Information Offline: Labour, Surveillance, and Activism in the Indian IT&ITES Industry

Rianka Roy

Introduction

In a critical analysis of recent social movements across the world, Slavoj Zizek writes about the “salaried bourgeoisie”, who face threats of “proletarization”. (11–12) These new age white-collar workers defend their bourgeois status, and resist being reduced to the status of the proletariat due to the loss of employment. They seek the recognition as elite executives, not the identity of labour. Movements in the Indian Information Technology (IT) and IT-enabled Service (ITES) industry are not very different from this fight against proletarisation. Several IT&ITES employees in India have been collectively protesting against arbitrary retrenchment, pay-cuts and other forms of professional harassment. They condemn organisational atrocities and demand security in IT jobs, so that the members can fulfill their personal and social obligations with dignity. Their groups and unions extend solidarity to victims of predatory company policies. They provide legal aid to employees fighting expensive lawsuits against digital corporations.

The IT industry in the country is not new, but the groups and unions are not even a decade old. They reflect a global trend. IT workers worldwide have been resisting their exploitation and defending their rights, using the tried and tested path of trade unionism but with a novel propensity for digital communication. (Rothstein) The first of tech-workers’ groups and unions in India — FITE (Forum for IT Employees) — was formed in December, 2014. A major section of its early members came from a Facebook group named ‘We are against #TCSLayoff’. (Vinoth) Now it has chapters in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Delhi (and NCR), West Bengal, Bhubaneswar, Hyderabad and Kerala. FITE became a trade union in Karnataka in November, 2017; and in Pune (Maharashtra) in January, 2018. (Christopher) KITU (Karnataka State IT&ITES Employees Union), formed in 2017, is another union in Karnataka. The Tamil Nadu-based group ‘United for IT&ITES’ (UNITE) came into existence in September, 2017. In November, 2017 the Tamil Nadu government allowed IT employees to form unions. (Das) The National Democratic Labour Front-IT (NDLF-IT), another South India-based IT labour union, functions in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry since 2015. (Biswas) In the other Indian states, these groups are still fighting legal battles to achieve the identity of unions.

I conducted a survey on organisational surveillance on the digital communication of Indian IT&ITES employees for my doctoral research (2013–2018). The 102 randomly-chosen respondents were from Pune, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Kolkata. About 80% respondents were from the desk crew of IT companies; and 20% were from network teams, which monitor online communication of desk employees. In the predominantly a questionnaire-based survey, I also had the opportunity to interview some respondents. A similar digital workplace survey was conducted by Kolinko on call centre employees of Germany (in the spirit of Karl Marx’s ‘A Workers’ Inquiry’ for a survey of French workers). The study revealed the predicament of the networked workforce. Some problems like long working hours, low wages and late night shifts are common even among Indian IT&ITES employees. Additionally, the latter suffer from conditions like immigration challenges of the H1B visa, and much lower remuneration than their international peers in this third-world economy.

I have also been interacting with members of FITE, UNITE, KITU and NDLF-IT as a follow-up segment of my academic exploration. This movement is still in its nascent stage, as the groups are yet to achieve the legal status of unions nationwide. From the study, I have found that these groups of aggrieved IT&ITES employees are uniquely situated at the intersection of offline and online engagements. On the one hand, they tend to follow the beaten track of offline and industrial labour movements; and on the other hand, they forge a suave rhetoric of digital activism — far removed from combative trade unionism.

The group members communicate online, have websites and Facebook pages, discuss important issues in WhatsApp groups; and they also have offline events like meetings, demonstrations with placards, and special gatherings on the International Women’s Day, Independence Day, and May Day. The workers of the 21st century unite — but mostly online. They gather on the same networks that ensnare them, subject them to surveillance, and limit their right to speak. The networks are owned and controlled by their employers and other digital corporations of the same kind. This movement is marked by the near-absence of offline parameters. The paper outlines some adverse impacts of online access on IT workers, and weighs the possibilities of success for this new age labour movement in India with its limited offline presence.

Nothing to Lose but Online Chains: Why the IT Network is a Prison

a. Isolation and Insularity

My survey indicates that a number of IT&ITES employees in India are reluctant to be identified as average industrial workers, even if they support the newly-formed IT unions. They demand access to labour rights, but not the recognition as labourers. The majority of these members do not strongly relate to labour movements in other industries. It is also evident from the comments on the blog posts on their websites. In these groups made exclusively for IT employees, membership is mostly taken online. Members are expected to have a fair amount of digital literacy. The groups organise lectures and webinars on topics like the rights of IT workers, health hazards of IT jobs, and data science — indicating an inclination for digital exclusivity. Supporters associated with other industries are welcome to attend their meetings, but they have no formal access to the arcana of the IT world. It fortifies the so-called uniqueness of IT&ITES labour, and reinforces the community-bonding. Deeptanil (FITE) claims that affiliation to unions lends some distinction to IT employees’ struggle. However, this exclusivity also makes their movement somewhat insular.

Incidentally, it is the same insularity that their employees enforce on them citing the purported superiority and sophistication of IT jobs. Ashish, an attendee of the 2018 May Day gathering organised by FITE, Kolkata grumbled about the atrocities of his company; but he also boasted that the sanitised IT workplace never suffered from the “perils of militant trade unionism”. He seemed content with “seemingly-arbitrary” but “well-deserved termination” of some of his colleagues, because their productivity had been low. His statements reveal the fractures among employees who relentlessly struggle for survival in the competitive industry. Members of the digitally-dependent workforce act like isolated nodes even in dissent.

Manuel Castells writes about the prevalence of the network structure in all sectors of “network society” — as if the society now acts like a digital network. (4, 2004) He identifies the interpenetration of real and virtual realms as “real virtuality”. (406, 2010) Castells’s techno-optimism is questionable, given the recent dystopic revelations about the State’s dependence on the big data reserves and digital tools of digital corporations. (Wylie) Besides, the digital dialectics have moved far beyond the utopic equilibrium of real virtuality, because the virtual now represents the real. The dominance of the virtual is not a spontaneous and objective outcome of the network structure. It is how digital corporations intentionally design their networks to influence non-virtual society. For example, social media policies address users (i.e. the digital labourers, providing unpaid and unrecognized labour to run these websites) (Fuchs et al) not as a collective entity, but as individuals trapped in the bubbles of solitary access. It facilitates their control over users. Hence, these corporations enforce a seeming equivalence between digital network structures and the lives of employees’ to justify the isolation of their digitally-connected workforce. The users of the networks, as if, should function like the networks — both being under the control of digital corporations. The similarity is not a coincidence, but a design.

According to the narrative propagated by digital corporations, what sets these workers apart, and above their counter-parts in other industries, is their online access. IT&ITES employees literally do not get their hands dirty through physical contact with groaning and grimy machines. Their ostensible ‘white-collar’ status rests on their non-physical and virtual encounters online, within the controlled environment of air-conditioned office buildings — the illusory ivory towers. Although a number of employees are engaged in repetitive tasks of coding and checking (theoretically similar to mechanical industrial labour), the companies show online access as a privilege.

A number of aggrieved and dissenting employees, too, consider online access an important tool for their protest. Not everyone is disdainful towards workers of other industries; nor does everyone judge poorly-performing colleagues. A lot of members, in fact, criticise the way their companies pit employees against each other through very dubious appraisal systems. Yet a significant part of these activist groups function online, perpetuating their exclusivity, which is nothing but a form of isolation. Selvam, a UNITE representative, acknowledged that the “active” members, who turn up physically for their events, are outnumbered by the “passive” members who are present only online. The same is true for FITE.

There are practical reasons for this over-dependence on online connectivity. Members working in different cities and in different organisations can reach a large number of employees online without much effort. Employees with different schedules can conveniently interact online. The offline becomes merely as a vestigial part of this movement. With this emphasis on online interaction, inadvertently, these groups endorse their employers’ narrative of the online as a privilege for these socio-economically ‘superior’ tribe of workers. It is the same narrative that derecognizes the workers’ labour and denies them of their rights.

b. The Digital Worker’s Life

There is a historical background to the IT&ITES employees’ reluctance to identify themselves as the average working class people. In India the public availability of the internet in the Nineties coincided with the beginning of liberalisation. Online connectivity brought the aura of globalisation to this country. The internet had been a privilege of the few. The IT&ITES sector enjoyed an elite status. Its employees visited, and immigrated to the West. In fact, India still remains one of the major suppliers of cheap labour in the global IT market. Most of the Indian IT&ITES companies, or companies based in India, fetch business from offshore companies. (Chandrashekhar et al) Over the years the Nineties’ aura of the internet waned. In ‘Digital India’ the State now foregrounds the internet as a necessity. However, IT&ITES companies still label the jobs of their ‘white collar’ employees as superior vocations. It is evident from the sanctimonious rhetoric in their codes of conduct and policies.

The employees, too, gladly accept this illusory supremacy. Several IT&ITES employees have hubristically stated in their interviews that their work is “different” from other jobs, “a notch above the rest”, “a class apart” — because of their digital access and their association with foreign clients. In India, the latter seems to have an ostensible connection with colonial legacy; but the crisis is more deep-rooted than it appears. The companies deliberately instill this pride among employees, not merely by indoctrinating the latter with their policies, but also by designing the lifestyle of their employees through “choice architecture”. (Thaler et al) The perquisites of these companies include club visits, vouchers for shopping and fine dining, and funded vacations in luxury resorts. This fabricated extravagance exudes a counterfeit aura of sophistication, and fuels the average IT workers’ dream of upward mobility. The visible impact of globalization in the post-liberalisation Indian economy, and the lure of immigration determined the attributes of pride associated with IT jobs. The most significant perquisite of an IT job in the Nineties would be an assured visit to America. Indian IT professionals of this millennium chase the same dream. There have been about two hundred thousand Indian applicants for the US H1B immigration visa in 2017–18, from which 65,000 were chosen through a lottery. (Kably) Shopping malls, supermarket chains and outlets of global brands throng the IT hubs in all Indian cities. One cannot miss the strong flavor of ‘globalization’ — a simulaecrum of the life the employees aspire for — in these IT-dominated cosmopolitan areas. The West from where business comes is their role model. Bangalore is even called the Silicon Valley of India.

In the IT&ITES companies, ‘facilities’ like working from home, taking pets to work, wearing casual clothes at office, gym in the office premises, and daycare for children deliberately blur the distinction between labour and leisure, and between domestic and professional spheres. It also ensures that IT&ITES workers are absorbed in a mechanism of continuous labour — again largely through online connectivity. They are not expected to follow the daily schedule of eight hours’ of work, because the other ‘amenities’ no longer follow the conventional perquisites of industrial labour. This exalted lifestyle is incongruent with the austerity associated with industrial labour in India. Hence, the usual attributes of labour rights seem invalid. Long working hours, working from home, and surveillance on personal social media seem normal in this industry. Beneath the apparent veneer of lenience, workers are dispossessed of their rights. Their labour is no longer recognized as labour, but as a privilege that guarantees a lifestyle of superior quality and international standard. While IT&ITES employees savour the rewards of their jobs, the same bounties strip them of their labour rights, and keep them oblivious of this deprivation.

A few interviewees of my survey have confessed that their habitual dalliance with luxury makes them so dependent on their jobs that they cannot quit even amidst exploitation. With the high amount of EMIs to shell out, one dares not wage war against the companies. The scourge of online connectivity has also ensured widespread availability of dispensable digital workers. As a result, multinational corporations can exploit employees with outrageous demands. (Fuchs et al) The online, in this regard, is not a boon but a bane for the IT&ITES staff.

c. Spatial Segregation

The State has always provided special facilities to this industry. Most of these offices are located in Special Economic Zones allotted by the State. The establishment of SEZs from April, 2008 onwards sought to attract foreign investments. (Chakraborty et al) The Information Technology Investment Region (ITIR) project came into being in 2008. The project segregated IT&ITES industry from the rest of industrial enterprises, and directed states (provinces) to allot land of about 40 square kilometers for IT&ITES companies — so that integrated townships could be formed. These areas emulate the identity of self-constitutive cities, distinct in their design from the rest of areas where they are located. The enclosed spaces are well-decorated, and look similar to Western metropolises, embodying the IT workers’ immigration dreams. They have names like IT parks and IT hubs — marking their territorial demarcation from ‘ordinary’ industries.

Other than sprawling office buildings, these acropolises also have residential towers and markets for IT&ITES employees. It ensures day-long proximity of IT workers with their companies, and their continuous detachment from the rest of the city. Electronic City in Bangalore; HITEC City (Hyderabad Information Technology and Consultancy City) and Cyberabad in Hyderabad; IT Parks in New Town and Salt Lake-Sector V in Kolkata; and Magarpatta Cybercity in Pune are some of these exclusive areas. Names like Cyberabad and Cybercity echo the intent of the State to advertise the presence of its ‘glorious’ IT&ITES industry. This naming and highlighting of the IT industry may have been necessary to attract foreign direct investments to the Indian IT&ITES market. (Nayak et al)

Karnataka (Bangalore) and Telengana (Hyderabad) have very prosperous ITIRs. (MEITY) Magarpatta Cybercity has walls separating it from the humdrum of Pune. The entrance to Magarpatta is guarded by security personnel. This spatial segregation reinforces the so-called uniqueness of IT&ITES work, and its purported dissimilarity with conventional and recognized forms of industrial labour. It reinforces the identity of a community among IT&ITES workers, but this collectivity is subjected to homogenous social identities and aspirations. The separation minimizes the interaction between IT&ITES labour and the miscellany of industries existing in these cities. Unfortunately, IT&ITES groups and unions largely seek affiliation in the same codes of uniqueness and isolation through the vaunted privilege of their online access. Unless these groups dismantle the glass barrier of their spatial segregation from the larger framework of labour movement in India, the movement will have a very narrow scope.

d. Surveillance Online and Offline

It has also emerged from my survey that this segregation promotes surveillance. Each of these heavily-protected IT hubs and buildings are always under CCTV surveillance. Within these spaces, the office buildings have reflective glass panes, making it impossible to understand if pedestrians are watched from inside the buildings. Within the buildings the abundant use of glass, wide corridors, carpeted floor and open lobbies leave enough scope for offline surveillance. David Lyon claims that the ubiquitous “liquid surveillance” of digital modernity has obviated the need for offline surveillance through architectural components. (10) However, I have found that in these companies, online and offline surveillance functions simultaneously. The network management teams have clarified in their interviews that they encourage desk employees to monitor each other’s online activities manually. This additional layer of offline surveillance reinforces the digital surveillance of the employees’ online activities. This means that these companies, while foregrounding the online, exert their control even on the offline realms. Hence, without seizing the offline means, the IT unions can never fully achieve their goals.

On my fieldwork in the four cities, I have witnessed the interviewees’ fear of surveillance at their workplace. They refused to be spotted with me anywhere near their office premises. The fear of being captured on the numerous CCTVs was intensified by the possibility of their colleagues reporting to authorities about their suspicious communication with a stranger, even during lunch time. Spatial coordinates of surveillance and control thus replicate the practice of digital surveillance on the employees’ online communication. Only online resistance cannot address these issues in the IT industry.

These companies have social media policies and online conduct manuals which determine the modalities of employees’ access to networks. Access to social media is permitted in many companies but it is strictly monitored, even when employees are outside office. Surprisingly, all respondents of my survey find it normal. They are not only willing to be monitored, but also volunteer to act as agents of surveillance, informally watching their colleagues. If they find any of their colleagues “wasting time” on social media, they consider it their duty to report the matter to their supervisors. This fear of online and offline surveillance, aggravated by self-oriented competitiveness prevalent in digital capitalism, (Schiller) is so naturalized that a number of IT employees even defend their fear and the employers’ prerogative as normal conditions. It is alarming when some union members themselves defend organisational surveillance on employees’ online communication as a necessity.

Dhritiman (FITE, Kolkata) claims that the use of highly-monitored networks for dissent is a gesture of defiance. Maybe instead of fearing the networks, they occupy them. However, among these few politically-conscious individuals, there are also some employees, who are not aware of the existence and extent of surveillance. In fact, the same interviewee mentioned that it is entirely up to the willingness of individual members to face the risk of surveillance through online association with IT unions. Hence, the undercurrent of isolation never ceases to flow.

My survey shows that about 33% respondents from among desk employees are not aware that unauthorized access to particular websites at workplace can be tracked by network authorities, and that it is a punishable offence. Only 28% respondents from the desk crew are aware that their companies monitor their online activities both on office networks and external networks. All representatives of the network management team confirmed the practice of comprehensive digital surveillance.

e. Networked Skills and Redundancy

Employees’ trainings in the IT&ITES industry are meant to make them ready for specific projects. A person trained for a particular project may be redundant for subsequent assignments. Chris Benner identifies this as a common trait of digital jobs, which are always project-oriented. Projects function like networks, in which employees are dispensable nodes. (174–175) In India conventional industries (e.g. manufacturing, education, finance, administration) are yet to achieve this form; but widespread online connectivity has fully implemented this system in the IT&ITES sector. This creates a perpetual fear of redundancy among employees, and employers get the upper hand. Employees think twice before taking any step against organisational malpractices. The projects also shuffle teams, reducing the scope for bonding among peers, and scuttling the chance for unionisation.

Redundancy is also an alibi for arbitrary termination. Souvik (FITE) recollects that although he had the required skills, his supervisor moved him to less important projects, and recruited junior coders for important assignments, citing his inefficiency and advanced age. He rues, that in the IT&ITES industry, workers get obsolete faster than the digital products they make. Digital work, thus, brings the challenge of adaptability for employees. They always have to be on trainings in order to stay relevant; but the trainings are apparently never enough. The companies use the fast evolution of digital tools as an excuse for retrenchment. Dhritiman (FITE) recounts that despite his good performance and completion of trainings, his annual rating fell so drastically that he was put on the termination list. Mostly senior employees face the axe, because their salary and entitlements are on the higher end. (ET Online report)

The union members claim that retrenchment happens for cost cutting; but the companies try to protect their own image in the global market by blaming the employees’ failure to keep pace with digital evolution. The undefined boundaries of online work make this possible. For example, the possible impact of Artificial Intelligence on the job market IT&ITES workers, despite assurance from luminaries like the Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. (Bundhun, Ramalingam et al), creates much apprehension among IT employees. The companies exploit this fear. Hence, while the activists need to upgrade their online skills, they also have to be cautious how their employees take advantage of offline loopholes.

Conclusion: Emancipation Offline

IT workers’ movements worldwide represent predominantly online campaigns, with occasional espousal of offline engagements. In India, the situation is not different. The offline, therefore, is dreadfully under-represented. The online is always the preferred channel of communication for all these unions. Online connectivity is so deeply rooted in this industry that even dissent, by default, seeks digital representation. As a result, the groups submit to the same protocols that bind them. Until these protesters come out of the hegemony of online culture, they will continue being co-opted in the employers’ narrative of exclusivity and superiority of IT jobs that purposefully perpetuates their isolation. The use of mainstream digital communication networks like Facebook, WhatsApp and Gmail makes these groups susceptible to organisational surveillance, and renders their movement somewhat counterproductive. After all, their protest is against the same type of exploitative digital corporations who sell online products. Even if the IT unions intend to appropriate the networks in their protest and thus seize the means of production, without its offline moorings, the protest may dissipate.

Resistance should accommodate the offline — not as a support for the online, but as an equally important constituent. Digital corporations dominate their subjects by increasingly shrinking the possibilities of offline encounters. Hence, offline resistance is necessary to offset the dominance of the online. Digital capitalists try to mainstream the use of online tools. Offline interaction beyond the controlled online domains may reverse this situation to some extent.

Besides, the offline can let the movement overcome its insularity. The NDLF-IT Wing President Shyam Sundar motivates his peers in his blog posts and speeches by referring to the achievements of other labour movements. His anti-capitalist polemic mentions the rich history of trade unionism in India. The groups fortunately realize now that without interaction with other labour movements, their existence will be more precarious than now. They encourage IT workers to take union membership even before they face job loss. Posts on the NDLF-IT website mention farmers’ suicide in India and the impact of demonetization in the country. The KITU website masthead invokes Karl Marx with the celebrated statement from The Communist Manifesto (1848) — “Workers of the world unite”. UNITE expresses concern for the agrarian crisis in India. (Seetharaman) In May, 2018, UNITE organised a silent gathering in protest of the Tuticorin massacre.

There is a ray of hope in the aggrieved IT employees’ willingness to correspond to their counterparts in other industries. However, none of the groups agrees yet that the offline could be the normative means of communication. They claim that physical gatherings are necessary, but they highlight their preference for the online over the offline. The generous use of hash-tags in their protests shows the preference for the online. The FITE website also recommends widespread sharing of their articles on social media with the cue ‘Sharing is Caring’ placed next to social media logos.

This movement is in the nascent stage. Participation in their online presence will increase if the modes of offline involvement, too, multiply. Websites with news links and blogs posts by a few authors create visibility, but mass participation cannot entirely be online. IT labour movement is still unheard of in many parts of the country. It still lingers in the niche of its exclusivity. Even now these groups struggle to persuade their afflicted colleagues to join unions. Media reports about their achievements, too, are scarce, while the number of distressed IT workers in India is appallingly high. The movement has a strong potential for success; but only offline participation can widen that scope, especially in a country where digital divide is still quite stark. Finally, it can be suggested that the dissent will gather momentum if it can situate itself in the glorious legacy of industrial labour movements in India.

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Note: The author has used data from her doctoral thesis titled Social Media Surveillance in Digital Capitalism and the Rise of Networked States: A Study of Digital Labour, Privacy, Security and Identity (submitted at School of Media, Communication and Culture, Jadavpur University, under the supervision of Professor Nilanjana Gupta, in October, 2018). Names of all interviewees have been changed for their security. Company names, too, have been omitted for the same reason.