For several years now, we have all tuned in to a global conversation on the power of technology firms, that included often intersecting themes such as privacy and surveillance; electoral manipulation and democratic backsliding; the sourcing practices of hardware firms; misinformation, hate speech, and censorship; algorithmic bias and the frightening capabilities of machine learning and artificial intelligence; ownership structures and monopolies; and exploitative labour practices in gig and platform work. In India, we spoke about privacy and digital exclusion when the government forced through the implementation of Aadhaar, its biometric-identification system, about network neutrality when Facebook introduced its limited version of the Internet, about the foreign ownership of software products during border skirmishes with China, about waves of anti-minority hate speech coursing through social networks, about the state's surveillance of political opponents and human rights defenders using military-grade technology, and about the widening digital divide when the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic forced schools to adopt online learning technology.
This episode of the Nagrik podcast is the second and final part of a series on labour organising in technology. In the last episode, we learnt about how mostly blue-collar workers were demanding better conditions in gig and platform work. Circumstances are markedly different in India's IT sector, where employment remains highly sought after. In this episode, we will learn about how these white collar workers are organsing, and for what.
The increased public scrutiny of the technology industry around the world coincided with the sheen coming off India's information technology sector. After 2015, stagnant wages and the long hours of work made it a less attractive employer, a trend that continued into the difficult months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The increased precarity of work in the IT sector became the cause for and the focus of, its workers coming together.
Conditions of work in the IT sector have perhaps worsened during the periods of working from home forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Organisers have reported more intense surveillance of workers and increased hours of work.
Some of the organisers that we spoke to, articulated a particular view of the role that workers unions have to play in charting the course of the technology industry towards more justice and fairness in technology. The Kerala-based Pratidhwani however, is very different. To begin with, tt categorically does not see itself as a workers' union.
While Pratidhwani organised around cultural activity to be able to better advocate for the interests of IT employees, the other organisations that clearly identified themselves as workers unions, provided legal support during times of employment uncertainty.
To understand the methods and objectives of these groups, and to learn about their challenges and successes, we spoke to:
- Jaai Vipra of AIITEU, the All India IT & ITeS Employees' Union
- Alagunambi Welkin of UNITE, the Union of IT and IES Employees
- Vineeth Chandran of Pratidhwani
- a founding member of the Bangalore chapter of the Tech Workers’ Coalition (who did not want to be named), and
- Devika Narayan, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Said Business School in the University of Oxford
- Rashmi Menon, “Even India’s tech workers are interested in employee unions”, The Mint (January 8, 2021)
- Prudhviraj Rupavath, “Accenture may layoff 10,000 employees as unions campaign against illegal labour practices in IT sector”, Newsclick (August 28, 2020)
- “IT employees union UNITE warns firms on workforce reduction”, The Hindu, (November 6, 2019)
- Swarnami Mondal, “Verizon Data Services Sacks 1200 Staff Across India, Employee Alleges Bouncers Used To Intimidate Them Into Forceful Resignation”, The Logical Indian (December 15, 2017)
- “Dumped by L&T Infotech, students in ‘no jobs’ land”, BusinessLine, (January 20, 2018)
- David Streitfeld, “How Amazon crushes unions”, The New York Times, (March 16, 2021)
- Gerrit De Vynck et al, “Six things to know about the latest efforts to bring unions to Big Tech”, The Washington Post (April 30, 2021)
- Matt O' Brien, “Google workers form new labor union, a tech industry rarity”, AP News (January 4, 2021)
- Moira Warburton, “'Amazon won't change without a union”: Canadian warehouse files for union vote”, The Star, (September 14, 2021)
- “Technopark, India's first & largest IT park, celebrates 30th anniversary”, OnManorama (July 30, 2020)
- “Prathidhwani organises virtual job fair for IT sector in Kerala”, Deccan Herald (September 17, 2021)
- “Techies beautify walls of government school in Karyavattom”, The New Indian Express (July 21, 2021)
- All India IT and ITeS Employees’ Union
- Union of IT and ITeS Employees
- Tech Workers Coalition