Labour experts and union heads are of the opinion that the government's proposal to formalise work from home (WFH) for the services sector could dilute the workers' bargaining and unionising capacity.
"With the formalization of the work from home for the services sector, the bargaining potential of the workers and the unions will definitely take a hit. The employees will no longer be able to engage in healthy exchange of experience and empathise thus it will become very difficult for the workers to unionise and rightfully demand their rights," said C. Das, State Convener, All India IT & ITES Employees Union.
Citing a sampling data on the IT employees in the country, Das said: "As many as 83 out of 100 IT workers in the country are not aware of their rights. This figure will dip further if the proposal to work from home is implemented."
"The workers will no longer be able to engage in a healthy competition and the overall clarity of the entire system will go down. This could also hamper the work-life balance of the employees as the employees are no longer working out of office, and hence it will give the companies an opportunity to pile the workers with work in the time which otherwise would have been utilised in travel," he added.
"Presently, 25 percent of the workers in the IT space are contractual workers, this number could go higher up as a result of this proposal, he concluded.
The labour ministry on January 1 published its draft standing orders on WFH for the service sectors, under the new Industrial Relations Code.
Under the model standing orders drafted for the services sector, decision on working hours for employees in the IT space has, however, been left up to employers.
“Subject to conditions of appointment or agreement between employer and workers, employer may allow a worker to work from home for such period or periods as may be determined by employer,” the draft code states.
"With workers fragmented all over the country, the unionising ability of the workers will be impacted deeply. The formalisation of the work from home proposal will disable the bargaining capacity of the workers," remarked K R Shyam Sundar, Professor - HRM, XLRI, Xavier School of Management.
"While this is a great opportunity for the corporates and employers to reduce their expenses, this move will affect the overall work-life balance and lead to exploitation by the management," noted Professor Sundar.
"It is immature on the part of the government to formalise the work from home which happened as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The government should instead frame a committee to give this proposal more time and involve all the stakeholders, members from the ILO into the law making process" he said.
"Everything will not contribute to the ease of doing business even if the business wants it," remarked Sundar.
Differing in opinion, Anshul Prakash, Partner, Employment Labour and Benefits, Khaitan & Co, explains, "At the outset, work from home as a concept has been recognised particularly in the draft standing orders for the service sector. The provision is essentially enabling in nature, meaning it suggests that employers in the service sector may allow their workers to work from home for a period of time determined by them."
"Coming to the implications, this express recognition of the new normal does not usher in a paradigm shift in the compliance regime or in the manner in which collective bargaining would play out. In fact, we had not anticipated the same either, considering that the substantive portions of the codes including IR Code themselves do not create any exemption/relaxation in this regard.
"Moreover, with concepts such as trade union recognition and robust grievance redressal committee with adequate worker representation envisaged under the Industrial Relations Code 2020, it is unlikely that remote working would impact unionism and collective bargaining from a legal standpoint."
Prashant Singh, Vice President and Business Head- Compliance and Payroll Outsourcing, TeamLease Services, said: "Though the workers may not be physically available at one place, the power of social media, online connectivity may still act as a strong medium for bargaining and negotiating."
Vinod AJ, General Secretary, All India Forum For IT/ITES Employees (AIFITE), said: "In my opinion the formalisation of the work from home proposal as given in the standing order will not have any significant impact on the unionising capacity of the workers. Regardless of working from whether the office or home, the government and the companies do not seek the union's participation on behalf of employees in important decisions."
"The government, in the Standing Orders should instead stipulate for the participation by union representatives into employee councils and board meetings where the fate of the workers are actually decided," he urged.
It is the first time that the labour ministry has brought out standing orders for the services sector under the Industrial Relations Code. Before, the new labour codes were approved by Parliament in September 2020, there was one standing order across sectors.