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Moonlighting: Rishad Premji is right; CP Gurnani is mistaken

Even before the covid-19 pandemic hit, technology and the rise of gig workers were changing the traditional employee-employer relationship. The option of working from home only increased this practice. (Photo: Mint)Premium
Even before the covid-19 pandemic hit, technology and the rise of gig workers were changing the traditional employee-employer relationship. The option of working from home only increased this practice. (Photo: Mint)

  • The central point of this debate about moonlighting is simple. If we all are okay being clubbed as gig workers, then there should not be a problem if we have dual jobs. But if we want to enjoy the perks of a full-time employee then it is silly to expect employers to back us to pick up a side hustle

In July, during a regular internal audit of employees and vendors at Wipro Ltd, something striking rang alarm bells inside the company and later in the corridors of the IT industry.

Accessing the Universal Account Number (UAN), a 12-digit unique number assigned to every employee in the organized sector, from the employers’ portal of the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation showed that close to 300 employees of Wipro were also concurrently employed elsewhere.

Now, companies have the UAN id of each of their employees and can access details, including previous and current employment.

These 300 employees, almost all with less than three years’ work experience, were also working with other technology firms, including Infosys Ltd and Tech Mahindra Ltd, according to an executive who oversaw this process.

Soon, Wipro’s HR team sought an explanation from this group of employees. Worried over what action the company would take, about half a dozen employees resigned while Wipro sacked the others.

But this incident riled the top brass of Wipro, including chairman Rishad Premji, who took to social media to admonish this practice.

“There is a lot of chatter about people moonlighting in the tech industry. This is cheating – plain and simple," Rishad tweeted on 20 August.

Three weeks later, Infosys, in an internal email, warned its employees to refrain from taking another employment.

Before we dwell on this subject, please consider two simple points. First, are you okay with your colleagues working with a competing firm? And finally, should companies allow your colleagues to work at firms that do not compete with your employer?

Before we try to answer that, let us first understand why we are in this situation.

Even before the covid-19 pandemic hit, technology and the rise of gig workers were changing the traditional employee-employer relationship. The option of working from home only increased this practice.

At companies such as Wipro, a third of their workforce has not even stepped into an office.

Poor pay for graduate engineers makes many consider an additional source of income.

Sample this: The average salary for a young graduate engineer at an IT services firm was 2.4 lakh a year in 2008. Last year, the average salary stood at 4.5 lakh a year. Clearly, the salaries for college graduates over the previous 13 years have not kept pace with the economy’s overall growth and inflation.

Both these factors probably made some employees, foolishly albeit, pick up a side hustle.

Now, it is important to reiterate that Wipro and other IT firms have not looked into what percentage of their employees are consulting or advising startups.

The current issue of moonlighting here is also not about a software engineer becoming a content creator by producing videos or writing books (and earning a little side income).

The present challenge for IT firms is to stop their employees from working for competing firms.

But does that imply it is okay for them to work with startups or other side gigs? Your writer knows of two dozen techies who, in some form, consult or advise startups. Anecdotal evidence suggests this number would be much higher.

This is what Tech Mahindra Ltd’s boss C.P. Gurnani has proposed.

“If you go by my word if someone is meeting the efficiency and productivity norms, and he wants to make some extra money as long as he is not committing fraud, he is not doing something against the values and ethics of his company; I have no problem. I would like to make it a policy," Gurnani said.

Last month, Swiggy, the privately held food delivery startup, allowed its full-time employees to pick up another job, something which Gurnani is advocating.

But Gurnani’s argument and Swiggy’s policy are a bit flippant.

Swiggy’s moonlighting policy is full of disclaimers. It allows employees to take up work “outside of office hours" or on weekends that it believes “should not impact productivity on the full-time job" or have a conflict of interest with Swiggy’s business.

There is a lot of opaqueness to this policy, and it will be tedious to roll it out. For example, who decides if employees’ productivity has fallen because they picked up another job? Moreover, an employee will have to inform and seek approval from your reporting manager or the HR team, who may or may not be okay with you picking another job.

This is bound to open Pandora’s box.

Agreed, allowing employees to take up more than one job benefits the larger labour market. They stand to make more money while companies can access the best talent.

But consider the model of platform firms like Uber or Ola or food delivery startups like Zomato. If you use Uber or Ola cabs, you probably know that many drivers work at both cab aggregators. This is good for drivers: They can work of their own will, and they also stand to make a little more money.

But it’s important to remember that Uber or Zomato allows such practices because this is what underpins their business models: These workers are not employees but independent contractors or partners. They are what we club under gig workers.

‘Exclusivity’ or working with one firm is what sets apart a traditional full-time employee from these gig workers. Globally, including in India, this is what is being debated before courts and in parliaments if these contractors or independent workers have equal rights as full-time employees and if they should even be clubbed as employees.

The central point of this debate about moonlighting is simple. If we all are okay being clubbed as gig workers, then there should not be a problem if we have dual jobs. But if we want to enjoy the perks of a full-time employee then it is silly to expect employers to back us to pick up a side hustle.

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