Interview with Comrade Ramanand about the upcoming Strike of Bank workers
Following the call for an all-India strike on 5th August by the United Forum of Bank Unions (5 employees’ unions and 4 officers’ unions), correspondents of Mazdoor Ekta Lehar interviewed one of the most senior leaders of bank workers in Delhi on 13th July, 2011. Comrade Ramanand is General Secretary of the Delhi State - Bank Employees Federation and one of the leading members of All-India Bank Employees’ Association
MEL Correspondents: What are the key demands for which this strike has been called?
Comrade Ramanand: The most important issues are the drive towards privatisation of banking in our country, dilution of government ownership, merger of state owned banks, unrestricted entry of foreign capital and allowing the big industrial houses to start their own banks. We are also opposing the drive towards outsourcing of normal banking services, violation of working hours for “officers” and the anti-worker recommendations of the Khandelwal Committee.
MEL: Can you please explain your opposition to privatisation?
Com R: Privatisation is not only anti-worker but against the interests of the entire nation. All the public sector banks are making profits so there is no justification for privatising them. In the recent global crisis, the biggest banks that went bankrupt in the United States and Europe were private banks. In our country some private banks were affected but the public sector banks have remained financially healthy. Privatisation is only in the interests of big capitalists who want to convert national assets into their private wealth. The land, buildings and other real assets owned by state owned banks in our country is much more than what they owe their depositors. This is the reason that both Indian and foreign capitalists are interested in acquiring them.
MEL: Is there a connection between privatisation and the proposal for merger of state owned banks, which is also being opposed by the unions?
Com R: The merger of state-owned banks, which is being called “consolidation”, is motivated by the desire to make all Indian banks “globally competitive”. This means to make as high a rate of profit as the biggest private banks of the world. It has nothing to do with serving the economy of our country, in which the majority of people live in rural areas and are very poor. The government claims that financial inclusion is one of its goals, which means to include every member of our society in the benefits of banking services. If banking services are to become accessible to all our people, then we need at least one bank branch in every village. However, merging banks in the name of global competitiveness means to cut down the number of branches, retaining only the most profitable ones. Our country needs mass banking whereas the government wants class banking, oriented to serve only the capitalist minority. Mass banking requires nationalisation of the entire banking industry, not privatisation.
MEL: Is it not true that big corporate houses have been receiving the maximum benefits from even the nationalised banks?
Com R: Yes, the big capitalists get loans at lower interest than small businessmen and farmers. The priority sector lending has been reduced over time, and the private banks have no rural branches and do not lend to agriculture. If a peasant does not repay his loan and interest on time, his assets are seized; but the big capitalists get away without repaying many loans. Our union has exposed the list of largest defaulters, including Reliance and Tatas. They filed a defamation suit against the General Secretary of our union, but that case has lapsed. They could not prove that we are wrong. The corporate houses are not satisfied with the benefits they already enjoy; their greed is unlimited.
MEL: What are the restrictions on foreign capital that the government wants to remove and what are its consequences?
Com R: Foreign citizens and non-resident Indians already hold majority shareholding in many privately owned Indian banks today, such as Indus Ind Bank, ING Vysya Bank, ICICI Bank and Yes Bank. However, there is a 10% ceiling on the voting rights of such foreign investors irrespective of the proportion of shares they own, under Section 12(2) of the Banking Regulation Act. The Central Government has introduced a Bill in Parliament to delete this clause. If this is passed it would immediately make our private sector banks vulnerable for take-over by foreign capital.
MEL: What are the recommendations of the recently constituted Khandelwal Committee, which the unions are opposing?
Com R: The recommendations include doing away with standard pay scales and industry-wide negotiated settlements between the employers and employees. The Khandelwal Committee proposes to establish variable pay scales and incentives linked to “productivity” and “profitability”. Look at the actual conditions of bank workers. Some of us handle client services, others are involved in assessing loan requests, some work in very busy branches, others are in branches with a lighter customer load. It is illogical and unfair to link staff salaries with how much loans are advanced or how many customers are serviced. All those working in banks are united in their complete opposition to these recommendations, which are aimed at further weakening and destroying the unions.
MEL: Can you explain the attempts to weaken and do away with unions?
Com R: First of all, the numbers of regular positions are being reduced by resorting to outsourcing of various functions. These include not only cleaning and security functions but also core banking services in the name of “business correspondents”. Secondly, the Industrial Disputes Act recognises union rights only for “employees” and not for “officers”. This is an entirely arbitrary division. Large numbers of bank workers are today working on computer terminals and are skilled workers. By calling them officers they are being deprived of their rights, including even the right to regular working hours. The proportion of “employees” is being reduced over time, thereby weakening the negotiating strength of the unions.
MEL: How have officers in state-owned banks still managed to form unions? And are there any efforts to establish unions in the private banks?
Com R: We succeeded when banking was entirely in the public sector and regular employees were in the majority. In private banks today we have tried but it is very difficult because the vast majority of workers are designated as officers. Those employed by private banks are under threat of being thrown out if they try to form unions.
MEL: We understand that you have called for strike action because the government is not agreeing to the just demands you have explained. Has there been any agreement at all, on any of your demands?
Com R: Our demand for compensatory employment for a family member in cases when an employee dies in service was agreed to by the IBA, the association of bank managements. However, the settlement of this issue has been awaiting government approval for two years.
MEL: We consider the struggle being waged by bank workers to be extremely important for the working class movement and the future of our country. We will do our best to mobilise support among the general public for your just cause. We thank you for spending the time and effort to answer all our questions.
Com R: You are most welcome, and please contact me again if you have any further questions.