Three months, three court hearings and several conciliatory meetings later, the impasse between the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL) and the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Employees Union (BMREU) seems no closer to resolution.
The failure of the two sides in reaching a consensus following the latest round of talks has prompted the union to stick to its call for an indefinite strike starting June 4. Whether they actually go ahead with the strike or not, however, may depend on the outcome of a High Court hearing on June 4.
Third timeâ€™s a charm?
On May 29, hall number 6 of the Karnataka High Court saw scenes of anticipation as representatives of the BMRCL and the BMREU argued their cases. What loomed large was the June 4 strike notice that had been served by the employeesâ€™ union on May 19.
The counsel representing the metro management sought legal means to defer the strike, the third such attempt since the unionâ€™s first strike call in March. A determined counsel for the union, meanwhile, raked up issues that they claimed warranted the need for a walkout in the days to come.
The courtâ€™s directive for further talks the next day, the continuation of a practice that is yet to bear fruit, seemed like a last-ditch attempt to diplomatically resolve the unionâ€™s longstanding issues. As it stands, nearly 900 employees, who are part of the BMREU, plan to go on an indefinite strike as soon as the next court hearing winds up on June 4. The Bengaluru Metro is staffed by 1,500 employees.
The latest court-mandated push for dialogue took place at the office of the Regional Labour Commissioner (Central) on May 30. Both sides clashed once again and as the day progressed, chances of a consensus seemed slim.
Suryanarayana Murthy, Vice-President of the BMREU, revealed to TNM that almost 30 points were touched upon in two sessions of the meeting, but no resolution was reached. The Regional Labour Commissioner (Central) stated that the conciliation procedures ended in a failure. The management, however, has indicated that it is prepared to speak to the union in the event that the strike is called off.
The result of this meeting is to be presented in the Karnataka High Court on June 4, following which the union plans on beginning the strike.
Although BMRCL has previously maintained that back-up plans would be in place, the union remains sceptical over who exactly would fill their roles should they walk out on June 4. Their scepticism boils down to the issue of contract employees, or as Murthy puts it, â€śbackdoor recruitmentsâ€ť.
â€śThere is a huge conspiracy that has been going on with regards to contract employees,â€ť says Murthy. â€śPeople with influence come here and make money out of it. We pass the recruitment exam, we qualify and get trained in Delhi, but we do not get proper salaries and promotions. The contract employees get promotions without effort,â€ť he says, expressing concern over untrained employees taking over operations during the strike.
In the days following the unionâ€™s first strike call in March, the BMRCL management drew staff from other departments, passing orders for emergency duties.
Mistrust runs deep
While the three court hearings and talks have so far touched upon some of the major issues revolving around union recognition, improved financial remuneration and abolition of the contract labour system, documents accessed by TNM highlight a possible deep-rooted mistrust between the union and the management.
One such document, a letter dated March 16, 2018 from the union to the Assistant Labour Commissioner, underlines these concerns. Apart from terming the organisationâ€™s grievance procedures â€śnamesakeâ€ť, the letter goes on to state that Metro workers are scared of expressing grievances because a â€śmemo is issued to the said worker warning him of disciplinary actionâ€ť.
Repeated failures of the numerous bilateral talks have not helped the situation.
â€śDuring meetings held between March and April, the management threw their hands up and said they couldnâ€™t solve our problems,â€ť said Murthy.
ESMA invocation imminent?
Amidst reports of the central governmentâ€™s push to bring Metro services under the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA), it remains to be seen if the Act is imposed in the event of the strike starting on June 4. ESMA mandates the continuation of certain essential services without disruptions and legally prohibits employees from going on strike.
Murthy, for his part, maintains that the union is unperturbed even if the Act is imposed.
Previously, the Karnataka ESMA was notified by the state government on March 21, a day before the unionâ€™s first call for strike. At the time, the union claimed that imposition of the stateâ€™s ESMA was improper, as the BMRCL is a joint undertaking of both the state and the centre.
Despite repeated attempts to contact representatives of the BMRCL for their views, no response has been received at the time of writing.