Can Newborn IT Union FITE On?

Uniting only in case of trouble, fear of being blacklisted prevented older bodies from thriving, say ex-members

Published: 31st December 2014 06:04 AM  |   Last Updated: 31st December 2014 06:04 AM   |  A+A-

CHENNAI: The ongoing furore over feared job cuts in the industry has led to the formation of a body that has stated that it seeks to serve, represent and safeguard the jobs of India’s three million strong IT/ITES workforce. But for the fledgling Forum of IT Employees (FITE), launched just a day ago on Monday, staying alive could be a bigger problem than their stated objective.

According to members involved in former attempts to unionise the industry, it is next to impossible to sustain the numbers needed to form a fully working and effective trade union.

For an industry with over 3.2 million employees at last count, the Indian IT sector has a dubious distinction — it does not have a single large union. And except for the nascent FITE and a few other very regional players, there are no others of considerable size.

But in an atmosphere where employees are slowly realising that there might be layoffs, however small, support for FITE is building.

According to its founders, most of them members of the Young Tamil Nadu Movement, posts and messages to the union’s Facebook page have started pouring in from across the length and breadth of the country. But FITE, while claiming to be the only body for IT workers, is not the first.

As early as 2000, the Left wing Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU), in collaboration with others like the All India Centre for Trade Unions (AICTU), tried to form trade unions but failed miserably. The IT Professionals Forum (ITPF) supported by the Geneva-based Union Network International (UNI) was formed in 2003 and the Union for IT/ITES (UNITES), often at the forefront of the recession based layoffs in 2008, was formed in 2005.

Both had substantial numbers and membership in the initial stages of their formation but neither have been anywhere close to active in the last three years.

“Sustaining a union for IT professionals is very hard to do,” said Prithviraj Lekkad, former president of the working committee of UNITES.

“We haven’t been doing much for the last three years, since 2011. Our numbers went down from about 14,000 at its peak and many of our committee members have left,” he said. “The IT workforce only comes together when there is an issue and the rest of the time, there’s no one,” he added plaintively.

No one from ITPF could be reached, but their web site shows no activity in the past three years, either.

The CITU also has a similar tale. According to Tapan Sen, All India General Secretary of the umbrella trade union, the situation in the IT industry prevents the formation of any kind of united body. “Very few of our efforts led to any organisations that were eventually registered. The others could not be because of lack of support. Unless and until the employees themselves realise the need for a united body, it cannot be done,” he said.

Prithviraj agreed. “They cannot only come to us when they have problems. And even then, some of them are scared of being blacklisted,” he said.

And the feeling among existing IT professionals is almost exactly as what has been mentioned.

Most of whom Express spoke to say they think Unions are a bad deal. But the story is entirely different among those who have recently been benched or been served pink slips.

“I have been served a termination notice after eight years in this organisation and I’m mulling legal action,” said an employee who did not wish to be named.

“I know there are several more like me, but there isn’t anybody who can help us,” she added.

The industry though,  points to another aspect — “This is one of the model industries as far as working conditions and other benefits are concerned,” said National Association of Software and Services Companies R Chandrasekar. However, he added, “I find it inconceivable that all 3.2 million of our workforce are scared that they could be blacklisted.”

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