists that are based in Tamil Nadu from them. There is also one more party called the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation. We also have good contacts with them. So when we started organising IT workers, we got contacts from them and then it improved from them. We had conferences and we invited activists from all other unions and they came and we had an interactive session on how they were dealing with their problems and how we dealt with ours, so it is going on like that.

JCan I ask what party you are affiliated to?

BI am a member of Tamil National People’s Front and the Save Tamil movement, which is renamed to Young Tamil Nadu Movement now. This is the movement that started in 2008-2009, this was how we got started. FITE is an initiative of Young Tamilnadu movement, a left-leaning group.

JCan you talk me through what happened outside of Chennai? Like in Bangalore, where we are now?

BAt the peak of the TCS layoff issue when we first formed, there were thousands of workers who came into contact with us and wanted to organise all over India. But since we don’t have the members in different cities to support them, we couldn’t follow it up. We had 100 members in Delhi, but it’s a thirty-six hour train journey to get there. It’s a very long journey. Two of our members went there, and stayed for a week, but it was not sufficient to build it into a union. After forming our group, our first challenge was to register the union. We had to register with the government, so we are recognised in Tamil Nadu, we are not registered elsewhere. We are biggest in Chennai. So if you’re going to register, you need at least one hundred active members. We have at least that in Chennai, but many more who are supporters, involved in our political programs and so on. Combine that and there’s hundreds, who at any time we can organise in Chennai. In Bangalore, we have under a hundred, so we haven’t registered yet. We have some of the employees in Hyderabad too, and there are over a hundred in Calcutta. Only in Tamil Nadu, we IT workers already organised into a political movement, so we were able to function as a union immediately. In other cities, there was no such movement, there were no trade union activities among IT workers, it was difficult to function as union.

People are still skeptical, because the term “worker” for an IT employee is weird to them, they cannot understand it. In 2014, the reason we settled on the term Forum for IT Employees (or FITE) was that we didn’t want to name it as worker, because to them, “worker” is a derogatory term. They were thinking of themselves as a white collar employees who were above these things. But the harsh reality is that they are also workers, they’re being fired. The only difference is that they were being paid more! They were able to live a better life, that’s all. From a manager’s point of view, from the bosses’ point of view, they were just a worker. Now, after four years of organising, that has changed a lot. People are comfortable with the term “worker.” This is because of continuous work that people have put in, people like us, who defend unions.

So there is one union that has registered in Karnataka, its KITU, Karnataka IT Employees Union. In Tamil Nadu’ there are no restrictions to form unions in IT sector. In Karnataka, you can raise a complaint with the labour commissioner and fight as an individual, but you cannot register a union. You can have an unofficial organising, you can campaign for rights, but you cannot form a union. It’s a standing order which has exempted it here. So there is only one union that is registered here and that’s because it is registered as a general workers’ union, so it is not officially for IT workers, so this is how they are getting around it. Other than that, there are a lot of unions that are trying to make contact with IT employees, especially from the left party side - so it was the left parties that started working with the IT employees. It started bringing this into the mainstream, but now the big parties like Congress and BJP are trying to organise IT workers too - but that is at a very minimal level. They have unions here, but they are not recognised and there are no more than twenty members. They are not actually interested in organising - they are only interested in getting their ideas out here - but they have some presence here, mainly for social media propaganda. When the left parties started organising and having meetings, a lot of other parties moved in.

Every year when the layoffs came, the media started noticing it too. For the past three years, whenever there is news about layoffs, newspapers publish it, probably since 2014. This is mainly since TCS, when people started getting laid off that way it was the first of its kind. The Indian media is very supportive of IT workers’ problems. So whenever an IT company starts laying off its workers, then usually it is leaked to the media and it is newsworthy.

JSo my last question: so what is the plan now?

BSo here, the challenge still is to make the IT employees come to the union first. Our main plan is to bring in more employees to the union in Chennai and make it bigger and also start organising campus-level committees. Since there is no restriction from the government side in Tamil Nadu, we can have campus-level unions there. This would be at the tech park and we would have representatives for each company, committees within each tech park. These propagate IT worker news and IT union news, and talk about political things that are happening. IT people have been alienated from outside political events from the 1990s - only in the 2010s this started to change.

Still, IT companies are denying to accept that IT employees are workers, so that IT workers can be excluded from the protection ensured by the Industrial Dispute Act. But from our activism since 2014, it has now been established that IT workers are doing technical work, and they are also workers irrespective of their salary brackets. This is one of our achievements. Another achievement has been that many state governments have accepted that IT workers can also form unions.

Not all employees in the IT sector are in good salary packages. Still there are engineering graduates toiling in small companies for below Rs. 10,000 while the country working class is demanding a minimum wage of Rs.18,000[^7]. There are many small companies which are violating all the labour laws in this country. There is no job security. Illegal terminations in the name of poor performers is the practice of the industry. There is the culture of keeping bouncers to deal with employees who resist the unfair labour practices at the workplaces.

We are well aware that even to enforce the rules in the law book, we need collective resistance, that is unionisation of employees. Still, 90% of employees are not unionised as there is no union activity in this industry since the beginning. Now, employees are into learning and developing trade union activism. They started extending solidarity to other working class struggle too. So, it is our primary task to help make them understand the necessity of the unionisation and unite them against all kind of workplace exploitation.

Even if they are earning more and doing well, they need to be part of this worker category and that awareness is very important for us to make the next step. A lot of people are working in IT, especially in Chennai and Bangalore. Most of them, their parents were from the lower or middle strata in the caste or economic level, so they were either workers or small business owners. But here it is very new, the sector itself is new. So, to make them move into the worker strata we need to educate them, to bring them over, to organise them.

We have still not completed that, but there has been significant progress compared to 2014. Still, there is a way to go. We will keep meeting and organising.



  1. 40 Lakh equals 4 million. 

  2. One thousand crores equals 10 billion rupees, so several thousand crores would be equal to several £100 million. 

  3. One crore equals 10 million. 

  4. More details on Nokia notice campaign here

  5. TCS is Tata Consulting Services one of the biggest IT companies in India. 

  6. This is per month, and Rs.10,000 equals £107, while Rs.18,000 equals around £193. 


authors

Balaji

Balaji is an IT worker and organises with FITE in India.

Jamie Woodcock (@jamie_woodcock)

Jamie Woodcock works as a researcher.