As wage negotiations breakdown, transport workers’ unions call for strike

With no breakthrough during the second round of negotiations with the Transport Corporations and the Government, 10 unions in the transport sector have announced an indefinite strike from 15th May onwards.

The unions’ demands include

  • negotiation of a wage agreement and its implementation
  • State Government to meet the losses incurred by the Transport Corporations
  • 6000 crores of workers’ money (deductions for provident fund and others) used by the Corporation to be allocated from the State Government’s budget.
  • Government to allocate funds to acquire new buses.

Gate Meeting on May 11, 2017 by Transport Workers in Thiruvanmiyur Depot

More than 23000 buses ply in Tamil Nadu transporting more than 1.5 crore passengers each day.  Unions estimate that there are 1,40,000 workers including drivers, conductors, technical staff (in charge of maintenance) and other administrative staff employed by eight Transport Corporations -Chennai (MTC), Villipuram, Salem, Coimbatore, Kumbakonam, Madurai and Thirunelveli as well as the State Express Transport Corporation (SETC), for long distance buses.

Government’s data shows increase in users and fare collections, according to the Transport Department’s Policy Note, income has fallen. During negotiations, wage increments are denied with each of the Corporations claiming that they are incurring heavy losses. The policy note claims that this is due to the increase in wages, dearness allowance as well as fuel and maintenance costs. The policy note also claims that over half of the expenditure is wages. Unions too believe that losses are being incurred. However, in an analysis of the bus far revision in 2012, Thozhilalar Koodam found that much of the costs are due to high taxes paid by the Corporations and pointed out that the government has, instead of viewing public transport as a social investment, continued to subsidise private transport in other ways.

 

 

 

 

 

However, for workers, low wages and long working hours are the norm with the only trade off being job security. And it is for this reason that workers, registered on employment exchanges through which recruitment takes place, are willing to shell out lakhs of rupees to obtain an appointment order. In fact, during Thozhilalar Koodam’s coverage of workers’ struggles at the Sanmina factory in Oragadam, Com.Kannan of CITU, said that many of the permanent workers opted for VRS with the intention of joining the transport sector for job security.

The minimum qualification for a driver or a conductor is 8th standard pass. While both need to have a public service badge, the driver would additionally need a heavy vehicle driving license as well. Despite well laid out guidelines, corruption in recruitment is rampant with left and independent unions claiming that smaller unions function like brokers.

It is a well-known fact among workers and aspirants that the going rate for employment is currently Rs.2 lakhs, minimum. As soon as they are recruited, workers are taken on as reserve drivers or reserve conductors earning Rs.300 per day, half the wages of their permanent counterparts. There are 7000 such drivers in the state today. But the corruption doesn’t end there. As and when vacancies arise, workers from the reserve category come into the rolls.  According to the CITU leader Com.Chandran, Vice President of the transport workers’ union, workers shell out money for this too, and in some cases, even if they need leave sanctioned.

Wages are abysmally low even when workers are made permanent with a new recruit earning Rs.14000 per month (basic wage is Rs. 5200 for a driver and Rs.5100 for a conductor). The wages include dearness allowance, other allowances and a daily incentive which is 5% of the collection for the day. For long distance drivers and conductors, the same is based on the number of kilometres driven.

One bus driver, who has completed 25 years of service, lamented that his wage was only Rs.30000 per month. However, with various deductions, he manages to get Rs.17000 in hand. This is because a few years ago, he took an advance of Rs.5 lakh for his children’s education from the employees’ cooperative society, which he is still paying back. Another conductor who was appointed in 2012 after almost a six year wait, earns only Rs.17000 per month.

Apart from loans from the employees’ cooperative society, which is in itself minimal, workers do not feel that they have any other benefits. A driving instructor and CITU union member, said that Rs.180 Is paid as medical insurance but that the coverage remains very limited. “The insurance covers only very specific surgeries and does not cover other types of treatments which may require hospitalisation. Only two children and spouse are covered, but most of the workers also support aged parents”, he said. Dispensaries run for the employees are inefficient and are often not equipped to even administer proper first aid. He claimed that even the doctor was employed only on a contract basis. Com.Karsan, State Secretary of Retired Employees Association, said that workers in private sector can extend their ESI benefits after they retire, but in our case, we have no such option. In fact in March, pensioners staged as a protest as several of them were yet to receive their dues.

Particulars No. of workers Amount due (in crores)
Provident Fund 7700 Rs.310
Gratuity 17600 Rs.900
Earned leave 22045 Rs.100
Commuted pension 11750 Rs.170

(figures courtesy CITU magazine Pokuvarathu Thozhilali, April 2017)

Retired transport workers protest in March 2017

The problem of low wages pales in comparison to the excessive workload and the pressures that come with the job. “We come with a mindset that we are here to serve the public – taking them safely from one place to another. But it is impossible to meet the targets set given the traffic in the city. The buses are also in very bad condition, and this adds to the stress”, said one driver.

According to Com.Chandran, the number of trips (known as singles) for each bus route is decided unilaterally by the Corporation and have not been revised in years. With peak hour traffic in Chennai, it is virtually impossible to complete the singles in 8 hours. “Drivers and conductors have no choice in the matter. The supervisor at the depot with refuse to accept their collections unless they complete the number of trips. The management of the corporations are trying to erode the 8-hour work day by saying that the wages that are being paid is for the work assigned to be completed”, said Com.Chandran.

In some cases, workers are able to resist this on an individual basis or with union backing. One driver employed with SETC recalled that he had to make three round trips between Chennai to Salem without a break. “After the second trip, I reached Koyambedu bus terminus and demanded to be let off from duty for the day but the supervisor refused and said that due to the Pongal festival there was a rush. Some of the passengers waiting in the bus saw us arguing and realised it would be unsafe for me to have continued the duty. They fought with the supervisor and asked for another driver to be assigned”, he said. Unions also say that transport workers are the most “punished” as they are constantly under scrutiny and threat of receiving memos based on often unsubstantiated complaints made by the general public. Once they receive memos, their wage increments are with-held.

The demand for acquiring new buses is linked to the problem of workload and stress. With minimal resources being allocated for maintenance and repairs, most buses on the road are in terrible condition. Com. Padmabhan, General Secretary of Tamil Nadu Transport Staff and Employees Union (TTSF), says that a bus has a maximum life of 8 years or 7 lakh kms. But today there are buses that have clocked in 19 lakh kms. Not only is there no money for replacing damaged spare parts, but the number of technical staff responsible for maintenance are also lesser than what is required.

In MTC (Chennai), many of the core maintenance operations have been outsourced to contractors and according to CITU, the quality of their work is not up to the mark. In most Corporations, the ratio of workers to bus is less than one person (0.65) per bus, while the Pattabiraman Committee (1971) recommended at least 1.5 persons per bus.  “A few decades ago, as technical staff, we were able to ensure proper repair and maintenance. We had time to thoroughly check the bus and ensure that everything was in order. But today, the engineer who supervises us is constantly on our backs, pushing us to finish fast. Many times, we remove spare parts from a bus that has been impounded because it was involved in an accident and use it for the buses that are running.”, said Com.Padmabhan who is himself a technical employee since 1987.

Despite the myriad of problems for overworked and underpaid workers today, there have been some positive developments over the years. Com.Chandran, who worked as a driver with MTC from 1967, recalled several struggles that happened in 70s and 80s. Workers participated in strikes and demonstrations throughout the state demanding that wages be increased and that the government negotiate with unions. He and several others have gone to jail during the AIADMK and DMK rule demanding a wage hike.

Recalling one instance where the negotiation took place, Com. Chandran said that then Chief Minister MGR refused to yield to demands saying that he was new to government and that the Transport Minister, Ponnaiyan did not have any knowledge about the department. Despite the unions giving them a few months’ time, MGR was unwilling to negotiate and when he came to know that workers were planning to strike, he did everything to break it. “Within a day we were all arrested, anyone in a khaki uniform was arrested. At the same time, he brought in hundreds of privately operated buses from throughout the state to Chennai and reduced the fares to 30paise. People were very unhappy as these drivers had no idea about the routes. Parents became worried about their children’s safety. MGR was forced to announce Rs.75 as an interim relief”, he said. In 1978, the first tripartite agreement was signed by Unions including LPF, CITU, ATP, INTUC and HMS was signed. For about 20 years, these wage agreements were signed every three years, and marginal increments have been negotiated. Other issues like overtime wage, pensions, etc were also negotiated and won.

However, the period since then has seen an erosion in the strength of the unions. Today there are almost 50 unions who are negotiating with the government and the Corporations. Some of these unions have negligible or even have caste based membership. Currently the Anna Thozhilalar Peravai (ATP) affiliated to the ruling AIADMK holds the power. All the workers that Thozhilalar Koodam spoke to said that membership deductions were made from their wages to show them as members of ATP. They had no will to join the union and felt that it did not represent their interests. Com.Padmabhan of TTSF admitted that the multiplicity of unions is hurting workers interests and believes that elections must be held to determine which unions must bargain with the government. CITU’s proposed solution to the same issue is to abolish the system of the collection of union membership dues from the salary.

For TTSF, the only way to create a sustainable solution is to not focus only on wage agreements, but for unions to make demands which calls for systemic overhauls. “First and foremost, we must demand that workers of all transport corporations must be treated as government employees, right now we are only quasi government employees. If this happens, we will be entitled to all benefits of government staff including the Seventh Pay Commission recommendations”, said Com.Padmanabhan.

TTSF also feels that unless the government takes responsibility, the transport corporations will continue to deny fair wages to workers citing losses. The government ought to look at these as public investments and make budgetary allocations instead of lending money to the Corporations at high interest rates. It is because of the lack of money with the Corporations that a large amount of the workers’ money has been used.

The workers remain sceptical and are often caught between the ruling party union and their supervisors and higher ups. For the most part, engagement on issues remains minimal and many tend to be passive observers who hope that the wage negotiations will yield good results. The unions are currently taking the issue to workers in each district in preparation for the strike.

 

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