The incorporation of clauses in the proposed long-term wage agreement that favours privatisation and the failure of holding joint negotiation meetings at national level were among the reasons that had forced the workmen of Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL) to strike work for two days earlier this month. This was cited to the management at the Kochi refinery of the state-owned maharatna company in Kerala by the workers’ body after the former issued a show cause notice to the workmen, declaring their strike “illegal” and proposing to initiate disciplinary action against those who partook in the same.
As many as 4,800 BPCL workmen had staged a strike on September 7 and 8, as part of which normal operations took a hit at the Mumbai and Kochi refineries, along with several other marketing units of the oil company across the country. The industrial action was called by the All India Coordination Committee of BPCL Workers, a coming together of 15 BPCL workmen unions from various states.
The decision to strike work was “against the attitude of the BPCL management” and is “quite justified”, said the Cochin Refinery Workers’ Association (CRWA), one among the four workmen’s body that had led the strike at Kochi refinery, in response to the management’s show cause notice.
“Moreover, the BPCL Management has no legal authority to declare the Strike on 07/08th September 2020 illegal, since it is with proper notice as per law. In this circumstance your threat to workers for penal deduction is also illegal,” said the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) – affiliated association in a letter dated September 11.
The BPCL Kochi Refinery management had on September 9 demanded an explanation as to why penal wages and allowances of eight days for striking work should not be deducted on the principle of ‘no work-no pay’.
Similar notices have been served to the unions at Mumbai refinery, Aji MG, general secretary, CRWA told NewsClick. “It is deplorable that the BPCL management is considering to penalise the workmen for raising their voices, highlighting genuine issues,” he said.
Also read: Over 4,800 BPCL Employees on 48-hour Strike Against Govt’s Privatisation Drive
As for the long-term wage settlement – pending since 2018 at Kochi refinery and since 2016 at Mumbai refinery – the BPCL workmen are particularly miffed this time for inclusion of a clause that they believe will be “favourable for speedy privatisation of BPCL.” The management wants the right to review the wage agreement, “as per the employment guarantee set out in the Sale Purchase Agreement,” to, “amend/modify/alter the terms and conditions agreed,” in the Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) on the basis of various factors, the draft MoA, circulated to workmen unions in May this year and accessed by NewsClick, show.
This would mean that in the future, a private player will enjoy the right to reverse all the hard-won benefits to the workmen under the signed wage pact, Aji said. “And this is likely what the said clause is aimed to achieve because it is very well-known that manpower costs are the first to get trimmed post privatisation of a public enterprise,” he further explained.
In a bid to meet its aggressive disinvestment target, the Narendra Modi – led central government is looking to sell its entire stake – 53.29% – in BPCL, which is the nation’s third-biggest oil refinery and second-largest fuel retailer. Expression of Interests (EoI) were invited for the same, deadline of which was extended for the third time – now till September 30.
Furthermore, the CRWA accused the BPCL management of holding “closeted secret negotiation” with some unions, while leaving others, in an attempt to get them sign the wage agreement. This, according to CRWA, is an “unfair labour practice” which is also a deviation from the traditional approach.
“The management is not ready to hold joint negotiation meetings at an all India level. By doing so, they are also trying to break the unity of the union bodies, which can be read as another suitable condition for any private player to operate,” Aji told NewsClick.
Currently, out of the 16 negotiating workmen unions across the country, only two have agreed to the existing terms of the wage pact. The conciliation meetings that are underway with others are “nothing but an eyewash”, according to Aji, “because the management has conveyed to us that ‘there is no scope of any negotiation’ in the last meeting conducted on September 3”.
In addition, the current offer of 95% VDA merger and 12% fitment in the wage pact has also irked the workmen association, for they believe these not to be in accordance with the guidelines issued by Department of Public Enterprises (DPE).
“We will intensify our struggle – both, against privatisation of BPCL and an immediate wage settlement – in the coming days through demonstrations and other means,” Aji said, adding, “We will approach the labour authorities in case any disciplinary action is taken against us.”
Also read: BPCL: Striking Workmen Press for Settling Wage Issues Ahead of Privatisation