01 April 2016 06:39:34 IST

How terror is affecting Indian techies overseas

Poeple gather near a street memorial outside the Maalbeek subway station following bombings on March 22 in Brussels, Belgium (Reuters)

Recurring attacks in the West have put IT services professionals in the line of fire

When Nirmal Jain, an IBM employee, was about to be sent to Jordan on his first onsite posting, his family had serious concerns about security.

However, for Jain, now 24, it was a blessing in disguise. IBM paid him a daily hardship allowance of about 40 Jordanian Dinar (roughly ₹4,000) as the country, which borders Syria and Iraq, is considered a high-risk location.

“While most engineers are crazy about onsites in the US and the UK, places like Jordan and Nigeria can be great because of the hefty allowances you get in these places,” says Jain. After spending three years in Jordan and then South Africa, he was able to save enough to buy a house in Bengaluru.

But Rahul Bhatnagar, an employee at a large Indian IT company, earned nothing extra after spending nearly three years in Iraq. Bhatnagar had two narrow escapes in the troubled country and finally returned after quitting the company. These contrasting tales underline one fact — there is no standard policy adopted by IT companies when it comes to sending employees to countries considered risky. BusinessLine spoke with at least a dozen IT firms and found varied levels of incentives.

Hardship allowance IBM, Accenture and Cognizant, for example, pay hardship allowances for countries with difficult and risky working conditions as they are bound to do so by US regulations. A couple of Indian IT services firms offer senior employees posted in such areas higher pay packages to compensate for the risks and also provide personal security guards in many cases.

This issue has come to the forefront in the wake of terror attacks occurring with increasing frequency in locations once considered safe, such as Paris, London, Sydney and Brussels. Infosys employee Raghavendran Ganeshan was killed in the most recent attack, in Brussels. Even the US, despite taking stringent security measures after 9/11, is not immune, as the Boston Marathon bombing, and the recent attack in San Bernardino, California, where 14 people were killed, have shown.

Huge expat workforce According to Nasscom, IT services firms have deployed about 500,000 Indians overseas. However, there is no data to show how many of them are in zones considered risky.

Industry experts believe that with terrorism spreading globally, compensation components such as hardship allowances and insurance cover will begin influencing hiring patterns.

“When companies such as IBM pay hardship allowances, it will put pressure on other IT firms to follow suit as otherwise it will increasingly become difficult for the latter to attract talent,” says Sanchit Gogia, CEO, Greyhound Research.

But as Indian laws have no specific rules, the allowances provided by IT firms vary; in some cases, they’re not offered at all. “There are enough people willing to go to locations such as the Middle-East and Africa because of the additional allowance they receive over and above their salary,” says Kris Lakshmikanth, CEO of Headhunters India. “This is something many Indian IT services firms exploit.” Given the high risk profile of certain countries, the margins on contracts in such countries can be as high as 300-400 per cent as compared to the US or the UK; but at best, an employee posted in such locations gets only a slight bump in his regular pay.

“It is cheaper to pay compensation after an unfortunate incident than paying risk allowance or insuring an employee,” says Lakshmikanth.

However, Nasscom Chairman BVR Mohan Reddy says that IT companies are doing a lot for employees in risky areas.

“The firms take good insurance cover on dynamic premium tariffs. The covers are much larger than are offered in India,” he says. While most of the top IT firms declined to give on-record comments for this report, Tech Mahindra said that it has put in place various measures to ensure that employees who travel abroad on work are taken care of in the event of a crisis.

Safety measures

“All associates travelling to certain countries can download a mobile app and get alerts on their mobiles about medical, clinical, and security measures and precautions to adopt. We also provide emergency response services and support,” says Rakesh Soni, Chief People Officer of Tech Mahindra. He added that the company offers its employees comprehensive insurance.

Sudhir Chaturvedi, Chief Operating Officer of NIIT Technologies, which has employees in Brussels, says the company has protocols to deal with terror attacks. “We alert our staffers and facilitate conversations with their family members back home. Should they want to come back from the place in question, we will arrange for that,” he said. NIIT Technologies set up a war room after the Brussels attacks.

With inputs from Venkatesh Ganesh and Deepa Nair