50,000+ BSNL contractual employees on the brink

The state-run telephone company has not paid them for over a year due to financial constraints

BSNL
In November last year, the Calcutta high court directed the BSNL to settle unpaid wages of contractual workers | Representative Image: PTI

Sanjith Adhikari, a contractual worker with the BSNL, offered to sell his kidney in a Facebook post a few months ago as the state-owned telecom operator stopped paying thousands of its casual workers for months.

Adhikari, a resident of Champahati in South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, said he made the desperate appeal despite knowing very well that trading in human organs is illegal because he had no other way to feed his family.

“I cannot even buy milk for my five-year-old child or medicine for my ageing and ailing father. It is now almost a year that I have not received a single penny as a wage, so tell me what I should do but to sell my organs,” he said.

Adhikari is not the only one pushed to the brink by the non-payment of wages by the BSNL to many of its contractual workers for over a year.

Earlier in March this year, 44-year-old Sujoy Ghosh, another contractual worker of the BSNL, committed suicide after struggling to run his family without wages for 13 months.

In the same month, another contract worker of the BSNL from the state Anukul Roy (42) died by suicide. Roy too did not receive wages for about a year.

At least 13 contractual employees of the BSNL committed suicide across the country in the past 16 months as about 50,000 such workers actively engaged in the company’s field operations and other works remain unpaid for over a year despite the Centre’s advisory for smooth payouts amid Covid-19 pandemic, said BSNL Casual and Contract Workers Federation (BSNLCCWF) president V A N Namboodiri.

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Adding to the worker woes, the BSNL is planning to retrench around 10,000 contractual workers engaged in the housekeeping works. Namboodiri said out of around 1 lakh contractual workers, around 40,000 were already retrenched and last month the management issued a fresh order to do away with housekeeping staff, which will lead to job loss for about 10,000 people.

The order is in line with its directive to all its units to curtail expenditure on contract works.

The workers remained unpaid despite courts directing the company to release the wages of workers. In February this year, the Madras high court directed BSNL to disburse at least 30% of the pending wages to the workers as an interim relief.

In November last year, the Calcutta high court directed the BSNL to settle unpaid wages of contractual workers.

Namboodiri said after the court orders and under pressure from the employees union, certain circles of the BSNL paid partial wages to some employees, but what they got did not cover even one month’s salary.

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The government’s priority, once the funds were arranged, would be to pay contract workers engaged with the BSNL, Union minister Sanjay Shamrao Dhotre informed the Rajya Sabha during question hours in December last year.

“The entire House knows BSNL’s condition. A revival package has been given by the government for BSNL and MTNL and once the situation improves our priority will be to pay salaries,” the minister of state for communications had told the Rajya Sabha.

The government in October last year approved a Rs 69,000 crore revival package for BSNL and MTNL that includes merging the two loss-making firms, monetising their assets and giving VRS to employees in in a bid to make the combined entity profitable in two years.

After the implementation of VRS-2019, the necessity to continue with the existing contract workers became even more compulsory as casual or indirect workforce is engaged in multiple field operations such as line or cable maintenance, network expansion, housekeeping and clerical data entry.

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“Instead of utilising their services, the company is planning to get rid of them. This has severely affected BSNL’s services,” Namboodiri pointed out, adding, the federation is gearing up to intensify its agitation demanding payment of wage arrears, continuation of current system of contract labour engagement etc.

“Pandemic does not allow us to go for a vigorous agitation. But now we have decided to intensify our stir. We will observe black day on October 1, the BSNL’s foundation day. On that day we will hold dharnas following all Covid-19 protocols. We are also fighting a legal battle with the company,” he added.

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