Labour issues

Ringing hollow

Print edition : February 15, 2019

A protest outside the BSNL General Manager’s office in Varanasi, the Prime Minister’s constituency. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The government’s failure to ensure that workers are paid the promised wages in hitherto profit-making, state-owned companies such as BSNL raises doubts about its assurances.

AT the much publicised Yuva Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (YPBD), the government’s outreach programme for the Indian diaspora launched on January 21 in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, the Prime Minister’s constituency, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj claimed that India had “now transformed and become the land of many opportunities, innovation and start-ups”, adding that 16 per cent of start-ups in Silicon Valley, United States, had an Indian co-founder. The government’s aim, the senior Minister said, was to “export skills”, which not only would “ensure India’s image globally but would also lead to better salaries and remittances and raise India’s GDP [gross domestic product] further”.

Notwithstanding the optimism, the grim reality is that while new employment as promised by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) when it assumed the reins of power at the Centre has not been realised, thousands of contract workers in Bharat Sanchar Nagar Limited (BSNL), the state-owned telecommunications company, have not been paid their dues for several months, including in Uttar Pradesh.

BSNL, which was launched in 2000 during the first tenure of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, was once a profitable company and a competition driver. It has now become a loss-making enterprise even as the profits of private telecom companies have grown. Despite entering the telecommunication services market much later than the private companies, BSNL proved to be a tough competitor. But all of that has been brought to naught by successive governments at the Centre, including those led by the BJP. One of BSNL’s acknowledged strengths was its in-house capabilities to carry out all activities unlike the private telecom players, which have a narrow employee base and outsource many of their functions with the result that they have much less outgo on staff salaries compared with BSNL.

Every government department has been doing away with permanent posts in certain categories of jobs and outsourcing them through licensed contractors. Since the establishment of BSNL, it is estimated that two lakh employees have retired, but an equivalent number of persons have not been recruited to fill those permanent posts. BSNL has over the years seen a steady influx of workers employed as contractual and casual labour. The BSNL Casual and Contract Workers Federation (CCWF), an organisation of contract workers of BSNL across the country, estimates that nearly one lakh contract workers are being continually engaged by BSNL for skilled jobs such as laying of cables, including optical fibre cables; repairing faults; and maintenance.

According to the orders of the Chief Labour Commissioner, the rate for unskilled work is Rs.350 a day, but many of these contract workers are not paid even that much. The irony is that even in situations where workers are entitled to wages for skilled work, the workers of BSNL are being paid the rates fixed for unskilled categories of work. Barring Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and West Bengal, the majority of “circles” are paying anywhere between Rs.6,000 and Rs.7,000 only a month. Nothing changed even after the situation was brought to the notice of the government, including at the highest levels.

The CCWF office-bearers Frontline spoke to said that the situation was much worse in Uttar Pradesh than elsewhere. Of the two circles in the State, East and West, the situation of contract workers was far worse in eastern Uttar Pradesh, where in almost all its districts, including Varanasi, BSNL workers received wages anywhere between Rs.1,500 and Rs.2,000 a month. There were hundreds of workers who had not been paid for over a year.

On December 30, 2014, when NDA II came to power, a letter was sent from the BSNL corporate office in New Delhi to the Chief General Managers (CGMs) of BSNL in Assam, Haryana, Bihar, Chennai (Telephones), Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh (East) and (West), North-East I and II and Telecom Factories, Kolkata Circle, reminding them of several letters sent over the course of 2013 regarding the non-implementation of payment of the minimum wage and social security measures such as Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) and Employees’ State Insurance (ESI) to contract workers. In 2015, the communication was repeated and reminders were sent regarding implementation of the earlier communication. V.A.N. Namboodiri, president of the BSNL CCWF, told Frontline that information regarding the non-payment of the minimum wage and pending wages had been communicated repeatedly to all concerned, including the Prime Minister, the President of India and the Telecom Minister. On January 23, Namboodiri wrote another letter to the Prime Minister stating that the workers in Varanasi were drawing wages of only Rs.1,500 to 2,000 a month but even that had not been paid for over a year.

Lowest pay scale

Animesh Mitra, secretary general of the BSNL CCWF, said that casual workers were being paid wages based on the lowest pay scale of the Sixth Pay Commission and despite orders from the Department of Expenditure on September 11, 2018, the BSNL corporate office had not endorsed the order to the field units. Contract workers who raised objections were retrenched, he said, especially in Uttar Pradesh where 37 workers, including Jeetlal Maurya, secretary of a union of BSNL casual and contract workers affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, had been sacked. Mitra said that there were around two lakh contract workers in the country. The outdoor network of BSNL was entirely contract driven and contractor managed. “Where there are unions, the workers manage to get their dues. In other places, it is very bad,” he said.

In December 2018, Mitra wrote to the BSNL Chairman & Managing Director (CMD) apprising him of the condition of contract workers in various circles where wages had been pending for more than two months. He pointed out that in Uttar Pradesh, wages had been pending for more than eight months. “There is an acute shortage of workers, especially more so after superannuation, as the vacant posts have not been filled. It is these contract workers who have kept BSNL services alive in almost all circles. They maintain base transceiver stations, battery, AC plants, generators and customer service centres,” he said.

In February 2017, Mitra submitted a memorandum to the BSNL CMD regarding the problems of casual and contract workers. The corporate office, he wrote, had issued letters directing the implementation of minimum wages for contract workers, but in 90 per cent of the Secondary Switching Areas (a group of one or more revenue districts of the State circle), the minimum wage was not being paid. Where payments were made, the amounts disbursed were paltry. Mitra also alleged that while deductions for EPF and ESI were made from the workers’ wages, the same was not being remitted to the organisations, but was “pocketed” by the contractors.

As the “principal” employer, BSNL was morally obliged to ensure that the minimum wage was being paid and that social security schemes were meticulously implemented. “The responsibility of the BSNL management does not end by issuing some stereotyped letters to the CGMs,” Mitra wrote in his 2017 letter. He pointed out at the time that the non-payment of wages had affected the workers from “downtrodden sections” badly and pushed their families into “virtual starvation” levels.

Through a gazette notification in November 2016, the Central government declared with much fanfare an enhancement of the wages of contract workers, but BSNL neither endorsed nor implemented the notification. Mitra said there was a new category of “left out” casual workers whom BSNL had assured it would regularise. These workers, numbering around 3,000, were earlier employed by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and, after the formation of BSNL in 2000, were given assurances by the then government that they would be regularised. But nothing happened. “There has been a 30 per cent reduction in staff. The local officers say that they are not getting funds from the corporate office. We think... wages are pocketed somewhere. Customer services have got affected. If the workers are paid as per the Seventh Pay Commission recommendations, they should be getting anywhere between Rs.18,000 and Rs.20,000 a month, including Dearness Allowance,” he said. In March 2018, it was reported that the Prime Minister would announce a hike in the minimum pay of Central government employees from the existing Rs.18,000 to Rs.21,000.

No proof of employment

“Despite all the hype around going digital, the contractors were not making payments either through cheque or directly to the bank accounts of the workers. Nearly 3,000 workers have not been paid their dues in just one State, Uttar Pradesh,” said Maurya. “What is the point of talking of new employment and reservation for weaker sections when the government is unable to take care of existing workers in a state-run telecom company,” said Maurya. He said that as the Central government had enhanced the minimum pay for its employees, contract and casual workers were entitled to the same.

“We are Government of India employees. The BJP rules at the Centre and in Uttar Pradesh. Yet there is no justice. More than 35 per cent of workers have completed more than 20 years of service. They have a right to get regularised. There are qualified computer operators who are drawing a pittance. We had decided to boycott the 2016 elections in U.P. as no one was listening to us. Our members voted after senior officers assured us that our grievances would be addressed. But nothing happened. We sent 9,000 postcards to the President of India. Before that, we sent memorandums to all the Members of Parliament elected from U.P. In Mirzapur, we met Union Minister [of State, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare] Anupriya Patel three times, first in July 2018 when she came for a public hearing, or janata durbar, and gave a representation. She assured us she’d talk to the Telecom Minister. Nothing happened. In Mirzapur alone, around 104 workers have not got their wages for months together,” he said. The workers, he said, had no proof of employment or identity cards, no appointment letters, their names were not recorded anywhere, but they were made to work anywhere between eight to 18 hours a day. More than that, both the Centre and the State refused to take responsibility for the workers, with each claiming that it was the responsibility of the other.

“BSNL says we are not their employees; the contractor says we are not his responsibility, the State government also says the same. So the question is, who are we working for?” he asked.

Maurya told Frontline that 10 workers had died in the past five years and their family members had not received any compensation whatsoever barring what was collected by the workers themselves. He said that he had personally written letters highlighting these problems to Telecom Minister Manoj Sinha and former Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.

“I think the government wants to finish off BSNL. I am sitting a few kilometres away from a BSNL tower, but there is no signal. The maintenance is poor. So I am using a connection by a private telecom provider. This is the irony,” said Maurya, who began sending written representations from 2016 onwards to the highest offices. “They cannot say that they do not know of the situation. That they do not care or want to do anything about it is amply clear. Why fool people then with the promise of creating more jobs? We will boycott the coming Lok Sabha election and will soon make a public declaration as well,” said Maurya.

On December 3, 2018, the corporate office wrote to all heads of telecom circles, telecom districts and other administrative units referring to a letter of August 22, 2017, regarding a gazette notification on revision of minimum wages. “The issue of compliance has been coming up in meetings at the Labour Commission, New Delhi. It is reiterated that the wages to casual labourers are paid...” the letter stated. “Field units,” the letter emphasised, “have a duty to ensure payment of wages as per BSNL’s corporate office’s order” of August 2017 and that “any violation shall make the concerned authority liable to statutory/departmental penalties”. Interestingly, in October 2018, this same officer demanded a data profiling of all casual labourers, both part-time and full-time and temporary status mazdoors, while stating that BSNL “has never allowed engagement of casual labourers… the ban imposed by DoT, to that extent, is continuing”. Ironically, casual workers continue to be engaged despite the so-called ban.

Fixed-term employment

In March 2018, following widespread criticism that the Central government had not generated enough jobs, it issued a gazette notification amending the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Central Rules, 1946.

The amendment allows for fixed-term employment in all sectors, which promises more job creation but for a lesser duration and with employer-friendly clauses: companies are allowed to hire persons on a fixed-term contract and to terminate the contract without any notice, which frees them from the liability of paying dues for the notice period where applicable. Trade unions have vehemently opposed the gazette notification as it gives employers a carte blanche to hire and fire at will.

While the government makes promises and gives assurances about creating more government jobs and opportunities for “economically weaker sections”, its failure to address the situation in hitherto profit-making, fully state-owned companies such as BSNL raises legitimate doubts about India being the land of opportunity as touted at the YPBD. This is why there are few takers for the government’s rosy promises relating to employment generation. The question is not only of “where are the jobs” but also of the “quality of work” in the jobs on offer.