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Sporadic legal battles point to labour issues in IT, BPO sectors

Sporadic legal battles point to labour issues in IT, BPO sectors
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First Published: Thu, Sep 11 2008. 12 13 AM IST

Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint
Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint
Updated: Thu, Sep 11 2008. 12 13 AM IST
Bangalore: Not all employee terminations can be blamed on a slowing economy.
Sometimes, departures turn ugly and acrimonious, especially when the allegations of employer versus employee turn into a case of pointing fingers at one another.
Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint
The problem seems to be especially acute in the business process outsourcing (BPO) arena, according to many labour experts, who cite long and erratic working hours, and a lack of protections for a young workforce that often doesn’t necessarily know its rights. Others add that some state government labour departments—trying to keep industry and large employers happy and in their state—are going easy on these companies. The influx of more young women into the workforce has also led to more cases of sexual harassment, which have largely gone unreported and undocumented.
“While old economy companies have strong trade unions, these BPO companies have none of that,” says Vinod Shetty, a Mumbai-based labour lawyer and founder of Young Professionals Collective, a welfare organization for BPO workers.
“Many of the employees are not highly educated and they have hardly any awareness to take up labour issues.”
But, after years of silence, some employees are turning to the legal system to help them fight back.
Also see: Know your rights
It is impossible to independently ascertain whether one or two specific complaints illustrate a pattern of behaviour at any company, indeed the sector, and several of these cases are in the realm of “he said, they said”.
Still, the anecdotes illustrate what some labour experts say is a clear sign of pent-up issues across the industry that aren’t necessarily company- or manager-specific.
A 30-year-old female ex-employee of Byond Global Outsourcing Pvt. Ltd has filed a complaint against the Bangalore arm of the Australian collection agency, alleging that the company still owes her money.
Mint reviewed her complaint but is withholding the customer executive’s name because she would only speak about the case under condition of anonymity.
The complaint is not in the public domain. According to the complaint, the customer executive claims her May 2008 salary had been withheld, that she was accused of rude behaviour towards her colleagues and was asked to sign a corrective action plan. She says she refused to sign the document and asked for an explanation and details of the accusation against her. When Byond Global refused to give her details, she offered to resign and she was simultaneously terminated.
“I was not even allowed to go to my desk…outside the office, the (human resources) managers surrounded me and forced me to sign a no-dues certificate which I somehow resisted,” she says.
Tearfully, she said she has been out of work for more than three months now. Every time she goes for an interview she clears several rounds until the company asks for her relieving letter. She says she has none—and invariably, doesn’t hear from the company again.
“I hope something like this does not happen to anyone else,” says the woman who supports a family of five. The case will initially be taken up for reconciliation before the assistant labour commissioner, Karnataka, and if not resolved, will go to the labour court, Karnataka.
Byond Global denies the charges. Says Sonia Mendiratta, director at Byond Global, in an email interview: “She neither served the notice period nor trained the person nominated by the company. She misbehaved with her superior officers and abused them and walked out of the job without completing the due formalities and getting her no-dues clearance done. The company under these circumstances was compelled to terminate her.”
Usually in such cases, the courts ask the company to show proof.
“In a court of law, the onus is on the company to prove that the employee had an opportunity to be heard,” said Maitreyi Krishnan of Bangalore-based lawyers collective, Alternative Law Forum, which has no connection to Byond Global or the complainant.
In another case, a 27-year-old female employee of a Bangalore BPO firm, K-2 Network Pvt. Ltd, for California-based computer game services company K2 Network Inc., complained to her human resources manager about sexual harassment by the director of India operations.
The next day when she came to work, she says she was stopped at the entrance by the security guard. The company sent her a termination letter. It’s been almost eight months, but with no relieving letter in hand, she has been unable to find a job. “My husband wanted me to take it to court,” said the woman on condition of anonymity. She has served a legal notice to K-2 Network challenging the termination.
Mint has reviewed the legal notice, but was not able to independently verify the veracity of the employee’s claim.
K-2 Network director, India, Shinoj Nambiar denied the charges. Speaking to Mint over the phone, he said: “She was terminated due to her performance, and we have documents to prove that. The allegation is a made-up story. Our legal consultants are dealing with this case.”
K-2 Network has faced a similar allegation before. A 29-year-old woman says she, too, had faced sexual harassment at the company; she spoke on condition of anonymity. When she complained to human resources, they asked her to resign and she did as she was told.
Asked why she didn’t go for a legal route, she said, “I come from a middle-class family and my husband told me not to work in a company where they don’t respect women.”
Having received her dues and her relieving letter, she was able to find another job after two months. She, now, holds a 10am-6pm job at an insurance firm.
Again, Mint wasn’t in a position to independently ascertain her claims.
Carol Upadhya, visiting associate fellow at a Bangalore-based, multidisciplinary research organization, National Institute of Advanced Studies, has done several studies on the working conditions of people in the IT/BPO sector.
She says, “Labour laws are generally not enforced in the IT sector.” Sexual harassment cases in particular are not dealt with appropriately, she adds.
“There have been reports of several cases of sexual harassment of women employees, particularly in the BPO industry, and most of these cases are not dealt with through the proper channel. Most companies prefer to buy the complainant’s silence with money, and often they are forced to leave the company,” says Upadhya.
As per a Supreme Court judgement in 1997, every establishment should have an anti-harassment cell, which looks into individual cases and provides both remedial measures as well as preventive measures.
As to concerns that states are lax about labour laws being flouted in the IT/BPO sector, additional labour commissioner of Karnataka S. Narasimhaiah vehemently refutes the charge.
“My inspection officers routinely conduct inspections on companies,” he says. “We enforce the same laws be it on factories or on BPOs and IT companies.”
Two months ago, a female employee of Sonata Software Ltd, a Bangalore-based IT consulting and services company, filed a case alleging non-payment of dues and non-receipt of relieving letter before Karnataka government’s department of labour.
The woman concerned had also filed a sexual harassment case before the Women Rights Commission, which she later withdrew. The department of labour, Karnataka, settled the case by asking Sonata Software to pay the dues and issue a relieving letter. When Mint contacted Sonata Software, the spokeswoman confirmed that the case had been settled.
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First Published: Thu, Sep 11 2008. 12 13 AM IST
More Topics: Career section | IT sector | BPO | Labour | Labour laws |