Services of United Telecom Limited ( UTL ) have been shut down since 11 am Friday, resulting in the phone lines of 600,000 customers across the country going dead.
UTL said it had gone offline as a result of employee unrest and their refusal to return to work. This is the second time in 40 days that UTL services have been disrupted.
On January 10, services went down following breakages of its optical fibre at multiple places and tense relations between management and employees. This time, the reason is solely an ongoing dispute between the UTL management and agitating employees.
While the UTL management has been accusing the employees of not cooperating to resume services, the agitators say that it is the company’s reluctance to call them for table talks and address their demands that has forced them to halt services.
The entire UTL service network has gone down as its 198 towers have been rendered dysfunctional. The company provides different services in 44 districts across the country. Last Monday, the UTL chapter of the All Nepal Workers Union for Organisations and Financial Institutions launched a protest with a warning to the company’s management to fulfil their demands within 72 hours. The workers union has been demanding a pay hike of Rs 15,000 per month stating that staff salaries had not been revised for a long period and inflation had soared.
The agitators had also demanded that staffers who have served for more than 240 days be issued appointment letters as per the Labour Act since a number of them had not received their appointment letters. Other demands include modifying and redefining the existing human resources manual based on the Labour Act, provision for growth based on the working calibre, performance, time and academic qualification and provision for overtime based on the Labour Act. The agitators had also stated that they would call all UTL employees outside Kathmandu to join the agitation at its headquarters and launch an indefinite strike from Friday if their demand was not met by Thursday.
“We have decided to stop working as decided earlier,” said Bikash Jha, president of the UTL chapter of the All Nepal Workers Union for Organisations and Financial Institutions. He added that they would end the agitation and resume work if the management invited them for talks or addressed their concerns.
Meanwhile, UTL Chief Executive Officer SP Pachauri said that management had agreed to almost all the demands except for the salary hike, but the agitating employees were not willing to make a deal. “They have gone on strike for no reason. We had agreed to almost all the points. On January 28, we had also reached a verbal agreement to hike the salaries of low ranking staff by Rs 2,000,” said Pachauri, adding that the salaries could not be raised as demanded because of the company’s precarious financial condition.
He also blamed the agitators of diverting the real issue by issuing a new demand—withdraw the company’s application to the Ministry of Labour and Employment to lay off 60 percent of the staff or announce a voluntary retirement scheme. This demand is not included in the 14-point demand the agitating union had put forward.
“We are not in a condition to withdraw our application to cut the workforce as the company is incurring losses,” Pachauri said. He added that the company had even asked the employees themselves to provide the company an option regarding the voluntary retirement plan as the proposal of the company had been dropped earlier.
“In response, we got haphazard demands varying from person to person,” Pachauri said. He added that the company had been increasing the salaries by 20 percent annually during its heyday.
In response to the management’s argument, union president Jha said that they had told the company that the issue of salary could be discussed after two years if the management dropped its layoff plans.
“Even though the company had started incurring losses, we stuck with it thinking that it would operate GSM services and things would become better. At a time when UTL is on the verge of acquiring a unified licence, cutting jobs is a contradictory move,” Jha said.
He added that there were 182 employees when the union was formed, and the number now had dropped to 92. The number of engineers is stated to be 49. “In such circumstances, there is no need to cut jobs,” Jha said.
Meanwhile, the UTL management has stated that it has acquired a stay order from the court which has directed the resumption of services and the appointment of a mediator from each side to settle the issue. Earlier. the agitators had given up their protest following a similar order from the court.