No salary, no COVID-19 healthcare, no PPEs: At State-run BSNL, workers say feel 'abandoned'; experts warn of govt losing moral authority

Two months since the Ministry of Labour and Employment issued an advisory asking private and public employers across India not to terminate or reduce the wages of the workforce, life remains grim for thousands who are employed with the State-owned telecom operator BSNL.

Shubham Agarwal June 26, 2020 15:50:24 IST
No salary, no COVID-19 healthcare, no PPEs: At State-run BSNL, workers say feel 'abandoned'; experts warn of govt losing moral authority

Two months since the Ministry of Labour and Employment issued an advisory asking private and public employers across India not to terminate or reduce the wages of the workforce, life remains grim for thousands who are employed with the State-owned telecom operator BSNL.

On 20 March, the Union Ministry issued an advisory saying, “The termination of employees from the job or reduction in wages in this scenario would further deepen the crisis and will not only weaken the financial condition of the employee but also hamper their morale to combat their fight with this epidemic.”

BSNL workers say they have been forced to put their health at risk, to run the broadband and mobile network responsible for keeping some of the country’s most remote regions connected and act as the backbone of large-scale organisations like the State Bank of India and several hospital chains’ digital infrastructures, without safeguards such as insurance or personal protective equipment.

People familiar with the matter alleged that nearly a dozen BSNL employees have tested positive for the coronavirus. None of them have received aid from the telco so far, they further claimed. BSNL, in its defence, has reportedly argued in internal meetings that the employees didn’t contract the disease on duty. P Abhimanyu, general secretary of the BSNL Employees Union, told Firstpost that the company has also failed to distribute adequate masks and gloves.

In a letter addressed to PK Purwar, chairman and managing director, BSNL, Abhimanyu argued that since the rest of the government branches, including The Department of Posts, have already announced COVID-19 coverage, it is unfair for BSNL employees to work in the field without it.

The Central government is offering compensation of Rs 10 lakh to any postal employee who succumbs to COVID-19 on duty. Similarly, workers from multiple other fields such as health and shipping are eligible for an insurance cover of Rs 50 lakh.

No salary no COVID19 healthcare no PPEs At Staterun BSNL workers say feel abandoned experts warn of govt losing moral authority

Representational image. PTI

For organisations and businesses across India, BSNL’s telecom and broadband networks have become imperative to manage remote workforces and hence, BSNL employees should be deemed “essential” as well, added Abhimanyu.Over the past few weeks, BSNL has purportedly continued to ignore official orders, leaving its expansive workforce grasping at straws.

The government-run telecommunications company has refused to offer coronavirus-covered health coverage for workers tasked with on-field jobs such as the upkeep of network towers, underground cable management, installations, and more: violating guidelines released by the Ministry of Home Affairs last month, which made medical insurance for workers mandatory.

 BSNL’s contract workers have been left to brave the pandemic without a safety net. Most claim to have been awaiting their wages for a year, and in some cases, nearly 16 months. Sources told Firstpost BSNL laid off thousands at the beginning of the pandemic without pay and instead outsourced the work to another agency.

Charanjeet Singh, a 37-year-old contractual housekeeper in BSNL’s Chandigarh office hasn’t been paid in six months. Singh said he' had to rely on charity  from the other employees or local NGOs to pay rent and support his family of six. His contractor informed him the salaries will be released once BSNL approves them.

“I thought a government job would bring security. Now my family is living on donations and I feel abandoned by the company where I’ve been working for two years. No one else will hire me in this situation either,” he added.

Multiple BSNL employees, who did not wish to be named, claimed their salary is constantly delayed. Some said they were last paid three months ago. There have even been reports of workers committing suicide.

To overcome debt and cut costs, BSNL retired about 90,000 employees (50 percent of the workforce) through a Voluntary Retirement Scheme earlier this year. Those who stayed had to pick up the excess workload without any additional compensation or benefits.

Naman, a 26-year-old junior telecom officer from Jaipur, Rajasthan told Firstpost BSNL hasn’t credited his Rs 25,000 monthly salary since April. In the past few months, he had to visit several offices and residential complexes for inspecting and troubleshooting network lines in some of the city’s high-risk zones. With a wife and two daughters, Naman says he will run out of his savings by next month.“Our work is a pillar for the way people are working today from their homes. We often have to travel far away to people’s homes, on the field, and wear makeshift masks. If the government can support other front line workers, why are we not being considered essential? It’s even worse for contract workers who are working on hope. Insurance will give us confidence and we can work without worrying,” he added.

KR Shyam Sundar, a Human Resources Management professor at the XLRI, Xavier School of Management, believes the government must set an example in times like these but if its own entities infringe official policies, it will lose the moral authority to “flay the private sector employers for similar violations.”

“If the reported news of non-payment of wages to contract workers is true even if for a month, the government as a principal employer either legally or ethically cannot wash away its responsibilities relating to the contract workers as an employer in the labor market as per the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970,” said Sundar.

Animesh Mitra, secretary general of the BSNL Casual and Contract Workers' Federation, said, “It’s disappointing that BSNL hasn’t extended help as most of these workers haven’t been paid in 10 to 15 months. The management has stayed silent even when the company is clearly violating government advisories. When pressed, the company quotes financial troubles.” Mitra told Firstpost.

In Aurangabad, an association of BSNL employees and officers took up the task to pay their locality’s contract workers themselves and raised Rs 1.75 lakh. Mitra, in a memorandum from the BSNL Casual and Contract Workers' Federation obtained by Firstpost, appealed to the BSNL authorities to reconsider outsourcing labour and halt the retrenchment of existing contract workers.

The fate of BSNL’s workers and employees today hangs in the balance at a time when phone and internet services matter more than ever. With a market share of over 45 percent, BSNL is the leading wired broadband operator in India and has nearly 10 percent market share in the telecom space, as per data released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).

Prem Chauhan, a former 34-year-old BSNL network tower technician from Bikaner, Rajasthan, who hasn’t been paid in over a year, told Firstpost he was asked to leave when he asked his contractor for his Rs 15,000 salary. “I’ve no work or money. I was forced to take my two children and wife to my elder brother’s home since I couldn’t pay the rent anymore. I don’t know if we’ll be ever compensated for the work I did for BSNL.”

“It is a disgrace for BSNL that those who have toiled to run BSNL’s services throughout the country, from Himalaya to Kanyakumari, are not being paid their legitimate wages. Furthermore the contract workers are also being retrenched,” Mitra said.

Dozens of requests and letters by BSNL unions have gone unanswered both by the government and the company’s higher-ups.

Officials at BSNL and the Ministry of Home Affairs declined to respond to the several requests for comment sent by Firstpost. We’ll continue to try to reach out to them and we’ll update the story if and when they respond. A spokesperson for the Department of Telecommunications told Firstpost they’re not in the position to offer any information at the moment.

Union Minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, in a tweet last month, wrote: “I appreciate the hard work of officers & employees of @BSNLCorporate/@MTNLOfficial for maintaining connectivity in the country during these challenging times. I also appreciate the private telecom operators for their hard work. Please continue this spirit.”

Vandana Swami, a faculty of the School of Development at Azim Premji University, Benguluru, says actions such as these by the State is “quite undemocratically reversing the decades of hard won gains achieved by the labour movement and trade unions in the country and pushes the labour force into even greater depths of precariousness than what we are witnessing today.”

Earlier this year, BSNL was ordered to disburse at least 30 percent of these pending wages in Tamil Nadu, after a case was filed by the Tamil Nadu Telecom Casual and Contract Workers Federation (TNTCCWF) on behalf of about 3,000 members of the union. However, BSNL had requested a staggering eight months’ time to settle the bills of the contractors, leaving workers to fend for themselves throughout the pandemic.

“At this rate, we can soon be face to face with a thorough dissolution of the welfare state, its moral codes and institutions on the one side, while on the other it is already being seen how workers continue to lose any bargaining power and any possibility of secure and stable livelihoods. In other words, we have the worst aspects of neoliberal capitalism in India becoming the paradigmatic guide of how capital-worker relations will possibly be addressed across industries. The sad situation of BSNL employees is yet another illustration of the dystopian society that we are becoming,” Swami added.

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