Bank wage revision: Unions ready for showdown

B. Sivaraman

Nearly five lakh employees were stunned early this year when the Indian Banks’ Association (IBA) responded to their demand of 25 percent wage increase with a counter offer of a mere 2 percent. It took a two-day strike on 30 & 31 May 2018 to push the management to come up with a revised offer of 6 percent. Even this was too low that it was summarily rejected by the employees.
The IBA was dilly-dallying and the bank employees had to go on a second 2-day strike on 22 & 23 August 2018 to force the managements to return to the negotiating table but they declared that they would discuss wage demands—20 percent increase in basic pay for clerks and officers and 25 percent for the sub-staff, merger of DA with wages, and other improvements in allowances etc.—in the first week of September only. But till 7 September 2018, the IBA had not even indicated a date for resumption of talks on wage demands. Hence, anger is brewing.
The IBA is citing the problem of mounting NPAs as the main reason for their inability to offer anything more than 6 percent wage increase. The NPAs are due to mismanagement by the top bank officials and even their collusion with the big business barons. But now they conveniently try to transfer the burden of their own follies onto the shoulders of bank employees. Bank unions are, however, arguing that their demand for wage hike is quite justified if operating profits of the banks are taken into account and not the final book profits after provisioning for bad loans. For instance, in 2016 the operating profits of the public sector banks (PSBs) were Rs.136,926 crore and the provisioning the banks made for NPAs was Rs.153,713 crore.
In the previous tenth bipartite wage settlement, the bank employees got a 15 percent rise. Is the demand for 20–25 percent increase this time on the higher side? VSS Sastry, a state-level functionary of the bank employees union AIBEA in Canara Bank in Karnataka, is arguing that the bank employees’ productivity has increased tremendously following the massive introduction of fintech. For instance, the total turnover of banks in 2012 was Rs.84.87 lakh crore and it went up to Rs.186.86 lakh crore. But the number of bank employees came down from 499,593 in 2014 to 479,000 in 2016. The number of branches went up by 23,000 in this period but the employees’ strength came down by 21,000.
“Besides operating crores of additional Jan Dhan accounts, many other tasks, like payment of wages for MGNREGS workers, payment of subsidies to farmers and pension to retired employees etc., which are to be otherwise performed by government departments, have been dumped on the bank employees”. Asks Sastry: “Who had to bear the huge burden of misguided demonetisation or the additional GST work?”
After every wage rise the pension of the retired employees has not been revised correspondingly and this is one of the major demands of the employees. The IBA was denying the pension update under the pretext that the Banking Regulation Act 1948 did not specifically provide for this; but despite courts overruling this argument their pension has not been updated.
Sastry rhetorically poses the question: “Even after PM himself announced that from the next day onwards Rs.500 and Rs.1000 notes would cease to be legal tender, the legality of RBI accepting these demonetised scraps of paper and returning valid note in lieu of them for the next two months in specified quantities per head itself is still open to question. It is strange that for the bank managements there is no place in the law for livelihood of retired employees. Bank managements neither respect the law nor fear the courts!”
After the wage revision, the salaries of sub-staff, clerk and the lowest grade bank officer’s salary would go up from Rs.9,560, Rs.11.765 and Rs.23,700 to Rs.24,000, Rs.30,000 and Rs.54,000 respectively. Is it very high compared to a government officer getting Rs.56,100 after the Seventh Pay Commission, an assistant professor Rs.59,000, a professor Rs.144,000 and an ONGC engineer Rs.120,000?
How long this deadlock would continue? Vasant Rai, chief of the Federation of AIBEA Unions in Karnataka, says, “The wage issue would not get settled easily. The government also had a proposal to liquidate insolvent banks and withdrew the FRDI Bill only after our protest. They are also planning to merge weak banks with relatively more viable ones and bring down government’s stake to below 50 percent to prepare for their privatisation, which we have opposed. Major challenges are ahead and we are preparing the employees to a major showdown like indefinite strike.” Would the Modi government let an indefinite strike of bank employees cripple the economy in the election year? We will have to wait and see. (IPA)

Saturday, 22 September, 2018