The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Union clout shuts banks
- Private services in city worst hit, customers find ATMs closed

What happens when unions in public sector banks call for a nationwide strike' Private and foreign banks in Calcutta down shutters.

Yet another instance of paralysis by unionism was played out in the city on Friday during the strike called by the United Forum of Banks Union. It was almost business as usual for private and foreign banks in the rest of the metros, but for their branches and ATMs here, it was a forced off-day at work.

So the last seven-day roster for most banks in town read — Saturday Kali puja; Sunday holiday; Tuesday Id; Wednesday Id; Friday strike.

The agitating employees, of course, were quick to crow. “The participation of all banks in the strike (in Calcutta alone, that is) proves that the recent government policies on banking are not acceptable,” declared Prakash Ranjan Banik, a member of the All India Bank Employees Association in front of the Strand Road regional headquarters of State Bank of India.

What Banik conveniently left unsaid was how some banks in Calcutta had been forced to participate in the strike, called against privatisation and outsourcing.

“We did not have a choice. Employees of the nationalised banks came in the morning and forced us to shut down. We are on duty but are having to turn customers back. We were also forced to shut the ATMs,” said a foreign bank official.

“We could only function in the first hour. After that, the branches were closed down and we shut the ATMs as a precautionary measure,” clarified Bimal Bhattacharyya, vice-president, eastern zonal office, UTI Bank.

For most customers, the closure of the ATMs was the cruellest cut. “I read in the papers that only the public sector banks would suspend services. But not only are all banks shut, but even ATMs — meant to be an emergency source of cash — have been forced to down shutters. This comes at a time when banks are boasting of 24x7 service. In Calcutta, the customer remains slave to the unions,” said Randhir Jhunjhunwala, having failed to withdraw money from the American Express bank opposite Great Eastern Hotel.

In Calcutta, the bank unions — affiliated to the CPM or CPI — have enough clout and connections to force complete closure following any strike call. Even if the issues are not relevant to private and foreign banks, they are made to toe the shutdown line, with members of protesting unions knocking on their doors from morning and ensuring a no-work day.

“Yes, our branches and ATMs were closed down on Friday,” confirmed an official of HSBC.

And there could be more trouble in store. “After this token strike, we will assess the situation in the first week of November and decide on the next course of action... We will continue our agitation till certain commitments are made by the government and the Indian Banks Association,” warned agitating bank union members.

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