With a spate of suicides by contractual workers working for BSNL/MTNL, describe the situation of contract workers in India.

Published: December 6, 2019

As part of the revival package of the 2 sick telecom companies, MTNL will be merged with BSNL. Many opinion pieces have been written on the proposed merger of the 2 Public sector white elephants BSNL and MTNL. Employees, above the age of 53, who will opt for the voluntary retirement scheme (VRS) will be given 125% remuneration of the salary, pension and gratuity till the age of 60. Needless to say, for the permanent employees, this is a very attractive offer and according to reports such generous packages will also be offered to other employees. 

Unfortunately, similar conditions have not been offered to the thousands of contract workers, contractual and temporary workers, who have provided their services, many times of the same value as that of permanent employees, for fewer wages and without the generous social security blanket provided to those working permanently in the organization.

Many of them are doing unskilled work like sweeping, cleaning, arranging files etc. As a result of not being paid, forget about being given VRS, many of them are committing suicide. As of November, 7 of them have committed suicide. 

The BSNL-MTNL case is not an exception but rather the norm in India. Thousands of employees in the informal sector, the vast majority of them engaged in their work through contractors, working in extreme conditions. Numerous judgements by the Supreme Court have ruled that contract workers should be paid the same wages that permanent workers get for the same job, but such orders only exist on paper and in law college classes. 

Unfortunately, hire and fire the norm in India. The strong labour law system only works for permanent employees, who only constitute around 10% of the total workforce of the country. Ironically, the strong labour law system has encouraged greater contractualisation in the economy. As hiring permanent employees and maintaining them is a very troublesome process in India. 

In 21st century India, contract labourers are treated as expendable foot soldiers. Government pay Commissions are more than generous when it comes to upgrading the salary structure of permanent employees, but the needs of the humble contract worker are routinely ignored by the state. on a periodical basis, but the genuine needs of contract workers are repeatedly ignored by the state. Unless the lawmakers ensure that ironclad policies are made and implemented for contract workers, suicides such as in the BSNL and MTNL case will continue.

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