By Kavita Kabeer

While corporates complain that labour laws cannot be applicable to ‘sunrise’ industries and would mess with their ease of doing business, it is crucial to ask, aren’t fair working conditions a fundamental right, hard fought for and achieved?

Information technology or IT companies have been once again exempted from the Industrial Standing Orders Act 1946, which gives protection against arbitrary layoffs, unreasonable working hours, grievance redressal, sexual harassment and so on. In fact, the IT industry in Karnataka has been exempt from following the Standing Orders Act for 25 years or so, informs Sooraj Nidiyanga, general secretary of the Karnataka IT/ITeS Employees Union (KITU).
Business has no doubt been booming in the IT industry for the past many years. Last year, the chief minister Siddaramaiah, speaking at the Bengaluru Tech Summit, had acknowledged,“Our state has been a driving force behind the sector’s success, contributing around US$ 85 billion to the nation’s exports.
Karnataka is home to about 20 lakh employees working in 8,785 IT and BT or bio technology companies. The government had promised a re-look at this exemption, and talk to all concerned parties before taking a decision. However, fast forward to June 10, 2024, Karnataka government has once again given exemption to IT and ITES companies to continue without Standing Orders. However, the companies are still required to follow basic labour practices, like constituting an internal committee as per the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, constituting a Grievance Redressal Committee, intimating information about all the cases of disciplinary action like suspension, discharge, termination, demotion, dismissal etc., of its employees to the Jurisdictional Deputy Labour Commissioner and Commissioner of Labour in Karnataka and more.
So what is the track record of IT companies when it comes to labour practices?
Starting from fresher hirings, things are often dismal. Young recruits are expected to deposit all their original qualification certificates with the human resources department for a lock-in period of two to three years depending on their contracts. The establishments demand huge penalties in case the employee wants to discontinue their employment. This sounds exactly like bonded labour but has unfortunately become a norm in several companies.
Then there is the practice of contract employment rather than permanent jobs. Hundreds of establishments are employing people as contract employees at various levels without a statutory license or registering under Contract Labour Abolition (Regulation) Act 1970.
Arbitrary layoffs are not hidden either. Especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, IT firms big and small have laid off employees en masse. Ideally, any establishment employing a hundred or more workers is required to obtain written permission of the government before laying off or retrenching workers under the Industrial Dispute Act, 1947. But being exempted from the Standing Orders allows the companies an easy pass in such scenarios.
Suraj Nidiyanga from KITU says, “Companies are clearly not following the conditions in lieu of the Standing Orders Act. In fact, almost 50 disputes are pending with the labour department in the last two to three years.”
KITU has been functioning for the last six years and has a membership of over 10,000 IT employees. In 2019, it filed a writ petition in the Karnataka high court, asking the court to strike down Section 14 of the Industrial Employment Standing Orders Act, 1946, as ultra vires of Article 14 of the constitution of India. Section 14 of the Standing Orders Act grants the ‘power of exempt’ to not follow the act.
KITU is worried that not following the standing orders leaves IT and ITES employees without fundamental rights – the right to know your service conditions, proper working hours, working environment and so on.
While corporates complain that labour laws cannot be applicable to ‘sunrise’ industries and that it would mess with their ‘ease of doing business,’ it is crucial to ask, are fair working conditions not a fundamental right, hard fought for and achieved?
Not too long ago, Narayana Murthy, who made a fortune selling knowledge systems built on India’s cheap labour services, asked the youngsters of the country to work 70 hours a week. Jokes and memes followed but the outrage did not give way to constructive discussion on the topic. From an eight-hour work day, we are now already stretched to 12-14 hours, with workers complaining of incessant phone calls and work emails even when they are off. The labour of the working class in fact is being squeezed well beyond 12 hours. The dilution of labour laws in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, along with the proposed labour codes are pushing the already repressed working class into slave-like conditions.
KITU organised a protest march to the labour office earlier this year to make their demands heard. Yet despite the assurances to hold tripartite discussions, the government of Karnataka has taken a unilateral decision to extend the exemption for another five years.
“This is a blatant attempt by the government to appease its corporate bosses, completely disregarding the concerns of the 20 lakh employees in this sector,” said the statement by KITU.
Kavita Kabeer is a writer and satirist, associated with the Centre of Financial Accountability.

Courtesy: The Wire

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

+ 89 = 90