Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

8. Computerization and women's employment in India's banking sector

Research methods
The banking industry, history and technological changes
Impact of computerization on the workforce
Women's employment in banking
The quality of women's work
Women's needs and aspirations with regard to employment and training
Women employees organizing

Sujata Gothoskar


The pattern of Indian women's employment has changed markedly since the 1970s. The sectors in which women have worked throughout the century, plantations, mining and manufacturing, have not been the areas of growth. Indeed in the better-paid and unionized jobs the proportion of women in the workforce has declined drastically. Women have been increasingly pushed into unregulated non-unionized jobs, with the exception of electronics and the service sector.

Banking and insurance have provided new areas of opportunity for women, and nationalization has been a key factor in countering some aspects of gender discrimination. As Table 8.1 shows, in areas such as electricity, construction, trade, transport and communication, finance and insurance, and community services, employment in the public sector is an important factor in boosting women's employment. However recent national and international policies, which have led to the dismantling of the public sector, are affecting those limited openings. It is therefore urgent not simply to develop the means for retraining women but also for women to participate in creating alternative economic strategies.

Changes in the quantity and quality of women's employment in banking can be accounted for by a number of factors operating simultaneously. There are deeper social changes taking place in the country vis--vis women's education and employment; changes in government policies regarding this and other sectors; changes in management policies, especially after the nationalization of banks in 1969; the effects of internationalization; and the technological changes taking place in this industry. This study will focus primarily on the effects of technological change, and will include material on how women employees perceive these changes and what they feel themselves about retraining and improving their working conditions. Moreover, it is important to consider how unions, cooperatives and workgroups can strengthen women's positions and overcome the stereotyping which persists even in new fields.

Table 8.1 Changes in women's employment in some major sectors 1975-1988 (thousands)




% change








Agriculture 14.8 391.0 405.8 48.3 465.4 513.7 +26.6
Mining 57.7 24.9 82.6 60.4 17.6 78.0 -5.6
Manufacturing 53.9 399.4 453.3 105.8 448.5 554.3 +22.3
Electricity 10.2 0.3 10.5 25.6 0.6 26.2 +150.5
Construction 43.2 23.4 66.6 71.7 5.1 76.8 +15.3
Trade 2.5 16.6 19.1 9.0 17.9 26.9 +40.8
Transport and communications 50.5 1.8 52.3 125.9 2.8 128.7 +146.1
Finance and Insurance 35.2 8.2 43.4 124.2 22.4 146.6 +237.8
Community Services 861.1 236.6 1,097.7 1,553.5 389.5 1,943.0 +77.0

Source: Indian Labour Year Book

Two key questions have to be asked about the impact of new technology: how can the gains women have made in the financial sector be safeguarded, and how can improvements be made in the qualitative aspects of employment?

Research methods

I approached the unions in eleven Indian and foreign-controlled banks, and in the nationalized Life Insurance Corporation, between April and October of 1992. I talked to between 5 and 9 employees and union activists in each of the banks and the LIC. I also talked to at least 2, and in some cases 4, of the management personnel in each institution. Some found it a little difficult to identify with the focus of the study, while others saw its value and suggested that I meet the women employees too. I met several women, both employees and union committee members, who immediately identified with the concerns expressed. We had lively discussions at the workplace, in union offices, in their homes and at the Workers' Solidarity Centre Office. Much of this chapter draws heavily on the experiences, insights and analyses of the women employees, and some of the male employees and unionists. I also met the management personnel - some from the Personnel Department, others from the electronic data processing (EDP) department. The management's response varied from attempting to evade questions ('it is our policy not to give information'), to not coming for appointments or giving cautious public relations type answers, or even open hostility. However I also went to the Banks' Training College and to the National Institute of Bank Management, where material on training and retraining were made available to me and lively discussions followed.

Generally speaking, very little statistical information or quantitative data about employment in the finance industry was available from most of these sources. Despite efforts to gain a balanced picture of the situation, I have had to rely mainly on knowledgable, experienced and active employees and their biting, insightful comments, descriptions and accounts, which were supplemented by a structured questionnaire which they filled out. We had a series of meetings to discuss these questionnaires.

The banking industry, history and technological changes

Historical overview

The antiquated Indian banking system has its roots in the nineteenth century. The character and structure of the system has, however, changed substantially since 1969, when the major banks were nationalized. Prior to nationalization, banking was concentrated in urban areas. It was clear that a better banking system was needed to promote the economic goals of the new Indian state. Rural markets for industrial goods could not be developed so long as money lenders, charging usurious rates of interest, were the main source of rural credit. Moreover, the 'green revolution' depended on farmers finding substantial sources of credit to pay for fertilizers and hybrid seeds.

Since the mid-1970s, there has been a spectacular growth in the spatial distribution of bank branches and in the size of their deposits and advances. According to experts in banking this transformation has no parallel anywhere in the world (Anantharam Iyer, 1991). After nationalization, there was also a change in recruitment policy. For the first time, the doors of the banks were opened to everyone, irrespective of family status, caste, community, religion or gender. Recruitment was placed on a more systematic basis, with merit assessed by aptitude tests conducted by an external agency in a relatively impartial manner (Deekshit, 1991).

As the size of the banking sector increased, the industry became difficult to manage. Computer technology offered a possible solution. In India, a small number of industrial houses and a few educational, research and development institutions started using computers in the early 1960s. During the late 1960s and 1970s, service-oriented industries such as airlines, railways and insurance companies introduced computers to 'improve their functioning' and 'to provide better customer service' (Anantharam Iyer, 1991). Banks in India did not, however, introduce computers on a large scale because of the fear that these would result in retrenchment and unemployment (Goodman, 1991). For a long time Indian banks faced very little competition and operated in a protected economy. Thus no long-term policy or perspective for the banking sector was formulated: it was simply treated as part of the public sector. This is now changing. Well-computerized foreign banks are beginning to compete seriously with the nationalized banks. They aim at a profitable and wealthy part of the market and, in contrast to the nationalized banks, do not recognize any social responsibilities to small account holders or to a rural and semi-urban clientele.

Technological changes, legislation and bargaining

In India, the main agents affecting the introduction of new technology have been the unions, management and the workforce. The government has played a very indirect role in the process. In the early days of the massive introduction of computer technology into industry and services, union policies on new technology were basically defensive. They focused almost entirely on the immediate consequences of technological change on the workforce, especially the aspect of possible job losses.

However, these attitudes and the strategies of unions vis--vis computerization have begun to change, especially since the 1980s. Management in many places has been able to convince workers and unions that competition is becoming increasingly harsh, and computerization is not only inevitable for the health and survival of the unit but also beneficial to employees, because it may improve the competitiveness of the enterprise, enhance job security and improve employment conditions. Many unions which have consistently opposed computerization have had to face their members who are keen on technological changes. As one EDP employee who is also a unionist put it, 'As a unionist I would oppose computerization, as an employee I would welcome it. That is my dilemma.'

Consequently, unions today are increasingly seeking to influence the process of technological changes so that new technology can be introduced in such a way as to benefit workers and minimise its adverse consequences. The last decade has seen several 'technology agreements' or 'computerization agreements', along with routine collective bargaining agreements which contain clauses related to technology. Despite these agreements, most managers in India, including those in the public sector, have consistently regarded all aspects of technological changes as matters falling within the area of managerial prerogative. When consultation with unions has occurred, these have been far from fair since unions have lacked the requisite know-how and information.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) installed its first computer in 1968, and a larger one in 1979. But the United Commercial (UCO) Bank, the Standard Chartered Bank, Lloyds' Bank, Grindlays, and others had installed accounting and other machines before 1966. Operations such as payrolls had been computerized fairly early on. Some head offices began to use computers by the beginning of the 1980s.1 In September 1983. two of the major banking unions - the All India Bank Employees Association (AIBEA) and the National Confederation of Banking Employees (NCBE) signed an agreement with the Indian Banks Association (IBA), representing 58 bank managements. The unions wished to maintain surveillance of the process and to protect job prospects in the banking sector, but the final settlement was self-contradictory. On the one hand there were restrictions on computerization, with numerical limits on the numbers of mainframe computers, and even on the number of accounting machines which might be used in rural branches, but there was also a loop-hole which allowed the banks to use 'such number of mini-computers as are warranted by their needs and exigencies'.

The 1983 agreement provided an opening for individual banks to make their own computerization agreements, and many foreign banks immediately took advantage of this 'openness' to negotiate agreements giving them a free hand to introduce new technology, despite the careful restrictive approach of the AIBEA and NCBE.

In March 1987 the AIBEA and NCBE signed a new settlement with the IBA. The settlement was similar in its approach and concerns to the 1983 agreement. Although it allowed for an extension of new technology in both the operations computerized and the equipment used, the concern was largely still with ways of restricting and controlling the use of computers to protect existing staff and preserve the prospects for future staff. The agreements also provided some additional allowances and protection for pregnant women. Taking advantage of the 'openness' clause in the 1983 and 1987 agreements, some of the AIBEA's own affiliates agreed to the installation of automatic teller machines and fax machines, which were beyond the purview of the industry level accord.2 There are signs that the AIBEA has been forced to reverse its earlier relatively liberal stance on computerization because of the campaign spearheaded in recent years by its arch rival, the Bank Employees' Federation of India (BEFI), which has been seeking recognition from the IBA.

However it would be misleading to look at the unions alone in explaining the slow rate of technological innovation. A highly-placed bank executive commented that the management of the banks lack perspective, because of the protection they had enjoyed, and were not really serious about computerization (Goodman, 1991). There is also uncertainty among bank managers about the implications of computerization in terms of the hierarchy and their own positions. Employees of many Indian banks, including the State Bank of India and Bank of Baroda, said that management 'just dumped these machines here. They are hardly used, and some don't work.' A comprehensive policy seems completely absent. In contrast, the multinational banks have computerized almost totally, with the unions unable to have any say.

Impact of computerization on the workforce

Some of the general issues that have concerned unions and employees, especially women, in the wake of the introduction of new technology in the banking and finance sectors have been:

• Prospects of job losses and declining employment levels.

• Increase in workloads.

• Pressure for flexibility.

• Changes in job contents.

• Increase in insecurity in the workplace, and loss of union power.

• Increase in the proportion of 'non-bargainable' staff (i.e. those without an automatic right to unionize) as compared to the 'bargainable' staff.

• Changes in grading and pay.

• Changes in information and control.

• Changes in the autonomy of employees.

• Changes in health and safety conditions.

Job losses

There have not been visible losses of employment in either the banking or insurance industries, due to the massive expansion and diversification in the two industries and to the high proportion of nationalized enterprises, in which workers are generally protected against job losses. Some of the foreign banks have undergone massive expansion in terms of the number of their branches and their areas of operation. In fact, in January 1992, 12 foreign banks sought permission to open 44 more branches in various major cities of India (Economic Times, 1992). There has however been a reduction in the rate of recruitment in the nationalized banks. According to a recent study covering three banks and two insurance companies, the growth of new jobs has dwindled. As the use of new technology expands, labour savings are likely to increase further in some operations (Chopra, 1991). The three developments that are likely to displace workers, and women in particular, are voice recognition, optical character recognition and artificial intelligence (Rajan, 1990). An employee at the Hong Kong bank observed that the entire category of typists had already been abolished.

II is possible to discern a tendency to reduce the proportion of 'bargainable' staff in both nationalized and foreign banks. The Banque Nationale de Paris reduced its bargainable staff from 200 employees in 1979 to just 135 in 1992, by not recruiting staff at the lowest levels and by asking about 35 employees to accept the so-called Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) because computerization was expected to reduce the need for their labour.

Increase in workloads

New technology could lessen the repetitive and heavy nature of certain operations. However, most employees in the insurance and banking industry, especially in the foreign banks, have experienced serious strain and heavy work-loads. According to an employee working in the cash department of the Citibank,

Before computerization we used to do 30-40 cash entries per day; now we have to do more than 100. There is a greater pressure of work more work and more responsibility. The speed has increased enormously.3

According to experienced unionists in ANZ Grindlays Bank, computerization, coupled with non-recruitment and non-replacement of retired staff, has led to a tremendous increase in workloads, 'after 20 years of employment, people are bound to be completely fagged out. Then the management will term them "unsuitable", "old" or "unfit"'. The personnel officer of Grindlays, who disagrees with the union on everything else, admitted, 'Since the emphasis is entirely on productivity and efficiency, there has been intensification of work. Employees' efficiency levels have gone up ten-fold'. Personnel officers at the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) confirmed this picture.

Pressure for flexibility

Over the last decade and a half, management has consistently sought to have flexible manning levels. They have argued that they need operational flexibility in order to respond quickly to changes in the market, to introduce technological innovations, and to deal with fluctuations in the flow of work. This, they say, can be achieved by employing a core of secure, permanent, multiskilled, full-time employees and a 'periphery' of marginal, generally single-skilled workers who may be employed part-time or temporarily, and directly or indirectly, in a variety of 'new' ways (Huws et al., 1989)

Computer technology demands functionally flexible multiskilled workers rather than specialists. The strategy of increasing flexibility in the employment system frequently targets women workers, who occupy the lower rungs of the job hierarchy. They are often forced to change work stations or leave the firm. Professionals and specialists, a majority of whom are men, benefit from the strategy.

Changes in job content

Changes in work methods caused by the introduction of computerization affect the content of work as well as the skills needed by employees. The direction of changes is, however, not uniform. Two divergent tendencies can be observed. In routine transactions, certain skills of a mechanical nature, which nevertheless require a measure of mental effort and concentration, are no longer required or are needed less. The skills replacing them are equally mechanical but call for less mental effort. The level of skills required for the performance of routine transactions therefore actually falls, although the degree of attention and concentration required will be just as high or even higher. In contrast, in the area of customer services, computerization offers potential for an increase in both the necessary range and level of skills, for example, searching for, extracting and assimilating relevant information in response to a request. The realization of the potential is, however, contingent on the relevant organizational decisions being taken by management (Ozaki et al., 1992)

The impact of new technology on work content and the skills required of workers also depends on how rigidly jobs are defined and demarcated and on the skill levels of the existing workforce. Various studies seem to show that, in places where the tasks of workers have already been defined broadly and flexibly, with much overlapping, the reorganization of work after the introduction of new technology has been comparatively smooth and workers' resistance relatively minor. In places where the skill level of workers is high, technological change tends to strengthen the tendency towards the integration of planning and production tasks. Where skill levels are low there seems to be a trend towards polarization of skills. Computerization is also creating skills that are largely transferable from one enterprise to another, such as the skills of computer programmers (Ozaki et al., 1992).

Product innovations have generally led to an increase in the importance of formal skills. The informal skills, learned on the job, that characterized women's work are not seen as important. The professional and technical jobs increase in number and importance, and formal theoretical knowledge is becoming more important for employees in the banking sector (Tremblay, 1991). In India as elsewhere, categories such as junior clerks and tellers are becoming less important in the overall workforce as Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) multiply (Rajan, 1990).

An employee working at the bill discounting department in Citibank, Bombay, says:

Earlier, when a bill was brought to us, we made manual entries. The customer would present the bill. We had to scrutinise it, and then send it to the liability department for their approval. In the liability department, each client had one big card which showed her status. After approval, it was sent back to us for processing. That is:

1 calculate the interest using a calculating machine;
2 make debit/credit tickets;
3 balance the amount; and
4 send the tickets to the journal keeper, who would balance all the amounts.

Each department had a journal keeper. Now, we still have to scrutinise a bill. Then we key it into the programme - the bill programme. The computer shows the credit limit automatically. The ticket is then given to the officer, who takes it to the Credit Approval Committee. There are no manual interest calculations, no manual tickets, no journal-keeper.4

There are positive aspects of computerization as weld. Although employees used to do the posting of debit and credit, they

did not necessarily know much about whether and why a particular debit or credit was passed. There is greater knowledge about these things now. There is also greater access to other types of work. Earlier I did not endorse documents. I do so now.

According to the personnel manager of the LIC, work had not been enriched or tasks enlarged, because jobs were set and functions well-defined. 'Computerization has made the jobs easier rather than interesting.' The personnel officer at the ANZ Grindlays Bank, in contrast, was adamant that employees' skills had increased ten-fold, but he was actually referring to their productivity or efficiency. He agreed however that many jobs have been 'realigned'. For example, in bill discounting, work that was previously done by a team is now done individually by workers with their own machines. An employee at Grindlays comments, 'Earlier, there was greater interaction between employees. Team work was good work. We learnt more about the work. Now there is no time to look around, help or seek help from colleagues. You just sit there and bang at the keyboard'. The management of Grindlays argues that employees used to spend most of their time with books (e.g. tabulations) and now spend more time with customers. The unionists at Grindlays dismissed this claim, 'There have been no changes. Work has become more monotonous. The brain is getting more dull.'

Many employees expressed mixed feelings about computerization. While it relieved some work pressures and strains of particular types, it has made work dull. It increased efficiency, but decreased the feeling of team work and sharing. Work might be less arduous, but it also becomes less varied. Computerization is supposed to increase customer interaction, but many employees experienced a reduction, and all complained of an increased work tempo.

Increased insecurity and loss of union power

Deskilling contributes to a feeling of powerlessness vis--vis the employer. This feeling was expressed more definitely by employees working in foreign banks than by those employed either in the nationalized banks or the nationalized LIC, Four women employees in the Banque Nationale de Paris said that the closure of some branches and their awareness that they had not been given computer training at a time when nearly all the banking operations had been computerized had made them 'very scared.' All four were later made redundant.

At ANZ Grindlays, insecurity was said to have increased, with early retirements and no recruitment for the last four to five years, 'That itself creates insecurity. If there is a reduction, then it creates panic.'

Citibank employees reported feeling, on the one hand, that their workload was generally too heavy, and, on the other hand, that any temporary reductions made them fear that work had been contracted out. They said that contract workers had been employed for specific tasks, without informing the employees or the union. This has become possible because of computerization.

The feeling of insecurity has also increased because unions have been considerably weakened. The women who were forced to take the VRS (Voluntary Retirement Scheme) by the Banque Nationale de Paris say:

There is virtually no union in the BNP. The union officials were bending backwards to sell the VRS to us. We didn't want to resign. We wanted to fight it out. But how can you do that without the firm backing of the union?

Even when a union is strong, women may not be protected against discrimination.

Increase in the proportion of 'non-bargainable' staff

Control over the workforce provides the basis for controlling production processes, output levels, and scheduling. Over the years, this control has been loosened as unions have come to play a role in areas such as work intensity, output levels, health and safety, which were and still are considered to be 'management prerogatives'. One of the strategies available to wrest control back is to weaken unions, both numerically and in terms of the functions which the unionized workforce performs. This is one reason behind the dramatic and continuous increase in the non-bargainable category of workers, as compared to unionised workers. This casualization process has occurred in the banking and insurance industry as well as in manufacturing.

The number of workers in the bargainable categories is being reduced,5 for instance by using contract couriers in place of employing messengers. In 1973, 18.7 per cent of all workers in the banking industry were officers. By 1987 this had grown to 26.7 per cent. Over the same period, the percentage of clerical workers fell slightly, from 55.9 per cent to 52.4 per cent, and the percentage of workers in more subordinate positions fell quite significantly from 25.4 per cent to 20.9 per cent (Borkar, 1991).

In almost every industry in India, computer programmers are in the non-bargainable category. Computer programmers are usually in a position to anticipate changes and may use their knowledge to keep other workers and unions informed. Most new recruitment is done in the 'officer' category, though often these new employees do the same work as the bargainable employees. In industries where the union has refused to cooperate with computerization, the management recruits 'officers' to do the work of data entry operators etc. The unionists are increasingly feeling that they have to bargain with the management about the content of work in the bargainable and non-bargainable categories, and be vigilant about any infringement.

Changes in grading and pay

There seems to have been no attempt to redefine a new grade structure in the banking and insurance industry after computerization was introduced. In the Banque Nationale de Paris a 'promotion agreement' was signed in 1987, under which all the clerical staff were promoted within three years to the status of Special Assistants, a supervisory category with an extra wage allowance. Everybody, including the lower grade staff, received the allowance, and there was a substantial increase in basic pay too. But there was no attempt at evolving a new grade structure, nor any training to equip employees to deal with the new type of work. All employees, including the women, have gained financially but there has not been any change in their job definition or real status.

All the banks have some allowance for EDP staff or computer operators. In the LIC the allowance was Rs 100. In the Hong Kong Bank only the most senior employees in the department got the allowance, although almost all the employees have to work on the terminals. The Union Bank of India employees who work on the computers get an allowance of Rs 350 per month. The Hong Kong Bank employees get an allowance of Rs 400. In the words of one computer operator in the Bank of Baroda, 'EDP staff are definitely graded highly in the Bank'.

Changes in information and control

Traditional craft workers often knew far more about their jobs than managers or supervisors, which gave them a lot of freedom as to how the work was done. But computers have enormously increased management's ability to collect and analyse information - about product performance, market trends, customers, sales, finance, and of course about employees. The tendency has been for management to learn more about how work is done, and to specify more tightly how jobs should be done - both in terms of method and speed.

Every minute of your time is being recorded. How many words did you key in? How much time was required for posting debits and credits, for bill discounting? However, we cannot access information that is not in our jurisdiction. If one tries it, it is invalid; but the fact that you tried will be recorded in the computer. If one looks at it dispassionately, one would have an eerie feeling.

Employees felt that they were being watched and intimidated, increasing the sense of insecurity. Unions have not claimed a right to have access to information relevant for negotiating. Employees in ANZ Grindlays bank found such a demand difficult to even imagine. 'Management has total control over all information. Profits, costs etc. are under secret code. They have all the information about us though.'

Changes in health and safety conditions

The introduction of new technology has also created a range of new hazards for the workers. The development of new materials, processes and substances, without adequate information being made available about their impact, may be creating problems which will not be perceived for many years. Increases in the scale and pace of production have contributed towards stress, especially where there is also inadequate support or training or an unfair distribution of workloads.

Some specific health and safety problems have been shown to arise from the introduction of computer-based equipment. Visual Display Units (VDUs) have been known to cause a number of health problems, especially if operated continuously for a long time. 'Video blues', eye problems, musculoskeletal problems, painful conditions such as tenosynovitis, varicose veins, ulcers, nausea, headaches, and skin diseases as well as reproductive problems such as miscarriages, stillbirths, birth defects, infertility, menstrual problems and low sperm counts have been very extensively documented (Labour Research Department, 1985). However, none of the bank employees had been given any health training. Most employees complained of eye strain, headaches, or a heavy feeling in the head, but they worked at the terminal from 9.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. with only breaks for lunch and tea in between. Three women in Citibank had had miscarriages, though none of them had any personal or familial history of miscarriages. Of the forty women interviewed only one had heard that working on the computers continuously could cause health problems. None of the training sessions had mentioned this problem. Though information on the health and safety aspects of working with computers is widely available, employees were ignorant of health hazards. This indicates their lack of access to information relevant to women, the unwillingness of management to share it, and the indifference of the union to issues of health and safety. This is a serious issue, especially because the number of women working on computers is increasing rapidly.

Contents - Previous - Next