Thousands of workers belonging to the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board have announced that they will go on strike on 16th February 2018. Workers belonging to CITU and other smaller unions are protesting the Government’s failure to accept the wage increase demand based on factor of 2.57 and unwillingness to finalise a wage agreement. During a demonstration held before the EB head office in Chennai on 8th February, various leaders spoke on the inaction of the Government and board officials and resolved to make the strike a successful one. The conciliation meeting at the Labour Department has also ended with no outcome.
For more than two years, workers belonging to the electricity board have been demanding a new wage agreement. The previous agreement ended in December 2015 and since then, unions have been pushing the board management and the Government to finalise a deal. Like in the transport sector, the point of contention is now the quantum of increment. While the unions are standing firm at an increment based on factor 2.57, the Government which had agreed to the demand in principle during negotiations last year, seems to have gone back on its word. While some of the unions have stood their ground and announced a strike, others have settled for a temporary relief.
The Tamil Nadu Electricity Board, a Government owned company, is responsible for power generation and distribution throughout the state. This is carried out through its two subsidiary companies, TANGEDCO (Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Company) and (Tamil Nadu Transmission Company). More than 80,000 people ranging from engineers to foremen and helpers are employed in these companies. TANGEDCO’s documents from 2014 suggest that the starting wages for various categories of workers ranges from Rs.5000 to Rs.10000 and top out at Rs.35000. There are also thousands of contract workers who have been working in some of the lower paid categories for years together for a fraction of the wages.
A demonstration was held on 8th February before the TNEB head office on Mount Road in Chennai where more than 1000 workers gathered. Similar meetings were also held in various districts. The leadership spoke about the various issues facing workers especially the increased workload. Many of them lambasted the government for not only failing to negotiate wages for workers who risk their lives every day given their nature of work but also the work pressure on the workers. They said that the excessive workload cannot be addressed without the government’s commitment to filling up on the 40000 vacancies at all levels. Leaders from the DMDK, Pattali Makkal Katchi, and some others used the opportunity to accuse the AIADMK of corruption and lack of apathy.
While the leadership largely contained itself to addressing the wage issue, workers present at the meeting spoke to Thozhilalar Koodam about the issue of contract workers. Two young workers, both technical diploma holders, who work in the maintenance department of North Chennai Thermal Power Plan, have been employed as contract workers for more than 7 years. These workers earn wages ranging from Rs.7500 to Rs.10000 per month, which is a fraction of the wages of permanent staff. They have no paid leave and will lose their wages even if they take a day off. “My estimate is that we (contract workers) are responsible for generating 2000 MW of electricity for this state but we have no identity and no safety”, said one worker. Only permanent staff are given uniforms and protective equipment making it a dangerous workplace. The ID cards issued to the contract workers do not have the name of the work sites and only bears the name of the contractor. Workers continue to work on contract despite low wages in the hope for a confirmed employment.
Most other workers that we spoke to were also contract workers for several years before they finally got direct employment. One worker who is a reading collector, worked for 15 years on contract and got confirmation only 8 years ago. He currently earns around Rs.20000 per month and estimates that he will get Rs.5000 more if their demand for wage increment is met. Another worker in the same category from the Kanchipuram division also had similar pattern of employment.
Although unions seem confident that their strike will be successful, the presence of multiple unions with divergent interests is a major weakness. CITU one of the unions participating in the strike represents workers and engineers through two different organisations. There are also several contract workers in their union. The right-wing Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh also has a significant membership and is supporting the strike. This alliance also includes smaller unions belonging to PMK, DMDK and VCK as well others such as NLO, TNPEO, MAPPS and APPS. Notably missing are the AIADMK’s Anna Thozhilalar Peravai as well as DMK’s Labour Progressive Front.
Speaking to Thozhilalar Koodam, Com.S.S Subramaniam of CITU said that the Government along with these “traitor unions” are enacting a drama in the name of holding a dialogue. He said, that during several rounds of talks in the second half of last year, the unions had given various representations regarding their wage demand and productivity. However, there was no indication that the government was willing to come to settlement. This forced the unions to announce a strike on 23 January. A day before the strike was to take place, a conciliation meeting was held, and it was agreed that a settlement would be finalised by 12th February.
The Government called for talks on the very next day but once again there seemed to be no indication that they are agreeable to the demands of the unions. On 24th January, the Finance Secretary of the Government wrote to the Electricity Minister that an increment of 2.57 would not be possible and that unions will have to settle for 2.40 and that the agreement would be for 10 years for workers who are in the “staff or officers” category. The question of arrears also remains unanswered.
Meanwhile, other unions have gone ahead and accepted a temporary relief of Rs.1250 which has been credited to workers’ accounts with effect from October 2017. Com.S.S said that since it is eventually a part of what is owed to the workers, it was not returned but their demand still holds good. He said that the government is still trying to create a perception that they are willing to dialogue with the workers. “Yesterday the Electricity Minister and the board officials called us for a meeting. For almost 3 hours we literally held them captive, insisting that they give us an answer”, he said. At the conciliation meeting in the Labour Department held on 12th February, the management walked out without giving any response. When asked about their plans to counter a judicial intervention like in the case of nurses and transport workers, Com.S.S said “We will have to deal with it if it comes. If it happens why cant the judges advise the management to look into our legitimate demands.” Preparation for strike are on full swing, according to union leaders even as another conciliation meeting is scheduled for 15th February.