The Annual National Bank Employees Federation of India (BEFI) Women’s convention was held in Chennai on 17th and 18th of December. Women Delegates working in banks of various states including Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, Tripura and other states participated in the conference. While women’s subcommittees had been functioning since 1990s in some of the states, this is the third convention. According to convenor Comrade Kalyani Chakrabarti, there has been increased presence of women in the banking sector and yet their voices are usually unheard nor are they visible in the trade union movement. Hence women’s subcommittees are functioning to promote women’s participation in trade unions and increase women’s leadership in BEFI.
The various reports and speeches by delegates covered issues of women’s participation in social struggles, trade unionism and for collectively fighting for issues of women in banking sector. The most specific instances came from Tamil Nadu where women are fighting for separate toilets in their banks. According to one comrade from Gramin Bank, there are no separate toilets in their banks and this continues to present challenge. Their attempts at using Right to Information has met with no details to help push their cause. Obviously the three year flagship campaign of Swachcha Bharat by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not reaching to even the most vocal of the workers and remains only a photo op, and a means to harass citizens.
Sexual harassment at workplace was another issue that dominated the presentation by Tamil Nadu delegates. A harrowing incident was shared by a comrade, who had joined as substaff and was promoted to clerk after 13 years of service. Since her promotion, she has been facing public humiliation from her manager, who has slapped and beaten her in front of customers and other workers. After she complained to sexual harassment complaints committee and her allegations were proven with CCTV cameras, the committee recommended action against the manager. However since then, she has been facing threats for which there has been no recourse. According to Comrade Kalyani, implementation and functioning of sexual harassment complaints committee as per the Act is still absent in the banking sector.
From the presentation of various delegates, it was apparent that women continue to face challenges between their domestic responsibilities and the challenges of the banking sector. Several women said that their choice of banking sector was based on the timings of the job, which allowed women to manage these responsibilities. However several women said that they were asked to stay back after 5PM even when there were no pressing need. While the production space demands that the women work equally on par with men who are not so usually burdened by domestic responsibilities, working women are viewed through the prism of fulfilling women’s responsbilities. For example, while women had gathered in the women’s convention to address gender equality, male senior leader, addressing the delegates said that women are the main reproducers of superstition. He also asked women to put less pressure on their kids in terms of their education. While the veracity of such claims by the male colleague is to be questioned, the more important issue is that male colleagues tend to assume women’s responsibilities as social reproducers when they engage as workers in trade union space.
When women bring the issues of domestic responsibilities into such arenas, they are highlighting the continued patriarchal capitalism that places double burden on women – their social reproduction responsibilities and issues of labouring in productive spaces designed for men. But these cannot be the arena for articulating concerns regarding domestic responsibilities which incidentally must fall on both parents. These are examples of the distance that women have to travel to be acknowledged for being a worker and not tagged with other social roles such as mother, daughter etc.
The reports by the BEFI women’s subcommittees also highlighted the various social issues that they engage with. The BEFI Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal chapters stress the need to deeply engage with other working women. They stressed that gender equality cannot be achieved without such engagements between various political groups. For example, the Kerala group reported engaging with unions such as CITU who are working with factory and service sector workers. Similarly Tamil Nadu group continues to interact with AIDWA, a women’s movement dealing with violence on women and gender equality in social sphere. The convention is an important milestone in that there is exchange of such examples among various chapters who are in different stages of development, which if highlighted, can change the direction of other chapters’ work.