EPFO officers upset at new pension scheme duties; they 'are being forced'

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New Delhi : The recently announced pension scheme for unorganised section has brought smiles in the face of thousands but then, the officers at Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) are upset with the additional duty pressure. Sources confirm that they are not happy with the government’s diktat that asked the statutory body to organise and implement the nationwide launch of the scheme in which EPFO has no official role.

“EPFO officials are being forced to organise the launch of the Pradhan Mantri Shram Yogi Maan-dhan (PM-SYM) pension scheme for unorganised-sector workers, which is in contravention of all rules,” said Saurabh Swami, the secretary-general of the Employees’ Provident Fund Officers’ Association.

According to Swami, EPFO’s parent ministry, the Union labour and employment (L&E) ministry, is forcing EPFO to help launch the scheme, which, isn’t open to anyone with an EPF account.

An email sent to labour minister’s spokesperson, secretary (L&E) and the Central PF Commissioner of EPFO did not bring out any response.

The PM-SYM announced in the interim budget on February 2019, is scheduled to be formally launched on March 5 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The scheme intends to cover 100 million labourers from the unorganised sector, including domestic help, street vendors, rickshaw-pullers and farm workers. The scheme will provide a pension of 3,000 every month to beneficiaries after they attain the age of 60.

The ministry of labour and employment (L&E) on March 1 directed EPFO to keep its offices across the country open during the long weekend (Monday was a holiday too) irking officials of the autonomous body.

The ministry’s letter said, “...for smooth launch of Pradhan Mantri Shram Yogi Maan-dhan Scheme (PM-SYM) on 5th March, 2019, it has been decided to keep all the offices of EPFO, ESIC [Employees’ State Insurance Corporation], CLC [Chief Labour Commissioner] and DGMS [Directorate General of Mines Safety] throughout the country, open on 2nd, 3rd and 4th March 2019. All officers/staff may, therefore, suitably be directed to be present in their respective offices on all the said three days without fail. This issues with the approval of Secretary (L&E)”.

Swami mentioned that about 135 field officials have also been asked to spend money on organising the event . “This money is being spent without any formal approval. This instruction has been given to them through WhatsApp,” he added. He also said memos have been issued to several EPFO officials for disobedience.

One of the memos, issued to P Veerabhadra Swamy in Orissa, and reviewed by HT, reads: “A review meeting was conducted by Secretary, Labour & Employment on 2nd March, 2019. During the said meeting, Smt. Sibani Swain [additional secretary and financial adviser, law ministry], informed that she spoke to you to know about the preparedness for the function in Odisha state and categorically asked you about the instructions for holding this function. You have shown your ignorance about the instructions to her. This is not expected from you.”

In another memo issued to a senior official of EPFO, KL Goyal, posted in Assam, explanation has been sought from him for leaving Guwahati on March 2 and ignoring the office instruction to remain stationed in the place till March 3. “This act on his [Goyal] part is highly deplorable when all the officers and staff were required to be present to ensure that the function is organised as per the directions,” the memo sent on March 3 said.

“We have been forced to do something that is not our job. PM-SYM has nothing to do with EPFO,” Swami said.

He added that EPFO is created by an Act of Parliament and run by a trust, where the labour minister is merely an ex-officio chairman and labour secretary is its vice-chairman.

In a letter to the Central PF Commissioner, Sunil Barthwal, a 1989-batch IAS officer, Swami asked: “Today our officers are being appointed district-level nodal officers for a scheme which is exclusively for non-EPFO members!!! It is pertinent to ask as to how can EPFO justify the salary of our officers & staff towards man-hours spent on this non-EPFO scheme.” HT has seen a copy of the letter.

This is being done without the “approval or even knowledge of the Central Board of Trustees” of EPFO, the letter said.

Dr G Sanjeeva Reddy, a former member of the Central Board of Trustees (CBT), said, “It is misuse and misappropriation of poor workers’ money. EPFO is an autonomous body. Its officers and staff are forced to work for a government scheme only because of pressure from the chairman of the board, who is the labour minister”.

CBT is the apex decision making body of EPFO. “Least the government could have done was to take CBT into confidence before engaging EPFO officials in an unauthorised activity. The apex body had met on Feb 21, but the matter was not discussed,” a member of the board said requesting anonymity.