Uncertainty continues for thousands of information technology sector employees in Bangalore over when they will be able to return to their offices.
Since the beginning of the Covid pandemic early last year staff of major IT companies have been working from home, which has resulted in a whole host of problems particularly for younger, entry-level employees. The fluid situation has also severely affected the business of paying guest (PG) accommodations, preferred by many workers who have come from different parts of India to Bangalore.
While IT offices were expected to re-open by December due to falling number of Covid cases in India, complicating this schedule now is also the new strain of the Covid virus, Omicron, which has begun to spread globally. In India, cases have been detected in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Delhi, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Kerala.
Though not much is known with any certainty about the virus in terms of the severity of its impact or ability to escape vaccines it is believed to be highly transmissible.
How will the IT industry cope with this new threat? Will work from home continue further and if it does, will all PG accommodation owners in these IT hubs have to shift to other businesses? What will be the condition of employees working round the clock in the ‘work-from-home’ regime, who have already started complaining of severe health issues due to increased workload and stress?
Staying in Paying Guest (PG) Facilities has become Impossible
Covid Response Watch spoke to some of the employees to get an idea of the ground reality as opposed to tall claims made by the companies.
Sonali Bhattacharya, who is an IT employee and lives in a rented flat in Bangalore, says, “I had left my PG (paying guest facility similar to a dorm) and shifted into a rented apartment because of the bad quality of food and long working hours, due to which my health had been compromised and I had to spend a huge amount on my treatment. I am working from home on very short breaks and attending to work requests even on weekends. I hear that out of 12,000 PGs in Bengaluru, only 4,000 are functional, but these are also struggling for survival. With the Omicron virus having entered India, the scenario looks bleak.”
More than 30,000 PG staff has already lost jobs and more will likely have to quit. PG residents might also have to vacate their rooms soon as these accommodations are rapidly closing down.
In fact, running PGs is not a recognized business as per government rules, so the owners don’t get loans from banks. Moreover, if there is a third wave of Covid, work from home is going to last longer than stipulated, so these accommodations would not be able to sustain. If workers are called back they would have to look for other options.
Most IT companies are hardly bothered about the condition of workers and the overall dismal situation prevailing in the country. Says Sonali, “In 2020 itself, many IT companies had put pay hikes and promotions on hold, while some laid off thousands of workers on some pretext or other, viz. low demand, poor performance, low skills and the like. After a whole year of slogging, the employees were being handed gift coupons of little worth and sent emails about the office organising Yoga classes and Zoom parties, while the real issues remained unattended.”
Struggling employees and booming corporate profits
How could companies like Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys maintain their profit margin even during the deadly second wave of the pandemic? While the largest software exporter TCS showed 28.5% profit increase and 18.5% revenue growth in the first quarter of 2021, Infosys reported a profit growth of 22.7% and revenue growth of 17.9%. Analysts say that this was due to the depreciation of the rupee against the dollar as well as putting all promotions and salary hikes on hold, while saving huge maintenance expenses due to a work-from-home regime and making employees work 12-16 hours per day.
But what do the employees of such companies have to say? Is this profit growth at the cost of the workers’ health and well-being? Are many IT companies turning into sophisticated sweatshops, where employees have few rights and an exploitative work culture hides behind the euphemistic “sweet talk, worker-friendly atmosphere, professionalism, and sleek infrastructure.”
Sandhya Tripathi, an entry level engineer in one of the pioneering IT companies of India, recounts, “For a few weeks, after getting the news of the spreading virus, in early 2020, offices of the IT companies were still open and there was a sense of fear prevailing. But the higher-ups were still assuring us that the situation was under control and we could continue to work with no worries. However, some people, who talked to relatives in other cities, were advised by them to leave immediately, as the virus was multiplying fast and a nationwide lockdown could be imposed. The metro cities would be the worst affected by the virus as the number of people entering and leaving was quite large. Due to this panic, people left for their hometowns in large numbers without any Covid precautions being maintained on flights.”
Sandhya recalls waiting for her company to officially declare their offices closed. But that only happened after the government ordered lockdown. And even after that, her managers kept insisting that they stay back and keep working from their rented accommodations, as it was speculated that the lockdown might end within a month or two. Little did she know that this was the beginning of an ordeal for her and other IT employees.
“It became very difficult to manage life in the first few weeks of lockdown. All offices were closed, so the canteens and departmental stores inside the campuses were also non-functional. Even outside, near our PG rooms there were few shops or restaurants where you could buy anything to eat” she says.
According to Sonali, the food in these accommodations is never up to the mark, and since they were not allowed to cook in their rooms, people usually ate at food stalls and canteens at the workplace. But now there was no option but to eat whatever was served at their places of residence, which was almost always unpalatable, because food menus had been slashed due to unavailability of supplies during lockdown.
The other option was to order through food delivery apps; which was expensive and there was always a fear of infection from the delivery personnel. There were also rumors about the infection spreading through food from restaurants. Every little thing brought from outside was sanitized and then left to stand for a few hours. The cooking resources were limited and residents had to share and manage somehow. All this had to be done while employees had to work extra hours. Food delivery was also being delayed due to the police stopping delivery personnel even though essential services were not restricted.”
According to Radhika, a student residing in a major IT hub, she tried to order daily use supplies through online delivery services, “but the situation was so bad that we could get only one order booked in a month’s time, as there were no slots available for placing orders.”
Work-from-home is more stressful
While working from home was something workers always yearned for the actual experience turned out to be highly unpleasant due to the extra hours they were made to work by their bosses. Their working hours should have been the same as before the pandemic, excluding travel time but this was not the case.
“Work from home trebled our work and the deadlines were shortened, as according to the company, we now had more time in hand as were spending less time in transit. Because all communication was online now, there was a sense of disconnect and the managers and team leads would ping us multiple times a day asking for updates. Besides, there were multiple meetings per day lasting for long hours. You can imagine the pressure” says Radhika.
“Amidst this, we would receive emails in flowery language telling us to maintain work-life balance when in reality, the boundaries of time and physical space between the office and home had completely disappeared. Instead of work-life balance, they should start calling it work-work balance”, Sonali asserts.
According to Rakesh, “There are no fixed working hours, so our mind is occupied with work-related issues 24×7. Managers assume we are available all day. So anything can be marked as ‘urgent’ and employees have to finish it immediately. In the offices, we had some physical movement, but now we are sedentary, leading to backaches, headaches and countless other health issues. Many workers who come from small towns don’t even have access to proper medical facilities.”
“Why has work become so stressful now?”
“I’m not sure, but maybe companies were afraid of losing projects, as client countries were badly affected. So, they wanted to complete projects on hand at record speed and grab more projects before the pandemic totally crippled the MNCs supplying work. Also, there were speculations that revenues would drop sharply, causing panic in the IT industry. So, the burden has been dumped on the employees and their families.”
IT Companies were not employee-friendly
Sandhya said, “I badly wanted to come home in July last year, so I thought I could use my accumulated leave to settle down at home and then start work. The manager refused my request stating scenarios like sudden failure of the work laptop or weak internet at my hometown. As soon as the first lockdown was lifted, we were asked to report at the office once a week for the experimental phase-wise reopening of the campus. I and my colleague tried to reason with the higher ups as we were not comfortable with this idea, but they were adamant and said this was the company’s policy. Of course, no such policy was shown to us in writing, rather we were just told by word of mouth that it was an order from above. Tall claims were made about the Covid-19 precautions being followed at the campus and we were assured that we would be safe and all costs of treatment would be covered in case we contracted the virus. Still panicked but also worried about the repercussions of not following the rules, we went to the office only to find very few employees present there, and the very next day we received a mail saying one person had tested positive, so no one would be allowed into the premises.”
“Did you manage to get permission to leave the city finally”
“No, I was being pressurized and intimidated not to go. I even had to complain to the HR. Finally, I just left the city without taking permission and informed my manager when asked about it later.”
“But being unsure of the future scenario, I had to leave most of my belongings in my rented room, for which I was being charged an enormous amount. Only after some months could I go back to get my belongings. It was a huge monetary loss for someone getting an entry level salary.”
But Rakesh says he enjoys his stay at home with his family, as he has now switched companies. The new company has proved to be much better, so far as employees’ concerns go.
“Now I have time for my hobbies too. The company has employed counselors to talk to employees and their families. Moreover, we are getting outstanding support from our HRs/managers, who take regular updates about our health and needs. During the peak Covid period, volunteer teams from among employees were deployed to talk to those who were facing depression or other issues related to Covid-19 and providing emotional support. They also tied up with food joints so employees stuck in their places of work could get subsidized food. These steps could have been taken by other companies as well, but only if they had been sensitive to the human disaster of this scale.”
MR Shankaran says life became so stressful for his son and daughter-in-law, both IT workers that they had to quit their jobs. They are looking for other avenues of employment. He says, “All my friends tell me their children in IT companies want to quit and are discussing other less stressful options for work. TCS had an attrition rate of 11.9% in the July-September quarter, 3.3 percentage points higher than the last quarter. For Infosys it was 20.1%, 6.6 percentage points higher than the last quarter”.
Finally, it seems that it is not attrition in the industry but desertion that the employees are resorting to, as they continue to search for better options.
Kumudini Pati is a researcher based in Allahabad