Labor unions could be a boon to marginalized IT workers in India.The term “posh” means “sumptuously furnished or appointed, even luxurious” as in a posh apartment. The word originated during the time of the British Raj in India, as passengers booked passage on ships to their postings in Bombay or Delhi.

To ensure their cabins were always on the shaded side of the ships they would request portside cabins on the way to India, and starboard cabins for the return trip to England. Booking agents quickly shortened “Port Out, Starboard Home” to POSH, and a new word entered the English lexicon.

Posh can also be a pleasant descriptor for one’s job conditions. Unfortunately, it is hardly the adjective on the lips of most Indian IT professionals today. The industry is undergoing challenges, some say growing-pains, which make even seasoned employees feel uneasy about holding on to their jobs.

Anxiety is particularly high as experts predict the industry is going to dump almost five percent of its workforce within the next 2-3 months. Even the big firms are expected to label tens of thousands of employees as redundant.

While the industry typically experiences a round of layoffs each year as companies scale back and replace higher-paid workers with a new crop of less expensive freshers, this year it’s different. While there are a number of reasons pushing for a reduced work force, the elephant in the room this year is automation.

Here come the machines

The sad fact for less-skilled employees is that even the IT industry is experiencing greater automation. Workers are being shifted away from some of the more mundane programming jobs to ones that require greater levels of engineering skills in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and newer IT fields.

While automation is disrupting every Indian industry from farming to travel, it’s the $150 billion IT industry that finds itself on the front lines of lay-offs. Major companies like Cognizant and Infosys have already reportedly reduced their workforces by a cumulative 15,000 employees.

And the future isn’t looking any better. According to the World Bank, by 2021, four out of every 10 jobs lost globally to artificial intelligence and increasingly sophisticated technology will be in India, and some 69 percent of the jobs in India are under threat from automation.

It makes sense for companies to automate: Doing so reduces costs and increases value for shareholders. There is also the idea that if Indian companies don’t automate, they will lose business to competitors. Earlier this year, Infosys CEO Vishal Sikka, in an address to shareholders, shared his thoughts on automation as the way forward:

“Instead of 10 people, what if we have three people to work on it. If we don’t have the software, then some others will take the advantage,” Sikka said.

Tech workers unite

The threat of job losses has stirred a nascent movement towards unionization among IT professionals. In the forefront of the effort to unionize the industry is The Forum for IT Employees (FITE), one of only two groups openly fighting to protect employees against unjust terminations.

FITE has a unique history. Formed in 2008, during the Sri Lankan civil war, a group of young Chennai-based IT professionals formed a human-chain to “Stop the War,” and “Save Tamils.” The group went on to become the Young Tamil Nadu Movement, and began bringing attention to societal issues like caste oppression, minority rights, and gender inequality in the workplace among others.

They have since morphed into FITE and claim to have more than 1,000 members in chapters in eight cities including Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Delhi.

FITE agitates on behalf of IT employees who they believe were wrongly let go, and they have already scored some victories. In one notable instance, FITE pressured Tata Consultancy Services to reinstate a pregnant employee who was dismissed despite good performance reviews.

Because an IT job is considered one of the better positions to have in India, employees are often hesitant about rocking the boat and fear backlash from current or future employers if they protest. In a statement to the press, FITE member, J. Jayaprakash, said, “Normally, the middle class has an aversion to political activity.”

Political support

An ally in the struggle for the rights of software employees is the IT wing of the New Democratic Labour Front (NDLF-IT). NDLF-IT scored a major victory last year when the group got the Tamil Nadu state government to clarify that IT employees have the right to form labor unions under the Industrial Disputes Act of 1947.

In addition to unfair practices like forced resignations, low pay, indiscriminate firing, wage discrimination, and the threat of ongoing layoffs, the NDLF-IT says there is the even larger issue of government subsidies to companies who are creating unemployment.

NDLF-IT Wing’s legal advisor Murugan, in an interview with Quartz Media, said, “These IT companies are getting so many subsidies every year. In the MoU (memorandum of understanding) between government and IT companies, for the first five years there is no tax for them. After that also (they pay) minimised taxes.

“This is public money. Why the government has given money to people (IT industry), because they are creating employment … but now they are creating non-employment and in illegal manner. So, now government has to intervene in the matter.”

The union, according to Murugan, will soon be filing a public interest suit before the Madras high court seeking the state government’s intervention. Surprisingly, NASSCOM, the trade association for the software industry, isn’t taking sides and hasn’t had much to say about the issue other than an unnamed official who said, “Unions can be formed by employees. It is up to the state government, employees and companies.”

Private industry holds the line

Labor unions could be a boon to marginalized IT workers in India.Thus far private companies are skeptical about any such suit and skeptical about efforts to unionize. As they see it, they are within their rights to release employees as long as they fulfill the terms of severance promised in offer letters or contracts.

In a statement to the press, Alka Dhingra, assistant general manager for staffing firm TeamLease Services said that companies are “supposed to give the notice and companies have done that, paid (severance packages) out to these people … there is nothing legal that can happen at this stage.”

Each year India’s IT industry goes through a round of layoffs, made more poignant this year due to the anticipated number of jobs to be lost and the fact that it is employees with 10-20 years that expect to be hit hardest due to their higher salaries and benefit packages.

As with every round of layoffs, impacted employees often make a lot of noise on social media. Typically, nothing much comes of it and after a bit they move on to other jobs. “But the problem is the other opportunities are not much right now,” Dhingra said.

Thus far, it’s been an uphill struggle convincing the average IT worker to unionize, but there are dedicated individuals who refuse to give up the fight. One of them is FITE’s vice-president, Vasumathi, who once worked for Tata and isn’t shy about speaking up for others.

In an interview with the Business Standard, Vasumathi said, “I am not a victim of lay-offs or discriminatory practices. But when I saw how people were suffering from job losses, I decided to pitch in to help.”