Tamil Nadu transport workers struggle as MLAs get pay hike

Last Updated: Thu, Jan 11, 2018 16:47 hrs
Indian travellers stand next to buses parked at a depot during a transport strike in Chennai on January 5, 2018.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister E.K. Palaniswami tabled a bill on Wednesday which proposed a large pay hike for MLA’s as thousands of state transport buses did not run for the seventh day due to the strike by State transport unions demanding a wage hike and payment of arrears. Thousands of state transport workers represented by various unions have gone on strike demanding higher pay.

Given the circumstances of the pay hike for MLAs’ and the timing, opposition leader M.K. Stalin criticized the decision saying in part, “People will laugh at us for this hike when transport workers in the state are on strike, demanding a salary hike”.

According to a report in Dinamalar, the state government has allocated almost Rs.300 crore for arrears for the current workforce and will issue additional 750 crore for the outstanding amount which will be paid to retired workers in the transport sector, which will be paid before the Pongal festival period.

The AAP and CPI (M) showed their support for the Tamil Nadu transport workers.

The Chief Minister stated that many of the demands made by the workers have been met and they should end their strike. However, as of Wednesday, the strike continued as workers of the state owned transport corporations refuse to withdraw unless he settlement signed by the government with 'minority unions' accepting 2.44% wage hike.

One of the unions taking part in the strike is the DMK’s Labour Progressive Front (LPF). Tamil Nadu State Transport minister MR Vijayabaskar said these unions were spreading false information about the government’s efforts.

Along with the LPF, a section of Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation (TNSTC) employees affiliated to Anna Thozhir Sangam, the trade union of the ruling AIADMK, also participated in the strike. Even though the union is affiliated with the ruling government, a driver associated with the union stated that they are joining the protests for their rights saying, “We follow the party’s ideology, but we took part in the protest for our own rights. We need to take care of our families”.

Those involved from the union who are participating in the strike include drivers, conductors and technical staff. The transport union has been demanding the minimum pay of Rs.19, 500 and for the government to settle dues for employees who have been in retirement since 2013.

Members of the transport union held a demonstration at the office of the Labor Welfare Board in Chennai. The General Secretary Shanmugam, according to a report in Dailythanti spoke to reporters stating that negotiations with the transport minister were not satisfactory.

A statement of support for the striking transport workers was issued by the Forum for IT Employees (FITE) who in a letter criticized the actions of the state government and the state transport authority. The letter was written in part due to IT employees being beneficiaries of public transport. The statement outlined the demand of the state government to among others “fullfill all the demands of Tamil Nadu state transport workers”.

Responding to the criticism of striking before the busy Pongal holiday period, he said, “The Transport Minister will have to solve it”, essentially not giving the government in general and the minister in particular any breathing room with regards to an outcome of the discussions.

Approaching the busy Pongal festive period, the number of people travelling by bus increases significantly. As ticket reservation counters remain closed, passengers had to look for other options as a mode of travel; particularly private buses whose fares have increased substantially in the wake of the bus strike. More than 1 lakh people of the state transport department are on strike and this has crippled the main transportation medium for the state and the city.

A report in Thozhilalar Koodam, a blog on labour issues in Tamil Nadu, outlined some of the details of the strike. Though the strike is statewide, the bulk of those affected will be in populous urban areas. However, the report points out that the situation in small towns is worse citing an example of a conductor who after 20 years of service earns only Rs. 20, 000 with a basic wage of Rs. 7500.

Even as the High court left it to trade unions on the decision to ply buses during the Pongal period, both sides are refusing to budge in their negotiations. The bill proposing a pay hike looks bad given the circumstances and seems ill advised. One can deduce the obvious from proposing a pay hike for legislators while thousands of transport workers who earn a fraction of what MLA’s do, demand better pay. For some who have even retired, the struggle has been a long one.

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