This article appeared in The Wire earlier and is reposted here.
In early December, as Tamil Nadu went under water with unprecedented floods, one news that got submerged alongside, was the sentencing of eight autoworkers of Pricol Limited to a ‘double life’ term in prison.
The sentences, to run concurrently, were pronounced by a sessions court judge in Coimbatore, who held them ‘guilty’ of clubbing to death Roy George, the vice president (HR) of the company on September 21, 2009 in Pricol’s Perianaickenpalayam unit. The two life sentences – one under IPC 302 (for murder) and another under IPC 449 (trespass in order to commit offense) came at the culmination of the trial which began in 2011.
The workers are also charged with rioting with lethal weapons, mischief, damaging property etc. under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), punishments for which will run concurrently with the life sentences. A total of 27 people were booked in the case under Section 302 of the IPC and other charges, out of which 25 were workers, including four women and two union leaders from the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU). The workers were jailed for 120 days in 2009 till they came out on bail. On December 3, 2015, the trial judge acquitted 19 people and convicted 8 workers.
So who are these workers who allegedly entered the cabin of the HR manager on that fateful day, each wielding an iron rod, and clubbed him to death? These are men aged between 35-45 years who had worked in the factory for over 15-20 years; four of them hold technical diplomas from ITIs and four have school pass certificates. They come from the rural areas of Thiruvannamalai, Salem and Coimbatore.
The prosecution had claimed that there was a conspiracy to kill the manager in retaliation for the dismissal of 42 workers on September 19, 2009 and that the person who plotted this horrendous crime was none other than the national president of AICCTU, Advocate S. Kumarasamy, who is also a politburo member of the CPI(ML) (Liberation). According to the prosecution, based on eyewitness accounts of the management staff, these workers, as they hit the manager repeatedly with the iron rods said over and over again – ‘We are killing you since you dismissed us. Kumarasamy asked us to kill you’.
Kumarsamy’s union, the Kovai Mavatta Pricol Thozhilar Sangam (affiliated to AICCTU) is the majority union in the company’s two units in Coimbatore and was formed in 2007. However, the eight workers whom the prosecution alleged had committed the crime were not – according to Kumarsamy – among the original 42 dismissed workers. However, he states that they were also subsequently dismissed by the management. In all, 130 workers were dismissed.
Workers also claim that the eight convicted workers did not work at the unit where the HR manager’s office was located; they worked in the company’s unit located in Malumichampatti. Another worker, whom the prosecution also alleged was involved in the crime, had been transferred to the Uttaranchal unit of the company in 2007. The sessions judge acquitted this worker. All these workers, according to Kumarasamy, are active members of the union and therefore were framed for the murder.
In fact, Kumarasamy claims that the 42 dismissed workers had not received any dismissal letter on September 19, therefore the prosecution’s claim that a conspiracy was hatched on that day to kill the HR manager due to the dismissal sounds a bit hollow. This is something that even the sessions court judge acknowledged in his order.
While it’s a fact that Roy George died that day, and no one denies that, the details of the incident still remain a bit fuzzy. As per the workers and their representatives, there are many contradictions in the prosecutor’s case. They point out, for instance, that the FIR notes that the attack took place inside the manager’s cabin at 11.40 am and by bizarre coincidence, the investigating (police) officer in the case, happened to be inside the factory in plainclothes in front of the HR area between 11.41-11.46 am on that day. However, the officer states (orally) in the court that the Pricol management did not inform him that a murderous attack had just taken place inside the factory.
It is also strange that he himself did not see or hear any commotion when a manager was purportedly being attacked by a group of murderous men with ‘lethal weapons’ not very far from where he was standing. In fact he was so oblivious to any riot taking place inside the HR area that he went to a dentist from the factory, he has claimed. The question then is what does the presence of a police officer in plainclothes in front of the HR office at the time of the alleged murder mean, especially when he states that he was not aware of any such crime being committed at that time and later the same officer is made the investigating officer in the case? The sessions court judge notes in his order that it was ‘painful’ that the officer had made contradictory statements but states that it is more pertinent to give importance to eyewitness accounts.
Coincidentally the CCTV camera inside the HR cabin was not functioning on that day, so there is no actual footage of the incident. However, material object (MO) number 12 – footage from the CCTV camera outside the HR cabin – reportedly shows ‘movement of some accused at the time and place of occurrence of the incident’. The defence lawyer points out inconsistencies in the medical and post-mortem reports, such as that of the doctor who examined Roy George who noted one injury to the head, whereas post-mortem report notes three injuries.
The post-mortem report also notes that eight iron rods may have caused the fatal injuries that killed George. One wonders how a post-mortem report could state the exact number of rods that allegedly killed George. Taking note of the inconsistencies in the medical report, the sessions court judge had observed that the defence counsel had failed to cross examine the doctors and thus cannot raise any objections later. Therefore, based on eyewitness accounts, ‘confessions’ of the convicted workers and material evidence, the judge observed that there is strong circumstantial evidence proving the eight workers had committed the crime. In his observation, the judge also notes the longstanding ‘hostility’ between the union and the management. On their part, the workers and their representatives maintain that there was no reason for them to commit such a crime despite the tensions with the management.
Before the incident
In 2007, factory wages for a worker who had worked for 25 years was merely Rs 8,522 per month and retirement benefits only Rs 1 lakh. The work pressure was hard, with very little break time. In fact, workers claimed they had to keep their water bottles next to their feet so that they did not have to leave their workstation to drink water as the production demands were high. The units had a 60% female workforce, which assembled automobile digital parts such as speedometers. Pricol had over 1000 vendor units supplying auto parts to its factories in Coimbatore, where the workforce comprised of contract workers.
In June 2009, even the government of Tamil Nadu had acknowledged that labour practices were unfair in Pricol, while responding to a calling attention motion in the assembly. Pricol workers at that time were sitting on an indefinite hunger fast protesting against the low wages, harsh work conditions, employment of temporary workers and apprentices in production lines and non-recognition of their union by the management. The government had issued two government orders (GOs 383/384) under sections 10(1) and 10 (B) of the Industrial Disputes Act 1947 imposing conditions on the Pricol management for hiring of contract workers and apprentices in regular production. Pricol management had appealed the GOs in the Madras high court and the union was preparing to counter the appeal when Roy George died. The death of the manager further vitiated any process of dialogue between the workers and management.
Since 2007, when AICCTU first formed its union in Pricol, the management refused to recognise the union and had transferred six of its key office bearers to its Uttaranchal factory. This led to a strike by workers in the two Pricol units in Coimbatore (in Perianaickenpalayam and Malumichampatti); management reacted by ‘locking out’ 64 workers. This was the beginning of a series of protests and strikes in Pricol.
The state government had to intervene in the matter, ordering Pricol to lift the ‘partial lockout’ and asked workers to stop the strike till the dispute was heard in the industrial tribunal. Prior to this, there were already five unions in the factory and in 2007 these unions had negotiated a 5-year wage settlement deal with management that included a wage increment of Rs 150 each year with the condition that the labour cost should not exceed 13.34% of the company’s costs, and if it did then the increment would be reduced to Rs 75. In 2011, the Pricol management finally recognised the AICCTU union, the Kovai Mavatta Pricol Thozhilar Sangam, and reached a wage settlement with the union. According to Kumarasamy, now the wages have increased to Rs 24,500 for workers with 25 years of work experience and retirement benefits increased to Rs 3.5 lakhs. However, the management still takes exception to unionising in the factory, especially among trainees or temporary workers. Even very recently, four trainees were dismissed and sx threatened with dismissal for attending a union meeting. The factory had recently hired 800 trainees to work on the production lines and has stopped hiring permanent workers, as per the district in-charge of AICCTU, and also a dismissed Pricol worker, Balu.
Implication for labour
In the messiness of a criminal trial, what gets lost are the implications of such an order on the larger labour movement and the role of the state in protecting the rights of the workers to unionise and collective bargaining. Usha Ramanathan, a Delhi based legal scholar notes, ‘The entry of criminal law in the labour arena is a disturbing development and shows that the state cannot pull out of labour matters’. She adds that recent labour reforms that relegate the role of the state to being mere facilitators rather than enforcers of law deeply weakens the state’s power to protect the interest of labour. The harshness of the judiciary in dealing with labour, as we see in the case of Maruti and Pricol, where there has been long history of worker’s agitation, only adds to the already vitiated environment. If the judiciary is not careful and fails to take note of the emerging picture, there is likely to be more ‘unrest’ and ‘distrust’, cautions Ramanathan.