Not giving up The Centre is understood to be lukewarm to the five-day week proposal. - RANJEET KUMAR
Customers’ interests are unlikely to suffer, thanks to rapid growth in non-branch channels such as ATMs, Net and mobile banking
MUMBAI, FEBRUARY 9:
Bank unions have been pushing for a five-day week as part of their ongoing negotiations for their next wage settlement. Their argument is that practically everyone else — the government, regulators, markets, software companies and much of the corporate world — are closed for two days, so why not apply the same logic to bank staff? Or, as one wag put it, the Lord himself would probably remake the world now in five days and rest for two.
The case against
Bank managements and the government have been resisting the demand for a five-day week. They fear that banking being an essential customer-facing service, there would be loss of business if banks remain closed on Saturdays also.
Many customers who themselves enjoy a five-day week prefer to do their banking business on Saturdays. That, along with the restricted working hours possibly makes Saturdays one of the busier days in many branches. Therefore, even private banks that are not constrained by unions, have chosen to keep a six-day work week. The sixth day is also the day set apart for back-office jobs, including maintenance, updation, reconciliation of books and systems. Some private banks are also wary of customer backlash if they remain closed for two days, given the premium they charge for their services. Cheque clearances could also get delayed if banks follow a five-day week.
Tech makes it feasible
While these are all good reasons to continue with status quo, the key question is whether consumer interest will suffer seriously. The answer is no. Today, with advances in computerisation and facilities such as ATMs, phone, Net and mobile banking, those requirements are adequately taken care of and it is perhaps no longer necessary for banks to remain open six days a week.
There is also a marked trend towards increasing use of non-branch channels, even in public sector banks. Bankers say that nearly 60 per cent of all transactions have migrated to these new channels. For some private banks that figure is even higher. Surprisingly, this is true even in rural areas.
This is not to say that there will not be any glitches or issues for different sets of customers. Traders, for instance, may want to deposit cash on Saturdays. Similarly, customers in rural areas could face problems if banks remain closed for two days a week. However, this can be tackled in a variety of ways — more working hours on weekdays, or installing cash deposit machines or putting in place some special arrangements such as business correspondents. Bankers ought to use Saturdays for reconciliation work or to go to the field to gather business or make loan recoveries.
But this does not actually happen for many reasons. Most bank staff posted in rural areas end up taking leave on Saturdays to go back to their city or nearest town for an extended weekend. Does customer interest get served just by keeping the office open but not having the staff to run the show? Perhaps it is time to recognise reality. After all, moving to a five-day week only makes de jure what is the de factosituation in such areas.
The Centre is understood to be lukewarm to the proposal, particularly in the backdrop of the launch of Jan Dhan and other schemes for greater financial inclusion. Announcing that banks will not work on Saturdays may be politically unpopular, particularly with a workaholic PM!
The government should, however, be conscious that the load on officers and staff has increased tremendously over the past decade. It merits mentioning that the number of employees in public sector banks has gone up by just 10 per cent to a little over eight lakh even as business volumes doubled to about ₹13 crore per employee in the last five years.
These figures don’t fully reflect the time and energy spent on many government schemes also. Maybe it is time for Indian Banks’ Association to give a fair trial to the five-day week and give bankers a break. Start with two Saturdays off for banks.