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`There is room for negotiations; we are flexible'

N.S. Vageesh

Chennai , Aug. 29

MR C.H. Venkatachalam doesn't really fit the traditional image of a trade union leader. Attired in white shirt and dhoti, he is calm and collected.

He has been spearheading the bank trade union struggle for wage revision and settlement of some outstanding issues.

Over 10 lakh bank employees went on a day's strike on August 24 to press their demands for a quick settlement.

Mr Venkatachalam is employed with the Central Bank of India, which he joined in 1969.

He is currently the Secretary of the All India Bank Employees Association and its Chief Spokesman. He is also the convenor of the United Forum of Bank Unions, an umbrella organisation of nine bank trade unions.

Excerpts from the interview:

What are your demands?

In 1997, the 7th settlement on wages took place. During the period the total wage bill of workmen employees (clerks and peons) was Rs 6,700 crore. We got 12.25 per cent over that as additional wage increase. That worked out to Rs 818 crore. This time, the wage bill in 2002 is Rs 9,700 crore.

The Indian Banks' Association (IBA) has in its latest offer promised to give Rs 920 crore which is around 9.50 per cent on the base level in 2002. We are asking that they make at least the same offer they made last time, i.e., 12.25 per cent. At that time banks were not doing well and were in losses. Now, when banks are doing well, there is a case for further increase.

They however want to impose pre-conditions and restrictions and want a free right to transfer.

Our reduced demand is Rs 2,000 crore for workmen and Rs 1,400 crore for officers. They are offering Rs 920 crore for workmen and Rs 675 crore for officers. There is still a gap. But we can negotiate. We are flexible.

The workload of employees has gone up. About 1.2 lakh employees have gone out of the system because of the VRS two years ago.

On the other hand, the business has gone up. Naturally, I would like to have some more pay

What is the problem with regard to transfer?

In the last settlement, we have agreed at the industry level, that each bank management and unions will sit and discuss, where there is a surplus pocket and where there is a deficit area - and how to even out the imbalance. In 10 to 15 banks, these discussions have taken place and unions have agreed on mobility - in some cases, up to a distance of 50 km, in some cases between 100-200 km.

But in other banks, managements have been unable to decide where they have surplus. Now in the 8th round, IBA says that we need parameters at the industry level. We are ready, subject to a definite area agreed upon mutually.

Secondly, emoluments should not be reduced. Thirdly, there must be some additional compensation for the inconvenience and double establishment costs. Fourthly, there must be some relaxation and concessions for old people, health reasons, handicapped persons and women.

And, finally, there should be a right to come back after some time - say 2, 3 or 5 years.

The IBA says it can't give any guarantee. It is prepared to give Rs 400 per month and we have to be ready to go anywhere. How can an ordinary clerk or peon be expected to do that? We are prepared to agree for transfers within the district or even neighbouring district. If there is some difficulty, we can fine-tune it. We can always review it after 2-3 years.

Employees of some private and foreign banks also participated in the recent strike. Isn't it easy for their management to take punitive action against those who participated in the strike?

It is not that easy. Five lakh employees are behind this small number working in foreign banks. If they touch one, 5 lakh will come out.

What is the next step for your agitation?

We are trying to reach out to the Finance Minister. He has been busy with the recent Parliament session. The Government machinery, through the Regional Labour Commissioner, came into the picture but couldn't succeed. The Finance Minister should intervene. Otherwise, we'll have to consider other steps, including an intensified agitation programme. I am not happy about it. But if there is no reaction from the other side, what is the alternative? We'll take two steps forward, if they take one step.

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