During the Kerala floods in August 2018, when parts of the state were cut off from mobile and landline communication, the rescue and relief operations of millions got severely affected. As power supply to cell towers could not be resumed and with the backup batteries draining out, the state was in darkness and the lives of many were at stake.
Forty three-year-old G Murugan was one among the 6,000 odd Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) technicians tasked with finding and repairing communication cables and restoring cell phone towers at the time. While it took days to restore even partial mobile connectivity, the first landline networks to come back online was that of the BSNL. "It was dangerous work but it had to be done, lives were at stake," says Murugan who was tasked with repairing the cut off cables at Munnar, Idukki district, most of which were underwater. The work by these BSNL technicians helped save many lives during the Kerala floods.
For the past five months though, Murugan has not received his salary. Like him, 1.25 lakh contract workers across the country have not been paid by the Centre, because BSNL has accumulated severe losses. Many of them have been working as contract workers with BSNL for decades, doing cable laying and repair, tower maintenance, data entry. Some are also embedded in the marketing and sales division of the BSNL. The plight of BSNL contract workers across the five southern states – and in the rest of the country – is similar.
‘It's getting difficult to stay afloat’
The delay in salary payments arose after BSNL reportedly accumulated over Rs 90,000 crore in losses since 2009. The contract workers were the first to get affected, with salaries not being released since February this year. The Centre even mulled shutting down the PSU, but hesitated after realising that that task alone would cost the exchequer over Rs 1.2 lakh crore. The only route is a bailout – one that was not announced in the 2019 Budget, presented on July 5.
In the meantime, the corporate office of the BSNL in Delhi has asked their Kerala circle to terminate some of the contract workers from service. In Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the regular employees are helping the families of contract employees by pooling in a relief corpus funds. In Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, many of the contract workers are not even recorded in the BSNL work records. The government-run PSU is in violation of labour laws in the two Telugu states, allege their union leaders.
For Murugan, with 23 years of service with BSNL, it's getting difficult to stay afloat as his job is to be axed soon if BSNL management has its way. "I am running the house with my wife's salary and I have begun part-time work at a sweet shop,” Murugan says.
The crisis manager
BSNL employees, regular or hired on contract, have all played major roles in restoring services during many climate-related crises that India has faced. At the time of cyclone Titli and Fani, the first network to come back online was that of BSNL. They were also the only network relied on by officials during the 2015 Chennai floods, and the 2004 Tsunami that left thousands dead in Tamil Nadu, assert BSNL employees.
Palanichami, the General Secretary for Tamil Nadu division of the BSNL Casual & Contract Workers Federation says, "No private telecom companies would go and work in Naxal affected regions, but BSNL would, even though it's not profitable. The company is not designed to make a profit, it’s a service arm for the government.”
TNM spoke to BSNL contract workers and their union leaders from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh, the situation for them is turning grim with no solution in sight. The Karnataka division of the union is in Delhi trying to deliberate with senior BSNL management to find a way for the salaries to be released. The unions are planning a nationwide strike on July 16 in front of their circle offices. The unions had held a three-day relay strike and have also held agitations, but have little public support.
K Mohanan, state president for the Kerala division of the BSNL Casual & Contract Workers Federation says, "All of a sudden, 6,778 workers have been asked to leave with no prior warning. The situation is pathetic. Adding to the misery of not paying salaries to them, the management is asking the other workers to take voluntary retirement, especially those who have crossed the age of 50."
Forcing workers to ‘voluntarily retire’
In Kerala, BSNL has decided to terminate some of the contract workers and offer VRS to others. The contract workers in the state approached the Kerala High Court. "The court has given an order saying that any termination will be subject to the final result of the case. That verdict has been misinterpreted by the BSNL management – that the court has given them a free hand in terminating workers. We can only sit in front of the office and shout slogans. What else can we do?" Mohanan asks.
“The regular employees in Chennai have pooled in some Rs 2.5 lakh so that the cleaning staff and other workers can withdraw for immediate relief. They are supportive – but for how long? The situation of workers in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu is similar,” Panalichami adds.
A Babu Radhakrishnan, the state president for the union in Tamil Nadu, says BSNL's need to hire contract labourers arose after recruitment of regular employees was frozen in 1984. "Throughout India, 1.25 lakh contractor workers are working presently, these numbers have come down from over 2 lakh in 2009 as many had retired. Asking those with only a few years of service to take VRS is unwanted and we will go to court,” he says.
“At the time of formation of BSNL in the year 2000, it was told that the retirement age will be the same as central government employees. Without changing the central employee retirement age, you cannot change it for BSNL alone. It's not even necessary to offer VRS – as many as 65,000 contract workers will retire in 2024," he reasons.
The public apathy
Earlier in March, the video of a BSNL employee – a single mother – crying over her financial distress due to non-payment of salaries had gone viral on social media. But the viral image has not really translated to public support for the 1.25 lakh BSNL workers, who face a bleak future. The non-payment of salary did not become an election issue. And for the public that views BSNL as a poor alternative to other telcos, this issue did not merit an outrage cycle.
On the back of the public apathy, the company has been cracking down on unions to ensure there is no ‘trouble’. Unlike regular BSNL employee unions, the casual worker's unions are not recognised by the Centre, and hence have little or no bargaining power. The contract workers unions in the country are limited to just 15 of the 33 BSNL circles. "They terminate those who form or join a union, so there is no combined bargaining power," points out Palnichami.
The unions lacking any bargaining power has led to gross labour violations in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, says B Pari Purna Chary, General Secretary for the BSNL Casual, Contract Employees and Labour Union for Andhra Pradesh and Telangana Telecom Circles. "In both the states, there are over 2,000 benami (without name) contract workers who do works like cable joining, tower maintenance, ward duties, and computer work. During payment time every week, their names get changed on the work records – but the person will be the same,” he says.
There have been no terminations in the two Telugu states so far. "We have held agitations and the contract workers have cooperation from regular employees," says Chary.
TNM reached out to the Telangana and Andhra Pradesh circle offices of BSNL. The Telangana officials with the HR department say only the Delhi office is qualified to comment on the matter. The Andhra circle office was unresponsive. The task of overseeing the contract workers rests with the General Manager (Work Study & Inspection) Keshava Rao, who said, "The organisation will take a call on the contract workers issue, can't comment any further.”
To save from the BSNL and MTNL (that services Mumbai and Delhi) from the present financial crisis, the Centre since June has been working on a Rs 74,000 crore bailout package. The government also is planning on monetising the PSU’s assets, towers, land banks, and optical fibre networks. The proposed package involves a Rs 20,000 crore for 4G spectrum, and Rs 40,000 crore for VRS and early retirement benefits.
BSNL had missed out porting to 4G due to a Supreme Court order that allowed spectrum allocation through auction only. Thus BSNL had to sit on the sidelines while the rest of the telecom companies upgraded to 4G. BSNL’s move to 4G comes at a time when all other telecom firms are expected to begin 5G trials in the next three months.
The unions have little faith that the bailout package would do anything to help improve BSNL’s prospects unless the telecom sector is made a level playing field. The union leaders point fingers at the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) – the statutory body and regulator for the telecommunications sector in India – for relaxing rules and allegedly showing favouritism to Reliance Jio. Some additionally blame the policies adopted by both the NDA and the UPA while they were in power at the Centre.
The contract employees now live with the hope that the Rs 14,000 crore cheque for clearing pending employee salaries would be approved soon from the Department of Telecommunications (DoT). "How can people manage 6 months with no salary? That is a question Prime Minister Narendra Modi should answer. A contract worker’s salary would maximum come up to Rs 12,000 a month. They can’t even give this?"
Apart from delays salary payments, payments to contractors also have come to a halt. A Periyanna, a BSNL cable laying contractor for ten years says he has not yet received payments worth Rs 5 crore pending since 2017. "Most contractors have stopped taking new tenders from BSNL, the existing work is going on but no new work is happening on the ground," says Periyanna.