Several mass movements including left political parties and others like the DMK as well as the traders associations, had called for a one day bandh in Tamil Nadu on 25th April to highlight the plight of Tamil Nadu’s farmers who are facing an economic onslaught due to Government’s policies and the drought. Sections of working class including auto drivers, public sector workers struck work on the day to show their solidarity to farmers who were leading protests both here and in Delhi. The workers of Pricol in Coimbatore had given a strike notice to the company notifying their intention to strike and struck work along with rest of Tamil Nadu on 25th.
The management has retaliated by withholding 8 days of wages for workers. This amounts to Rs 65 lakhs for 840 workers in the factory. A labour dispute on the issue has not been resolved by the Labour Department, prompting an indefinite hunger fast by 12 workers and 10 supporters in Chennai and Coimbatore. The hunger fast was launched on 19th June, simultaneously in Chennai and Coimbatore. In a first of its kind, the hunger fast was inaugurated remotely by former Justice Hariparanthaman, who addressed the fasting workers in Coimbatore through video conference.
The workers on fast have the following demands:
- The Labour Department should refer the issue of justifiability of the penal deduction of 8 days wages to Labour Court under Section 10(1) of Industrial Disputes Act.
- The 8 day wages should be given as advance to workers while the issue is resolved under Section 10(B) of Industrial Disputes Act.
An online petition has been also started by the union to gather support from various civil society members and can be accessed here.
Pricol, a leading manufacturer of auto instruments from India has had a history of highly antagonistic relations with the workers in its Coimbatore factory. The management had refused to recognize the Kovai District Pricol Workers Union, affiliated to AICCTU and has dismissed over 100 workers since then for unionising. In 2009, 25 workers and two union leaders were charged with murder and conspiracy to murder of a HR executive and after more than 8 hard years, 25 of them including 6 who were given double life imprisonment were released for lack of evidence in January of this year, while 2 workers continue to languish in jail. An appeal is now filed in the Supreme Court.
While the management had, since then, signed two collective wage agreements on 08.06.2012 and 02.08.2014 with the union, still the relationship between the management and the union are strained of late. While there are over 1350 permanent workers in the factory, the management has started employing more than 800 apprentices on the shop floor. Pricol group has expanded production in other countries. According to information released by AICCTU, the revenue of the group is at Rs 1237 crores, which the group aims to increase to Rs 3000 crores. The move by the management to deny the workers, their legitimate wage for a strike which was announced and notified, is seen only as an intimidation tactics by union representatives.
Inaugurating the hunger fast, Former Justice thanked the Pricol workers for giving an opportunity to highlight the historical context of the 8 day wage deduction that is codified in Payment of Wages Act. He said that the Payment of Wages Act was enacted in 1936 in colonial India when workers were never assured prompt wages for their work. While the Act itself was the outcome of a long struggle, the Colonial Government had added the rider of penal deduction to discourage workers from striking. That independent India has retained this code is symptomatic of the kind of democracy we are living in, he said. He also said that the demand of the struggle should be expanded to repealing this section of the Act along with Section 24 of Industrial Standing Order, which can only ensure that employers now or in future can take actions like this against workers. He highlighted two victorious cases, one in which he had given judgements where the workers were asked to take 2 hours for voting in election rather than giving the whole day off as mandated by the Government. He also highlighted the case of Sanmina where workers were penalised with 21-day wage cut for a strike. He asked how companies such as Sanmina, with headquarters in US, can never do such things in their own countries but are willing to go to such lengths in India.
Former Justice Hariparanthaman also deplored the attitude of Judiciary which has relinquished its role of being an arbitrator and has become an adviser to the State to quash workers’ protests, as has happened in the recent transport workers’ strikes and GH Doctors’ strikes. He quoted an earlier case in NLC where the company was asked to implement Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) against 10000 protesting workers. He recalled that he had passed orders that judiciary should not get involved in workers’ strikes unless it translates to a law and order issue. However, the company appealed his judgment and got an order to break workers’ strikes.
The Justice said that working class should not rely on judiciary to resolve their issues and only ground level struggles can win rights for workers. In this process, he cautioned against the existence of multiple unions in the same factory and said that this could only help the management. He recalled Marx’s call for workers of the world to unite for working class to lead sustained struggles against injustices of the capitalist system. He concluded his address by asking the working class not only to take up struggles on the shop floor but also for a democratic society.
The inaugural event was attended by over 70 workers and union activists in Chennai. Workers and movements associated with AICCTU plan to organise protests in solidarity with fasting workers. A protest was conducted in Sriperumbudur on 20th June and one day solidarity hunger fast is planned by AIARLA in Tanjavur on 23rd June.