The education technology firm Bjyu swiftly became a ray of light for Indians looking for a better future, from parents desiring the greatest education for their kids to young, tech-savvy professionals trying to grow their professions. The Bengaluru-based startup, founded in 2011, debuted its learning app in 2015 and quickly grew into a multibillion-dollar behemoth, becoming India’s top edtech company as members of the nation’s expanding middle class sought out employment and financial security in one of the largest tech hubs in the world. However, as the business has expanded, so too have the complaints.
Employees at Byju claim that the company uses predatory and exploitative working conditions and dishonest sales techniques, such as profiling, chasing, and forcing prospective students from less privileged backgrounds to purchase its courses.
26 salespeople were interviewed by Context; 18 are currently employed and 8 have left the company. They described difficult working conditions with long hours, instances of physical and verbal abuse and a culture where they were encouraged to deceive customers to increase sales by any means possible. When strict goals are not met, some bosses, under Byju’s pressure, threaten workers into working more than 72 hours per week and deny them lunch breaks, vacation time, or even the ability to leave the office, according to WhatsApp messages, internal emails, company contracts, and audio recordings of calls and meetings.
But Byju’s workers, many of whom are first-generation college graduates or are from low-income homes, claim they put up with the harsh atmosphere out of fear of losing their employment in India’s competitive labor market since their families are counting on them. 22 of Byju’s consumers were also questioned by Context, and many of them said that they had been pressured into enrolling in courses, conned into obtaining loans, and left with no redress after losing money.
According to Byju’s spokesman, in response to Context’s findings, the employees who spoke out constituted “infinitesimal proportion” of the company’s personnel, and the business had “zero tolerance for unfavorable behavior in the workplace.” The spokeswoman stated in email remarks that “we enforce the highest safe working standards at each of our business entities.”
Client complaints led Byju to respond that its business practices were “centered on customer respect and satisfaction” and that staff members did not “pursue customers who are either disinterested in or unable to pay for our items.” Former Byju’s salesman Pratik Makhija, who worked there twice, claimed to have experienced “daily mental agony.”
The 27-year-old claimed examples of this included his manager yelling at him, making him work seven days straight, and inciting rivalry among coworkers. “You have the impression that you are stuck at the bottom of a well or in a bubble with no means to escape and take in the surroundings. Work-life balance doesn’t exist. Zero, “Makhija,” who had previously left Byju’s after working there for 18 months, stated this. “We are handled like property. “What price do they pay to maintain their worth and revenue?” “He suffocated us,” he added.
Makhija said he returned to Byju’s in July for financial reasons but was suspended for one month in August after complaining about the aggressive behavior of his supervisors. In October, he left the company once more but claimed he is still “haunted” by the behavior of his superiors, whom he claims manhandled and yelled at him. Makhija, who is now jobless and seeking work, said, “It got so severe that I had to seek professional treatment, and finally got diagnosed with anxiety.” “I get awful flashbacks.”
A request for feedback from Bjyu on Makhija’s account received no response. Requests for responses regarding Context’s findings were repeatedly ignored by India’s labor and IT ministries. While the government has voiced concerns about how edtech companies treat their clients, such as through deceptive product promotion, labor abuses, according to activists, seem to be going unnoticed. As edtech businesses, including Byju, compete to become the next major actors in India’s economy, labor attorneys, academics, and workers’ rights experts are warning that without strong monitoring, employees face the risk of suffering the worst effects of unbridled exploitation.
According to economist K.R. Shyam Sundar, who has written extensively on labor reforms in India, the industry is now unregulated. He is asking for regulation of the sector, including the creation of a specific edtech policy, to safeguard the welfare and protection of workers. “The first victim in this situation is always labor rights,” he continued. Not just at Byju’s but throughout India’s edtech sector, there have been reports of subpar working conditions and aggressive behavior.
Context also spoke with four current Unacademy employees and three former Vedantu employees, all of whom cited high-pressure work situations, encouragement of misrepresentation of goods, and arbitrary salary reductions. Also mentioned by these workers was the lack of job security. Vedantu, another major edtech company with headquarters in Bengaluru, did not reply to queries for comment.
Unacademy, an educational technology firm financed by Japan’s SoftBank, emphatically refuted the employees’ claims, calling them “a factually false picture of our culture,” and asserting that the company was “focused on boosting and supporting the growth of every employee.” Labor advocates are worried about working conditions in the whole industry, but Byju’s has received the most criticism recently.
Byju’s, which is supported by Tiger Global, one of the biggest hedge firms in the world, benefited greatly from the spike in demand for online education that occurred in India during the COVID-19 epidemic. To finance its rapid expansion, it has garnered funding from some of the best venture capital firms and financiers, including the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative of Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, China’s Tencent, the United States‘ Sequoia Capital, and General Atlantic.
However, industry observers claim that demand began to decline as soon as the schools resumed classes and the world economy became less certain. The firm, which has a market value of $22 billion and is one of the most valuable in the world, reported a loss of 45.64 billion rupees ($550.5 million) for the fiscal year 2021 and a 3% decline in sales in September. More criticisms of Byju’s workplace culture and business strategy have surfaced as it deals with a more challenging business environment.
Former employees and industry observers have been vocal in their criticism of what they see as unethical business practices, including pushy sales techniques, delays in processing cancellation requests, and a lack of reimbursements, on social media. Former employees and industry professionals publicly criticized Byju’s recent announcement of football player Lionel Messi as a brand ambassador on social media platforms. This came shortly after the company announced plans to lay off 2,500 of its 50,000-strong staff. Employees have expressed to Context their growing anxiety about losing their employment and the pressure to work harder when coworkers are let go.
The 26 employees who have questioned the claim that they are frequently required to work at least 12-hour shifts six days a week, the majority of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation, The contracts for Byju’s employees that Context has access to do not indicate the number of hours an employee must put in per day or week. No manager was urged or permitted, according to a Byju spokeswoman, to have their workers work longer than a five-day workweek. According to the corporate spokesman, “In situations where an employee is required to work an additional day, it is always voluntarily and with additional remuneration provided for the extra effort.”
Employees claim they frequently work shifts longer than 12 hours, sometimes for seven days straight, without receiving any additional money, and they are forced to accept these demands out of fear of losing their employment. In India, each state has its own laws governing the pay, working conditions, leave, holidays, and other aspects of employees’ employment. In Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka, where rules stipulate that an employee may not work more than nine hours per day and 48 hours per week, fourteen of Byju’s employees are based. They are legally entitled to overtime compensation after that point.
From professionals attempting to pass difficult examinations for engineering and civil services to parents of children as young as six, Byju’s provides online tutoring to a diverse group of clientele. To fulfill weekly sales objectives of at least 100,000 rupees, which require selling one to four courses depending on their worth, most staff view their jobs as a constant grind. To do this, salesmen not only spend hours on the phone each day but also frequently visit schools, malls, and temples to get individuals to sign up, frequently low-income employees who are not technologically adept, such as market vendors and tuk-tuk drivers.
On condition of anonymity, a former salesman who left in September stated, “You have to let go of your conscience and be utterly shameless to perform this work.” She recalled instances in which she had broken into people’s houses, humiliated them into purchasing a course for their children, and blocked their numbers if they requested refunds. “I (was) so tortured with remorse sometimes, I could scarcely sleep at night,” she claimed. Makhija said that Byju’s did not provide its staff with sales training and instead expected them to close business using any methods required.
It doesn’t matter how you do it, he added; you may act unethically, make false promises, conduct fraud, or intentionally mislead people. “Make a sale by doing whatever it takes. Their message to us is that we want income at the end of the day.” Byju’s employees claim they get a tonne of emails and texts from their superiors on their one day off each week, many of which Context has seen.
One manager questioned the attitudes of her team of salespeople in a WhatsApp group and threatened to mark them as absent, reduce their day’s pay, and put them on performance improvement programs (PIP) if they did not meet their goals, saying, “Trust that I will make you suffer like hell under me.” “Please don’t send me any messages informing me that you or your loved ones are ill. Therefore, do not even consider requesting such leave. In the communication that followed, the management stated.
Five workers reported how they had been forcibly stopped from leaving work by managers who had locked their bags away or were holding them by their arms. Many workers said that failing to fulfill objectives results in their being prohibited from taking lunch breaks. Byju’s claimed to have a strong system in place for handling complaints of this nature and did not give its employees “irrational goals.”
The representative added, “Managers are urged to focus on the quality rather than the amount of work.” “Over the past two years, we have increased our efforts to create a work atmosphere where people feel secure, supported, and in good physical and mental health.” All of the employees claimed that taking any form of absence, including their monthly sick days, is almost impossible. Employees said that because requests are seldom granted, they rarely take annual leave and rarely receive bank holidays. One employee from Bengaluru said that after her mother was admitted to the hospital in Mumbai in August, her manager would not permit her to visit the sick woman.
She recalled his saying, “You get paid to work, not to go on excursions,” as if I were. “We are dealt with like animals.”This job is not for the weak of heart.” The spokeswoman for Byju said that the company’s leave and work rules complied with the world’s top human resources standards.
The spokesman stated, “At Byju’s, employee well-being is a primary concern, and we take proactive measures to ensure that all of our workers strike a good balance in their work lives.” In recent years, some Byju employees have attempted to organize and bring their coworkers together to demand improved working conditions, whether it be through WhatsApp groups or LinkedIn forums. However, Byju has put up a strong fight against them.
A 30-year-old who requested anonymity out of concern for his future employment claims claimed that he was dismissed after he and a colleague created two WhatsApp groups in September calling on fellow salesmen to band together and fight for their rights. They sought improvements to the workplace, including regular working hours, fair attendance evaluations, and a halt to the arbitrary use of PIPs for employee discipline or termination.
The two WhatsApp groups had about 1,000 members each, according to Context. However, once management began threatening employees if they were discovered to be a part of “anti-organization” organizations, that number dropped by more than half in a matter of weeks. One manager warned her sales staff through WhatsApp that they may “face termination” if they continued to be a part of the two groups in issue, and demanded screenshots as proof.
The co-founder of WhatsApp groups and former salesperson remembered how senior managers had flown in from offices all over the nation to inquire about his team’s ideals and fitness for Byju. The employee, who was the only provider for his family, claimed that “(they) requested me to quit for standing against them, and I had to because it was just tough for me to absorb that sort of pressure.” He stated through WhatsApp, “I’m getting married (next month) and I don’t have a job.” “Byju’s is not a company; it is a prison.”
About six employees claimed that the HR division had disregarded their grievances and deliberately discouraged staff from elevating problems to higher management. Requests for a response to the 30-year-old’s testimony or inquiries concerning organizing and opposition went unanswered by Byju. Manjari Singh, a professor of human resources at the Indian Institute of Management in western Ahmedabad, stated that for workers attempting to organize or seek legal redress over the harsh conditions they describe, “There was no clear option.” Singh urged Byju’s workers to go to court, saying, “(workers) have to band together and fight, but it needs to go beyond emails, social media, and WhatsApp groups.” Employees frequently hesitate to file lawsuits out of concern that they would be “blacklisted,” according to Sheena Ogra, a lawyer at the Delhi-based law firm Ahlawat & Associates with experience in employment law.
They worry that if they take on the business, no employer would want to hire them tomorrow or that they won’t have adequate experience letters from their current employers, she added. It may be challenging. The edtech sector, according to specialists in technology and labor law, spans several laws and regulations, including national e-commerce standards and IT legislation, but escapes examination for lack of a particular strategy to oversee the business.
Experts worry that edtech businesses might take advantage of the expectations and goals of an increasing number of employees who come from low-income families, even though the sector mostly works without governmental oversight. Context’s interviews with Byju employees revealed that over half of them originated from low-income homes and were the first in their families to enroll in college. They emphasized that one of the key reasons they put up with maltreatment in the workplace is so they can use their education to give their family members a better life.
Many people also feel stuck since they depend heavily on their monthly paychecks to cover a variety of expenses and obligations. Former Byju’s salesman Nitesh Kumar resigned last month as part of a mass resignation involving at least 40 employees, alleging that he had experienced various forms of mistreatment during two different employment periods. The 26-year-old said that after breaking his leg in a car accident the first time, the employer made him resign.
After re-joining, Kumar said that since he had fallen short of his sales goals, he had been forced to work 15-hour hours, refused lunch breaks, had his salary reduced, and had been forced to report for duty sick. Byju’s requests for feedback from Kumar on Kumar’s story were not met with a response. To pay off debts for his family’s automobile and his sister’s wedding, he claimed that he had originally intended to remain with the business until the end of the year. According to Kumar, who is currently seeking work, they (Byju’s) made the working circumstances so bad, so intolerable, with unrealistic objectives that I felt I would sooner default than suffer any more of this.”
edited and proofread by nikita sharma