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The Rediff Interview/V K Gupta, Delhi convenor of United Forum of Bank
'We totally oppose privatisation of banks, PSUs'
May 20, 2003
Over five bank unions and central trade unions have threatened to go on a strike to protest against privatisation and what they see as the snatching away of the rights and the protection given to employees in the labour laws of the country.
It will be for the second time this year that banking operations will be hit following the decision of the banks to join the agitation of the trade unions against 'anti-labour policies.'
The United Forum of Bank Unions, a grouping of nine major unions and federations representing one million Indian bank workers, is at the helm of the strike.
V K Gupta, Delhi convenor of UFBU, spoke to Priya Ganapati about the strike and how the union's demands directly affect the common man.
Why are the bank unions going on a strike?
We are opposing the anti-labour policies of the government, privatisation of banks, divestment of public sector units, proposed amendments in the various labour laws like the Trade Union Act and the Industrial Disputes Act.
The government wants to change these Acts according to the needs of the employers rather than the employees. With the amendments it wants to take away the protection that is offered to the employees and make the conditions such that employers can hire whoever they want, fire whenever they want and terminate services whenever they wish to.
The government also wants to de-unionise the banks and public sector units. The changes that will be made to the Trade Union Act will make it difficult for us to call strikes, as it will require us to go for a referendum every time we want to go for a strike.
Now if a bank has 3 lakh (300,000) employees, then we can't go around asking each and every one if they want to go on a strike. If we do that the process itself will take months! Also, what is the use of union leaders and representatives then?
If the leaders cannot take decisions on behalf of whom they represent, then what is the point of electing leaders? So, the amendment is just a ploy to weaken the unions.
How can the unions dictate how companies should work?
We are not dictating anything. We only want to ensure that no violation of rules takes place. If you want to retrench people there are certain procedures that are currently mandated. You have to go through the assistant labour commissioner's office, etc and then genuineness of the request is examined.
Both the companies and the unions get a chance to present their side of the story. This is procedure given in the Industrial Disputes Act. But with the changes that are being planned to this Act, all this will not happen. Employees will not have any safeguards then.
You have threatened an indefinite strike.
No. For now, it is only a one-day token strike. Then all the unions will get together and decide the next step. But, even with the one-day strike, we estimate the losses to be to the extent of at least Rs 100 crore (Rs 1 billion).
Why are you opposed to the privatisation of pension funds?
Because our funds will not be protected then. What happened to Unit Trust of India? Most investors were left weeping. If the government cannot step in, then investors will be completely wiped out.
In private hands, our investments are not safe, especially when it comes to pension funds, as it is the money of senior citizens.
But how can the unions decide that. Should it not be left to the people to decide if they want to go for private pension funds or not?
We represent the people. The trade unions represent the employees and the people. We are making our demands based on our experiences. We have no objection to the pension funds being with the Life Insurance Corporation of India or the State Bank. We are not opposing that.
We feel that the government will protect those investments. But if pension funds are privatized, then many private players will come in and they will take the money and run away. It is the common man who will be hurt.
But don't strikes heavily inconvenience the common man and cause losses?
Yes. We understand that. We know it affects the common man but we are helpless. We gave sufficient time to the government to consider our demands. But they haven't responded to us. They have not invited us for negotiations.
From 2002, we are trying to get the government to have discussions with us, but they are not doing it. The government is adopting these anti-labour policies under the pressure of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation.
What it is not taking into account is the vast unemployment in the country. On the one hand, we want to adopt complete mechanisation of the banks, but what will happen to the people working or seeking employment then?
We are an overpopulated country and such policies will not help the common people.
So, what are your demands?
Our demand is that privatisation of banks be stopped immediately. Public sector banks are doing very well and are helping fulfill the various government programmes that aid the poor. Private banks are not willing to do this.
They are not interested in serving the poor. The State Bank of India itself has 60,000 branches in semi-urban and rural areas. Private banks are not willing to go there.
Also, in the last three years, at least 20 private banks like Kashinath Seth Bank and Benares State Bank or The Bank of Rajasthan have collapsed. So, we are not in favor of privatisation.
Apart from this, we want the government to ensure that the rights of the vast labour force involved in the agricultural sector are protected.
Many of them are not even given minimum wages. We want the government to take steps to ensure that these people get at least the bare minimum wages.
This strike is not just about banks and bank unions. It is one that even general trade unions are supporting. Five central trade unions are participating in the strike.
The five bank unions that are going on strike together represent 95 per cent of the employees and officers. The reason that the other four unions are not participating is because they have already had agitations with similar demands in the last six months.
In February, they had a dharna asking for the same things. So, they don't want to go on a strike again so soon.