The IT Industry has become more rigidly exploitative—as a natural consequence of lower wages, economic slowdown, a lack of jobs in the country, the outsourcing engine, not to mention human nature.

Prelude

Once upon a time, there was an island called Bharat, a dusty and mostly dirty bit of land that stretched out for kilometres. At the very centre of the island stood a great building filled with computers, networking equipment and wires. Spreading out from the building, for kilometres in every direction, was a vast settlement of peasants who lived in shacks fashioned of tin and aluminium and hay.

The great tenants of the building— F.C Kohli, Narayana Murthy, Azim Premji and Shiv Nadar—promised them a brighter future. A future full of information highways, untold wealth, and most important of all—a seat from which they could be part of the 21st century.

Act 1: On the nature of innocent fraud

There is an excellent book, really a long essay, by Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith called ‘The Economics of Innocent Fraud’. He points out how we, as a society, have come to substitute the term ‘market economy’ in place of the term ‘capitalism’.

In this case, ‘market economy’ is a more favourable and gentler term. It comes with an implication that economic power lies with consumers rather than the owners of capital or with the managerial class, who have taken over the work of the owners. It is this substitution that Galbraith points to as an example of innocent fraud.

The trouble with innocent fraud is that it always comes with a foundation of truth. It is essentially more of a white lie than a black one. It is also a lie that suits the powerful as it allows them to mask the full extent of their power. For the powerless, an innocent lie lets them sleep a little better at night as it masks the true extent of their powerlessness.

What we tell ourselves about the Indian IT industry—that it has created wealth in a completely transparent fashion in contrast to the rest of India Inc, that its genie-in-the-bottle was a Bollywood-like Silicon Valley tale and that for India to grow, its IT industry must grow—is an innocent fraud.

It was Amartya Sen, in a JFK-esque speech at Nasscom’s annual conference in 2007, who first knocked on the doors of this innocent fraud. “Given what the country has done for Indian IT,” he said, “is it not silly to ask: what specially can the IT industry do for India (other than what happens automatically without any deliberate pursuit of non-business ends)?”

Dr. Sen however does not take his train of thought much further than gently chiding the industry and pointing out that it could contribute outside just the technological sector.

Act 2 – The disintegration of innocent fraud

In the six years since Dr. Sen’s speech, it has become much easier to see through the innocent fraud surrounding the IT industry; in fact you have to make an effort to not see through it.

On March 4, 2013, fresh engineering graduates hired by IT firm HCL Technologies staged what was perhaps the first protest in the history of India’s IT Industry. Their demands were simple: they wanted the company convert the letter of offers that had been handed out into actual jobs.

The students had been issued the letters of intent nearly two years before the protest, in September 2011. Not only were they not being paid, many of them were also pressured and forced to turn down other job offers as HCL dangled the hook of promising them a join date.

As of October 1, 2013, over five hundred students are still reportedly waiting to be scooped up; others have been turned away after two years, with the company now saying they aren’t technically qualified enough to become HCL employees.

This process of maintaining a standing army of unpaid graduates has become characteristic of the IT industry over the last three years. It offers IT companies a set of talking points when they pitch to clients; the bigger pool of waiting engineers one has, the quicker you can scale up and down.

On April 11, 2013, CBC News published an expose, detailing how IT firm iGATE tightly controlled the lives of Indian employees that had been sent overseas to work on onsite projects. “They [iGATE] have a rotation policy and they make sure you don’t get settled here,” said one of the ex-iGATE employees. “You are always threatened that any time you will be sent back to India.” One of the workers also said, at one point, that he and his family was forced to get on a plane to India with little notice, right after his wife had given birth.

A dense network of immigration rules, work visas and intra-company transfers (which are doled out as ‘favours’ as going abroad are often seen as perks) ensure that Indian IT companies can quell Western protectionism fears while still maintaining profit margins. It is this network that has also sparked the H-1B visa crisis.

There is, perhaps, no better form of digital shackle than what the H-1B and B-1 visas stand for. Employees are sent to Western countries, but still held tightly on a leash, and can be summoned back at any moment. Much to the contrary of Indian apologists, those sent to the U.S cannot switch jobs and are subjected to lesser pay (the infamous Brookings Institution study is deeply flawed).

Double standards

Infosys was fined $35 million earlier this year for illegally bringing Indian programmers into the U.S on visitor visas. Where, then, is the outrage over an industry, that has come to define India, shipping its employees into the U.S to work for sub-standard pay and on forged visa documents? Where are the OP-EDs decrying the death of corporate ethics?

The simple fact is that the powerful are more vested in the perpetuation of an innocent fraud. Much after the powerless have finally realized their fate, the powerful will grip tightly to the fraud, repeating it endlessly amongst themselves in an echo chamber that provides a false ring of truth.

In October this year, Karnataka, for the third time, exempted the Indian IT industry from the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders Act)—a set of labour laws that would require each company to define conditions of employment and details such as working hours, wages, grounds of termination and so on.

“We were surprised when the previous Government did not give an extension of this exemption, which was like going back to licence raj,” said Ramdas Kamath, a member of Infosys’ executive council, in an interview with ET.

Labour laws however are the exact prescription the IT industry needs. Especially at a time when employees at mid-sized IT firms are often forced to work 14-hour days, when women BPO employees are paid less than their male counterparts and when employees are terminated under less-than-clear grounds.

The IT Industry has become more rigidly exploitative—as a natural consequence of lower wages, economic slowdown, a lack of jobs in the country, the outsourcing engine, not to mention human nature.

Funnily enough, the experience of the IT-Indian is very similar to that of the Indian citizen. Shekhar Gupta describes the journey of the Indian voter as gratitude to grievance to aspiration. The crucial change from grievance to aspiration has brought new energy that drives today’s India and redefines its politics (read: AAP).

The IT-Indian is no different. The roaring 1990s and the wealth it brought India’s middle class went hand-in-hand with the growth of the IT industry, bringing about a sense of gratitude that mostly continues to today. The entrepreneurship scene, which is still in its infancy, has started the shift towards grievance. But why not aspire for more? For a better and more transparent IT industry?

Epilogue

A peasant comes to the walls of the great building, and the tenant drops a few coins, allowing the peasant to swap the dhoti for a shirt and a tie. There are dreams of the future still—a world where IT can eradicate malaria, cholera and poverty. But for now the peasant is happy to earn a wage that is still more than what his entire village earns. The peasant is satisfied, and the tenant’s hold over the building is a little bit stronger.