The Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government has accelerated the efforts to privatise Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) along with handful of other public sector undertakings ever since it came to power. The dismantling of the public sector telecom service provider, however, began with the previous UPA and BJP-led NDA governments. In a latest directive, the BSNL management has ordered all its units to curtail expenditure on contract work force which is likely to result in retrenchment of around 20,000 workers engaged with the telecom firm through contractors.
The circular from the corporate office of BSNL dated September 1, 2020, instructed to draw a clear picture for non-engagement of contract labourers. The order said the CMD has desired that "with the implementation of cluster based approach in most of the circles, there is no justification for housekeeping labourers and other contractual staff such as security, etc".
According to the unions in BSNL, the reduction in work force would further affect the functioning of BSNL services. This is despite the fact that the BSNL Employees’ Union (BSNLEU), in a letter to BSNL Chairman and Managing Director P K Purwar, said that the financial condition of the company has deteriorated after the implementation of voluntary retirement scheme (VRS) and the faults in the networks have increased due to shortage of manpower in various cities.
Earlier in June 2019, the BSNL management had directed all circles to reduce the contractual work force by 30%. The retrenchment was in the name of cutting down “avoidable expenditure,” in BSNL which had been struggling to breathe because of liquidity crunch and continuous negligence from Centre. At that point, about 30% of contractual workers in BSNL had been retrenched without receiving their wages. Though the unions, especially BSNL Casual and Contract Workers’ Federation, had raised their voice against the anti-worker policy of the Centre, the decision was implemented and contractual workers were laid off.
The associations and unions in BSNL, however, continued their efforts to strengthen the public sector unit. Implementations of 4G services and asset monetisation have been a main demand of the unions and associations. BSNL employees have raised issues within BSNL in various platforms. Except BSNL and its sister company MTNL, every telecom service provider in the country has been allocated the 4G spectrum long back. With no 4G services, BSNL and MTNL “lagged behind”.
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Following a series of protests and demonstrations, on October 23, 2019, the central government had announced a Rs. 69,000 crore revival package for BSNL and MTNL. Among other things, the package included allotment of 4G spectrum to BSNL, asset monetisation and extending of sovereign guarantee, to enable BSNL to raise funds from the market by issuing bonds. It is almost a year after the announcement of revival package and except implementation of VRS – no other assurance has been implemented.
But, what is important to note is that around 79,000 employees of BSNL had been retrenched in the name of VRS. With the BSNL workforce being halved, the work load of the existing workers had doubled. But the government did not stop there. During the COVID-19 pandemic as well, contractual workers have been retrenched violating the advisory of Labour Ministry. In Tamil Nadu circle alone, more than 220 workers had been retrenched in May this year. The latest order is in addition to these retrenchments.
The existing employees and unions say that already reports are being received from many circles that faults have increased, and disconnection of landlines and broadband connections have also increased after the implementation of the outsourcing of works. They fear that the reduction in existing workforce will further aggravate the crisis.
“After the implementation of VRS-2019, through which 79,000 employees have been sent home, the necessity to continue with the existing contract workers became even more compulsory. However, you have decided to retrench thousands of contract workers, which have only helped to worsen the maintenance of our networks at the field level. As a result of this, the quality of our services has undoubtedly deteriorated,” said P Abhimanyu, general secretary of BSNLEU while describing the current situation of BSNL.
“Before the implementation of VRS-2019, it was tom-tommed in a very big way by you that, BSNL will achieve it’s financial revival through VRS, since it will result in massive reduction in the company’s expenditures. However, we have no hesitation to state that the financial position of the company has worsened after the implementation of VRS. This is evident from the fact that the company is unable to pay salary to the employees on the due date. Rent and electricity bills, outstanding dues to the empanelled hospitals as well as to the vendors are not being paid,” Abhimanyu added.
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The contract workers, too, have not been paid wages for the past year, as a result of which 13 contract workers have already ended their lives.
"Above all, the poor contract workers are not paid wages for the past 14 months, as a result of which 13 contract workers have died by suicide. Who is responsible for all these deaths? Undoubtedly, it is the BSNL management, under your stewardship," the union raised the issue.
“The contract workers working in BSNL are not being paid exorbitant wages. Payment of their wages is strictly in accordance with the rates being laid down by the Ministry of Labour. Further they are being provided with social security measures, such as EPF and ESI, which are very much within the framework of government rules. As such, there is absolutely no justification for the management to say that the funds of the company are going into the drain, by way of engaging the contract workers. We wish to emphatically state that BSNL should not try to function like the private telecom companies, wherein a pittance is being paid as wages to the workers, who are engaged for carrying out the outsourced works,” said BSNLEU in a letter to the management.
The BSNLEU further pointed that the management is trying to run BSNL like a private limited company, but they are resolved to continue their fight against the management.