Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Bank unions eye youth to stay relevant

Three-day meet being 'organized...to raise awareness among young employees about the need to stay organized and united'

Mumbai: When the largest trade union in the country’s banking sector, the All India Bank Employees Association (AIBEA), organizes a conference this October in Hyderabad exclusively for young employees who have worked with state-run banks for less than five years, it will be a first in the 68-year history of the body.

The three-day meet is being “organized specifically to raise awareness among young employees about the need to stay organized and united," said AIBEA general secretary C. H. Venkatachalam. “They should know why unions are important to ensure a fair play in organizations."

He admitted that not many young people are interested in participating in union activities. “There is a definite gap between the unions and the employees who have joined in the last four to five years."

At present, there are about 11 employee unions in India’s banking industry with close to 900,000 members.

A majority of these employees are from the 27 public sector banks in the country.

AIBEA has almost 50% of this number as members.

However, in the last five years, AIBEA alone has lost about 100,000 members, mostly due to large-scale retirement in public banks, promotions of staff as officers, and reluctance of young staff to join, according to Venkatachalam.

There are many reasons for this alienation.

Younger employees today are “more oriented towards their career development and quick opportunities to grow in the ranks", according to G.D. Nadaf, former general secretary of All India Bank Officers Confederation.

Besides, alternative banking channels such as cash machines, online and mobile banking, coupled with social networking and instant messaging, have reduced the effectiveness of bank strikes, and have further weakened the connect of young people with trade unions.

There is also the fear that associating with a trade union could mar their careers.

“We do become members of the unions and offer s subscription fee," said a young executive, who joined as a probationary officer in a Mumbai-based state-run bank last year. “But we do not have time really to actively participate in their programmes. Also, this could be a negative in our career record," he said, not wanting to be named.

Traditionally, bank unions had a major say in most policy matters at state-run banks and decisions pertaining to staff, including the compensation and transfer policies.

However, they have been increasingly losing their relevance in a fiercely competitive environment.

Moreover, in recent years, the managements of government-owned banks have adopted a stricter approach to control union activities and bring in a more professional approach among the employees, like in the case of private and foreign banks which do not allow union activities, further eroding the strength of the unions.

For instance, since August, 2012, State Bank of India (SBI) has taken action against officers engaged in trade union activities, including transfers to remote locations and issuance of chargesheets.

Competition from private rivals, too, is forcing the state-run banks to push their employees for business generation and discourage them from organized union activities, experts said.

“We are under immense pressure to build business and compete with banks in private and foreign segments," said a senior official at a public sector bank, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Trade unionism cannot be tolerated in this scenario."

Financial services experts insist that trade unions have become irrelevant in the backdrop of increased awareness among employees about their rights, better working conditions and an active media.

“Trade unions will die their natural death," said Naresh Makhijani, partner, financial services, at audit firm BSR and Co.

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