Tamil Nadu

Hitting the brakes on retirement benefits

Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi

Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi

For many, the labours of a working life are rendered bearable by the promise of retirement benefits that come in handy after years of service. This includes pension, gratuity amount, provident fund and leave pay.

But for thousands of employees of the State Transport Corporations (STCs), while working life is hectic and stressful, it is a story of financial struggle from the day of retirement. They have had to struggle at every point of their tenure for getting either a legitimate wage revision or increments and other allowances. And for those on the verge of retirement and planning to lead a better life, a bigger shock awaits — inordinate delays in payment of their retirement benefits.

The pathetic situation of the transport employees being sent home empty handed is not a new phenomenon as government after government has treated them in the same manner. But the employees of other government undertakings do not face such a predicament. The transport employees play an important role in the safe transport of lakhs of commuters and the day-to-day socio-economic activities. But their economic condition has always remained bleak.

18-month wait

P. Balakrishnan, who retired from the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) in May 2019, had to wait for 18 months to get his amount comprising provident fund, earned leave encashment and gratuity. If one thought 18 months was a longer period, Pugazhendi, who retired in December 2015, has been waiting for his settlement because the “departmental action taken against him for taking irregular leave” has been kept pending for years, though his retirement order was passed.

Pointing to court orders that the employer had no right to punish a retired employee by withholding his pension benefits, Mr. Pugazhendi said officials acted in contempt of court in his case. He said the STCs are the most vindictive organisations that would punish employees even for trivial mistakes.

V. Dayanandam, an office-bearer of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), said, “On the day of retirement, a railway employee goes with a big smile and his retirement cheque in hand, whereas all that a State transport employee gets on the day of his retirement is a relieving order, a worksheet, a dhoti and a packet of sweets. The worksheet contains the terminal benefits of gratuity, provident fund, the contributory pension scheme, surrender leave salary and commutations. But the employee does not know when the cheque will be given. Even the pension amount takes 2 to 3 months to be deposited in his bank account. Above all, dearness allowance (DA) arrears to the pensioners were stopped in 2015; they have been pending for 80 months.”

R. Subramanian, who retired on June 30 this year from the MTC, foresees undue hardships, assuming that he may not get his retirement dues on time. He plans to marry off his daughter and give his son a financial help to pursue higher education. On the day of his retirement, he refused to accept the dhoti and the sweet packet as a mark of protest.

Of all the eight STCs, it is the employees of the State Express Transport Corporation (SETC) who consider themselves lucky to be sent home with a cheque of ₹2 lakh on the day of retirement. The retiring employees of the other STCs face financial constraints from the day of retirement because of the absence of a constant income and the delay in the payment of terminal benefits. This has caused much resentment among the employees, especially those facing health issues and personal commitments.

The money deducted from the salary of every employee under a social welfare scheme is also not paid to them on the day of their retirement. The CITU, affiliated to the CPI(M), an ally of the ruling DMK, has been staging protests against the delay in payment of dues to the retiring employees and dearness allowance arrears and demanding an increase in other allowances.

Novel protest

Mohammed Ali Jinnah of Pudukottai district, a technical staff member, undertook a novel protest on the day of retirement on June 30. He brought his family members along to protest outside the bus depot. The video went viral on social media, but he is yet to get his benefits. Several retired employees have followed suit and picketed the depots with their families.

The employees and the unions also rue that several welfare measures, listed in the Transport Department’s demand for grants in the Assembly, remain only on paper. Some of the measures include marriage advance to dependants, reimbursement of legal fees, festival advance of ₹10,000 a year, health insurance and free uniform and washing allowances.

The reasons often cited by Transport Department are financial crunch, the operation of buses on unprofitable routes and the huge employee cost to the STCs, comprising MTC, Coimbatore, Madurai, Salem, Kumbakonam, Tirunelveli, Villupuram and the SETC. All the eight STCs are in the red, with the Transport Department struggling to run even day-to-day operations.

The Transport Department spends half of the revenue earned on the establishment cost comprising salaries and wages, provident fund, pension and gratuity. The establishment cost, which stood at ₹3,757 crore (44%) in 2010-11, has reached 55%, or ₹8,475 crore, in the financial year 2021-22 (pre-audit). The establishment cost before the COVID-19 pandemic was ₹8,850 crore.

While the officials may cite higher salary costs and increasing diesel prices for the plight of STCs, the trade union leaders fault the STCs for “misusing” the employees’ contribution to the provident fund and other retirement benefits for the day-to-day operations.

With all the funds of the employees wiped out, the Transport Department is dependent on the State through the various subsidies for settling the dues of the employees. The State distributes funds in piecemeal, keeping the retired employees in a state of suspense.

‘Not a business venture’

S. Bhaktavatsalu, vice-president of the Arasanga Pokkuvarathu Uzhiyar Sangam, said the STCs are not a business venture to be run profitably as they serve the important social purpose of transporting members of the public at an economical cost. He said there are more than 1,000 routes, especially in hill and remote areas, where only the STCs operate.

K. Natarajan, treasurer of LPF, said the 10-year rule of the AIADMK ruined the STCs through bad decisions like privatisation of the profitable courier service, handing of profitable routes to private operators in moffusil areas and failure to expand the long-distance services of the State Express Transport Corporation.

Thanking Chief Minister M.K. Stalin and Transport Minister S.S. Sivasankar for accepting, in principle, the demands put forth by the unions led by LPF, he said an increase in basic pay pending for several years and in allowances, and one-time promotion for technical staff members are the highlights of the 14th wage talks.

Pointing out that any wage issue tends to be emotional, senior officials of the Transport Department were unwilling to speak about the steps being taken to settle the retirement dues. A senior official said steps were being taken to settle the dues as the officials were trying their best to mobilise the resources because the finances of the STCs were not great.

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Printable version | Jul 17, 2022 12:37:41 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/hitting-the-brakes-on-retirement-benefits/article65647218.ece