It was November 7, and like any other day, Kunnath Ramakrishnan, a resident in Malappuram district of Kerala and a person with a disability, went to the telephone exchange office of BSNL (Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited) in Nilambur. He had been working there as a contract sweeper for the past 30 years. But that was his last day.
After finishing his cleaning work in the morning, 52-year-old Ramakrishnan went to the switching room at the telephone exchange office and killed himself. According to his family, Ramakrishnan had not been receiving his salary for the last 10 months.
This was not an isolated incident. Just five days after Ramakrishnan took his own life, Anil Kumar, a 40-year-old contract staff of BSNL in Palakkad district, died in a train accident. Anilâs family claimed that he killed himself as he was mentally disturbed â he, too, has not been receiving his payment for the last six months. Anil, who initially worked six days a week, was allegedly coerced by the local management to sign a contract, stating that he will work only for two days in a week.
Before Ramakrishnan and Anil, on October 29, Udayashankar, a BSNL employee in Kasaragod district was found dead in the office in Kanhangad.
It is not just Ramakrishnan, Anil or Udayashankar; thousands of contract labourers of BSNL in Kerala â like in various parts of the country â have allegedly not been receiving payment for their jobs over the last several months. According to BSNL Casual Contract Labour Union (CCLU), there are about 8,000 contract labourers for the telecom company in Kerala.
But, right now, it is not just the pending salaries the contract staff across the state are worried about. Uncertainty looms as the BSNL management in various districts of Kerala have been allegedly saying âno work todayâ whenever the contract staff would go to the office. Many allege that this is an attempt by the management to make the staff quit.
âNo contractor, no workâ
In the Kerala Circle of BSNL, various segments or districts (like Ernakulam and Kannur) are considered a business area. In some business areas, the tender period of the contractor, who deploys the contract staff, has come to an end, and with that, work has also been disrupted. Malappuram is one such segment.
The employees in Malappuram have been protesting since March 2019. It was only a few days ago that they ended the protests.
Sanal Kumar is a 45-year-old contract worker of BSNL in Malappuram and is the sole breadwinner of his family. âI have not been receiving my salary for the last four months. Now with the management asking us not to work as well, it seems like our lives have come to an abrupt end,â he tells TNM.
Sanal explains the crisis they have been caught in. âIn BSNL, while the contract labourers remain the same, the contractors vary. The contractors take a particular tender and administer us,â says Sanal, who has been working as a contract staff at BSNL since his early 20s.
âCurrently, however, we do not have a contractor. The existing contractorâs tender period expired, and neither a contractor is coming forward to take a tender nor the management is calling for new tenders. Either way, the workers are stranded, staring at an uncertain future,â he adds.
Incidentally, a few weeks ago, there were reports that Kerala Circle has been asked to cut down its contract staff by 30 percent. But as per the employees, they have not been given an official intimation regarding this.
âOverworked, now thrown outâ
Earlier this year, BSNL, the ailing public sector telecom company, had announced a Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) for its permanent employees. As per reports, about 80,000 employees across the country have applied for the scheme, the deadline for which ends on December 3. VRS will come into effect from January 31, 2020.
TNM recently reported how permanent staff of BSNL, too, have been suffering due to delayed payment of their salaries, and as a result, many have been applying for the scheme.
However, Ajith Kumar, state committee member of BSNL Casual Contract Labour Union (CCLU), says the permanent staff at least have the VRS to fall back on. âWe, the contract staff, on the other hand, donât even have our salaries that have been pending for months now,â he says.
According to Ajith, contract workers constitute the bulk of the workforce at BSNL. âWe work on the ground and are made to do extra work, which never used to be our responsibility. And now we are thrown to the trash,â he says.
Peethambaran, Ernakulam district president of BSNL Employees Association also agrees that it has been particularly hard for the contract staff. âThere are permanent staff who have not received salary for the last one month and BSNL has not been paying our loan amount to banks when it used to be deducted from our salaries for several months. We are also facing issues, but yes, it is a grave situation for the contract staff,â he says.
Next hurdle: Hunting for new jobs
âI am 45-years-old. I joined in BSNL as a contract staff in 1995 and now, who is going to give me another job at this age. What will become of my family?â asks Ajith, who works in Palakkad.
With the uncertainty of work looming large over BSNL contract staff like Ajith, many are scrambling to find another job.
For Umeshan Muliyar, a labourer (those who are not contract staff, but work based on wage for BSNL) who works in Kannur Business Area, the situation is pretty much the same. âI used to make around Rs 12,000 per month. But I have not been receiving my payment since March this year. It has been a struggle for the family. I have started riding an auto-rickshaw to meet our daily expenses,â says Umeshan, a Kasaragod native.
Some, like 45-year-old Sanal Kumar, joined BSNL in their youth, mesmerised by the thought of working in a public sector, albeit as a contract staff. âI joined without even completing my degree when I got the opportunity. Now, I donât know any other job other than working in a telephone exchange company. I donât know what to do with this experience, may be, work as a security staff? What else can I do?â he asks.