Orders against removal of machinery; Workers fear the machinery has already removed.
The High Court has ordered Integra Automations Pvt Ltd not to alter the service conditions of the workers until the industrial dispute pending before the labour court is settled. In January 2017, Integra Automations had closed its factory at Vallarpuram near Chennai, retrenched nearly 100 workers. This, after the labour conciliation officer had advised the company to revoke a lock-out it had declared to curb the workers union from pursuing a labour dispute on wages. The High Court order, delivered on 24th March 2017, nullifies the closure notice and prevents the company from stripping the factory of its machines until the original dispute is settled.
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Workers at Integra Automations have been part of a prolonged struggle since the formed into a union under New Democratic Labour Front (NDLF) in 2015. The company declared a lock out in June 2016 citing revenue loss due to worker indiscipline. After almost five months, on advice from the Assistant Commissioner of Labour, the lock out was lifted, but back wages were not paid. The company also sought time to restart operations. However in January 2017, the company served notice of closure and termination of work. At that time, the workers had staged a week long picket at the factory gate to prevent the company from moving heavy machinery to its allied factories in Coimbatore or any other part of Tamilnadu. The picket that lasted through the Pongal week (between 14th Jan to 20th Jan) was lifted only after the High Court heard the case and ordered an interim stay. During the hearing, the company admitted that they had moved two machines from the said factory, and acknowledged that they had not informed the labour court, which is a violation of sec 33 (1) of the Industrial Disputes Act. Taking notice of the violation, the court has ordered a status quo on maintaining the service conditions of the workers and not to take any measures that would alter this condition. It effectively places in abeyance the closure notice that the company had issued and also restricts the company from moving the machinery until the case pending before the labour court is settled.
The workers have been at the receiving end as the prolonged legal battle plays out. The workers do not believe that the management will comply and fear that essential equipment has already been moved to its allied factories in Coimbatore. They have been barred entry into the factory premises, with police also claiming that they cannot picket or strike within 200 meters of the company. Thus, the workers are unable to monitor if the company is in compliance with the present order. They have filed a complaint with the local police demanding that the police investigate if the company has already violated the court’s interim stay and final order. However, they have not received much support from the police before and remain skeptical.
After putting out a closure notice and termination of work order on the factory gate in January 2017, the company unilaterally declared, a settlement amount for each of the 70 workers. (around 30 workers were retrenched earlier on the grounds that they were only trainees). Even though the workers refused to accept the settlement, demanding their jobs back, the company made out demand drafts and sent it to the workers addresses. In response, workers have sent a letter maintaining that they would accept the amount as a payment of dues and retain the rest through the pendency of the case, while not accepting the termination or the settlement.
Workers have also been harassed by local goons, who have been threatening the workers to take the settlement. In Ambattur, where the company has leased rooms for some of its workmen, the owners along with some locals have been pressurising the workers to vacate the premises, alleging that the company has not paid the rent. This too would, in effect, violate the high court order. The workers have given a copy of the court order to the owners and the local police station to prevent any act of eviction.
The violations of companies and the long drawn court battles drain the workers ability to fight against blatant violations of their rights. Already, many workers at Integra are faced with mounting bills forcing them to seek employment elsewhere. With only contract work available in supplier units in the region, they have to make difficult choice of forgoing all the experience gains they have made here and settle for jobs with lower wage and even less security. Even if the company is finally ordered to reopen the factory, the penalties levied on the company for such drastic disruption of livelihoods, would be meagre to nil. The burden falls heavily on the workers.