Unionisation, few would disagree, has proved disadvantageous to the Indian worker. To be sure, the popular assumption is that blue collar workers get greater bargaining power from organising. But, the fact is militant unionism forced the closure of many textile mills in Mumbai in the early 1980s and left lakhs of workers unemployed. In the last three decades, the threat from unionism has emerged as one of the factors that has spurred the growth of informal and contractual employment. The last three decades also saw the IT sector emerge as one of the largest white-collar employment generator in India. By and large, it had stayed free of unionisation and unionism all these years, which is perhaps also why the sector has seen considerable both domestic and foreign investment which in turn led to greater number of jobs being created.
Now, unfortunately, the Karnataka government has allowed IT workers to unionise—though this wasn’t prohibited formally, policy steps such as declaring IT an “essential service” meant that strikes or bandhs, a tool of union agitation, was banned. Now, the Karnataka labour commission has officially recognised the Karnataka State IT/ITES Employees Union (KITU), a 250-member strong union. Bengaluru, the state capital, alone has over 1.5 million IT professionals of the country’s 4 million-plus. This means a KITU may not be able to gain much traction, and may even fizzle out, as some industry watchers are saying. The concern, however, is that it sets a very bad precedent, coming as it does at a time of sizeable trimming of the workforce across IT companies. Till recently, with 25-30% attrition levels, the industry always gave professionals a very good deal.
With average salaries quite high as also average education, IT professionals as a class can hardly be equated with shop-floor workers who face higher employment insecurity and greater competition. Karnataka’s mis-step is likely to tempt other states such as Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh/Telangana to start recognising IT unions, kicking off a labour practice that will end up hurting the IT workers’ interests. IT workers themselves must also recognise that they are facing greater threat from the rise of AI and machine learning while the industry is increasingly turning away from regular software engineering and towards digital services and cloud computing. Immediate upskilling, rather than unionisation, would be the way forward and upward.