By Newley Purnell
India's giant outsourcing firms are facing a two-front challenge: protecting the health of millions of employees as the nation suffers the world's worst Covid-19 crisis, and ensuring that their work continues as usual for the big Western companies on their client lists.
Companies like Infosys Ltd., Wipro Ltd. and Tata Consultancy Services Ltd., known as TCS, have built up armies of workers who serve global clients like Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc.'s Citibank and Vanguard Group, doing everything from running call centers to writing computer code. The companies, along with Western tech businesses with large India-based staffs, are dealing with absences of sick workers, trying to help stricken employees find oxygen and getting vaccine shots for others at a time when such resources are scarce.
"I don't think anyone can downplay the challenge," said Sandip Patel, International Business Machines Corp.'s managing director for India. IBM is working to vaccinate its 100,000-plus staff in India, and providing them with services such as medically supervised quarantining in hotels.
"What we're going through right now has no management or operational playbook," Mr. Patel said.
India has logged more than 25 million Covid-19 infections and over 280,000 deaths; months earlier, it appeared the nation had contained a first surge of the virus.
Work capacity at Indian companies may have been down as much as 30% in recent weeks, said Peter Bendor-Samuel, chief executive of Everest Group, a Dallas-based firm that advises companies on outsourcing. With the nation's medical infrastructure struggling to treat all the infected, workers may have little choice but to stay home and focus on domestic issues when family members get sick, he added. Yet some workers who were sidelined earlier are now returning, and Mr. Bendor-Samuel said he is not hearing of significant delays on any projects.
In some cases, outsourcing companies might tap their workers in other countries for help and pay overtime to local staff who are not infected. They're also turning to so-called bench staff, or employees who are generally inactive between projects, said Rod Bourgeois, an outsourcing industry analyst at DeepDive Equity Research, based in Old Greenwich, Conn.
"They've got war rooms working, managing all the logistics and the staffing challenges," said Mr. Bourgeois, who speaks frequently with top executives in India.
Infosys, Wipro and TCS declined to comment on how many of their staff have been affected by the pandemic. The companies said they are taking steps to ensure that they deliver work to their clients.
San Francisco-based business software provider Salesforce.com Inc., with roughly 4,000 employees in India, has sent oxygen concentrators and other materials to the country to help staff, CEO Marc Benioff said earlier this month at The Wall Street Journal Future of Everything Festival.
"The pandemic is not over in India," Mr. Benioff said. "It might just be beginning."
India's IT and business-processing industry powers the back offices of corporate giants world-wide. It generates more than $180 billion in annual revenue and employs about 4.5 million people. It accounts for about one-fifth of India's exports of goods and services and represents a path into the middle class for Indian workers.
Many industry staff are already working from home following the pandemic's emergence last year, but often live in tight quarters with extended family, making for difficult working conditions.
Nasscom, a trade group that represents India's technology sector, declined to comment on the rates of illness at major IT firms. The group said it sent a letter earlier this month to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking the government to make it easier for companies to receive aid from abroad, and for vaccines to be made more widely available to IT firms' workers. A spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office did not respond to a request for comment.
Mumbai-based TCS, the country's largest outsourcer by revenue, has 489,000 employees and has worked with clients such as General Electric Co., insurance broker Aon PLC and major banks. Bangalore-based Infosys has more than 250,000 employees, while Wipro, also based in Bangalore, has more than 190,000 staff.
One major concern for companies and workers is the availability of vaccine doses in a country where less than 2% of the population has been immunized against Covid-19, and availability and administrative procedures for getting inoculated vary by location.
Infosys and TCS are dedicating space on their corporate campuses to administer vaccine shots, while Wipro turned one of its campuses into a 450-bed public Covid-care facility. Companies are also organizing hotel rooms where staff can isolate and continue working, lessening their potential exposure.
Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp., based in Teaneck, N.J., has more than 200,000 staff in India.
Cognizant CEO Brian Humphries told Wall Street analysts earlier this month that the pandemic's effect on staff absenteeism and work for clients remained uncertain. "We look at it on a daily basis," he said. "It's a stressful and emotional time for our associates and their families."
(END) Dow Jones Newswires