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Nurse strike habit, dream IT habitat

Calcutta, Feb. 23: What it can’t do itself, the Bengal government is asking information technology companies to do: defy a Citu-sponsored strike.

“If the companies are interested in keeping their offices open, we will help them. We are making elaborate arrangements to avoid any work stoppage,” said Manab Mukherjee, the IT minister.

At a Confederation of Indian Industry meet on September 26 last year, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee unveiled the government’s IT Policy 2003, at the core of which was extending public utility service status to infotech to ensure disruption-free operations. IT-enabled services (ITES) are enjoying the status since 2002.

Citu is dismissing all this. “We will not allow any exemption to the IT industry from tomorrow’s strike,” said Kali Ghosh, the Citu state secretary.

At the Salt Lake Electronics Complex, most IT companies are taking what the Citu is saying more seriously than they are Mukherjee’s assurance.

“Though officially we are open tomorrow, we don’t expect people to attend office. We have decided to work on Saturday, normally a holiday, instead of tomorrow. The office is organising transport for a handful of staff who are closing delivery deadlines,” said a senior official at one of the biggest IT companies.

This is the second strike in a month in Bengal, the first had been called by the Opposition Trinamul Congress, but infotech companies had worked on February 3, knowing that the industrial action did not have official sanction. This time, the Citu — the labour arm of the ruling CPM — has called the strike that is nationwide, but is expected to affect only three states, Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, where the CPM is strong.

In the circumstances, and in the disturbing knowledge of past violence by strikers, few companies appear ready to accept the government’s suggestion to ferry their employees in vehicles that carry stickers saying “public utility service”.

“Webel (the government’s IT promotion agency) is distributing these stickers,” said Mukherjee, adding that extra police force would be deployed in the area.

With most companies deciding not to take the risk, few have collected stickers, said a Webel official. “We had sent letters to all the companies and requested them to get in touch with us for the stickers. But only 25 have contacted us,” the official said.

Those that have taken the stickers are nearly all ITES companies, which take overseas calls and offer various back-office support services to companies abroad. They are trying to get as many people to office as possible, but at substantial additional cost by way of arranging transport.

“We can’t afford to remain shut. We have collected the stickers and arranged pick-up facilities for our employees,” said the chief executive officer of one of the oldest call centres in Calcutta.

The Citu does not even acknowledge the disruption-free operation guaranteed by the government to infotech. “To grant special status to these industries, amendments will have to be made to the Industrial Disputes Act,” said Ghosh.

It is a central legislation, about which the state can do little.

Ghosh held out some hope, though. He said those willing to work would not be stopped.

If the Citu does not listen to the chief minister, someone may ask why the Citu activist on the street will listen to Ghosh.

“We don’t know whether the strikers will allow free movement of vehicles,” said the call centre official.

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