The objective of the Modi government is now “crystal clear” to many of the employees of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL): to eventually privatise the state-owned telecom service and effectively lose control over the company—which was once creating rural connectivity at affordable rates—to private players.
It is in this backdrop that various sections of the BSNL employees—the existing staff, the contract workers and even those who have retired among others—are staging demonstrations, protests, hunger strikes.
Tension, accentuated by increased work pressure and demoralisation, has left many of them jittery as they still wait for the revival package to be implemented, announced in October last year by the government to rescue the loss-making BSNL and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL).
Five months down, the salient features of the package including allotment of 4G spectrum and the issuing of sovereign bonds largely stay only on papers, according to employees’ unions and associations. They claim that the government is aiming for ‘privatisation’ and not revival.
“The employees are worried. They know that the BSNL is not being allowed to take advantage of the favourable market conditions, which is crucial for its revival. They know that under the name of rescuing the loss-making companies, a ground is being prepared for their privatisation in the future,” said BSNL Employees Union (BSNLEU) General Secretary Abhimanyu P.
Abhimanyu was referring to the concerns now raised by the staff members of BSNL, who have survived the recent exodus through the national Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS). According to the numbers provided by the union, as many as 78,569 employees have retired and around 70,000 employees remain in service as on February 1.
He blamed the “lackadaisical” attitude of the BSNL management and called the announcements made by the ministers of Modi government to be “ornamental”, suggesting that they sounded good, but have remained non-functional. “There is a dire need of working capital; however, the sovereign bonds have not been issued. The market conditions are favourable to BSNL to increase its customer base; however, the opportunity is slipping away as the 4G services have not been allotted,” he said.
On the other hand, the exit of almost half of the workforce has resulted in immense increase in the work burden on the existing staff. Many are now juggling between their responsibilities and additional tasks that do not even fit into their skill sets.
“The staff is impacted adversely as only one component [VRS] of the package been aggressively acted upon while the revenue collections of the company continue to remain sluggish. This means that work increases while on the other hand employees still don’t get paid on time,” Abhimanyu said, informing that the salaries for the month of February are still pending.
The contract staff, on the other hand, is gripped with equal amount of work pressure if not more, however, still awaits regularisation. Their wages, in many of the district circles, are pending since 14 to 16 months. At least 10 have committed suicide in last one year, NewsClick has been informed. Yet, the contract staff, numbering almost 80,000, didn’t find any mention in the rescue plans of the government.
“This shows the inhumane work conditions of the contract workers in state owned companies like BSNL,” said Animesh of BSNL Casual and Contract Workers’ Federation, adding that the Uttar Pradesh (east) circle is among those where condition of BSNL contract workers are known to be “worst”.
“Many of them [contract workers] are not even documented. They don’t receive any social benefits. They are struggling for their wages since months now. These are the people [technicians, cable person among others] who have taken the most of the responsibilities to run the services at the field level.” Animesh told NewsClick.
When asked if the ‘outsourcing’ of the work will bring any change, Animesh said: “This will only lead to BSNL management avoiding its responsibilities as a principle employer. Outsourcing means no minimum wage to the worker. It means no job security. It means no adherence to labour laws. It means nothing else and it will put the thousands of workers to a condition much worse.”
Moreover, in what can be seen as an extension of the ‘failures’ of the Modi government, pensioners retired from BSNL and Department of Telecommunications (DoT), seeking pension revision – pending since last three years – are also blaming the government for its “pro-private” policies.
“Pension of the employees is the responsibility of the central government. This government, however, has told Parliament that pension revision for almost 2,15,000 BSNL, DoT pensioners is possible only after wage revision—something which seems to be a pipe dream given the financial condition of BSNL,” said K.G. Jayaraj, General Secretary of All India BSNL DoT Pensioners Associations.
To press for their demands, a parliamentary march was scheduled on March 12 which was only deferred due to the Coronavirus outbreak in the country and especially in the national capital.