The suicide of a young Kerala bank manager, a widow and mother of two, has once again brought to the fore the extreme pressure and unhealthy working conditions that many bank employees have to face daily.
Prolonged working hours, a sharp increase in targets that include the selling of even third-party financial and insurance products, a shrinking workforce, mergers and privatisation, and abusive seniors have come together to exert tremendous pressure on bank employees, staff and union leaders said.
K.S. Swapna, 38, manager of Canara Bank at Kuthuparamba in Kannur district, was found hanging at her branch on April 9. She left a brief note in her diary stating that she was taking the extreme step as she had failed in her banking job.
Security cameras later showed her entering the branch at 8.10am. She committed suicide before the rest of the employees arrived 30 minutes later.
A widow with two young children, Swapna who hails from Thrissur had assumed charge in September 2020. Her husband had died after a heart attack two years ago.
Swapna is the third bank manager in Kerala to commit suicide over the past year apparently due to work pressure.
M.D. Gopinathan, Kerala general secretary and all-India joint secretary of the All India Bank Officers’ Association, told The Telegraph that the managers of two banks, in Guruvayur and Palakkad, had committed suicide before Swapna.
The manager of the Guruvayur branch of Corporation Bank, K.P. Ayyappan, 57, had been found hanging from the ceiling fan of his cabin. “I don’t remember the name of the SBI manager who committed suicide in Palakkad about eight months ago. But there are several such cases across the country,” Gopinathan said.
“Our unions have regularly highlighted the issues and demanded a proper work-life balance for all bank employees. But the situation is getting worse,” said Gopinathan, who is the manager of Canara Bank’s Vellimadukunnu branch in Kozhikode.
“Swapna’s death is very unfortunate. This is exactly why we have been seeking proper working hours for officers who bear the brunt of the banking industry although a lot of clerical staff also rise to the occasion to help us handle the workload,” he said.
Harassment and abusive remarks are another problem faced by bank officers and managers, he said.
“The branch managers’ meet (of particular banks) sees a lot of abuses flying around. All this puts managers under tremendous pressure,” Gopinathan said.
According to him, five trade unions that represent clerical staff and four unions of officers and their umbrella organisation, the Indian Banks Association, have time and again told the Centre about the human crisis.
The 2001 voluntary retirement scheme that led to the exit of 1.25 lakh bank employees and the subsequent recruitment ban that lasted nearly 10 years are the main reasons for the current crisis.
“We had sought regulated working hours and a proper work-life balance in 2006 itself since the workload had multiplied with regular retirements further shrinking the workforce,” Gopinathan said. These factors made working conditions miserable.
“From just three targets — deposits, advances and recovery — officers and managers now have 30 targets specific to products like insurance, mutual funds, government schemes and even third-party products,” Gopinathan said.
“Officers usually work into the night and are called for work even on weekends although there are branches where the workload is manageable,” he added.
The Kerala State Human Rights Commission has ordered the Canara Bank Kerala circle to submit a report on what led to Swapna’s suicide.
The commission has also asked the State Level Bankers’ Committee to submit a report on the pressures faced by bank employees in the state.
BinoyViswam, a Rajya Sabha member from Kerala, has in a letter to finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman called for immediate intervention. The CPI leader has urged her to take “holistic steps that will ensure that such working conditions do not become the ‘working culture’ in banks across India”.
“The rights of employees cannot be jeopardised due to failures of the management and strategic decisions of the government and its corporate interest,” Viswam stated, demanding an inquiry into the working conditions at banks.
The Left parties protested across Kerala on Tuesday, seeking better working conditions for bank employees.
M. Vijin, central committee member of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) who led a protest at Swapna’s branch in Kuthuparamba, told this newspaper that the agitation would continue until the demands were met.
“While the Centre is not keen on recovering huge loans taken by corporate companies, bank officers and managers are penalised if they fail to recover small loans from the common people. This is the change of attitude brought about by unbridled mergers and privatisation of the banking sector,” said Vijin, who contested as the Left Democratic Front candidate from Kalliasseri in Kannur in the recent Assembly polls.