Around 300 workers from SLAM Clothing factory in Mahindra City, Kanchipuram district, mostly women including tailors, operators, checkers, helpers and housekeeping struck work for 4 days demanding arrears from 2014 minimum wage notification, annual increment and their social security. Workers who were apprehensive of factory closure had sought for immediate end to the conflict, even to the extent of demanding retrenchment settlement. After tense negotiation between GAFWU(Garment And Fashion Workers Union) and management, the management has promised to increase the wage in one week, take action against supervisors for harassing workers and on non payment of wages to 38 workers and settlement for 29 dismissed workers. This has prompted workers to end the strike and return to work.
According to GAFWU, a union working with Garment workers, the German based SLAM manufacturer produces for apparel chains such as PVH, a major global apparel chain producing for labels such as Calvin Klein, Van Heusen etc. Their other customers include Pacific Coast Apparels, Marvelles Apparels and Zara. The manufacturer had two production facilities in Tamil Nadu, one near Porur and one in Mahindra City. Few months ago, the larger facility in Porur was closed, rendering workers jobless. The SLAM Group is said to have started manufacturing in Bulgaria and Turkey. According to a placard at the company gate, the company is BSCI accredited. The BSCI code of conduct promotes among other things, core labour principles including freedom of association, collective bargaining, fair remuneration, and no precarious employment. If the statement of the striking workers is is anything to go by, these principles are hardly in practice at the factory.
Precarious Employment and Unfair wages
Over 300 workers have been working for up to 7 years in SLAM Clothing factory in Mahindra City. These are mainly young women workers(except 20 male workers), some married with children and hail from areas as far as Vandavasi(More than 60 kms away). These workers with education of 8th to 12th passed, were earning a wage as low as Rs 4000 till last January. Their ESI and PF are being deducted but their online audit of their PF account shows that their PF has not been credited so far. There is no overtime payment instead the company gives arbitrary time offs when the production is lean. The company has a creche and provides transport and canteen facilities.
Since January, their wage has been increased to Rs 8000 for helper, Rs 8200 for operators and Rs 8400 for checkers. This has been due to a struggle for minimum wage notification in Tamil Nadu by GAFWU, an independent trade union. The High Court, which upheld the 2014 minimum wage notification has directed the Garment industry to pay the back wages since 2014. While the workers have been demanding their legal dues as arrears, the management has refused to hear workers’ plea on the same.
Now the workers say that the management has started deducting a transportation fee of over Rs 2600 thus bringing the wage below the minimum wage. However workers complain that the management has been cutting corners in their food(for example, the company gives either tea or biscuits during the tea break), citing losses. The workers also say that even these low wages are not paid in time. Comrade Sujata Mody of GAFWU has recounted the story of a worker who had lost her husband recently, and had to take 10 days off from work. She is still yet to be paid her wages, in times of such hardship. Comrade Sujata believes that the management would deduct 10 days of her salary for the time off
Denial of right to association and collective bargaining
There is a works committee of 5 workers in the factory. Couple of months ago, workers say that they had presented a charter of demands with 20 demands. These include arrears to be paid as per the High Court Order, annual wage increase, ESI and PF to be paid properly.
The workers struck work for 2 days in April 8th and 9th and on a mediation aided by local party functionaries(no formal mechanism used in this process), the management backtracked and promised to address the concerns of workers. Instead, the management proceeded to lay off 50 workers. One worker in housekeeping has said that the management had coercively taken a resignation letter after promising 3 months of wage as settlement. He says that the settlement and other dues including office expenses and PF have not been settled.
On May 11th, the workers reiterated their demands and asked the management to honor their agreement. The management is said to have told the workers that they had ‘no right to ask for these kind of benefits’ and told the workers to leave the employment. All the workers struck work on May 11th. On May 12th, when the management did not send vans for picking up the workers, the workers took their own vehicles and assembled in front of the factory gate.
Some workers who are members of GAFWU, had also contacted the union representatives. In a meeting with workers, GAFWU and the workers passed a resolution to petition the Assistant Labour Commissioner and met with ACL. The Assistant Labour Commissioner promised to take steps to ensure transport system and asked the workers to go back to work and promised resolution of other issues through negotiation.
On 13th May, workers were provided with van transport by the company. After the workers punched up their attendance, the workers say that the management had asked for the 10 workers who had visited Labour Department for information on what had happened in the meeting. The workers refused to divulge the names of the workers or the meeting details and struck work again. The management in retaliation had taken the extreme step of switching off the fans in the creche causing hardship in the sweltering heat.
The GAFWU representatives and workers met with the management representatives in the afternoon highlighting the inhuman treatment of workers. However, they are unsatisfied as the representatives, the Administrative Head and the Production Head are relatively new in their employment and do not seem to be authorised to negotiate on behalf of the management. Workers also say that there has been a turnover in administration in the factory which has also created distrust with the management.
Risk of capital flight and choice of workers
According to Mahindra City workers, over 150 workers from the closed Porur factory had protested in front of their gate, which had resulted in mediation through Labour Department and a retrenchment settlement for workers. As the workers’ distrust in the management has reached to a new height and as the management kept talking about loss(to justify its wages), the workers felt that the company might close this factory also and leave with no recourse for them. and they may not have much leverage with the factory once it leaves. One worker pointed out, ‘The Porur workers at least had an option. They came and protested in front of our factory. If this factory closes, we cannot go to Germany and fight’.
The escalating conflict between the management and the workers had forced the workers to think of even retrenchment(through settlement) rather than fighting for better working conditions. A worker said, ‘when they turn off fans in a creche, what can I expect from this company in future?’ Comrade Sujata commented on the inhumane treatment of workers by the management and said that while she understood the position of the workers, the union’s task was to get the workers to fight for better conditions and for their legal rights.
On 15th May 2017, a conciliation meeting was held between the union and the management in front of Labour Department. According to union representatives, management has agreed for a payrise(exact amount to be decided by next week) and promised to pay 38 workers whose wages are yet to be paid, settle with 29 dismissed workers and action against supervisors who had harassed the workers. The management has said that it has filed a case against the arrears payment and has deposited half the arrears in the registry. GAFWU, in its statement, has said that it is party to the case and would fight for the arrears for the workers in the court. The workers have agreed to end their strike and return to work.