Violates Assistant Labour Commissioner’s Order to Withdraw ‘Lock – Out’
In yet another case of gross violation of labour laws, Integra Automation Pvt Ltd, a Chennai based supplier of brake disks for Hyundai, has shut its factory, retrenching workers with immediate effect. When the company tried to move the machinery from the plant to a new location on 14th January 2017 (Pongal holiday), the workers quickly assembled at the gate and barricaded it to prevent further evacuation of their tools of work. They have rejected the severance offer and have demanded that the company resume production at the earliest. They have stayed put, night and day, from 14th Jan, foregoing the festival weekend and enduring the hot days and cold nights, living out of make shift tents and maintaining a vigil.
The case bears ominous similarities with Greaves Cotton plant in Gummudipoondi, which has been reported in Thozhillalar Koodum. The failure of the executive branches, including the police to act objectively and the systemic delays in the judicial process led to the evacuation of plant machinery to Ranipet and the subsequent closure of the plant and retrenchment of the workers.
Integra Automations Pvt Ltd, produces brake disks and related parts for ELGin and Valeo Automotives, who are suppliers to Hyundai Motors India ltd. The company that was based out of Ambattur was moved to Vallarpuram, near Sriperumbudur in 2013. Over 130 workers were employed in three shifts at the height of production. But almost all the workers were never confirmed even after many years of service. The average wage was also less than Rs 10000 for all those working as operators and technicians on the assembly line. While most of the workers are native of Sriperumbudur and Chennai, some of the workers come from other districts of Tamil Nadu. The young workforce (aged around mid 20s) also has a diverse educational background, with workers having passed 10th standing alongside those with technical training and graduate degrees on the production lines. While some have worked for nearly a decade, most have been working for 3-4 years. Almost all have completed a minimum of 2 years.
Union Formed in 2014
As working conditions did not improve and their demands remained unmet, the workers formed a union, in late 2014, to demand confirmation of jobs and enhanced wages. The union was affiliated to New Democratic Labour Front. They presented a charter of demands to the company. When the company did not respond to their demands, they filed conciliation arbitration with the Assistant Labour Commissioner, which was initiated in January 2015.
Initial Strike in 2015
On 3rd March 2015, the workers struck work following a management order forcing entire shifts to work overtime without pay. The workers allege that the management demanded that technicians should stay back after their shift to rectify any error in products that were returned by clients or quality department. It also forced the entire shift to stay back by closing the gates until issues were resolved. This was a flash point that led to a strike.
This led to the first attempts to declare lock out. A case was filed in High Court, that restricted the Company from closing the plant or retrenching workers while also restraining workers from resisting through undeclared strikes and protesting in the vicinity of the factory. Even though the High court order demanded that no action be taken that alters the service conditions of the union workers, disciplinary proceedings were initiated against office bearers, including the President and Secretary, who were eventually dismissed.
National Strike and Wage Cuts:
Workers deciding to participate in the national general strike of 2nd Septembe, 2015, provided prior notice to the management about their intention. Yet, the company penalized the workers by cutting eight days of pay. This action was again challenged in front of the Labour Commissioner, who advised against the move and restored the wage.
Lock-Out in July 2016
After the talks at ACL failed and the issue was moved to the labour court the company declared Lock Out on 26th July 2016, citing the strikes in 2015 and the general fall in discipline. This was intimated to the Assistant Labour commissioner on 25th July 2016 who invited the management and union to talks. The talks led to ACL, declaring the lock out as illegal, advised the company to resume production. After three months, on 5th November 2016, the company announced that it was lifting the lock out and work will resume as soon as the equipments were repaired and restored to order.
13th Jan 2017 – the Sneak-out
According to workers, on the night of 13th – 14th Jan, as the festival weekend was beginning, the Company employed container trucks and cranes to remove machinery from the plant and move it to Coimbatore, where the company has another factory. When the workers got wind of the heavy shift, they assembled in front of the factory gate and forced the vehicles to stop. Apart from some equipment, 2 cranes and a few trucks involved in moving the equipment were also locked in. With the partials failure of the sneak-out, the company has pasted notice at the gate back dated to 12th Jan, stating that the plant is being closed due to financial situation and loss. The workers have been asked to collect their dues and closure compensations.
The workers have rejected this brazen attack on their livelihood and abject violation of the spirit of court orders. They have sat on a 24 hour vigil in front of the gate to stop further attempts to remove machinery. They have also given a police complaint and initiated legal proceeding. Until the court orders a stay to such management practices, the workers have resolved to physically but peacefully prevent any attempt to deny them their work.
In the meantime, the owners of the crane and trucks have been threatening the workers of dire consequences if they do not allow them to take their vehicles. While they have claimed they could not reach the Managing Director, who employed their service, they have been using local mafia to threaten the workers. On 18th, the issue came to a show down when the crane operators forcefully entered the factory premises without proper authorization and threatened the mow the workers outside the gate in an attempt to remove their crane.
The failure of the state officials to restrain the management from acting in contravention of law has led to this serious stand-off between the workers and the management. This has also become a tested tactic for managements to shift production to plants in other places, whenever workers attempt to unionize and demand their fair share of wages. Given the arbitrary delays in court proceedings, this now is a ‘war of attrition’. While the company owners have the financial strength, industrial capacity and the backing of the lobbies, the workers have nothing but their will to fight and the support of comrades in what will be a long drawn battle.