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BPO employees’ union hopes to gain clout as US crisis hits firms

BPO employees’ union hopes to gain clout as US crisis hits firms
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First Published: Sun, Nov 23 2008. 11 53 PM IST

Optimistic: R. Karthik Shekhar, secretary general, Union for Information Technology Enabled Services. Hemant Mishra / Mint
Optimistic: R. Karthik Shekhar, secretary general, Union for Information Technology Enabled Services. Hemant Mishra / Mint
Updated: Sun, Nov 23 2008. 11 53 PM IST
Bangalore: R Karthik Shekhar was at home, technically on a holiday, but still in work mode. Shekhar, the head of a union for business process outsourcing (BPO) employees, sat at his dining room table as he talked to a TV news channel about how workers might be affected by slower-than-expected growth in the technology and outsourcing sector.
Optimistic: R. Karthik Shekhar, secretary general, Union for Information Technology Enabled Services. Hemant Mishra / Mint
Instead of just firing hundreds of employees at the lower rungs, he said to the camera, why not get everyone to chip in? “If you need to save Rs50 crore, why not take a 10% salary cut from everyone, and then compensate them at the end,” when things get better?
It’s an idea the former International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) employee and current self-styled industry nemesis is pushing a lot these days. If they need to let people go, he argues, companies should focus on planned layoffs. “I have seen this happen in IBM; in turmoil, bosses worked for half the salary.”
India’s information technology sector, which includes outsourcing and employs 1.5 million people, is hurting from the impact of the crisis that has ravaged the financial industry in the US, its biggest market. The IT industry has let go of as many as 10,000 employees in the past two months, he said.
Shekhar’s organization, called the Union for Information Technology Enabled Services (UNITES), is part of Union Network International, a Switzerland-based group created to organize white-collar workers around the world. The India branch, started by Shekhar three years ago, has slowly built up a public profile through cheeky campaigns focusing on employee safety and relieving workplace stress—the latter was dubbed Stop the BOSS, an acronym for burn-out stress syndrome.
After unsuccessful attempts to function as a traditional union that represents employees in company-wide negotiations, Shekhar and UNITES are looking for another shot. In the past few years, the union has provided a one-off role for many employees seeking justice for perceived workplace wrongs—he has helped workers deal with everything from sexual harassment claims to missing pay cheques.
Sabina Rajesh, for example, went to the union last year after she was fired from an outsourcing firm for what she deemed “unethical” reasons. “I was hoping to get some justice,” she says.
Seizing the moment
But now, as signs point to a global recession, and companies worldwide start to lay off employees by the thousands, Shekhar hopes to use the moment to build his organization.
Earlier this month, he went to the Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. office in Bangalore, to scout the possibility of working with any of the potential 200 employees that the company announced would be fired. While meeting with worried Goldman staffers, he seized another opportunity—engineers who worked for American Express Co., holding letters stating they might be asked to leave anytime soon.
In the downturn, Shekhar hopes to help these workers negotiate exit packages if and when they are laid off. “We said, ‘before they sign any settlement, look at what their contracts say’; we assured them that our lawyers will help them. We said, ‘make sure they ask for their provident fund’.”
UNITES members pay fees, and the union receives help from its parent, but UNITES lawyers are often volunteers.
But the outsourcing and information technology industry isn’t so sure the union will catch on. “Forming a union, I think, is a fundamental right, enshrined in the Constitution,” says Raju Bhatnagar, vice-president of industry body National Association of Software and Services Companies (Nasscom), “but what one has seen in the last few years is that individuals are not particularly enthused about collective bargaining.”
“In banking, there are strong unions, but the younger ones become members because they have to; and (they) are more interested in building a career with the organization that they work for,” Bhatnagar adds.
Starting from scratch
Even in the event of layoffs, Bhatnagar says, most of the companies in question have strong corporate governance standards, and won’t renege on any severance commitments they made.
Employee interest in joining a union might start to change if the employment landscape shifts even more in the next few months. But while call centre workers are often unionized in other countries, the different status of BPO work in India also suggests Shekhar’s is an uphill battle. “In Canada, nobody sees it as a career, but people will stay there a long time,” says Andrew Stevens, a sociologist who is studying call centre organizing in Canada and India.
“Here, call centre work fits more into a professional idea, and (organizers) are starting from scratch,” Stevens adds.
And UNITES did largely start from scratch. The union first tried to implement the global framework agreements that the parent union had signed with international firms such as HSBC Holdings Plc. and Barclays Plc. that have operations in India, without much success. “It was just a piece of paper when they came here,” he says. Then the organizers had problems with recruitment (they even tried out job portals) and retention (members would get promoted and leave the union).
Another strategy of focusing on Indian companies also proved unsuccessful. HCL Technologies Ltd, India’s fifth-largest IT vendor by revenue, was open to negotiating with the union if it had a critical mass of employees, Shekhar says, but the union couldn’t hit the 40% benchmark it needed to attain.
Collective bargaining
Ultimately, the union focused on the method that is still its mainstay. Shekhar describes it as: “Let’s go out in the market, and see who has problems; we are there to help.” The union has negotiated a handful of collective bargaining agreements and assisted workers let go from the data analysis company Apex Advanced Geospatial Pvt. Ltd. According to Shekhar, the union helped get employees a better severance package, and convinced the company to bring in headhunters who could help workers find new jobs.
As was the case with Apex, the union has had the most success with smaller employers. “There is a similar possibility with Goldman Sachs and with American Express,” Shekhar says, sitting in the union’s headquarters in Bangalore, which is converted from the top floor of a house, off a main road in Vasanth Nagar, an older part of the city, far from the employers it hopes to challenge.
He expects that possibility to come, if workers experience any rude shocks. “Employees are all saying, ‘I’ve been so loyal for four or five years, it won’t happen to me’,” Shekhar says, “They have great faith in their employers.”
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First Published: Sun, Nov 23 2008. 11 53 PM IST