India’s Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry is often showcased as an example of what a country can achieve with free markets. India’s call centres make use of the country’s comparative advantages, especially its cheap, English-speaking labour. It is further claimed that the industry empowers the estimated 2 million people working in it. However, this claim needs to be scrutinized; while many employees are content with their jobs, a closer look reveals the exploitation and uncertainty beneath the shining surface of this industry.
India has become the major outsourcing destination for the developed world, which needs a wide range of back office and support services for its industries. In India, this new sector provides support services like customer care, data entry, medical transcription, marketing, and sales to developed countries like the USA, the UK and Australia. This sector has been projected as the provider of ‘next generation jobs’ at international standards to India’s educated, English-speaking youth.
However, the VV Giri National Labour Institute, in its study on BPOs, states, “Work conditions in Indian BPOs are similar to 19th century prisons or Roman slave ships.” Praful Bidwai, a senior columnist, and Chetan Bhagat, who has written extensively on ‘call centres’, have both criticised BPO industries for exploiting Indian workers and making them work as ‘cyber coolies.’
Despite this, the state machinery, along with industrialists, think tanks, and the media, have consistently campaigned against the need for trade unions in BPOs, arguing that BPO employees enjoy ‘heavenly’ working conditions with outstanding salaries, and that unionisation in this sector will end India’s comparative advantage and prove detrimental to the nation, since these industries are now driving the Indian economy. Many state governments have already declared Information Technology Enabled Services (ITeS)-BPOs as Public Utility Services under the Industrial Disputes Act, which makes legal strikes almost impossible, and therefore also makes the unionisation process difficult.
After 2000, when the outsourcing market began expanding rapidly, trade union organising began among BPO employees, but these efforts have not made substantial inroads. This article is based on interactions with BPO employees and labour activists who have been putting in efforts to unionise BPO workers in India’s National Capital Region (NCR), which includes Delhi and surrounding areas.
Challenges of Organising BPO Workers
Chakravarthi Suchindran, a former journalist who is now the Chief Technical Officer of Genescis BPO, opined that organising BPO employees from the "outside" did not work because those who attempted this were out of synch with the realities of the industry. At the same time, trade unions did not get formed from "inside" because the employees in question are not "workers" in the factory sense, but are a white-collar workforce with a different worldview and mindset. Highly educated, urbane youth with significant disposable income, they often get paid very well by the sector.
However, Pratyush Chandra, a labour activist and editor of Radical Notes, who has been putting in efforts to unionise BPO employees in the NCR, said, “In BPOs, there is a misconception pertaining to the status of a ‘worker.’ Generally, they are called agents. BPO owners assiduously try to hide the status of ‘worker’ by telling employees that they are managers or executives and part of the management. Designations like ’group leader’ and ’team manager’ are thrust upon them, but they do not have real power. A BPO employee, who is pursuing or has earned an MBA, feels that he, is not a worker.”
“The trade unions in BPOs failed in breaking the barriers. Unions have failed to understand the new work culture that has emerged out of the neoliberal economy. Trade unions need to adapt to the work environment in which the BPO sector operates and inculcate in them the rights of the organised working class,” he added.
In BPOs, employees are quite perturbed at the constant surveillance. Even if they work hard, they are still monitored on every count. When it becomes intolerable, they want to break the stranglehold over them. “While trying to organise the BPO employees at Gurgaon and NOIDA [two fast-growing regions in the NCR], I observed that agitated employees express their resentment by mapping out the files in the server and then corrupting them. It has not been an individual effort, but an organised protest. The management has the wherewithal to pin down individual acts, but it was difficult to catch the organised effort,” Chandra said.
The New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI), a politically independent union, has strongly advocated for employees’ unions in the BPO sector. National trade unions affiliated with major political parties, such as the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) and the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), lack the ability to organise the BPO workers, although they have made some preliminary inroads. UNITES Professionals, a union backed by INTUC, has found some success in the BPO Sector. CITU has set up a small union for BPO workers in Kolkata and is working to unionise IT workers in Bangalore, Chandigarh, Chennai and Hyderabad.
Despite these initial steps, many BPO workers are not convinced that unions are necessary. The 37-year old Vijayalakshmi Tyagrajan, who works with Horizon BPO in NOIDA, feels that trade unions are supposed to fight for employees who are deceived by the management. In a BPO, she says, employees are well aware of the work culture (including extra hours of working and other aspects) and are ready to face it. In the BPO where she works, she says, “I myself can voice my opinions, so I think there is no need of unionisation.”
Supporting her viewpoint, Chakravarthi Suchindran said, “Well-organised knowledge economy sectors like BPO and ITeS have much better ‘employee adaptation’ and ‘reconciliation’ facilities than unions have ever offered or are capable of offering. It is often a fair milieu, and a workflow dynamic that is driven by team-performance considerations rather than individualistic endeavour. So to that extent collectivism is also present. A team nurtures its members, and together, they share the fruits of their ’intellectual labour.’ I would say it is not indifference or apathy, but instead disillusionment with the very concept of a trade union. This has been brought to centre stage by the media, especially seeing the role of national trade unions like CITU and AITUC and their viral effect on the organisations they latched on to.”
He added, “Working hours are rather well rationalised in BPO, IT & ITeS and compensation is broadly above par in comparison to most other industries. Typically most youngsters today want a salary that is in 6 figures, but are unwilling to bust their ass getting there. Sorry, but there can be no such thing as a free lunch.”
These viewpoints overlook the very real hardships that BPO employees face. These hardships are pushed aside by the logic of the state machinery and industrialists, who claim there is no need for BPO unionisation efforts. But some employees have a different take on the matter. For example, 24-year-old Nianghauching Manlun, from Manipur in India’s north-eastern region, working with PMG Outsourcing Company, a BPO in NOIDA says, “Broadly, external factors have delayed and acted against unionisation efforts in the BPOs in India. However, the decisive role is always of internal factors and therefore we should focus more on the factors affecting the collectivity at the workplace. I am from the north-eastern part of India, and 90% of night shift employees in the BPO are from our part of the country. In smaller BPOs, they work tirelessly for a month, but on the last day of the month, the BPO shuts down and the BPO owner vanishes. Our friends lose their money, which has added to their woes. There is dissatisfaction and hopelessness, and this is increasing and becoming problematic. In such conditions, trade unions are much needed to organise the BPO workers.” The majority of BPOs operate in an exploitative way, so workers need to be unionised and empowered.
Unionising Efforts in the BPO Sector
The final section of this article describes some of the major efforts that have been made to organize workers in this sector:
-* Union for Information Technology and Enabled Services (UNITES) Professionals
UNITES Professionals was set up in 2004. It is affiliated with INTUC, which is itself backed by the Congress Party, one of the dominant political parties in India. The political patronage gives the 8,000-member-strong union some teeth, according to Karthik Shekhar, the General Secretary of UNITES. Its membership base is small, and without political support, it would not have survived as an independent union, as Shekhar explains. But it is important to remember that political affiliations don’t necessarily have much impact on the boardroom decisions of BPO-ITeS corporations.
Suomen Ammattiliittojen Solidaarisuuskeskus (SASK, a solidarity organisation of Finnish trade unions) has supported several activities of UNITES Professionals, including campaigns, workshops and training programmes in India. These collaborations are aimed at capacity-building actions that serve the interests of IT & ITeS professionals in India.
UNITES cooperates with SASK in areas of research and information-sharing. SASK also works with UNITES on issues of common interest at international platforms.
-* West Bengal Information Technology Services Association (WBITSA)
In 2006, CITU, a union backed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), launched a trade union arm for the IT industry: the West Bengal Information Technology Services Association (WBITSA). According to Shyamal Chakravarty, advisor to WBITSA and president of CITU’s West Bengal union, it’s time that this industry, which contributes more than 4.5% to the country’s national economic output, has trade unions to protect workers’ rights. Chakravarty says that there are two categories of employers in the IT sector: those who abide by (labour) laws and those who violate them. WBITSA promised to take up the cause of employees who were denied their rights. While launching WBITSA on November 14, 2006, Chakravarty was critical of employers in the IT sector who have scant regard for basic labour laws. He pointed out that no appointment letters were issued to workers, and they were denied Provident Funds and Employees State Insurance. Some companies also used contractors to provide them with workers. Employees were thrown out of their jobs without cause or notice. The association promised to provide a list of irregularities to companies that were breaking labour laws.
-*Centre for BPO Professionals (CBPOP)
The CBPOP (Centre for BPO Professionals) project was launched in July 2004 with the establishment of two service centres: one in Hyderabad and other in Bangalore. The centres are headed by J.S.R. Prasad and N.R. Hegde, both of whom are experienced unionists who have worked in the telecom sector in India for over 25 years. According to CBPOP, the basic strategy of the project is to establish contact, convince (create awareness and appreciation of trade unionism), connect (provide networks for these employees) and finally to consolidate such networks into trade unions, at the enterprise, regional and national levels.
Since its formation, the CBPOP has dealt with disputes and conducted research through surveys and studies. It has also built solidarity by organising educational activities and talking to BPO employees about the need for trade unions. Gradually, the CBPOP began expanding their activities to other centres and were able to establish contact with more than 5,000 employees in various cities. Accordingly, the CBPOP is now in the process of registering trade unions in different states to organise and represent such employees. There are also efforts to organise employees into enterprise-level unions, if this is the desire of the employees in a particular enterprise, such as those that are linked to larger financial institutions, like HSBC. The original plan was to register a nationwide trade union to facilitate recruitment and representation. However, this is not possible now, since the laws regarding union formation have been changed since the CBPOP’s founding in June 2005; now, such unions can only be registered on the state level. CBPOP officials believe that the prohibition on national-level BPO and call centre unions is part of an effort by the government and employers to prevent unionisation in these important sectors.
-*New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) in the BPO sector
NTUI has engaged extensively with the issue of growing contractual work in India, and its impact on core labour standards and workers’ right to association. Its priorities are to organise contract labour, and to struggle for equitable legislation and regulation of contractual labour relationships. NTUI has attempted to look at outsourced work in the call centre industry as a special case within the parameters of contractual labour in India. It has therefore been concerned with the status of employment relations and labour standards in the call centre industry.
“The BPO employees are happy with their jobs as far as monetary factors are concerned but because of excess workload, need for socialising and high intensity of work, they want to unite and form associations so that they can ask for their rights and fair work standards," said Ashim Roy, General Secretary of NTUI.
-* All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) in BPO Sector
AICCTU, a union backed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, started working among the BPO employees in Gurgaon and NOIDA in 2000. Their efforts included campaigning to rationalise working hours and compensation, along with other issues. They especially highlighted the plight of first-year workers, who are generally the most exploited. AICCTU functionaries are trying to organise BPO employees so that they have grievance redressal facilities, which will help them solve pending issues and redefine the role of collective bargaining. So far, it has not made significant inroads in the BPO sector.
While some of these efforts have yielded promising results, much work still needs to be done to raise the awareness of BPO employees and to end exploitation in one of the most high-profile Indian industries.