In October 2022, Rahul, an employee at an Indian edtech firm, received an unexpected email from his employer: He was being asked to resign, and the following week would be his last. He would not be receiving severance. It was a “complete surprise,” the 38-year-old, who had been working with this company for five years told Rest of World. Rahul asked to be identified using a pseudonym and requested not to name his former employer, as he still hopes to get a severance package from the company.

In the termination letter, the company’s HR department asked Rahul to submit a resignation on an internal portal. While forcing someone to resign is illegal in India, the HR department threatened that it would withhold his experience letter, an important document for applying to new jobs, if he did not submit his resignation. “I was even told that the company will make negative remarks to my next employer if I don’t comply,” he said.

Distraught, Rahul reached out to Suman Dasmahapatra, national convenor of the All India IT & ITeS Employees’ Union (AIITEU), to seek guidance on how to best handle the situation. Dasmahapatra suggested Rahul approach the office of the labor commissioner, a government functionary that enforces labor laws in India. AIITEU helped Rahul through the process of drafting his application for demanding a severance package from the company. The labor commissioner’s office took up Rahul’s request and is currently working to resolve the case. Rahul says he doesn’t want to work at the company any longer and just wants to get the severance payout that he is legally entitled to.

Amid mass layoffs in recent months, several Indian tech workers’ unions — including AIITEU, Nascent Information Technology Employees Senate (NITES), Karnataka State IT/ITes Employees Union (KITU), and Forum for IT Employees (F.I.T.E.) in Chennai — have stepped up to support professionals who were unfairly fired. So far these unions have had a very limited reach, owing to low membership. Most Indian tech workers don’t want to be associated with these groups, union volunteers told Rest of World. Many Indian tech workers see unionization as a blue-collar endeavor and stay away from it; they also fear backlash from employers, the union volunteers said.

The Indian tech industry employs more than 5.1 million workers, making it the country’s third-largest employer. But prominent unions such as AIITEU and NITES have just 8,000 and 3,500 members, respectively.

“India has been an IT hub for decades, and, for most of it, IT workers saw themself [as the] successful cream of the society and didn’t want anything to do with unionization.”

“India has been an IT hub for decades, and, for most of it, IT workers saw themself [as the] successful cream of the society and didn’t want anything to do with unionization,” K.R. Shyam Sundar, visiting professor at the Impact and Policy Research Institute in New Delhi, told Rest of World. “They saw it as a blue-collar thing.”

Dasmahapatra of AIITEU told Rest of World that there is a “misconception among most tech employees that there are no laws to support them. Tech companies have perpetuated this misconception, he added. AIITEU, a registered trade union body, was set up in 2018 by seven tech workers who were tired of the way that “IT companies would dump their employees, using terms like ‘downsizing’ or ‘rightsizing,’ taking no responsibility for the welfare of the employees,” Dasmahapatra said. Now, AIITEU has chapters in most Indian tech hubs, including Bengaluru, Mumbai, Pune, and Delhi. 

“The attitude of an average tech worker has been: If I lose a job, I will find another one, why should I waste my time?” Dasmahapatra said. “But things are getting difficult now. To put [it] in simple terms, there is more supply than demand.”

In the past year, more than 20,000 persons were laid off by 55 tech companies, including Byju’s, Ola, Cars24, Vedantu, Meesho, and Mobile Premier League, among others, according to media reports. In October, some of Byju’s employees claimed that the company had forced them to resign and used unethical means to make them leave, a claim that the company rejected. In December, hundreds of employees of IT consulting firm Virtusa in Chennai made similar allegations. Virtusa did not respond to a request for comment.

As per Indian labor laws, a “workman,” defined broadly as anyone working in any industry, with a few exceptions, is entitled to compensation of 50% of the total wage and allowance for the layoff period. In cases of retrenchment, an employer is required to provide a month’s notice and a certain compensation. But these rules don’t apply to someone operating in a managerial position. Yash Vijay, a Supreme Court lawyer based in New Delhi, says tech companies use this caveat to claim their employees don’t qualify for compensation.

“A lot of these employers are huge tech giants, and they have been pretty effective in resisting unionization efforts.”

Professor Shyamsundar said that at times companies “structure the job of employees in a way where they aren’t sure if they are in a managerial position or in a profile of a workman.” In recent years, however, some courts have argued that tech employees fall under the definition of a workman. “A lot of these employers are huge tech giants, and they have been pretty effective in resisting unionization efforts,” Vijay said.

In October 2022, Byju’s announced it was closing down its offices in the South Indian state of Kerala and laying off 140 employees who worked there. The affected employees, with the help of welfare organization Prathidhwani, took up the matter with the state’s labor commissioner’s office. Byju’s was forced to rescind the decision and retain the employees.

Vineeth Chandran, secretary of Prathidhwani, told Rest of World that the victory of Byju’s employees has given confidence to IT workers from other companies to reach out to them.

Given the recent layoffs, this November AIITEU held its first physical conference in New Delhi, which was attended by over 200 tech workers from across the country. “The idea of the conference was to discuss issues faced by workers in other states on the same table,” Dasmahapatra said. “Since most tech companies have offices in different locations, employees working in the same company might have different issues. It’s also difficult to organize people in this situation. So we decided to bring members from different states together to talk about the way forward.”

Harpreet Saluja, who co-founded NITES in 2020, told Rest of World that “there is a lot of interest in unionizing among tech workers, especially after Covid and mass layoffs, but most of them don’t want to make it official, fearing it might impact their relationships with current or prospective employers.”

These fears are not unfound, Saluja added, pointing to the National Skill Registry (NSR), a database of 2.3 million tech workers created by industry body Nasscom.

The NSR was created to verify the credentials of current and potential employees through a unique identification process. Getting a bad record on it can be damaging to an employee’s future work opportunities. Saluja questioned the ethics of such a database, adding that “it has almost been made mandatory for tech employees to register on the website, and, in doing so, you not only have to provide your current and past work details, but they also seek personal and biometric information.” 

S. Shakti, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam and former fellow at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, told Rest of World that while she had not found any evidence of the NSR being used to blacklist employees, it has created worries in the minds of employees trying to unionize. “During my research, I found [that] people [who were] more wary of NSR were [the] people involved in union,” she said. “The large part of that came from not knowing what this data could be used for and the lack of transparency about it.”

Nasscom did not respond to an email requesting comments about these concerns. According to the NSR website, the data it collects can be accessed by prospective employers only after an individual authorizes it.