NEW DELHI -- Some 325,000 Indian state telecom workers began an indefinite strike Wednesday, to push for guarantees against layoffs and pension losses when their department becomes a corporation next month.
The cabinet recently approved a proposal to transform the government-run
Department of Telecom Services (DTS) into a corporate entity from October 1.
The leader of the National Federation of Telecom Employees (NFTE), one of
the three main unions involved in the stoppage, told AFP the "strike would continue" till their main demands were met.
"Transfering 400,000 employees from a state-run department to a corporate
entity is not simple. It is a very big family shifting house. Naturally, we fear some of the changes," said NFTE secretary general O.P Gupta.
"We have raised three main issues relating to pension benefits, job security and the financial viability of the new corporate entity," he added.
Gupta said he was worried about the "noise" the government was making regarding automation in the new corporation, saying it signalled future layoffs.
"Our department froze recruitment in 1983. We have been on a family-planning drive since the early 1980s and we don't want a situation where we are now forced to abort (staff)," said Gupta.
"There has been a lot of noise about automation but the unions have a responsibility to carry the entire family with them while making the shift whether they are computer literate or not," Gupta said.
Years ago the department had hired part-time maids to mind children in the park below the exchange building while their mothers worked inside.
"With this cant about computers where do these maids fit in? For us they are almost an institution. Now, do we junk them?" Gupta asked.
The DTS has around 400,000 workers, of which 325,000 who are represented by the three main unions are taking part in the strike.
They include operators, technicians, clerical staff and junior officers.
Communications Minister Ram Vilas Paswan had urged the unions Monday to call off their strike action, pledging that corporatisation would not result in large-scale retrenchment.
"So far as matters relating to pay and pension of the employees are concerned, the rights of the employees will be fully protected and there is no question of any dilution of their rights even after corporatisation," Paswan said.
A prolonged strike could hit services, but since telephone facilities are largely automated, experts said there would be little immediate impact. Maintenance services are likely to be hit first.
The proposed change is intended to shift the DTS towards a professional management culture and create shares to represent its ownership.
The new corporate entity, to be known as Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd, will have an authorised share capital of 100 billion rupees (3.3 billion dollars), of which the government will contribute 50 billion rupees.
DTS provides standard and long-distance telephone services across India,
with the exception of New Delhi and Bombay.
India's telephone connections are among the lowest in the world with only three phones per 100 people.
Paswan earlier said his ministry needed 78 billion dollars by 2010 to improve connnectivity. The Indian government estimates it will have to spend 38 billion dollars by 2005 to increase the rate to just seven telephones per 100 people.
- 187 Privatization