The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Unions claim total shutdown

New Delhi, May 21: As hundreds of thousands of workers across the country struck work in protest against the Centre’s economic policies, paralysing insurance and banking services, the government charged Left trade unions with organising a “politically-motivated programme”.

“It is a purely politically motivated programme,” labour minister Sahib Singh Verma told a news conference where he said such strike calls had become annual features of Left trade unions to make their presence felt.

Union leaders claimed that about 40 million workers from banks, insurance companies, public sector units and other key sectors joined the 24-hour strike. It was supported by the Left Front and 31 trade unions, including Citu, Aituc and the Hind Mazdoor Sabha, which are critical of the government’s divestment policy and labour reforms.

The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the Sangh parivar’s trade union wing, and the Congress-backed Intuc did not join but neither did they oppose the strike.

The striking unions allege that the government is planning to reduce the Employees’ Provident Fund interest rate to 8 per cent and are demanding that it be restored to 12 per cent.

Verma refused to comment on whether the current rate of 9.5 per cent will continue or lowered to 8 per cent as is being speculated in view of mounting pressures from the finance ministry to reduce the “unsustainable” rate.

Asked if the rate will be brought down at the proposed meeting of the Central Board of Trustees of the EPF on May 31, Verma avoided a specific reply. “The employees will get the best returns,” he said.

The sub-committee on finance and investment, formed to go into investment strategies of the over Rs 1,40,000-crore corpus, is likely to meet tomorrow. It will submit its report to Verma, who is the chairman of the board of trustees.

The review in EPF rates comes in the wake of lower returns on special deposit schemes (SDS), which comprise over 80 per cent of the EPF corpus.

Though Verma tried to downplay the impact of the strike, the unions claimed it was a great success. Aituc general secretary Gurudas Dasgupta said the agitation was total in more than 10 states and one of the biggest “after Independence”.

M.K. Pandhe, general secretary of the CPM-backed Citu, said production losses were estimated to be around Rs 1,500 crore and that four to five crore workers had gone on strike.

The union leaders also accused the Prime Minister of not having time to meet them though he has “time to speak to sadhus, religious leaders and industrialists”.

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