Women workers of Venture Lighting India Limited, a factory inside the Madras Export Processing Zone- SEZ, have only horror stories to share about their lives inside the factory. With pervasive sexual harassment by a supervisor, hazardous and oppressive working conditions, workers reached a breaking point in December when three of their colleagues were abused by the supervisor for reporting for the wrong shift. In a spontaneous show of unity, more than 700 workers, men and women, decided to strike demanding that the supervisor be dismissed. Going by workers experiences, it is hard to believe that this factory, (a subsidiary of the American company Venture Lighting International) claims to be ISO 9001:2008 and ISO 14001-2004 certified and have prestigious international regulatory approvals meeting the world’s most demanding Standards.
“The supervisor was forced to let us inside but he said that we three women had done something to ‘influence’ all our male colleagues to support us. This supervisor has been sexually harassing us for several years. We told the management that we would work only if he is dismissed”, said one of the workers who was made to stand at the gate for almost twenty minutes. The factory, which manufactures various lighting equipment for export has been operating inside MEPZ since 1998. Women workers, many of whom have been employed in the factory since then, say that not only do they earn low wages ranging from Rs.12000 to Rs.20000 per month, but also that their health has suffered tremendously due to unsafe working conditions and handling of chemicals.
“I worked till the ninth month of pregnancy, I repeatedly requested the HR manager and supervisors for light work. My stomach was almost touching the machine which gives off a lot of heat, but they said I should have thought about this before getting pregnant”, said one worker who has been employed with the factory for more than a decade. The same worker was advised by doctors to stay home for at least six months after her cesarean delivery, but due to her financial circumstances, she was forced to go back to work in a month. She provided the management with medical certificates, but was once again denied light work. Workers say that several others have had miscarriages and still born. They cite the instance where after previous miscarriages, a colleague quit work when she got pregnant again, as she wanted the child to survive.
In December 2014, after the workers approached the MEPZ Workers and General Employees Union affiliated to CITU, several demands have been made to the management regarding working conditions. “In 2011, they doubled our workload. Until then we used to operate only one machine and suddenly they said we needed to operate two machines. We did not have a say. But after we unionised, this was stopped. It was a big victory for us” said one of the workers. While some gains have been made, the unsafe working conditions and sexual harassment continue. Workers say that every time they need to use the restroom, they are required to sign an in time and out time register as well as inform the supervisor. Workers said that the supervisor uses abusive and derogatory language, often targeting single women and making sexual advances toward them.
Workers showed Thozhilalar Koodam team, holes in their uniforms caused by burns as well as several injury marks. They shared photographs of skin burns caused due to handling of chemicals including mercury. Although provided gloves and glasses, workers say that these are not adequate to prevent these injuries.
Workers say that they decided to strike on 21st December because they had given several complaints against the supervisor both orally and in writing, but the management refused to take action. Instead of having a dialog with them, the management switched off all lights, locked the doors to the restroom and denied food to the workers of the second shift.
The following day, the Assistant Commissioner of Police visited the factory and requested the workers to go back inside. While they went in, workers once again refused to work until the supervisor was dismissed. One of the workers said that being on her menstrual cycle, she suffered a great deal as the restrooms were locked. Two workers also fainted as a result of not eating, and they had to call for an ambulance to take them to the hospital.
The Assistant Commissioner of Labour (ACL) to whom a complaint was registered through the union, has advised the company to investigate the complaints of sexual harassment through the Sexual Harassment Committee, as required by law, as well as to provide work to all workers. The workers were shocked when the management representatives denied having knowledge about any of these issues. They also say that the committee is an eye wash as worker representatives have been chosen by the management.
On advice by the ACL on 27 December 2016 and 21st January 2017, workers called off their strike, after advice was issued to the management to reopen the factory and provide employment to all workers without any conditions. However, the management demanded that the workers sign an undertaking which said that they would have to do any work assigned to them by the supervisors and ensure that they meet the production targets. The undertaking went on to say that they would abide by all rules set by the management and obey instructions from supervisors. Workers do not feel this is acceptable and have refused to sign it continuing to assemble daily at the factory gate.
Moreover, the MEPZ union Treasurer Comrade Jayanthi says that this is against the advise of the ACL. “We have filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court demanding that the company provide work. We have also submitted petitions to the Minister, Labour Department and the Development Commissioner of the SEZ” she said.