NEW DELHI — They were going to be India’s gilded generation.
When P.R. Sujoy became a software engineer, he thought his life was made. It was a job his father, a former government employee who prized stability above all, could brag about to nosy relatives. It came with a highflying salary, enough for a mortgage and to start a family. So when his company suddenly asked him to resign, Sujoy refused.
“I’m an IT guy. That’s all I do,” he said.
Eventually he was fired, and Sujoy became one more worker in India’s IT sector facing an uncertain future.
Information technology services account for 9.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the India Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF), but now, after decades of boom, the future of the industry seems precarious. Since May, workers’ groups have reported unusually numerous layoffs. The Forum for IT Employees (FITE) estimates that 60,000 workers have lost their jobs in the past few months.
“Employees are being rated as poor performers so companies can get rid of them,” said FITE’s Chennai coordinator, Vinod A.J.
IT companies and some government officials say the numbers have been exaggerated, but industry experts say the country’s digital wunderkinds have much to fear.
“For the first time, companies are touching middle management,” said Kris Lakshmikanth, chief of a recruitment firm called Head Hunters India. “Usually in IT, people grow with the industry. Every two or three years, salaries increase, and everyone gets promotions. That’s the norm. In more than 20 years, I have not seen managers being sacked. Now it is happening everywhere — Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad.”
Bias against Indians abroad is also compounding workers’ fears of layoffs and downsizing at home.
President Trump has stoked anxiety among Indian techies, who make up the majority of applicants for the H-1B visa program for highly skilled foreign workers. Trump has talked about sharply restricting H-1Bs, and this year the number of applications dropped a staggering 16 percent as companies prepared for Trump’s immigration cutbacks. Instead, Indian outsourcing companies such as Infosys started recruiting Americans, bowing to Trump’s calls for “America First.”
For years, India has been the world’s back office. Its booming IT industry has taken care of Silicon Valley’s menial jobs. According to IBEF, 67 percent of the world’s IT work is outsourced to India. Here, workers are fast, cheap and compliant. They code basic apps, do maintenance work on office software and test websites to make sure every click takes users to the corresponding page. In exchange, they get stable salaries, enough to rise up the social ladder.
Over the past three decades, cities have swelled to accommodate this newly minted middle class. Residential towers and industrial parks have risen for India’s 3.9 million IT workers, and bars and restaurants have multiplied. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has seized upon the success of the IT sector, calling for an Internet connection in every village as part of an $18 billion “Digital India” plan.
Vinod said companies are masking layoffs as voluntary resignations based on poor performance ratings. “They put pressure on employees every day, saying: Resign — or we will terminate you,” he said. “It allows the company to downsize without giving the proper compensation.”
A former employee at Cognizant, Uthamacholan R. said he was asked to resign after he received a low performance rating from someone who had never worked with him. “I was rated by my manager’s manager, who didn’t even know what my job title was,” he said.
Others at his company had also been rated unfairly and then pressured to hand in resignations based on poor appraisals, he said. “They are given quotas — like out of 10 people, you have to give two poor ratings.”
Cognizant did not reply to The Washington Post’s requests for comment.
In an email, an Infosys spokeswoman said there had been no layoffs, only “performance-related separations.”
Industry leaders dismissed reports of layoffs, saying the media had exaggerated a few isolated cases. Sangeeta Gupta, a spokeswoman at the National Association of Software and Services Companies, an industry trade organization, said that yearly performance appraisals are designed to keep the workforce trim. This, she said, was crucial in an industry where technological advances such as automation and artificial intelligence quickly make many jobs and skill sets obsolete.
“Companies make every effort to re-skill employees who do not perform well, and if they cannot meet expectations, then they are asked to resign,” she said. But talk of forced resignations and mass layoffs, she said, was “not even remotely close” to the truth.“If you’re a publicly listed company, there’s no way you can lie about shedding employees and get away with it,” she said.
Amid the rumpus over jobs, Ravi Shankar Prasad, minister of electronics and information technology, met with industry leaders June 18. At a news conference afterward, he said that companies were not laying off staff. In fact, he said, many firms are hiring.
The Modi government scaled back plans to train 500 million workers in a variety of industries by 2022 as part of its “Skill India” program, after training targets were missed. IT Ministry spokesman Narendra Nath Kaul said that the government is working to create digital jobs but that individuals are responsible for gaining needed new skills.
“What do they think? That they’ll be kept on?” he said of IT workers who had lost their jobs. “Because of their attitudes, they are considered irrelevant by the industry.”
Sujoy and others are looking for new jobs, but are shocked by the new uncertainty.
“There should be some protection for us,” he said. “I could get another job now, and they could fire me just as easily.”