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Hello World | Tech workers to unite? I’m not holding my breath

Workers and workplaces have changed for the better. But a tech industry revolution - that may still be some way off.

June 17, 2021 / 01:03 PM IST
The new update targets dummy links across multiple languages

The new update targets dummy links across multiple languages

Note to readers: Hello world is a program developers run to check if a newly installed programming language is working alright. Startups and tech companies are continuously launching new software to run the real world. This column will attempt to be the "Hello World" for the real world.

About a decade ago, a young tech employee came to me and alleged that his company was involved in some kind of wrongdoing. Many of his colleagues had not been paid salaries.  He wanted to form a union of tech workers to take on such issues.

hello world logoHe prodded me to do a story on the company’s problems. He also said that dozens of his colleagues were angry and ready to take the promoter to court. A company which isn’t doing well owes it to its employees to pay salaries just as soon as it has taken care of its creditors. And many of these employees had families. 

I smelled a story in there, and spent a few hours working the phone and reading financial reports. Armed with fresh ammo, I wrote to the company’s communications person and was promptly invited to meet with the founder. Little did I know what awaited me.

My boss had received a call from a politician about the story. To his credit, he asked me to pursue the story as I saw fit. In my early twenties, I was excited but also a bit worried. But I couldn’t let personal worries get in the way of journalism.

The founder, a tall hard-charging middle-aged man, burst into a condescending fit and didn’t let me speak. For nearly an hour, I felt cornered and yet pushed on with a few questions that I’d prepared. Clearly, straight answers were not forthcoming but I meekly stuck to my guns.

I went back to the office and filed the story, making sure that I was legally covered and not writing anything that would later get me pulled into a legal battle. In many ways, the founder's bluster had worked. My story was mostly facts and toothless.

I called the employee who wanted to unionize, and asked him if he could speak about not being paid salaries. And he said that he didn’t want to be personally involved anymore. By now, he’d found another job and wanted to cut his losses and move on. Unions usually require some kind of sacrifice. It comes at a personal cost, and it's very hard to sustain. And I understood. 

So here I was with a watered-down story and no one willing to speak on record to me. The employee and his angry friends all quickly disappeared. And the union talk remained just that. Talk. I moved on to another story but made a mental note to never believe my ears when I hear that a tech worker wants to unionize. 

And this is why when I read that more than 200 employees and contractors at Alphabet Inc. in the United States and Canada have formed a labour union to promote workplace equity and ethical business practices, I couldn’t help but marvel at the times that we live in. 

It’s not just the workers who have changed. Workplaces have also changed for the better. Hopefully the two will co-exist. But is this going to create a revolution in the tech industry? I’m not holding my breath.

Jayadevan PK
Jayadevan PK is a storyteller who focuses on business and technology. His first book, Xiaomi: How a Startup Disrupted the Market and Created a Cult Following, was published by Harper Collins in April 2021.