It took a nine-day historic strike of around 32,000 BEST workers to force the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST) management in revoking the disparity between the pay scales of junior level employees and the regular employees. However, the recently signed memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the Shiv Sena-backed BEST Kamgar Sena and the management of the BEST Undertaking on September 5 has allowed to bring back the situation back to square one.
This is the main contention of the BEST Sanyukt Kamgar Kruti Samiti (BSKKS) – an umbrella body of the major BEST workers’ union – which has now decided to send a formal strike notice to the BEST Undertaking on September 16.
The new wage settlement of the BEST staff has been pending since 2016. Earlier this year, the indefinite strike, which lasted for nine days, was called off only after reaching a consensus with the BEST Undertaking. The administration agreed to initiate a dialogue with the union leaders and a state appointed High Powered Committee was formed to resolve the dispute.
However, the tussle between the BEST Undertaking and the BEST workers’ unions has taken an unfortunate turn as two unions – one backed by Shiv Sena and the other namely, BEST Kamgar Sangh backed by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – have now arrived at an understanding with the management, while the BSKKS has rejected the terms of the wage agreement offered by the administration in the MoU. The opposition to the terms of the new wage agreement is being led by the BEST Workers’ Union – the largest union with over 15,000 members.
Also read: Why BEST is Seeing the Longest Strike in its History
It is also important to note that the right wing alliance of Shiv Sena and BJP is also currently ruling the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) under which the BEST administration operates. It is the workers’ fronts of these very same right wing forces, which have granted their assent to the terms of the wage agreement. The revised agreement is supposed to last till the year 2021.
NewsClick spoke to the BSKKS leaders to understand their apprehensions regarding the proposed wage revision, according to whom, the BEST workers are being taken for a ride by the management with a wage proposal in which the devil lies in the details.
At first, speaking about inequality in wages between the employees, BEST Workers’ Union spokesperson Ranganath Satavase explained that the proposed wage revision is “discriminatory” as the hikes will materialise differently for the junior level employees, who constitute almost half of the BEST staff.
According to Satavase, in the aftermath of the January strike, a ‘10-steps increment’ in wages of junior level employees was agreed by the unions as an interim measure. The difference in the wages of the junior level employees and a regular BEST employee, however, was of 20 steps, where ‘one-step’ in pay for BEST workers amounts to around ₹ 330 per month. To further meet out the difference in wages, the BEST Undertaking entered into a MoU with the BEST Workers’ Union in May 2019 as per which another 10-step increment in junior employees’ wages was agreed upon, thus acceding to bring it at par with the wages of regular employees.
“However, now if we go by the terms of the wage agreement that is proposed by the administration in the MoU,” Satavase said, “the arrears to the junior grade employees will be paid from the revised pay scale of January and not May which effectively leads to bringing back the disparity of 10 steps in the wages of the employees.”
Jag Narayan, general secretary of BEST Kamgar and Transport Workers Union, another workers’ front under BSKKS that has opposed the proposed wage agreement, said that it is not just the dishonouring of the previous commitments by the BEST Undertaking but also the “destructive” economic measures that are in the administration’s pipeline which has resulted in a strong disapproval.
Also read: #WorkersStrikeBack: BEST Workers’ Strike Paralyses Bus Transport in Mumbai
The MoU signed by the Shiv Sena and BJP backed unions seeks, under the garb of maintaining “industrial peace and harmony”, the signing-union’s agreement to the implementation of “economy and efficiency measures” that will be introduced by the administration in the future.
Even though what those economy and efficiency measures would entail have not been made clear in the MoU, Narayan fears that it is an attempt to deprive the BEST of its social characteristics which has allowed it to serve myriad of commuters in the metropolis for years.
“The submission made by the BEST Undertaking in January to the three-member High Power Committee clearly states the economy measures,” said Narayan, adding, “the unions voiced their protest against those ‘anti-worker’ recommendations then.”
According to the documents accessed by NewsClick, the BEST Undertaking in its submission to the committee recommended a process of reforms which included procuring buses on wet lease, “better utilisation of staff” which translates to making “conductor/driver to work as conductor-cum-driver” and outsourcing of administrative and operational functions. All under the garb of tiding over the “financial and operational issues” that has affected the undertaking.
According to Narayan, the poor financial condition does not mean that the BEST Undertaking will adopt “anti-worker” measures for its financial viability. Under Section 134 of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation Act, 1888, the financial viability of BEST is the responsibility of the BMC. These measures, according to Narayan, will lead to privatisation of the city’s bus transport service and contractualisation of the BEST workforce.
In addition to this, the MoU also finds no mention of the provisions for allowances such as education and travelling, the union leaders added.
Also read: Mumbai’s BEST Bus Employees’ Strike Enters Fifth Day, Authorities Invoke MESMA
Moreover, the MoU does not even consider retired employees for wage revision. According to Narayan, since April 2016, around 4,000 employees of BEST workers have retired who will be deprived of the benefits of the increased pay scales under the proposed wage agreement which has been pending since 2016.
Though the MoU states that bonus for the year 2018-19 will be paid in month of October 2019, the amount of bonus finds no mention.
“When we raised this question to the personnel manager, he simply shifted the responsibility over to the BMC saying that the amount of bonuses will depend on BMC’s budget,” Narayan said, indicating that even the issue of bonus will not be resolved fully.
The union leaders contended that accepting such terms amounts to “signing a blank check”, giving permission to the administration to act as they wish to in the future.
“To enter into an understanding with such terms will be a compromise with the livelihoods of thousands of BEST workers and their families who stand together with the union,” Satavase added.