It is hard to say if “the time has come” for moonlighting, as minister of state for electronics and information technology Rajeev Chandrasekhar believes. But both employers and employees would do well to weigh the pros and cons of the minister’s advice carefully. Companies do need to better understand the “structural shift in the industry”— Chandrasekhar was specifically talking about IT, but with digitalisation, it could apply to many other industry sectors as well. And employees must keep in mind “contractual obligations” as they seek gigs/entrepreneurship opportunities outside the company whose payroll they are on. Moonlighting is definitely not new, at least not in the IT sector, in India or elsewhere, but it was being done mostly on the sly. It’s a good sign that the debate is now out in the open. Employers continue to hold widely divergent views: While Wipro, IBM, and Infosys have gone public with their disapproval of moonlighting, Swiggy and Tech Mahindra have far more liberal views. At the same time, employees may consciously or inadvertently breach confidentiality and/or intellectual property rights, and may not always heed non-compete provisions in their employment contract. So, a carte blanche on side hustle is an obvious ‘no’. A middle ground that addresses both employee and employer concerns is thus an imperative.
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Companies must take note of the factors that push employees into moonlighting. Entry level salaries, for instance, have been persistently low for software engineers in India. Against firms’ expectations of ‘working from office’ in cities with high costs of living, the remuneration they offer at certain levels may not even meet needs, let alone aspirations, for many. Indeed, the employees fired recently by an IT major were entry-level workers. There is also the dearth of employable talent to contend with. An element of professional growth that is missing for many employees, and gigs, especially in non-compete areas, offer them a chance to upskill. A recent study found more than half the surveyed employees in India believed that their employer is not imparting crucial technical upskilling vis-a-vis two-fifths globally. And, with insecurity over jobs exacerbated by Covid for non-unionised/contract workers, employees are more likely to perceive moonlighting as a buffer against potential job-loss. The future of white-collar work has been tending towards gigs, project-based contracts, and freelancing. At least for IT, this is evident in the explosion of crowdsourcing platforms linking ‘services for hire’ to demand. Companies may therefore need to review strident anti-moonlighting stands and come up with policies that define the contours of permissible moonlighting, if they are to retain the talent they require.
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Employees, for their part, must honour contractual obligations with employers. There is no blanket ban on moonlighting in India, but there are several legal provisions that can be invoked to curb this. Apart from the state-specific Shops and Establishment Acts that restrict dual employment, the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Central Rules says dual employment can’t be to the detriment of the primary employer. Several court rulings have also upheld termination for undisclosed moonlighting, under laws governing “expressed” and “implicit” contracts. Employees would be better served if they voluntarily disclose such opportunities and get employer approval. But for that, more firms need to draw up moonlighting policies that protect their interests while making room for employees to boost income and skills.