#5DaysBanking #SavePSB: Young bank activists are fighting a quiet battle

(Imaging: Rajesh Kumar)
(Imaging: Rajesh Kumar)

Summary

  • Organized labour unions with clear political affiliations have been the face of bank activism for long. They stage physical protests, marches with flags and at times resort to strikes. But, how younger employees from state-owned banks agitate is changing.

On X, Newton Bank Kumar (@idesibanda) has over 76,000 followers. Among them is Vijay Shekhar Sharma, the founder of Paytm. Newton is among a handful of bankers who are using social media to register their protest—against issues that include management decisions, wrongful portrayal of public sector banks, lackadaisical bank unions, wage negotiations, working conditions, and even the sale of public sector banks (PSBs). A video from an aquarium in Japan was doing the rounds in 2022. 

The aquarium had reportedly changed the diet of its in-house penguins and otters due to rising costs. The animals refused to eat the cheaper fish. A handle called WhiteCollarMazdoor (@BankerDihaadi) reposted the video on 10 February this year, with a caustic remark: “Penguins are better than bankers at protesting against mistreatment".

We don’t know who WhiteCollarMazdoor is. X, where he has over 13,000 followers, reveals that he is a banker and an IITian. “Please don’t ask why banking after IIT," his tagline on the social media platform states. Then comes a disclaimer: “Not a representative of any community or organization.

 

Mumbai: At the peak of India’s covid-19 lockdown in June 2020, a cop was caught on video assaulting a female banker inside a branch in Surat, Gujarat. A video of the incident soon went viral. On social media site X, formerly Twitter, the video was amplified by a number of accounts, including that of a person who goes by the name Newton Bank Kumar. The name is a reference to the Bollywood film Newton, about an idealistic civil servant who is sent on election duty in the insurgency-hit jungles of central India.

Posts and reposts of the video worked. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman took cognizance of the incident. News agency PTI reported that the constable was eventually suspended from duty and arrested.

The way employees of state-owned banks agitate against the management is changing. Organized labour unions with clear political affiliations have been the face of activism for long. They stage physical protests, marches with flags and at times resort to strikes. The new cohort of technology-savvy employees prefer the anonymity that platforms such as X provide. And instead of strikes, satire and even humour are among the weapons in their arsenal.

Penguins are better than bankers at protesting against mistreatment. —WhiteCollarMazdoor

Newton’s voice

(Credit: X)
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(Credit: X)

Mint managed to get in touch with Newton Bank Kumar. He declined to disclose his real name. He declined to be interviewed over phone, too, fearing that his identity could become public—he agreed to communicate only over direct messages. Having worked in two private firms and two PSBs, Newton said he has over 15 years of work experience, adding that the fictional character from the 2017 film portrayed by actor Rajkummar Rao inspired him to hold truth to power. Newton listed the popular demands. They include opposition to privatization of state-owned banks; implementing a five-day work week; higher recruitments and opening of new branches; timely wage settlement; putting a stop to mis-selling of third-party products like insurance.

“I feel collective voices from bankers will be able to convince people about the challenges that PSBs and their staff face," he messaged, adding that such voices trended on the social media against the government’s plan to privatize PSBs. India currently has 12 PSBs—State Bank of India, Punjab National Bank, Bank of Baroda, Canara Bank, Punjab & Sind Bank, Indian Bank, Union Bank of India, Bank of India, Bank of Maharashtra, Central Bank of India, Indian Overseas Bank and UCO Bank.

In the 2021-22 budget, the Indian government had announced it will privatize two banks apart from selling its stake in IDBI Bank, which was already classified as a private lender by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in 2019 after Life Insurance Corp. of India took majority stake. There has been no concrete progress on privatization so far even as reports of various banks being part of the privatization agenda keeps popping up.

Newton, meanwhile, also wants to sensitize people about PSBs and their role. Many of us tend to mock the working culture in state-run banks—staffers not turning up; extended lunch and coffee breaks; slow processes.

“The pffublic has a wrong perception about PSBs and their staff. So, I am trying to change that perception by putting facts and figures in place, as the public needs to understand the role of PSBs in the larger context and challenges we face while serving customers," he said.

Mishra’s target

(Credit: X)
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(Credit: X)

What challenges do PSB workers face?

On 4 February, a person called Sourabh Mishra (@iSourabhMishra) posted on X: “In the last two days, we read about the death of two persons. One #PoonamPandey, who supposedly faked it for spreading #CervicalCancerAwareness. One #Siyaram, a banker who ended his life under work pressure. We are all talking about the first but no place for the second. WHY NO #JusticeForSiyaram??"

On 2 February, Siyaram Prasad, who was a chief manager with the Union Bank of India, reportedly died by suicide, hanging himself. In an emailed response, a spokesperson from the bank said: “The bank is in no way related to this incident and it was a personal matter."

There are instances of bankers not willing to take exams to get promoted. —Sourabh Mishra

Mishra is 42 years old, is a “BE+MBA", has over 18 years of experience in three banks, and over 11,000 followers on X. He uses his real name while highlighting issues. Currently in a mid-level role, he often posts forwarded screenshots of WhatsApp chats from various state-owned banks. One of these chats show a senior banker reminding and warning his juniors about their targets. If a certain number of home loans aren’t booked, they have had it.

This is not an isolated incident. Several activist accounts have started sharing such messages on social media, attempting to unmask what bankers call unachievable targets. Stiff targets lead to corruption. Earlier this month, this writer wrote about gold loans without gold—some employees at a clutch of Bank of Baroda branches disbursed fake gold loans in 2023 to meet stiff targets.

Having worked in PSBs as well as the private sector, Mishra, who spoke to Mint over phone, said he is able to compare the pressure exerted on junior bankers at both these sets of employers. While the pressure to meet targets are somewhat similar at the junior-most rungs, branch managers in PSBs face more pressure than their counterparts in the private sector, he said.

“In a private bank, you can distribute the work among your reportees but at PSBs, the buck stops with the branch manager. There are instances of bankers not willing to take exams to get promoted to that level owing to the tremendous increase in workload and the lack of work-life balance," Mishra said.

Private banks have seen their staff, especially those at the lower rungs, quit in droves. India’s largest private sector lender HDFC Bank reported an attrition of 34.15% in 2022-23; ICICI Bank, the second largest private bank by assets, had an attrition rate of 30.9% while IndusInd Bank saw a 51% attrition rate during the year.

In comparison, employees hardly leave state-owned banks despite the concerns around working conditions. SBI, for instance, had an attrition rate of 3% in 2022-23, as per chairman Dinesh Khara; Bank of Baroda’s attrition was even lower at 1% during the year.

Nonetheless, even employees from the private sector face stiff targets and possibly, similar issues regarding work-life balance. But experts said that employees from private banks find it difficult to join unions as it does not go down well with the management. Unions have minimal presence in some private banks.

Mahaprabandhak’s wish

(Credit: X)
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(Credit: X)

A five-day week can mean a better work-life balance and this has been a long-standing demand. Bankers, now, work six days for at least two weeks in a month. All banks are closed every second and fourth Saturday and on all Sundays. On 13 February, a handle on X @luckydubey123 posted: “What’s the problem with #5DaysBanking? There are ATMs, mobile banking and customer service points."

Yet another activist, who goes by @mahaprabandhak, has a pinned post dating back to 26 September 2020:

“With increased digitization, netbanking facilities, ATMs, e-corners and availability of 24x7 services for the public, it’s now possible for the banking sector in India to follow #5DaysBanking schedule as per international norms. Time to change."

With a follower base of over 10,000, this activist says on X that he is a “common banker raising issues of fellow common bankers". His photo icon? An illustration of a bald, grinning man, in a dark suit and striped red tie.

On 5 December, Bhagwat Karad, India’s minister of state for finance, told the Rajya Sabha that the Indian Banks’ Association (IBA) has submitted a proposal to declare all Saturdays as a banking holiday. The proposal has not been implemented so far. The association, which today has members from state banks, the private sector, foreign banks and other financial institutions, was formed even before Indian independence—on 26 September 1946.

WeBankers’ question

One thread seems to tie all the new faces of activism together—disillusionment with the current set of organized trade unions and their effectiveness in negotiating on behalf of nearly two million bankers. India’s banking industry ended 2022-23 with over 1.7 million employees. Roughly 43% of them are in PSBs.

“The trade unions aren’t doing what they are supposed to do. Else, there is no need for people like us to come out of our comfort zone and raise our points on an open platform," messaged Newton. Young bankers, particularly, do not feel connected to these unions, he added.

It is perhaps this disillusionment that has led to the formation of a new union—WeBankers. Largely consisting of young bankers, its all India registration came in 2019. It has about 10,000 members now.

Wage negotiations have been a thorny issue and Ashish Mishra, general secretary, United Forum of WeBankers, the national body of state-level WeBankers associations, believes that people negotiating wages on behalf of the bankers are disconnected from ground realities. Many of the negotiators from the traditional unions are retirees.

Technologies change so fast. How can we expect people who have retired long back to be able to understand how banking currently works? — Ashish Mishra

“Technologies change so fast. How can we expect people who have retired long back to be able to understand how banking currently works?" Mishra asked.

At banks, jobs are divided between three primary roles: officers, clerks and subordinates. While the salary negotiations of clerks and subordinates are done through the so-called bipartite agreement, the salaries of officers are revised through an agreement known as a joint note.

Mishra said that IBA, which is one of the two parties in bipartite wage revisions, should be brought under the Right to Information (RTI) Act to ensure transparency. Since IBA is an association of banks and not a governmental entity, it is not subject to the RTI Act as of now.

The second party in wage talks are a group of bank unions. Wage revisions, when agreed upon, are valid for five years but are often implemented with a lag. For instance, the latest bipartite settlement is yet to be finalized but once done, will be effective from 2022. Salaries are expected to jump by 17% on an average, over the previous settlement, implemented in 2020, but effective from 2017.

This delay in negotiations is one of the primary reasons why bank employees are rather unhappy with their unions.

Venkatachalam’s offer

C.H. Venkatachalam, general secretary of the All-India Bank Employees Association. He disagreed with the assessment that bank unions are run by retirees who do not have much skin in the game.
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C.H. Venkatachalam, general secretary of the All-India Bank Employees Association. He disagreed with the assessment that bank unions are run by retirees who do not have much skin in the game. (WhatsApp)

Traditional bank unions, meanwhile, do not seem too bothered by youngsters challenging their dominance.

C.H. Venkatachalam, general secretary of the All India Bank Employees Association (AIBEA)—the largest of the workmen unions—said that he disagreed with the assessment that bank unions are run by retirees who do not have much skin in the game. He claimed that of the 400,000 members in his organization, about 60% are bankers with work experience of less than 10-15 years. Venkatachalam, nonetheless, is 74-years old and retired.

Many experts do sense that time is ticking for the older unions. They are not as powerful as they used to be.

“Once upon a time, bank trade unions had a big say in employee transfers. They were able to even reverse some of those orders," K. R. Shyam Sundar, adjunct professor at Management Development Institute in Gurugram, said. “In the last two decades, the management has asserted themselves and trade unions do not have that kind of a say," he added.

Moreover, bank strikes, once feared because of their ability to cripple the system, have lost their relevance. Changes in how banking services are delivered to customers—over the internet—is behind this.

Venkatachalam does not agree with these assessments but is willing to concede some ground. The traditional and new unions or activists on social media can call it a truce by working together instead of against each other, he said.

“We do not want to attach too much importance to them (activists on social media) but rather need to find out who they are and try to convince them of the role of unions," he said. “Unions cannot be run on social media and I would urge them to speak up in the union meetings."

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