How justified is the decision by UNITES, the IT and BPO employees’ union, to move court against alleged management pressure on employees to work longer hours?
As reported in Business Standard on Wednesday, UNITES has claimed that people are “involuntarily” working for over 12 hours a day. Companies claim their employees are working longer hours per day but fewer days to conform to the statutory weekly 48 hours. Either way, the “involuntarily” part is hard to believe. Talk to anyone in the industry and he or she will tell you that the practice of long working hours is hardly new to this industry. The compulsions of the business make it that way.
It is scarcely practical for an industry that derives the bulk of its earnings overseas to start quoting the Indian statute book to its foreign clients to explain deadline slippages. Employees who grumble, as some have to UNITES, that managements are less tolerant of under-performance these days, may have overlooked the fact that optimal delivery is critical in slowing markets when competition for clients grows acute.
None of this, of course, justifies exploitation, as UNITES general secretary has alleged. But the point about the IT and BPO industry is that the term needs to be used with some caution. Unlike, say, manufacturing industries with their large complement of blue collar workers, the IT/BPO industry is entirely white collar. Indeed, its 2 million employees form the backbone of India’s emerging (and increasingly demanding) middle class. White collar workers typically have more wherewithal than their blue-collar ones to dictate working conditions and hours (in Europe, for instance, they continue to work shorter hours than blue-collar workers).
For evidence, just look at the average Indian IT/BPO office. It is no coincidence that it is the IT industry that boasts some of India's best HR practices and, back in the nineties, it set new standards in workplace environments. Gyms, canteens and lavish recreation facilities, generous bonuses and leave plans were all designed not just to maximise retention rates. Employees knew as much as anyone that these work conditions are also calculated to encourage them to stay in the office longer.
That is why this seeming upsurge of protest against “longer” working hours and tougher managements lacks credibility.
Protestors may also have overlooked the wide gap between statute and reality. When it comes to working hours, the statute books are rigorously applied only to the minuscule number of workers in the organised sector, with its union protection and questionable productivity. Irrespective of the colour of the collar, the rest of India’s workforce routinely works far longer hours. This is certainly a cause of concern for blue collar workers where long hours and almost zero benefits add up to a very visible exploitation that trade unions have long ignored. But in the white collar world, it would be fair to say that employees have the flexibility of choice. So, one man’s overwork might be another man's standard working day.
In any case, working longer hours (as opposed to workaholism) has become a global trend. Even in France, with its 39-hour week, a study by the Federation of European Employees shows that full-time workers in that famously lazy country put in an average of 41 hours a week (though that’s still lower than the average of other European countries).
Among China's factory workers, working long hours is seen as a ticket to prosperity. This outlook has spawned a thriving illegal industry in which entrepreneurs set up “shadow” factories where workers work round the clock in violation of both Chinese law and those of their mostly US clients or simply cook the records. The average Chinese considers those who work eight hours a day “lazy”. Scholars are increasingly recognising that this collective keenness to work long hours forms the basis of China’s long-held competitive advantage — “the China Price”.
It is difficult to say whether this trend is right or wrong. In China, willing workaholism has contributed in part to the quality problems that prompted worldwide recalls of a range of products from tyres to toys. In that sense, India’s IT and BPO industry does not appear to be showing symptoms of overwork. If they did, no doubt managements and clients will catch on long before the unions do.