HCL squeezes Indian software engineers

Unions helpless but hopeful

Indian outsourcing giant HCL Technologies has told its software engineers they have to work longer days without any extra pay for the greater good of the company.

The firm will now be working its Indian software engineers at the same rate as employees in its call centres, and systems integration and technical support divisions.

HCL denied it was making people work longer hours when The Register asked about it a week ago. A spokeswoman for the firm said: "There's absolutely no truth in this whatsoever".

Then, the funniest thing happened. We sent HCL a copy of the email they had sent to their software engineers, which said they'd have to work longer hours for the same pay. Then, lo and behold, HCL remembered they had changed their working hours policy after all.

Employees were told about the new regime in an email at the end of September, according to a source close to the firm. "We have changed the working hour policy to 9.5 office hours per day from October 1 2006," said the email.

"As they say, 'the difference between ordinary and extra-ordinary is that little extra! - Let's put in a little extra and show our mettle to the world...!" it added.

Workers were told they would be getting a half hour lunch break and there were good reasons why they should be happy to make these sacrifices in the name of the corporate religion.

"No. There will not be any additional monetary benefits hence no shift allowance etc will be applicable. Also, any excess hours put in on a particular day will not be compensated from the next day or any other day," it said.

"But in terms of growth benefits - you will achieve more and you will grow faster in your career!" it added.

It being HCL's 30th anniversary this year, HCL followed the example of many of the world's great corporate religions by producing a company theme song to encourage the congregation to work harder.

A poignant ballad, it encouraged workers to kindle a new dream of change in their hearts, to turn the tide and ride the wave, to challenge themselves in new ways, to discover, go further, see a new dawn, light a brighter future, to discover a new meaning and feeling, a new way to excel, at HCL.

HCL was not quite so evangelical about its working hours policy when it came clean to The Register about it this week, which is no surprise because it has become a subject sensitive enough to effect the fortunes of the outsourcing industry. The union movement, given grist at times by the latent xenophobia of developed markets, has taken to criticising the working conditions of outsourcers.

India's Financial Express has noted the yogi-like contortions outsourcers have to go through in order to avoid drawing attention to the fact that their business takes jobs to overseas locations where pay and conditions aren't quite as good. Home markets have become so uppity about losing jobs to offshore outsourcers that firms like HCL have taken to using any word but outsource to describe the work they do.

HCL's $330m, "largest ever Indian outsourcing deal", struck with Dixons Stores Group in January, was dubbed a "co-sourcing" venture. Outsourcers also refer to their outsourcing deals as "strategic partnerships".

Yet the union movement, prone in recent years to opposing this export of jobs to foreign markets, registered an official change of tact in September. The 2006 annual conference of Britain's Trades Union Congress (TUC) passed a motion declaring international solidarity with workers in markets taking jobs created by outsourcing deals.

"They" were no longer to be pilloried for stealing "our" jobs. The companies in home markets outsourcing to overseas firms like HCL would instead be pilloried for doing business with firms that overworked, underpaid, or otherwise exploited their outsourcing workers.

This would benefit Western firms as well by helping level the playing field in competition between workers in the north and south.

Leslie Manasseh, deputy general secretary of Connect, the British communication workers union, who proposed the TUC motion, told the conference: "After much debate our policy reflects an internationalist rather than a protectionist position."

Union Network International (UNI), the body responsible for establishing the Indian IT industry's first proto-union, the IT Professional's forum, told The Register that it had no idea about the changes to working conditions at HCL, which goes to show how big the difference is between the playing fields of outsourcers and outsourced.

This was demonstrated by the TUC, which noted after a mission to India in May that, with over 500 people typically applying for each job in the high-growth IT outsourcing industry, it was far easier for Indian IT employers to "block" people who were members of a union or were otherwise seen as troublemakers. It also made it easier for employers to call the shots on pay and conditions. UNI consequently found it tough to establish an Indian IT union and settled on a professional association instead.

So what can be done in the name of international solidarity for "our" Indian comrades? Not much, it appears. The TUC has no knowledge of the change in HCL policy either. A spokesman was able to offer some supportive words, warning that extra hours for no extra pay was the start of a "slippery slope" that might end in exploitation.

Research firm Ovum was ambivalent because ten hour days were par for the course in India, according to its outsourcing expert Phil Codling.

That's exactly what HCL said in the sober statement it made after being found out: "Some areas within HCL's software business were not complying with the industry standard of a 45 hour working week. HCL therefore took the decision to align these areas with industry standards."

It said that employee appraisals in July had "taken into account" the new working hours policy and that shift workers were still on 40 hours a week - exactly the opposite of what was said in the email that forced the firm to admit its change in policy in the first place. If it's the done thing for Indian workers to work near-10 hour days for the greater good of their and our corporate profits, what's the problem with coming clean about it? ®

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