Karnataka IT workers demand end to companies’ exemption from labour rules

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Ahead of India’s general election, hundreds of IT employees held a demonstration against alleged “anti-worker practices” in Karnataka’s information technology (IT) and information technology-enabled services (ITeS) sector outside the Labour Commissioner’s office in Bengaluru.

On 16 March, the protesters, organised under the banner of Karnataka State IT/ITeS Employees Union (KITU), demanded the Karnataka state government end the exemption given to the state’s IT/ITeS sector from the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, which aims to protect the interests of employees.

Under the Act, industrial establishments with 50 or more employees are required to define and communicate to employees about their job conditions, such as working hours, attendance, leave procedures and termination.

Photograph: iStock, credit Muhammad Farhad

KITU president VJK Nair and general secretary Sooraj Nidiyanga met the labour commissioner and submitted a memorandum demanding that Karnataka’s IT and ITeS sector should no longer be exempt from these rules.

The union argues he Karnataka government should revoke the exemption as a number of IT and ITeS companies have blatantly violated four conditions imposed on them when the exemption was granted in 2019 for a period of five years.

“KITU, the only registered union of IT/ITeS sector employees in Karnataka with a membership of more than 10,000, demanded the government not renew the exemption as employers were not complying with the four conditions imposed on them while granting the exemption,” KITU said in a statement.

Conditions imposed
Under the exemption from the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, employers in Karnataka’s IT and ITeS sector must establish internal committees to handle complaints about the sexual harassment of women in accordance with the provisions of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, Redressal) Act 2013. They must also set up employee grievance redressal committees, staffed by an equal number of people representing the employer and employees.

IT and ITeS businesses must also inform the relevant labour authorities about cases of disciplinary action taken against employees, such as suspension, discharge, termination, demotion or dismissal, and be ready to provide details about the service conditions of employees, when requested by the government.

A KITU union member said: “We are just fed up with corporate greed, with management forcing us to work long hours, not giving us the time off or enough protections on the job. So, it is high time, we said ‘enough is enough’.”

KITU president VJK Nair added: “The IT/ITeS sector, which employs more than two million workers in Karnataka, has been granted exemption from the applicability of the IE(SO) Act on more than four occasions. The last exemption was granted on 25 May 2019, and is set to expire by 25 May 2024.”

In recent years, the Karnataka government has granted various exemptions from labour regulations to IT, ITeS, business process outsourcing and knowledge process outsourcing companies. On 25 January 2014, the state government issued a notification exempting companies from The Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946, and this exemption was extended for a further five years on 25 May 2019.

Although the IT/ITeS industry says it needs flexible labour regulations to be able to compete globally, some firms have urged the Karnataka labour ministry to have broad stakeholder discussions with trade union leaders and the IT sector to evaluate the potential consequences of withdrawing the exemption.

According to sources, the Karnataka government is considering placing IT and ITeS companies under the regulation and enforcement of the state’s labour department, which would then have the power to investigate alleged employment mispractices. In December 2023, the labour department cited safeguarding the interests of employees as a reason for revisiting the exemption granted to the sector in 2014.

Meanwhile, with Lok Sabha polls underway, trade unions are campaigning against the ruling BJP’s policies, which they claim are “anti-worker”. Union leaders are opposed to what they describe as a rise in contractual or precarious work forms, which they claim will increase risks to workers’ health and safety.

According to the Directorate General Factory Advice and Labour Institutes, since 2021, every year, there have been at least 1,029 accidents, resulting in the death of over 1,000 workers and causing serious injuries to more than 3,000 others. Work-related injuries and illnesses remain largely undocumented, particularly as victims are predominantly precarious workers.

Precarious work
SQ Zama, secretary general of the Indian National Mineworker’s Federation (INMF-INTUC), and a member of the executive committee of the IndustriALL global trade union, said there was a pressing need to bring precarious workers in India under the protection of unions to help secure their employment, social security and occupational health and safety rights.

A number of unions have also claimed that under the BJP-led government, there has been constant neglect of occupational diseases and hazards and amendments to labour laws have further threatened workplace safety standards.

“The government of India mustn’t compromise on safety and should immediately ratify ILO conventions on health and safety, including C155, C183 and C176, and ensure that India complies with ILO C81 (international convention 81) on labour inspection,” added Zama.