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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

Bank employees demand higher wages amid mounting losses in the industry

Public sector bank workers protest in Mumbai as inflation bites

Banking services were hit as around one million bank employees went on a strike for two days as tp protest against a 'meagre' two per cent salary hike planned by the Indian Banks' Association.. EPA/SANJEEV GUPTA
Banking services were hit as around one million bank employees went on a strike for two days as tp protest against a 'meagre' two per cent salary hike planned by the Indian Banks' Association.. EPA/SANJEEV GUPTA

There is growing discontent among India's public sector bank employees, who are questioning why they have to bear the brunt of the actions of defaulters such as Kingfisher tycoon Vijay Mallya and those who are alleged to have scammed the system, such as billionaire Nirav Modi.

“Since banks have booked losses, they are unable to consider higher wages for employees, but we've made it very clear that we are not responsible for those losses,” says Devidas Tuljapurkar, the joint secretary of the All India Bank Employees Association. “The government should summarily wage a war against those big corporates to recover the dues.”

India's public sector banks in particular are struggling with the burden of high levels of bad debt.

Mr Mallya, one of the most high-profile businessmen who is wanted in India, fled to Londo nin 2016, after amassing tens of millions of rupees in debt. State Bank of India has called for him to be jailed as the country’s largest lender tries to recover money it is owed.

A couple of weeks ago, about a million bank workers - mainly from public sector banks - went on a two-day strike across India to demand better pay. Thousands of workers gathered at Azad Maidan, a protest ground in Mumbai, waving slogans and speaking out about their concerns.

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Workers are unhappy with the fact that they have only been given a 2 per cent wage hike. This comes as inflation hit a 14-month high in May, rising to 4.43 per cent on higher fuel and vegetable prices, meaning that many of them find it hard to manage on subdued wages, given the rising cost of living.

“They burden us with additional work but they don't want to give us a respectable wage,” said Sunil Shah, a bank employee.

Ashwini Aware, a bank cashier at one of India's biggest public sector lenders, also feels hard done by.

“We are getting very low salary packages,” she says. “They give only 2 per cent, but we want a 20 to 30 per cent hike in that. We work hard. sit late, do everything for our customers.”

But economists say it is only to be expected that banks will look for ways to manage their costs because they are struggling with losses.

“If you see the context here, the banks are reeling under lots of non-performing loans, so obviously the capacity for the banks to pay goes down significantly,” said Sujan Hajra, the chief economist at Anand Rathi, a financial services company based in Mumbai.

With the general election coming up next year, this is only adding to the pressure on the government to listen to the demands of protestors.

But wage increases will not solve the deeper problems that India's public sector banks are facing.