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Unemployment, the biggest elephant in the debate room, was at its 45-year high in the pre-COVID economy in India, and over the course of these lockdown months, the elephant has just grown to disproportionate levels where its presence, if not acknowledged, can and definitely will have drastic consequences on the social fabric, let alone economic growth of the nation. In congruence with this, there is another elephant, probably still a baby, which not many have begun to acknowledge yet, let alone have a debate around; that is the exploitative corporate culture in India, which has been growing for the past 2-3 decades.
Keeping the family business and the traditional Indian organizational structures aside for this argument, post-LPG, India saw a surge in westernization, with a host of firms coming in to tap the Indian market or even tap the Indian labor and set up operations here. They brought with them the much renowned corporate culture, which was a refreshing change for the aspirational graduates and MBAs, who could see this as a ticket to a high paying job.
Over the years, as with every other western thing we ape, we Ctrl+Cd that corporate structure, and Ctrl+Vd it in almost every existing or the new org setup, regardless of the size of the business.
Now there is a certain characteristic of this setup, which appeals to anyone and would appeal even to me if I were an employer – this setup makes sure that employees own the work, as much of the tasks become people-driven. In other words, the employee/subordinate’s neck is on the line if something goes wrong, and the employee needs to do ‘anything s/he can’ to ‘get it done’ (A requirement explicitly and unapologetically mentioned in many job descriptions today). While larger organizations find checks and balances around it, smaller organizations hold this high as a halo to attract the competent.
As interesting and progressive as this might seem to help people grow, combine that with the oversupply of talent in India, and this gets exploitation written all over it. This leads to a huge asymmetry between responsibilities and work-load viz-a-viz the incentives – both financial and otherwise. In other words, the Indian corporate employees (read – slaves) are both overworked and underpaid.
Talking about being underpaid, the idea of fixed salaries finds justification in the factors of production framework professed in modern economics. However, that framework is based on a production/industrial setup where labor is entitled to wages for its ‘input’ in the production, and where the entrepreneur assumes the risk and pieces things together.
Now, the harsh reality is that while the newer firms found a way around it under the framework of ESOPs where the asymmetry is reduced as the employees find benefits proportional to their ownership, and their work-load seems justified to them. However, even this is limited to smaller startups in the ecosystem.
Sadly, the prevalence of the ESOP model is still far from reality and seems like a far-fetched dream in a generally non-egalitarian Indian society. Here, the factor-returns framework also takes a hierarchical structure with capital and entrepreneurship finding the top slots keeping others in the queue for the slim-pickings in the name of salaries and fixed, variable bonuses. (oxymoron enough?)
But while financials are the more tangible outcomes of this culture, being overworked (having a lopsided work-life balance, if at all), which ideally should be a seemingly intangible attribute, has unnervingly taken on to tangible proportions, especially in the Indian metros. This has a direct correlation with stress levels, which in turn leads to workplace depression.
That said, we are not even going down the COVID-19 led work-from-home scenario, where many firms, on the one hand, took the opportunity to cut costs by laying off the workforce and hand-over pay cuts, and on the other hand, increased the workload of employees, laying to shame all definitions of much-needed empathy.
The fact of the matter as best articulated by Sarvesh Talreja is that – Maybe it’s because, for every job, there are often five other people willing to do it – probably for a lower sum of money. No one is indispensable, and everyone is replaceable for cheap. ‘Replaceable’ – that’s the word to focus on. And before we know, this culture becomes institutionalized among the young employees who make this the norm, and the culture just gains more ground over the years.
In a high-talent high-supply model that India has, not a single skill that one can attain is not replaceable. From softer aspects such as management and leadership to harder skills such as data analytics, software development, and other functional expertise; each of these is available in relative abundance that too in combination with sectoral experience and top-tier college tags, making the candidates ready-to-plug in the desired roles with little training. Moreover, the bargaining power, in most cases, rests upon the coveted shoulders of the employers.
Some say that these are the facts, and that’s how a capitalist marketplace works and also that the corporate culture is also the corollary of this. As such, it’s just ‘unfortunate’ that the talented Indians have to go through this grind to stay employed and get their bank accounts refilled every month. I would say that it is not just unfortunate but also irreplaceable and irrevocable.
Now one possible and obvious solution is that we try to create enough opportunities to tip the scales by creating enough demand, but that would not address the root of the problem. The reason why this debate is important is that this exploitative culture is a representative of the Indian society, and the long term institutionalization of this culture can be detrimental to our social fabric, just the way unemployment is.
Morally questioning and ethically speaking, it all boils down to how humans treat each other. We are no products, the prices of which a corporate marketplace model can justify. While we are still years away from a college brand-agnostic and skill-based hiring, even in the current situations, we, as employees need to pass on the discourse that our job is a part of our life, we take time out of our limited life-hours to make them our work-hours.
I’m sure there are more complexities to this debate, but the marketplace model cannot justify the exploitation of employees. Though there is only so much that regulations can do to deal with underpayment to employees as India is not just a unique societal model but also a unique economic model, we as future employers can and should make sure of fair terms and compensation.
Working long hours should be a matter of choice. That said, the possibility of a set of sector-focused professional bodies holding corporations accountable for workplace ethics can be pondered upon as the marketplace is too fragmented for the labor-union model to work, and frankly, I’m not sure if that would be right.
But firstly, there needs to be a strong and logical discourse around this, especially in the increasing discourse around passion economy and the gig economy as it is highly possible that this culture will defeat the very purpose of such emerging models.
Featured Image Credits: Needpix