After a 16 day hunger fast and various other actions, the Pricol workers won a victory after a high level Government meeting involving the union and the Labour Minister, Nilofer Kafil on 3rd July 2017. In a GO released which has referred the demands of the Pricol workers to the labour court, the State Government has questioned the justness of the management’s decision to withhold 8 days wages in penalty for a one-day strike. A Government Order to this effect was released on 5th July 2017. After the talks with the Labour Minister, the union held a meeting with the fasting workers on 4th of July, at which point the fasting workers ended their 16 day fast. This victory came after a series of protests and solidarity actions that were executed throughout the state on behalf of the Pricol workers.
As reported earlier, Pricol workers belonging to Kovai Mavatta Pricol Thozhilalar Sangam (affiliated to AICCTU) had struck work, along with large number of other workers in Tamil Nadu, as part of Statewide bandh on 25th April to highlight the plight of the Tamil Nadu farmers and to express solidarity with their demands. Pricol management had withheld 9 days of wages (1 day for the strike and 8 days as retribution) for this one day strike. The unions and the workers maintain that this was an intimidation tactic by the management and referred the issue to Labour Department. But as the Labour Department took no action, over 22 workers and supporters started an indefinite hunger fast demanding that the case be referred to the Labour Court and the withheld salary be disbursed as advance pending the judgement of the case.
While there was no initial action by the State to the demands of the workers, the union and its allies resorted to multiple actions to increase the pressure on the State. On 29th June and 3rd July, activists of AICCTU, AIARLA, DAA, and RYA, along with Pricol workers, gheraoed the State Secretariat and were arrested. Central trade unions and independent trade unions have expressed solidarity with the workers and have organised meetings and protests. These sustained actions created pressure on the State to respond to the demands of the workers. Following a high level meeting on 3rd July between the Labour Minister, the Labour Department Secretary and the union representatives, the State Government agreed to refer to the issue to the Labour Court. In a GO released on 5th of July, the State Government has referred two questions for the Labour Department to deliberate and give its judgement:
- Is the action of Pricol Limited Plant 1 and Plant 3 in withholding 8 days of wage for one day strike on 25th April, justifiable? If not, what is the compensation to be awarded to workers?
- Is the demand of the union to give the 8 day wages as interim award subject to the judgment in issue 1, justifiable? If yes, what is the compensation to be awarded to workers?
The workers are elated with this victory, said Comrade Natarajan, AICCTU Coimbatore District President. On 7th of July, the Pricol management had also organised a press conference on this issue. On July 8th, according to a report by Tamil Hindu, Pricol management has said that there was no ample notice given by the union and that the management had given an option of matching one day salary of workers wage in lieu of the strike, but that the union had chosen to strike instead of availing this option.
In response, union representatives have said that the farmers protest was a very serious and immediate issue and that unions had come together to strike on a specific date. The union officials added that they had also provided the option of compensating for the day of the strike and that the management chose to take punitive action rather than negotiating with the union on this.
According to the same report, the management, in the press conference, said that if these kinds of protests persist, they will think about moving the factory from Coimbatore. This message by the management can only be seen as a threat to the fundamental right of workers to strike, and lends credence to the union’s articulation of intimidation by the management.