Last week, laid off workers of Greaves Cotton ltd, Gummudipoondi, went on a tour of all state government departments concerned with Labour and Industry, in an attempt to force the state government to bring the company to justice. Demanding that the company return the SIPCOT land that it had leased on the promise to run a factory, they approached the District Collector of Thiruvallur, Labour Inspector, Factories Inspector and even SIPCOT. They have only received vague assurance from these departments. They are planning to meet the CM to press their case.The workers allege that the company, even after declaring the plant as closed, is running its R&D and Quality Control from the site. They have also demanded that the company be asked to pay their monthly salary until the dispute is resolved and orders passed.
The Greaves Cotton Ltd workers at Gummudipoondi had been laid off since April 2016, when the company announced a closure of the plant. While it had officially cited poor production and demand, the more obvious reasons were the unionization of the workforce which was demanding a just wage. The workers challenged the closure as a labour dispute was pending before the conciliation officer. The workers also cited the fact that more than 300 workers, including permanent, contract and trainees, were working in the factory on the day of closure. While their case has been languishing for over 13 months, the workers pay has been stopped after the company offered a settlement that the workers refused to accept.
The case is a clear indicator of the extreme systemic bias within the government, in its dealings with capital and labour. The company, inspite of failing to operate the plant, has been allowed to retain the lease on the land, owned by State Industrial Promotion Corporation of Tamilnadu (SIPCOT). No action has been taken to repossess the land, disconnect utilities and re tender the space so that jobs can be created (the premise in which the government justifies land acquisition). On the other hand, the workers’ rights have been violated through executive inaction. The company was able to remove all the machines and finished products making use of vague high court orders that restricted workers from staging a vigil to protect their means of production. Though the legality of the closure remains in dispute, the workers have lost their wages and have been forced to find other sources of income. The company refuses to engage in a conciliation process along with the labour officers, nor do the proceedings in the labour court move quick enough to render justice. The idea seems to be to starve the workers into submission, while minimizing any cost on the company.
Already, the effects of delay are visible among the workers. While over 90 permanent workers were victimized by the closure, a fifth of the workers have been forced to take meager settlements in exchange of resignations. The rest, while holding out for justice, have found it hard to find alternative work. Many have gone to smaller factories in the region, where the work and pay are worse than at Greaves Cotton. “we do all work, from running the machines to sweeping the floors. Sometimes it is embarrassing to even say what we have to do” said one of the senior workers who is presently with a iron sheet shaping factory locally. One of the workers, who spoke to us, is now a driver to a Ola cab owner and works for a meager salary, less than half his salary in his previous work. Almost all workers who have found work, have had to lose their experience value as they are working with younger workers. Two office bearers of the workers union have dedicated their time and energy to the pursuit of the case. The cost is being borne by the households, with plans for marriages, education and health taking a back seat.
While the union leadership is trying hard to keep a positive mood and momentum among the workers, the long legal delays, the lack of clarity regarding the end result, the frustration of engaging with state bureaucracy and a sense of helplessness, will eventually take a toll on the workers. In this context, acts of frustration can be tagged as violent and criminal action. But it will be wrong to hold the workers guilty, when every institution of state has failed in their duty to uphold the rights of the workers as citizens of this nation.