More than 200 workers of PMI Engineering have finally gone back to work on 15th February after almost two months of agitation. The factory, located inside the Madras Export Processing Zone SEZ, belongs to the American group PMI Engineering and manufactures aerospace equipment for companies such as Boeing, and U.S Department of Defense, employing 256 workers, the majority of whom belong to a union affiliated to CITU. After a prolonged struggle, the union reached a tripartite settlement with the management (under Section 12(3) of the Industrial Disputes Act) in May last year. However, instead of honouring the agreement, the management, led by the Human Resource Manager and the Production Manager, have engaged in various malpractices including suspending and dismissing workers on false charges and promoting a rival union affiliated to INTUC.
Workers employed on the shop floor are ITI and engineering diploma holders with many years of experience. However, their wages are low, ranging from Rs. 14,000 to Rs. 35,000 depending on seniority. PMI makes no effort to hide the fact that their workers are lowly paid. On the official website they boast –
Strategically located in India, PMI Engineering leverages its access to reduced labor rates as well as India’s vast and growing talent pool of manufacturing and design engineers.
Nevertheless, the agreement signed by management includes provisions such as wage increases, provision of three sets of uniforms and one pair of shoes per year, washing allowance of Rs. 500 per month, as well as confirmation of 33 workers. However, the management has singled out union activists and members, and through false charges has succeeded in suspending or dismissing them.
Spontaneous strike calling for revocation of suspensions
One worker, Krishnamoorthy, was among the first to be suspended in June 2016. A young diploma holder, he was the first one to work in the newly opened paint shop where manufactured products are painted manually. There was one supervisor above him, who took care of the managerial functions while he carried out most of the work. Krishnamoorthy says that the management came to know he was in the CITU union as his name figured in the list of workers who had not received their confirmation order. According to the company’s standing orders, workers will be made permanent on completion of six months, but by then Krishnamoorthy had already been in the company for 8 months.
“My supervisor made false allegations against me, saying that I attempted to assault him and that I was not performing my work correctly. This is completely false. It was because of my work that the department was able to get the necessary NADCAP certificate after an audit. The management called me one day and asked me why I joined the union and accused me of indulging in activities against the company,” he said. Krishnamoorthy was told to resign his job and that a new unit would be opening nearby where he would be given employment, but he refused. “I received my suspension order in June and attended the domestic enquiry. It was conducted by a lawyer who is supposed to be impartial, but he was very clearly favouring the management. I asked for copies of the standing order, original complaint letter given against me and proof that the work I had performed was rejected by the customer. They refused to give me anything,” said Krishnamoorthy. Another worker, Senthil Kumar, was also suspended in a similar fashion.
On hearing about the proceedings, five union office bearers went to the H.R Manager on 17th December and again on the morning of 19th December, asking for the suspension of both workers to be revoked. The managers paid no heed to their demands. This led to a spontaneous stoppage of work by all workers in the general shift and the first shift. Com. Maheshwaran, a senior operator in the factory who heads the factory union and is Vice President of the MEPZ Workers and General Employees Union was suspended due to his role in the strike. He said that the local tahsildar came to the factory and told workers that they could stay inside the premises only if they wanted to work. Workers refused to budge even as the management put up a ‘suspension of operations’ notice on the notice board. By then workers in the second shift (who report for work at 2pm) were outside the factory gate and were asked to sign an undertaking saying that they would not participate in the strike. Workers stood united and refused to work until their demands were met.
Workers continued to protest outside the factory gates on subsequent days. On one occasion, the Assistant Commissioner of Police intervened and asked workers to go into the factory to work. According to Maheshwaran, the management had no intention of providing work. “Those of us in the first shift and general shift went in to work respecting the word of the police. We went and stood at our workstations, but within 15 minutes, the power was shut down, forcing us to continue our agitation”, he said. A subsequent advice letter from the Assistant Commissioner of Labour in January 2017 was also disregarded by the management.
High Court order – a partial victory
Meanwhile, the management claimed that 18 workers resigned; the workers say that 22 of them were illegally terminated. Krishnamoorthy was also dismissed putting him in difficult financial circumstances for several months. He said that even during his suspension, the allowance was not paid on time; the cheque would arrive late and he would be able to encash it only on the 10th of 11th of the month. Com. Maheshwaran says that the president of the union, Com. Ponmudi, often used to say that when you dismiss a worker, the entire family starves. “It is very true. Different workers have different circumstances,” he said.
As conciliation proceedings before the Assistant Commissioner of Labour failed to make headway, the union sought relief through the court. Represented by senior advocate N.G.R Prasad, the union appealed an earlier order by a single judge given in January prohibiting protest inside MEPZ and also managed to obtain an order delivered on 12th February. Justices Ramamohan Rao and S.M Subramaniam directed the company to provide work for all workers on their rolls, to pay subsistence allowance for one year for 18 dismissed workers and settle the issue through the industrial tribunal or labour court and ordered the company to ensure that the domestic enquiry for the 8 other suspended workers be completed in four months. The union however is skeptical that the labour court would be the right forum as several judge posts remain vacant and the case could therefore be delayed. A review petition has been filed.
Provocation by the management continues
Workers who have gone back to work from 15th February say that they are firm in their resolve to fight for their demands, including implementation of the agreement between the union and the management. They also want action to be taken against the HR Manager Rajashekar and Senior Production Manager Upendra for their harassment of workers and their anti union stand. Workers reported that the uniform and salary slips have been distributed to them in the office outside the factory for several years, rather than in a more respectable manner in a room within the factory premises. The union had demanded that the salary slip be provided at least three days before salary was disbursed so that workers can check the amount and seek clarifications. The management has refused, saying that they will be sent emails, which many workers do not have access to. Other issues include a lack of clarity on the medical insurance which workers have been given without specification about the validity of the cards. According to the workers, these are all ways to provoke the workers to strike again so that more dismissals can take place and the union can be broken. Union office bearers Ganesan and Maheshwaran said that a review petition will be filed on the court order and that they will continue to push the management to honour the agreement signed with the union. The dismissed and suspended workers are determined to go back to work.