Moonlighting has become the word of the hour after Wipro took the unprecedented step of sacking 300 employees for indulging in this activity. The dictionary defines the term moonlighting as working clandestinely in a second job, typically at night. The reference to the moon is in sharp contrast to those who work in the day in the full glare of the sun. Wipro’s actions have sent tremors through India’s $227-billion information technology industry as the debate rages over whether this is the right response to the issue. Some employers are ranged on the side of Wipro, but others are taking a different approach, prepared to accept moonlighting activities as long as employees are transparent about it.
Viewed in the global context, however, the entire concept of moonlighting assumes a different dimension. It is emerging as a paradigm shift in the working methodology for skilled professionals all over the world. It evolved as an adjunct to the now accepted norm of work from home (WFH). The pandemic became the trigger both for WFH as well as work from literally anywhere. Young professionals shifted base to beaches and mountains from where they were able to conduct their workplace activities without a hiccup. Along with this change of location, they found they could also juggle several assignments or projects from different corporates with the same seamless ease.
In this country, the privilege of WFH and working for multiple employers is confined to a few sectors but the trend is expected to spread rapidly in the future. Recognising the fact that moonlighting is going to be a reality in the technology workplace of the future, some corporates are trying to embrace the concept so that it becomes a win-win for both the employers and employees. This includes the chief executive of Tech Mahindra, CP Gurnani, and one of the Infosys founders, Mohandas Pai, who has even gone on record to complain about the shabby treatment given to junior IT employees in terms of low salary increases.
Those on the other side of the divide, including giants like IBM and industry leaders like Infosys, are sticking to the norms surrounding the traditional systems of full-time employment where moonlighting becomes an illegal activity. Undoubtedly, they have concerns over confidentiality and losing out to competitors. Bringing about transparency would allay much of these fears as employees would be able to share information about their extra projects or assignments.
IT industry employees who have formed a union to deal with these issues insist that moonlighting is nothing new and that over the decades it has actually led to the creation of start-ups that have morphed into unicorns. This is, no doubt, true as many start-up founders remained in their full-time jobs while exploring the prospects of setting up new ventures.
But it must be conceded that employers are not worried about start-ups, they are more focused on the possibility of their patented data being handed over to direct competitors. It is for this reason that transparency needs to be brought into the process, so that employees who are seeking to either upgrade their skills or simply make more money are allowed to achieve their goals, without compromising on issues of data privacy.
In fact, IT employees are reported to have stressed that one of the major factors for taking on extra assignments beyond their day jobs is to upgrade skill sets in the industry where technology quickly becomes out of date and where it is imperative to remain on the cutting edge, whether it is in terms of artificial intelligence or other high-tech areas. This is enabling them to become employable in more lucrative fields in the long run. So, while earning more is important, it is not just about the money.
The entire moonlighting story must be set in the backdrop of the global gig economy. It is predicated on the fact that people should be able to take up short-term assignments or projects for multiple clients without tying themselves down to conventional 9-to-5 jobs.
At the same time, it must be recognised that the same gig economy is vastly different when transposed onto the Indian ecosystem. For instance, Uber drivers abroad may be people who are using their own vehicles for a few hours a day as taxis. In this country, however, driving an Uber is a full-time employment. Similarly, delivery executives abroad may take up the job for a while to make ends meet between other gigs. Here, it is a full-fledged livelihood for those making deliveries for online companies. So, comparisons are not relevant in many cases for the gig economy in an emerging market like India.
In the case of the IT industry, however, there is a greater synchronicity with the global situation. Indian tech workers are operating more or less on the same lines as those abroad and many are experienced in dealing with foreign assignments. Issues related to the sector, however, should be dealt with sensitively given the fact that it plays a critical role in the country’s economy. The Indian IT industry is expected to touch the $300-to-350 billion mark over the next five years with a growth rate of about 10 per cent annually, according to a McKinsey study.
Yet, the problem of dual employment will remain as the current laws do not allow persons to work in several places at the same time. These need to be reviewed to suit the changing reality of the workplace. In the IT industry, especially, innovation and technological leaps are the order of the day. Unless those operating in the industry are able to upgrade their skills or improve innovation capabilities, the domestic IT sector will lose out tremendously.
Working on multiple assignments at the same time may be considered outside the pale of the organised workplace if viewed by conventional standards of employment contracts and fixed hours of work. But in the altered scenario following the pandemic when even the location of the workplace has become flexible, it becomes necessary to shift one’s viewpoint on the issue. Flexible hours and WFH are now an acceptable model for the working arena. It is high time that an equal acceptance is given to the phenomenon termed as moonlighting.
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