The cry for ushering in trade unionism in the rapidly increasing business process outsourcing sector has become more heated than ever before following the brutal rape and murder of a call center employee in Bangalore on December 13.
Although trade unions have been stressing on the right to organize the employees of the $5.8 billion BPO industry, the managements view this as an obstacle to efficient functioning of the firms, employing 350,000 people, predominantly women.
The Pratibha Srikanth Murthy incident had driven major trade unions such as the Center for Indian Trade Unions, affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and All India Trade Union Congress to revive the demand for opening the sluice gates for unions in the BPO sector with renewed strength.
An unsuspecting Pratibha (24), working in a multinational BPO firm in Bangalore, got into a cab around 0200 hrs for work on the ill-fated Tuesday, trusting driver Shivakumars words that it was an alternate vehicle arranged by the company.
Shivakumar took her to an isolated spot, raped and murdered her. He then dumped her body in a nearby ditch and fled the scene.
Talking to UNI, CITU National Secretary W R Varadarajan said: "Unionization is a global practice. No industrial sector can be union-free in the era of globalization and the BPO industry is no exception."
Refuting Nasscom president Kiran Karniks contention that there was no need for formation of unions in the BPO sector, he said that the employees might not need a union to fight for their economic benefits, but it was absolutely essential for dealing with a host of other problems, including security aspects.
Echoing Varadarajans sentiments, All India Trade Union Congress national vice president H V Anand Subba Rao said: "Companies set up in India, including multinationals, are bound by Indian laws and the labor laws of the land stress on the right to organize for employees."
If this right had been acknowledged, Pratibha would not have met with such a horrible end, he opined.
Varadarajan asserted that the Pratibha murder case would drive the BPO employees towards seeking a proper forum to give vent to their problems and the central trade unions would facilitate the process.
He called upon the central government to set up a trilateral committee at the national level, involving the management, employees and government, to discuss the problems being faced by the employees in the sector and ensure smooth working conditions.
The AITUC, on its part, was toiling to get a delegation of Parliamentarians to visit various IT and BPO companies, study for themselves the hazardous working conditions and recommend to the government to take steps to improve their lot.
To drive home his point, Varadarajan disclosed a few complaints received by CITU from call center employees such as non-issuance of appointment orders, adoption of hire and fire policy, impounding of certificates and passports of employees to check attrition, impractical shift timings, sexual harassment and abusive language used by the clientele.
A list of the complaints had been forwarded to the labor ministry, which in turn had asked the chief secretaries of the states concerned to look into it.
However, Karnik felt that in the name of transportation issue, various other non-agenda issues such as unionization of BPO sector and not allowing women to work during night hours were being raised.
Defending the BPO companies, Karnik said most of them have round-the-clock help desks and attend to complaints from employees immediately.
He wanted the entire Pratibha episode to be viewed in a broader perspective and not just as an issue pertaining to the information technology enabled services (ITeS) sector.
Terming the Pratibha issue as only a tip of the iceberg, Rao said many ills were plaguing the sector in the absence of unions. The incident, though unfortunate, had acted as an eye-opener, besides stimulating the ethics of the society, he added.
Stating that the BPO employees were forced to work in graveyard shifts, he faulted the central government for amending the labor laws to allow women to do night duty without addressing basic issues like safety and facilities for them.
Though the IT and BPO industry had been consistently maintaining that there was no need for unionism in the sector as companies offer good working conditions and best compensation, compared to other industries, the trade unionists feel that the companies go on the back foot on the union issue as many of them had inked no termination of service clause with their clients and hence any strike or shut down would entail a huge financial loss for them.
In the event of unionization becoming a part and parcel of the industry, the managements fear that they stand to lose out to countries like the Philippines and China which offer cheap labor and function without unions.
Employers equate unionization with disruption of work and claim that history showed that trade unions had never worked to the advantage of employees in the country.
When approached by UNI, the BPO companies remained tightlipped on the issue.
The trade union leaders feel that lack of job security and fear of employers wrath was preventing the employees from taking a step towards forming unions. The halfhearted response to the protest against Pratibhas murder by her colleagues was a case in point, they added.
Even the membership of Union for ITeS Professionals, which had over 5,000 employees across the country on its rolls, was kept under wraps as most fear employer action, they pointed out.
Asked about the initiatives taken to form unions, Varadarajan said: "If we manage to get in touch with anybody in a BPO or IT company, the employee will be warned and in some cases be given a pink slip."
CITUs attempts have been stalled across the country, from Gurgaon to Hyderabad and Bangalore, he added.