With anger and outrage growing over large-scale layoffs reported in the Indian IT industry, a Kerala legislator has kicked off a debate on the need for clear, well-defined labour laws in the Indian IT sector.
KS Sabarinadhan, Congress MLA from Aruvikkara, moved a private members' resolution in the Kerala Legislative Assembly on Friday, calling on the Assembly to pass a set of well-defined labour laws properly suited to the IT sector.
Sabaranidhan, who has himself worked in the IT sector for a brief period, says that while the oft-stated reason for terminations is "poor performance", companies don't usually explicitly mention what the phrase means. This essentially leaves it to the organisations to interpret and change the criteria to suit their needs.
The 33-year-old MLA says that employees have the right to know why exactly they are being sacked. "Is performance under the ambit of labour laws or beyond them? If it is under the ambit of labour laws, the employees have the right to know what exactly the performance criteria are. Does it mean individual performance, group performance, or company performance?"
While moving the resolution, Sabarinadhan compared the IT boom in the state to the Gulf boom that led to the burgeoning middle class in Kerala. The layoffs, he said, will affect Malayalis the most since nearly 10 lakh Malayali techies are employed in the country and abroad. And engineers are already starting to feel that their jobs are increasingly becoming irrelevant due to the focus on artificial intelligence (AI) and automation.
The MLA said that unambiguous, stringent labour laws in the software sector are what is needed at present and that Kerala should take the lead and draft model laws to save its professionals.
"Our labour laws have been designed for the manufacturing set up. In the IT industry, you do not have a well-defined set of such laws and many states haven't got it because it adversely affects their business scenario," he says.
For instance, IT companies in Karnataka – home to India's Silicon Valley Bengaluru – were exempted from labour laws in 2013 by the state cabinet. On the other hand however, the Tamil Nadu Labour Department clarified last year that no IT company has been exempted from the provisions of Industrial Disputes Act 1947.
"If lakhs of people are working in this industry, you need to inform them of laws pertaining to them," says Sabarinadhan. "These laws have been made for the manufacturing set up and at a time when 60% of your GDP comes from services, is there a need to change that or to define the guidelines better?” he asks.