They called me "George Fernandes II !"

I recently met Mr. Karthik Shekhar, Secretary General India of Union for Information and Technology Enabled Services India [UNITES, India]. He is a learned person who holds clear views on matters of employer-employee relations. What strikes you about Karthik is the fact that he, like Khushwant Singh, is a very outspoken person; he will voice his opinions without fear. He does not fit the image of a traditional union leader; he is a well read person, studies his subject well, understans business very well, he is techie himself. You will find his interview [all views are his and not of this blogger], I am sure, very informative and interesting. Read on...


1. Hello Shekhar, where did you begin your career? Did you choose Trade Union field to begin your career or did you join it later? What prompted you to take this career?

I began my career with APTECH Ltd as Business Manager looking after Corporate Sales in Bengaluru which included managing franchises under a master franchisee and then ensuring corporate clients come and learn courses in APTECH or at their offices, it was great fun I was sort of a IT Guru but the problem was APTECH had little focus in this segment and most of the times I was all alone, managing logistics to food for the courses with out any support from company in 1995. Finally I had to quit as one of the big training programme which I had got for APTECH from JT Mobile (it is dead now!) after getting the training did not pay, more than anything this made me very unpopular with caterers who had supplied food for the training were chasing me! That was the induction into corporate world!

So from there I in 1996 moved to IBM Global Services as an IS guy (I was sick of marketing and already had burnt my fingers!) it was a good roller coaster ride every time IBM bought or sold a company many of us would get hit, we were trained in IBM networking products and IBM sold this to CISCO and we were told they would support the networking products of IBM and to our surprise slowly they started replacing every network product with CISCO and my manager who had no clue found me in competent to work with CISCO products but they forgot that the CISCO network products were replaced but there had been no effort to train us and all the management that we were doing of network with in IBM or Clients was by learning about the products (taking exams with our own money) and managing the show. The final straw came when IBM started call center business and from 8 hour working day we told to work almost 12 hours to give 24 hours support to client HLL and then to others like British Petroleum & Lloyds TSB. I started asking questions about rights my managers in their true IBM wisdom called me Union Leader. This led a burning desire to start a union and when I looked at IBM Intranet I found instances of UNIONS operating in IBM offices in France and other places. But when I asked this to HR/Senior managers (Skip level meeting) they named me George Fernandez (George had asked IBM to close its shop in 70’s) and I was equated to him (an honor to me but created a fear in other employees). I was suggested to meet Company councilors to overcome the problem and finally I was put on performance improvement plan. By this time I had made up my mind what to do but the pressure put on me had its effect on my health I had to undergo treatments for hypertension. This was the time for introspection and starting UNITES movement in India.

2. What was the response when you first campaigned for your union’s membership? From the employees? From the Employers?

Very good question, initially employees felt it was s union that would probably take away their job or fight along the regional, linguistic lines job for local people etc, they kept away and it was hard to convince them. All this changed with the unfortunate Rape and Murder of Ms. Prathibha an HP employee and the response give by its Chief functionary Mr. Som Mittal. This was when we could attract employees into our fold who understood the need for an organization to represent them. This was followed up with issues like Satyam, Recession all helping our cause. But still we have concern as the fear of being Black listed on National Skill Registry by NASSCOM keeps many employees away or only our members on the net.

With employers we know for fact that there is a pact that they will not be the first to allow unions into their premises and this is keeping them busy. Irony is it took me three years to get an audience with NASSCOM, that is how serious about dialogue.

3. What are the problems of employees in BPO industry? One report called them ‘Cyber coolies!’

Calling Cyber Coolies! Is going little too far.

Areas of concern in IT & ITES employees:
High expectations from the outsourcing companies tend to force the young works to come under tremendous pressure and as the outsourcers think only of achieving targets and their earnings these workers expected to achieve performance which is humanly impossible. This leads to extreme working conditions and no or little breaks there by leading to stress and its after effects.

Entire country follows an international law of eight hour working pattern however in IT industry this law is systematically killed and an employee is working on an average they are forced to work between 12 to 16 hours a day this is not enforced by the company but is expected to do the same to meet the targets. Due to this their family life and social interaction is completely collapsed leading to isolation, trauma and in certain cases leading to mental depression.

The tasks that IT & ITES perform are diverse; the problem that this creates is that there can be no standardized training program suitable to all the IT & ITES professionals that can be given to the prospective employees before they are actually absorbed into the company.

Labour laws of this country ensure to follow procedure in case of lay off or retrenchment but in IT industry Hire and Fire policy seems to be the only rule and this used by the management & NASSCOM to keep employees on their toes.

Unethical Bonds which are obtained from employees are one sided only in the favour of employers and are used to harass the employees.

Due to odd hour duty their health is affected, even their safety is compromised, while they are abroad even the living wages is not given as per that countries wages/conditions.

As many young women employees are joining this industry there is a huge sexual harassment taking place due to non implementation of Vishaka Guidelines as directed by the courts.

NASSCOM the employers body regulates the intake of youth by making them take a skills test/registration which is being made mandatory and also used to black list employees who voice their opinions or question management decision. It is against the freedom of association as envisaged in the constitution of India.

4. What are the activities of your union? Can you name a few industries where your union has membership?

None in IT/ITES company, but guess what the same companies have unions in Europe so it is sheer double standards!

5. Which international unions your union is affiliated to? What are the advantages of such affiliation?

UNITES Professionals is the Union for IT & ITES employees in India. Affiliated to UNI Global Union (http://www.uniglobalunion.org), which is a global union for skills and services with 15 million members in 900 unions across the globe. UNITES has been taking the worker problems and given representation to Prime Minister, Chief Minster in the last four years. They have highlighted the challenges/problems faced to Media and to the management. The response from management has been lukewarm and has had very little interaction with them so in this scenario international affiliation and the local unions in those country helps UNITES.

6. Can you tell us about an incident that has left a mark on your mind?

David Beckhams Brother In law used to run a call center called BEL-AIR in India (Mumbai, Bengaluru) In the Bengaluru call center he had not paid employees by saying that they would get an incentive to go to London and meet the footballer and these worker believed in it did not take salary for three months, then finally he disappeared which forced the owner of the building to lock the employees as they had not got their rent and we had to intervene to get these employees freed is an unforgettable incident.

7. Since there are jobs a plenty for young persons, it gives the real security to a job seeker. In such an atmosphere do you think trade unions have a future?

I am not an astrologer who can predict what future has in store, but as long as employers see IT & ITES industry grows and continues to contribute to Indian GDP they do not want the apple cart to be disturbed. At UNITES we assure full support in this direction nevertheless this should not be at the cost of Indian Youth who end up suffering from Burn out Stress Syndrome (which consists of back pain, hearing problem, eye sight loss etc) by the age of Thirty Five years.

The aversion and hostility to labour movement and ignoring of International Labour Standards whether in India or abroad is unlikely to be helpful in the long run, as insidious alienation of professional staff can cause all kinds of problems for companies. With impact of economic downturn, loss of jobs within India and abroad in the IT/ITES sector it is time IT/ITES companies reviewed their labour policies and take the working professionals into confidence and allow them unionize and adopt progressive pro labour policies.

8. Share your website and contact details.

UNITES strives to create a distinct and cogent link between employers & employees at all levels. Our head office is located at Bangalore. Please keep visiting the UNITES website for regular updates on labour situation in IT/ITES industry and any further information and / or assistance regarding "Your Rights at Work". You can visit our website at www.unitespro.org , fill up the forms in "Become a member" section for membership registration and "Request for Newsletter" section for receiving monthly newsletter.

Vivek

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