The All India IT and ITES Employees’ Union (AIITEU) recently released a charter demanding legal protection, healthcare, and Workplace reform for LGBTQ+ employees in the industry. As of now, the union has 5000 members nationwide.
According to a 2018 survey by the Human Rights Campaign, 46% of queer workers are closeted at work. Considering that there are currently no specific anti-discriminatory workplace laws for the queer community in India, this percentage is sure to exponentially rise if this survey was conducted in-depth through a census exercise across the nation. The recognition of the very real issues that Indian queer IT workers, therefore, face in the workplace is what led to the design of this charter. As the AIITEU website states, “The IT and ITeS sector is still rife with regressive and exclusionary attitudes towards queer workers. Laws and policies to protect queer workers often end up making the workplace a more welcoming and accommodating place for all workers.”
The demands put forward by the organization include a call for proper channel of recourse in case of workplace discrimination, the availability of mental health care, gender-neutral washrooms, and sensitisation workshops, among other points. It also specifically touched upon the need to reform professional communication so that it is gender-neutral and gives employees the space to use their chosen names and pronouns. Nihira, a union member, said: “The charter came out of many discussions with our members. All of them work either directly in the IT sector or are involved with some form of technology services in their field of work…Essentially, the charter came about because we realized that there is a serious gap in public discourse and state protection extended to workers generally, and in the IT sector, specifically. Whereas in certain other countries, there are facilities like gender-neutral bathrooms and other such facilities for queer employees, in the IT sector in India, you do not see it. Even if the company is a multinational organisation, the benefits are not provided to the local community in India.” As employees in the west widely unionize and demand worker rights, systemic racism continues to limit these rights, gate-keeping it from the Global South, as a result of the lack of political will to invest in local communities in non-white-dominant countries.
She went on to talk about how the union is therefore attempting to rally for queer workers at the state and company levels for this very reason and highlighted how the visibility of queer IT workers is extremely minimal in India. Nihira also expressed the need to build solidarity with other sectors and spoke about the importance of policy reforms being comprehensive and inclusive, “IT work in India is very insular- on a white-collar level very elitist, and on a blue-collar level very sidelined. The blue-collar IT workers are completely left out of conversations (as a result of exploitative company policies). Our charter tries to bring together all of these elements of the sector.”
Talking about the importance of access to healthcare, she elaborated that it needs to be “healthcare that includes trans-specific care, trans-affirmative care, care that is not based on the condition of you proving to someone that you are a heteronormative cis person…As a result of the COVID pandemic, we saw that so many people who are queer workers were completely left out of the conversation in the IT world. Even when the questions of ‘work from home’ and all came up because there are many queer workers who do not have a permanent home. Who have had to leave home, who have been forced to leave home.”
Speaking about people who ended up forced to return to abusive environments she shared about how these workers had not been provided with access to mental health care by the companies. According to Nihira, the union is also rallying to make the state definition of protection granted to a “woman” more queer-affirmative in language and implementation, while also introducing anti-discriminatory laws safeguarding the queer community.
The AIITEU comes under the ambit of the Centre of Trade Unions (CITU), which means that shares the vision of AIITEU. If and when AIITEU is successful in advocating for change in the companies of its union members, it can then start a conversation with CITU about how this model can benefit workers in other sectors as well. As another AIITEU member, Humpreet, commented: “When we try to fight for our rights purely as an IT worker it does not have substantial implications, but doing this as a union, where we are all together with each other- it matters far more”