Labour
The public sector telecom company recently notified a VRS scheme for employees above the age of 50 in an attempt to trim the workforce.
File photo

“We are the people who work hard to restore mobile connectivity immediately after natural calamities and in the remotest of places in the country. Now we are the ones who are opting to lose out on service years because of the government’s mismanagement,” says 56-year-old Raghu*.

Raghu is one of the 3,000 employees from Tamil Nadu who has applied for the Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS 2019) notified by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), a public sector telecom company. The VRS window opened on Wednesday and as on Saturday over 60,000 employees have applied for VRS against the target of 94,000 employees.

While BSNL calls its decision to invite its employees to apply for VRS as essential in order to trim its workforce and thereby ensure its financial health, for people like Raghu it comes after months of humiliation and exasperation. “I haven’t got my salary on time for many months now. Also, I have loans from banks which BSNL has tie-ups with, and one fine day I started getting notices from the banks that I have not paid my dues,” he recollects.

Raghu says that every month BSNL deducts EMI from his salary which is to be paid to the lender on Raghu’s behalf on the due date. “For the last six months, BSNL has deducted from my salary but has not paid it against my loan. So the lender started sending default notices in my name,” he says. With four more years of service in hand, Raghu says that the compensation he gets in lieu of VRS will reduce his loan burden greatly and help him lead a peaceful life.

BSNL’s VRS 2019 is an attempt to reduce the workforce of the ailing state telecom enterprise. According to a report in The Economic Times, 75% of BSNL’s revenue is being spent on wages for its workforce, which constitutes 1.75 lakh employees. The telecom company has also been accumulating losses consecutively for the last 10 years.

According to reports, employees above the age of 53.5 years will get 125% of their salary, which they could have earned in the balance period of their service. Employees in the age bracket of 50 to 53.5 years opting for VRS will get benefit in the range of 80 to 100% of the remuneration to be paid in the balance period of their service. For employees over 55 years of age opting for VRS, the pension will be computed only when they attain 60 years of age (the current retirement age).

The scheme is expected to help BSNL save Rs 7,000 crore in the wage bill. The scheme was introduced after the government approved its merger with MTNL. BSNL employees can apply for VRS under this scheme till December 3.

‘BSNL’s woes stem from itself’

Employees like Raghu, who entered BSNL’s workforce as a ground-level worker in the 1980s, believe that the major contributor towards its financial woes is the company itself.

“It was a company that made profits once. But it did not seriously take up giving 4G licences or providing Fibernet material, which are all necessary updates to attract and retain consumers,” he points out. Because of these shortcomings, customers began to flock to better service providers, he adds.

The situation got so worse that employees had to pay from their own pockets towards expenses like diesel for the maintenance of mobile towers and wages for contract workers.

“Apart from these, I have two daughters for whose studies I have taken loans and I have to now marry them off too. Where will I go? I think I will continue to work as a security guard somewhere till I can,” he rues.

While employees like Raghu are frustrated at their beloved company’s slow death due to its own actions, others doubt the intentions of the government behind trimming the workforce.

What is behind the government’s move?

According to A Semmalamudham, the All India Special Invitee of the National Federation of Telecom Employees (NFTE), the decision to offer VRS packages to employees above 50 years is due to the government’s inability to maintain the services and pay employees’ salaries on time.

“One lakh employees exiting BSNL will not improve its services. It is going to further deteriorate,” he says.

Claiming that the government intends to sell BSNL to corporates, Semmalamudham says, “The government’s intention is clear — to shed its manpower, especially those protesting against government policies and its principles.” 

Semmalamudham also points out that a large number of BSNL officials who have applied for VRS come from the technical branch and are skilled workers. Urging the government to do something to improve the enterprise, he says, “Employees are ready to move out from BSNL with a heavy heart only to save the entity.”

Employees request assurance from government

However, BSNL employees across India have expressed dissatisfaction over the entire scheme of ‘sending employees home’ under the VRS package.

Robert, NFTE Coimbatore district secretary, tells TNM that contract employees with BSNL have not been receiving their salaries for over eight months. Even the employees on the rolls have been receiving late payments since February, he claims.

“The government has claimed that this move is to revive BSNL and solves these issues. But we want the company to assure the remaining employees that the entity won’t be shut down. These are employees who have been working with the company for over 20 years. We want the government to do everything possible and put down on paper that BSNL will survive,” says Robert.

* Name changed