TRAP & THE PERVERSION OF TRAINING

This is about how we, the training industry, are being unwittingly used by unscrupulous corporates to enslave workers.

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Introduction

I want to put aside our usual discussions on methodology, learning science, design thinking and so on to address something that’s currently happening. I’m someone who keeps insisting that training is not neutral, apolitical or divorced from beliefs and values. But I’ll freely admit – I did not see this coming.

In 2022, talking of slavery and indentured service should evoke period costumes and vague, crackling black and white documentaries with fuzzy voiceovers. Yet here we are. Corporate America’s practices to exploit workers are being exposed with a vengeance. And apparently, training is becoming an increasingly popular façade for companies to use to disguise their hostile intentions towards their employees. In retrospect, it was just a matter of time, really. Hypercapitalism first commodified education. It was inevitable that now it would weaponise training.

Relevance

In some ways, Indian corporate history is unique because of its origins in the Swadeshi movement and its role in freeing us from colonial oppression. But because of globalisation, it merges more and more with global (predominantly, American) corporate culture every day. And also because of this deeply connected world we’re not insulated from what happens elsewhere even if we don’t already have exactly the same problems locally. As employees ourselves, complacency about our corporate practices would be dangerous.

And now as people who work in training, wherever in the world that may be, we are being made unwitting pawns.

The Issue

Some American employers have found ‘innovative’ ways to get their employees in a chokehold: they become employees’ creditors and threaten their financial futures if staff eventually wish to leave the company. Watchdogs, committees, senate bodies have already begun to probe these practices. So, there has also been a need to turn to newer means which are not yet under as much scrutiny. Tada, the Training Repayment Agreement Provisions – or TRAPs (someone really did not sprain their brain for subtlety there…!).

What Is TRAP?

A gist of what TRAP is about: TRAP is a contractual term that says if an employee leaves employment within a certain time frame (usually a few years) after being given training, the employee must repay the employer for the cost of the training.

The Problem(s)

Obviously, this provision can be reasonable in some circumstances. It also has a lot of potential for misuse and abuse. After all, how much say do employees usually have about which trainings they will undertake? – Most are mandatory, even if the employer doesn’t necessarily make dedicated time for the training and the employee has to take it ‘on the go’ and on their own time. And when it comes to determining the cost of the training – who will decide it and how – you can guess the added explosion of problems due to the unequal power of the two parties.

If you come up with an unreasonable, arbitrary number and brandish the spectre of financial insolvency before an employee who wants to leave; you can trap them in your employ indefinitely despite any legitimate issues they may have with pay, HR policies, working conditions, hostile management, safety at work, etc. And that’s exactly what’s happening in some places.

In India, we have a similar battle with non-compete clauses. Even Infosys was summoned by the Labour Ministry to justify their employment contract terms, although they’ve been a no show – and with what looks like impunity. I’ve seen no follow up news of their facing penalties for this blatant abuse of power and disregard for the law, have you? Yet they have opined loudly even lately about moonlighting, as though they’re above reproach. Interesting…

If nothing else, it tells us we cannot be complacent. TRAP should still concern us all as employees. So, let’s resume the discussion of TRAP.

The legality of this clause is obviously a contentious matter with judgments going both ways. But now there’s a class action as well in California against PetSmart, a pet store chain. In addition to using the dubious clause they also apparently misrepresented how ‘free’ a training really was, which was something an employee discovered only when she wanted to leave.

State of Affairs Now

And now the challenge to the legality of TRAP is getting stronger, because it is fundamentally another way to perpetuate and sustain the (mal)practice of indentured servitude. So here we are in the present day, discussing such things with (sadly) no need for costumes and scratchy documentaries. TRAP seems to go the extra mile and have elements of classism mixed in.

Here’s a snippet from this report by the Student Borrower Protection Center that summarises the issues neatly for us:

“While TRAPs began to appear in the 1990s, they were primarily limited to higher-skilled, higher-wage workers, such as securities brokers and high technology employees, who received specialized training that required frequent employee education. Today, this is no longer the case. As Professor Harris noted:

(Training Repayment Agreements) have since become commonplace for civil servants like police officers, firefighters, and federal employees. Employers also frequently use TRAs for truckers, nurses, mechanics, electricians, salespeople, paramedics, flight attendants, bank workers, repairmen, and social workers. While such jobs used to be middle class and highly unionized, many workers in these sectors now struggle financially, and unionization levels have dropped.

To illustrate this finding, below is a summary of the increased usage of TRAPs in three pivotal industries: healthcare, transportation, and retail. These sectors, in addition to financial services where TRAPs have been prevalent for more than two decades, collectively employ tens of millions of Americans. The SBPC estimates that major employers rely upon TRAPs in segments of the U.S. labor market that collectively employ more than a third of all private-sector workers.”

Recap: why are people so in debt right at the start of their careers and adulthood? – That’s right, education loans due to rising costs of education and degree inflation in terms of the minimum qualifications required for even entry-level jobs.

How many times have we seen in India, that (especially) tech companies keep freshers on hold indefinitely after promising employment? And make them sign bonds while undergoing mandatory training programs that last for months? And then even turn unresponsive when asked about long-promised offer letters not being issued? Capgemini was in the news for exactly this even recently, as was Wipro. Infosys, Tech Mahindra and TCSthey’ve all done it.

Some Thoughts

Companies may want the fairness of mutual accountability for training investments they make. But in this particular mess… it’s not about fairness as much as greater power being misused – I’m sorry, I mean, ‘leveraged’ – to trample employee rights with zero humanity in play.

I joined this industry because I wanted to work in adult education, because the pursuit of knowledge is an ideal. Workplace learning and ongoing adult education could, should, be a way to compensate at least partly for the inequalities with which we start our careers – to help us make the most of our individual abilities, by enabling us to demonstrate that we can do things even if we can’t brandish degree certificates as testimonials that we can; even if we were shut out of hallowed institutes for various reasons (their unaffordability not being the least).

I am furious at seeing that what should be a way to offset unfairness is being corrupted to actively perpetuate it. I’m pretty sure as well that I’m not the only one to feel this way: the reason that the training industry has so many jaded veterans is because there are so many people who have an earnest desire to help, who have watched reality snub those intentions over and over. I truly believe this is not one of those inherently cynical, warped professions.

But stopping corporates from perverting what we do is honestly far beyond our direct control. We need regulatory and legal bodies to step in. We have a skewed dynamic in this industry because our bargaining power is limited by the lack of negotiating power of our client-side stakeholders themselves within their companies. They generally have very limited ability to push reforms and initiatives, even if inclined to.

And we are further hamstrung by the invisibility of our work. We can almost never brand our work. Particularly for providers in the global South, we are forced to accept business contracts where corporates and even training ‘authorities’ in the global North outsource their work to us under conditions of secrecy. We’re not supposed to even mention their names on our client rosters.

Confidentiality of intellectual property is to ensure credit and acknowledgment of the right person or party. This form of secrecy, however, is for purely tactical business advantage and moreover borders on dishonesty because it’s about obscuring who did the work. The more we blur the connection between cause and effect (in any context), the harder it is to trace accountability and ensure justice or fairness. This helps nobody.

If our industry is to mature, we should be held answerable for why a particular training was so needlessly expensive – especially if it’s now going to be used to beat down people into bonded labour. (You see, I’m not asking for a free pass for us in fixing this mess.) But, you need transparency for this.

And, we need a representative body to set a code of conduct that all training providers will be bound by – as in the medical profession, for example. It will also ultimately empower us to unitedly refuse work that comes with unethical conditions – for example, companies that require us to create what will be deployed as mandatory trainings without making time in the official hours for the staff to take those up. I think a representative body will help also prevent undermining each other to pick up this kind of work, and destroying ourselves in the long run.

Maybe it’s also time to start seriously reflecting within our companies and communities on what kind of work is right to take up. In a world where misinformation campaigns have been waged to topple countries, incite violence and worsen climate change, do we want to blindly participate in similar efforts? If PR is the culprit for organised external misinformation; isn’t training responsible for facilitating organised internal misinformation? Or is the notoriously poor reputation of training efficacy our dubious shield?!

Conclusion

What I’ve offered is by no means a complete analysis, solution or answer – not even close! Are there likely to be any easy answers? Certainly not. But, this, the weaponising of training to bludgeon already low-income workers into accepting more exploitative terms… It’s revolting and has to be stopped.


Written by Mridula R., Principal Learning Consultant @ Learnnovators

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