To save the bleeding public sector telecom service provider Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), its employees across the country resorted to a day-long hunger-strike on November 25, Monday, raising the issues in the revival package among other demands.
On October 23, the union cabinet had announced a revival package for BSNL and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) including the merger of these two sister companies along with a VRS package and strengthening of the finances through sovereign bonds. The Rs 70,000 crore package also guarantees providing 4G spectrum for BSNL.
Though it was categorically announced that the VRS scheme would be voluntary, BSNL employees’ unions have pointed out that the Department of Telecommunication and BSNL management are implementing a forced retirement scheme (FRS). They alleged that the management pressurises the employees by threatening to reduce retirement age to 58 years, long distance transfers if they continue to stay with BSNL, increased workload etc., following which the workers then are compelled to take VRS.
"We are not opposing VRS. Those who want and think it is beneficial for them should opt for it. It is not beneficial for lower level employees and they are being threatened to take VRS, otherwise retirement age will be reduced to 58 years. It is a forced retirement scheme, therefore, we are going on a hunger strike on Monday," P Abhimanyu, the general secretary of BSNL Employees Union (BSNLEU), had told PTI. The hunger strike is being observed by the representatives of various unions including BSNLEU, National Union of BSNL Workers, BSNL Mazdoor Sangh, BSNL Association of Telecom Mechanics and BSNL Officers’ Association. However, the Bharatiya Telecom Employees Union, affiliated to the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, backed out from the protest.
The unions, in a notice for hunger strike, have said that those opting for VRS will be able to apply for pension commutation only after attaining the age of 60 years.
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According to the VRS 2019, an employee who goes on VRS can apply for pension commutation only when he/she attains the age of 60. But, as per the existing CSS Pension Rules 1972, an employee has to apply for pension commutation within one year of his retirement. Otherwise, the person has to undergo medical examination which may create many unwanted problems to the employee. Also, if an employee dies before applying for pension commutation- in between the date of VRS and date of attaining 60 years old- then the family of the employee is not entitled for getting the same.
So, the unions demand that necessary amendments should be made to the Commutation of Pension Rules before forcing them to take VRS.
"In case of any casualty, a person will not be able to apply for pension commutation. His family will get only family pension which is very less. Those who opt for VRS will not be able to claim benefit of the third pay revision. ... With 4G services starting soon and the proposed tariff hike in the sector, BSNL will become eligible for the third pay revision," Abhimanyu said.
According to BSNL Chairman and Managing Director P K Purwar, over 77,000 out of around 1.6 lakh employees have opted for VRS. As per the plan, all regular and permanent employees of BSNL, including those on deputation to other organisations or posted outside the corporation on deputation basis, who are of 50 years of age or above are eligible for VRS.
Similarly, the employees seek a concrete assurance with respect to eligibility to third pay revision to the employees who go on VRS, whenever it is implemented in BSNL retrospectively.
On September 17, 2019, the Supreme Court of India, in the judgement of IFCI Ltd VS Sanjay Behari observed that the VRS is a package by itself and the employees retired under the VRS scheme cannot claim any benefits beyond what has been envisaged in the VRS. The unions, however, urged that in view of this Supreme Court judgement, the DoT and the BSNL Management have to make it clear beyond any doubt that the employees who go on VRS will be made eligible for third pay revision implemented retrospectively.
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The demands of the workers also include: do not roll back the retirement age of BSNL employees; do not force the employees to go on VRS by creating panic in respect of reduction of retirement age, transfers, workload etc.; wnsure immediate pension revision to the BSNL retirees; delink pension revision from pay revision; launch BSNL 4G service immediately and timely payment of salary to the employees.
At the time of absorption in BSNL, the employees were ensured that their posts will be regulated in accordance with government rules. Regarding the same, a letter dated on January 2, 2001, stated: “Age of superannuation for all the non-Board level employees in BSNL will be regulated in accordance with government rules.”
Additionally, the protesting employees are demanding immediate remittance of recoveries made since May 2019, on account of GPF contribution, society dues, bank loan EMI, LIC Premium, union subscription etc. to the concerned organisations; immediate payment of wage arrears of the contract workers; hold talks immediately with the unions and associations in respect of transfers, manpower management and about the structure of BSNL, in the post VRS scenario, do not take arbitrary decisions, bypassing unions and associations in these matters and settle the issue of 30% superannuation benefit to the directly recruited employees.
The contract workers in BSNL have not been paid their wages for last ten months. In West Bengal and Kerala circles, the workers were forced to commit suicide as well. So, the striking workers are demanding the immediate dispersal of the pending wages of the contract workers.
On the other hand, if we see data from sectoral regulator TRAI, BSNL has gained in terms of subscribers in September this year. As per the data, when Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel lost over 49 lakh users in September this year, rival Reliance Jio added 69.83 lakh new users to its network. Though BSNL added 7.37 lakh users to take its total base to 11.69 crore, its sister company MTNL had seen 8,717 users move out resulting in a reduced user base of 33.93 lakh.
Due to the crisis in the entire telecom sector, the customers from private operators like Vodafone-Idea and Airtel are searching for other options. BSNL is one option along with the private player, Reliance Jio.
“The customers may migrate from Vodafone Idea. We have been asking our management to pick up the market immediately. For that, they have to prepare by offering better services including 4G service. The subscribers who have already been using the 4G services, will opt other service providers like Reliance Jio over BSNL since we don’t have 4G services,” said Swapan Chakraborty of BSNLEU, elaborating the need of introducing 4G services as soon as possible while speaking to NewsClick.
But, BSNL has said that they would begin the 4G services only in March 2020. “The customers have other options too. Who wants to the wait till March 2020?” Chakraborty questioned.
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